Love it or hate it, hip-hop is here to stay. While it may constantly twist and morph, its cultural influence is undeniable, and hip-hop artists wield a power that should not be underestimated. That power, the power of storytelling, can introduce listeners to the nonsensical and fantastical, as well as a dark and morbid conception of reality we would otherwise hope never finds us. While varied, the stories these artists weave are important not only because they entertain us and provide an escape from the banality of everyday life, but also because they record a kind of cultural history of the musicians and the communities in which they are embedded.
Artists are the historians of the present, and in this case hip-hop is to Kendrick Lamar what the canvas was to Picasso. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is his Guernica. Neither of these two divergent pieces of art, one musical and one visual, is particularly renowned for its adherence to fact – but factuality is by no means a necessary condition of art. Both Guernica and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City subvert elements of reality as a means for political and social criticism. And it is no coincidence that these, like many of the most compelling stories told in art and hip-hop, are stories of violence and community.
Let me take you on a journey through three hip-hop songs and together we will delve deeper into the artistry of hip-hop and the cultural concepts that give meaning to these stories.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ – N.W.A
The title track to their debut album, Straight Outta Compton lets everyone know from the get-go that N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) isn’t here to fuck around. But what’s beneath the bravado and the sound of the semi-automatic? This track is two parts threat, one part instruction on how to survive in the streets. In the words of Dr. Dre:
You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge
In other words, Dre is telling you to sit down and take notes. ‘We are the ones on top, and this is what it takes to be us’. Ignoring the extent to which it exaggerates or glorifies, the track details the situation in the city of Compton as well as what it takes to thrive in this infamous community. It goes on to expound upon the sad reality that violence is not only a part of life but a code to live by in Compton, a code fully embraced by the community and, seemingly, the artists themselves.
‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio ft. LV
The first verse of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ might just be my favourite verse in all hip-hop. In twelve expertly engineered lines Coolio shares with us a story detailing the effect that violence has had not only on his own life, but also on the lives of his peers and the children of his community.
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left
Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long
That even my momma thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it
Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of
You betta watch how ya talkin’ and where ya walkin’
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk
I really hate to trip but I gotta loc
As they croak, I see myself in the pistol smoke
Fool, I’m the kinda g that little homie’s wanna be like
On my knees in the night sayin’ prayers in the street light
Coolio sees himself in a way not unlike the guys in N.W.A, the only difference being that Coolio has actually turned around and seen the destruction left in his wake. The most confronting part is not the lives he has taken or the alienation he has suffered from his family, but the role he has played in perpetuating the violence that grips his community. The artist describes the anarchy he sees in the streets – the brother-on-brother violence, and how a cycle of violent role models breed future generations of violent young men.
This specific narrative, termed lateral violence, is inflicted by perpetrators upon their peers and community, people who are not their enemies. Lateral violence stems from a variety of catalysing factors, but is most commonly associated with poor living standards, low levels of education, bad relations with the authorities, and destitution. This type of violence can manifest itself in the form of gang violence, as is common in Compton, or domestic violence which we see in Indigenous communities around North America and Australia. ‘The Blacker the Berry’ by Kendrick Lamar also discusses the consequences of lateral violence, so I would highly recommend you refer also to that track.
Finally, the two hooks sung by LV tie the story together. Taking what we have learnt about Coolio and his community, LV croons:
Tell me why are we
So blind to see
The ones we hurt
Are you and me
These lyrics capture exactly what violence, be it lateral or otherwise, does to not only communities in America, but also to Indigenous communities around Australia, and other oppressed groups of people. The sad place that Coolio describes is what he calls a “gangsta’s paradise” because the pain and trauma caused there go on to feed further organised crime – a self-fulfilling prophecy. Heart-wrenchingly, the reality of this song arrives when Coolio understands the part he has played in perpetuating this cycle of violence, and realises that it is too late for him to save those he has hurt.
‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ by Kendrick Lamar
Full disclosure: I think Kendrick Lamar is a genius. I fully believe To Pimp A Butterfly is the most culturally important record to come out in a very, very long time. Kendrick’s aforementioned first commercially distributed record, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is a goldmine for the kind of stories we are talking about – stories of the youth and their suction into violence. However if you want a deeper, more visceral look into a broader range of cultural and personal histories, To Pimp A Butterfly is a masterclass in storytelling more brutal than Kendrick’s previous work. While it does include similar stories of violence and community, they do not feature as prominently on To Pimp A Butterfly as they do on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.
The broader concept of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is about how even a high school honours student can be sucked into the violence and tragedy of the streets of Compton, before finding redemption in music and religion. A deeply personal record, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – and the song ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ more specifically – demonstrates to us as listeners how men like the N.W.A. are created, not born, and what lies in store for the little homies paddling in the wake of Coolio. It goes to show that while there might ways out of poverty, they often require a painful catalyst. Rather than dissecting the song here I encourage you to pick up the album, have the lyrics on a screen before you, and reflect upon it yourself.
These three songs just go to show that not all hip-hop is about weed and bitches; it can also be about trauma and community. Take the time to listen to some of these artists and hear their stories. They offer us a look in their lives, a sight some of us rarely see.