Hip Hop’s Return to Its Narrative Roots

By Essence Wilson

It has been thirty years since it was first universally understood how much hip-hop can adjust people’s outlook on critical social issues. The year was 1988 and the album was Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, one of the most influential hip hop groups to date. Not only did that album have the power to change many Americans’ views on the police, but the way N.W.A did so with excellent storytelling was brilliant. In each track, N.W.A was able to effectively give listeners the rundown of the song, the turning point, and the conclusion all within one verse.

From the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s to the blooming of the genre in the 1990s, artists have effectively used storytelling techniques to get the moral of their songs across. For example, consider Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” in which he explains the conflict of peer pressure or Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” in which he shows appreciation towards women.

By 2014, hip-hop seemed to deviate from this tradition and no longer released songs that combined morals with traditional storytelling. Many of what I like to call “hype hits” were being released. These are the type of songs people want to hear at a party, club, or even at a sports event to get (and stay) lit. Although rare, it is possible for a song to be a hype hit while still using storytelling techniques.

A few well-known hype hits that came out around 2014 are Migos’s “Fight Night,” Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type,” and Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner.” Although they are great songs for energizing occasions, they are just  hype hits. “No Type” contradicts itself with the lyrics “ I ain’t got no type, Bad ladies of the lord is the only thing that I like,” while “Fight Night” and “Timmy Turner” are so incoherent, you have to ask Google what is being said.

I enjoy hype hits from time to time. I’m not advocating that these songs should be banished and never created again. Not to mention, who would want to go to a party where all the songs were about something deep? However, by 2014 it was obvious that hip-hop had weakened lyrically.

On the other hand, some songs during this time actually did use original storytelling techniques. For example, J.Cole in “Apparently” talks about his faith and his appreciation for his mother when he sings, “I keep my faith strong. I ask the Lord to follow me…” and “I need to treat you better. Wish you could live forever, so we could spend more time together. I love you mama.” Even though there were some hip-hop songs that pursued the traditional storytelling style, the balance between hype hits and songs with narrative focus during this time was anything but equal. Don’t get me wrong, people still listened to hip hop. But we were hungry for something meaningful.

Today, more artists are returning to the genre’s  storytelling roots. With more recent works like Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.,” Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” and even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, artists have seemed to embrace the traditional storytelling style of hip-hop. For example, Miranda effectively uses hip-hop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. His use of hip-hop not only teaches the audience about historical figures we probably don’t remember, but it completely changes our outlook on what defines a Broadway musical. Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, DAMN, examines racial issues and  religion, and is also a great work of self reflection. Although, the album occasionally touches on African American adversities, there are songs that can apply to everyone. For example, on the song “Loyalty” we hear Rihanna sing, “Tell me who you loyal to, Do it start with your woman or your man? Do it end with your family and friends? Or you’re loyal to yourself in advance?” The song causes people to examine themselves and discover what or who it is they authorize their loyalty to. Aside from motivating people to examine certain aspects of their lives, the song causes people to question themselves and could possibly change their minds for the better.

Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” discusses the adversity and tribulations of suicide. Some lyrics in the song include “I don’t wanna be alive, I just wanna die today…and my life don’t even matter.” Although the lyrics are blunt, they are authentic and demand the listener to take a journey and understand the initial thoughts of someone considering suicide. The song ends with the lyrics “I finally wanna be alive. I don’t wanna die today”

and “I wanna feel alive. I don’t even wanna die anymore.” Logic is undoubtedly encouraging those who are experiencing or have had thoughts of suicide to realize that they aren’t alone and that suicide is not the final answer to their obstacles.

Artists like, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are just a few of the hip-hop artists who are using the original, storytelling techniques of hip-hop and combining this techniques with their own styles. Even though the original intentions of hip-hop are coming back to life slowly, there are positive and, possibly, even stronger messages coming into contact with the listeners of today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Essence Wilson is Cinematic Arts major at HBU. Hailing from Grand Prairie, TX, she loves the Cowboys and Mavericks, and Scooby-Doo.

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