Before there was bling bling, hip-hop was just trying to get paid in full. But with mo' money came mo' problems, and now cash rules everything around the landscape of hip-hop.
Hate it or love it, while there is a wide array of music being made within the genre, if it's not all about the benjamins, it may not get played in da club, and you might never see enough of the light to get the money, the power or the respect. Although not every song can (or needs to) contain the message of money, the state of the economy and country might be just what hip-hop needs to return to the art of storytellin' and fight the power that controls the mainstream without having to fight for its right to party and get back to the state it was once in when he used to love h.e.r.
Hip-hop has gone through just as many growing pains as any other child we've watched grow up in the public eye, and it has always been partially defined by its contradictions. But after the very beginnings of hip-hop DJs and party music, storytelling was at the core of early hip-hop. It was about the making it through the bullshit and still finding a way to party, but it was also the everyday man's music. It was about individuals, the odds they were up against or the things they used to get them through the day. And even the acts that felt like they showed up for the party and not the poetry felt like they were bringing something special to the table. Sure, Rev. Run and D.M.C. might have turned their swag on before they strapped on their Adidas and taught us how to "Walk This Way", but they also created a style that defined the future of hip-hop with the rock-infused beats that changed the way we looked at bass speakers forever.
As hip-hop matured, it quickly became a much more financially viable movement, and the lifestyle reflected as much. But this established balance between the everyday stories and the lavish tales of luxury for the most part remained. For every "Party and Bullshit" there was a "Children's Story," for every "O.P.P.," a "My Philosophy."
Yet somewhere along the way the scales were tipped on this balance, the storytelling and the lavish lifestyles became interwoven, and the line between artists and the characters they were portraying blurred. Hip-hop's unique place as both a haven for the everyday man and an outlet for fantasies of grandeur had crumbled. This isn't to say there is none of the latter left within the genre, or even to say there is no place for the "Make It Rain" and "Got Money"-themed jams of the world. It simply means that the portions of the genre being pushed to the forefront of mainstream culture are being designed to represent a lifestyle only a select few can plausibly attain. And this negates one of the key outlets hip-hop initially filled when it was formed.
Hip-hop is young enough that it might simply be in the middle of a stop in its cycle. But it seems there are few things that could force the genre's hand at returning back to the basics more than the current recession (what up, Jeezy!), predicted long before Sen. McCain ever said the fundamentals of the economy were still strong. It's unlikely that hip-hop will ever endure any sort of AIG-esque bailout, unless Slim Thug turns out to be at the head of his own Ponzi scheme. But the days of strictly seeking out infinite jams about cash flow and spinning medallions seem at best temporarily on hold. And the general acclaim of 2008's The Recession seemed to prove mainstream audiences were ready to listen to an artist get back to the stories of the people around him and not necessarily lose the appeal of the streets.
While we grant that not everyone can be Jeezy (or have Don Cannon on speed dial), we still thought we'd put together a brief (one for every trillion in the deficit) but broad list of songs, new and old, in light of this sentiment: the narrative, the people, the everyday.
1. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five -- "The Message"
Might as well start with the original. Flash burst onto the scene with this single in 1982 and changed the way hip-hop songs were conceived, dealing with the everyday struggles of the ghetto while still making a hook and beat that went on to be sampled more than The Beatles.
2. Luniz -- "I Got 5 On It"
This will undoubtedly be the hip-hop generation's version of "When I was your age, I used to have to walk ten miles to school in the snow." Yukmouth and Numskull might not have much going for them on this song, but they've each got $5, and back in 1995, that was enough to buy a half a sack of weed. And that can keep you telling tales for hour to come.
3. Slick Rick -- "Children's Story"
Where you look at the title and say obvious, we look at the title and say classic. While we could have picked from damn near half of Rick's catalogue, we thought we might as well pick the one that most directly pays homage to his gift of gab.
4. Ghostface Killah and Jadakiss -- "Run"
Ghostface has an eye for minutia like few other rappers. It's almost impossible not to feel your heartbeat quicken as he and Jada spit in hyper detail about trying to evade the police. By the end, you'll be out of breath, too.
5. Young Jeezy -- "Circulate"
Easily the most underrated track on The Recession. Jeezy laments his rent being paid late and the unemployment rate while still making time to shout out Tony Romo. Do work, son.
6. A Tribe Called Quest -- "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo"
Another staple in the narrative rap category, here Q-Tip relates this story of a trip with his mother gone awry. It also eventually became the unlikely sample of the ubiquitous "A Milli" beat.
7. Ice Cube -- "It Was A Good Day"
Arguably the peak of hip-hop storytelling, this track finds Ice Cube hanging around on a rare stress-free day in his life in South Central L.A. The attention to ridiculous details solidifies this as an eternal classic.
8. Del The Funkee Homosapien -- "Mistadobalina"
Cube's cousin riffs nonstop about a dude who just really pissed him off, and the result is one of the more cohesive singles from one of rap's biggest space cadets.
9. 2Pac -- "Brenda's Got a Baby"
One of the few things Notorious got right was that Pac was many things to many people, and one of them was an occasionally strong sympathizer for the ladies having babies. Big ups, dude.
10. Notorious B.I.G. -- "Warning"
No greater success story to tell than your own, right? Biggie mixes his tale of coming up with a sort-of love letter to hip-hop as a whole. Add an R&B chorus, and the result is pure gold.
11. Outkast -- Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 2)
Two of the finest storytellers in hip-hop, Big Boi and Dre trade verses reminiscing about love and friendship lost in manners with would make most any literary figure proud.