Like all music, hip-hop is constantly evolving stylistically and lyrically. However, in recent years rap has become progressively more mainstream, and now is the dominant genre in the music industry. Though this increase in popularity is exciting for hip-hop fans, it does not come without a downside. With this shift into the mainstream, more and more rappers have had to make a choice between becoming popular and saying what they really want to say.
Most hip-hop artists go one of two directions with their discography: they either make deep, conscious music that is meant to raise awareness about personal and social issues while sacrificing their listenability, or they make music that gets a lot of plays and makes a lot of money but lacks substance. The industry is rife with artists that fall into one of these two categories.
Very few rappers are capable of greatness, and those who achieve it bridge the gap between socially-conscious rap and popular rap. Though everyone’s musical journey is different, there are common traits great rappers from the past and present have that give them the ability to bridge this monumental gap.
Almost all great rappers share certain traits. The first is the ability to transcend genres. While remaining in the sphere of hip-hop, great rappers are able to integrate aspects from other genres into their music in a groundbreaking way. Throughout the history of hip-hop, a cornucopia of inspiration has come from other forms of music, including alternative, r&b, soul, funk, pop, rock, and jazz, just to name a few.
Kendrick Lamar is an excellent example of genre redefinement among today’s hip-hop greats. On To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, Lamar interweaves elements of jazz throughout both projects. On Damn, he blends traditional rap with alternative rock on multiple tracks, even adding a U2 feature on his song “XXX”. On the Black Panther Album, he mixes traditional African drums into his production. Time and time again, Lamar experiments with blending genres, and does so In a way that reaches a broad audience while redefining hip-hop as we know it.
The same can be said for Tupac Shakur. Though the rhythms he used were mostly reminiscent of 90’s boom-bap style, the beat samples he used throughout his career were an eclectic mix of influences. On “California Love”, he mixes elements of funk with blaring orchestral trumpets in the melody. Many of his greatest tracks, like “Hit ‘Em Up” and “Changes”, use jazzy baselines and piano riffs. Unfortunately, because of his untimely death, we only heard a small sample of the depth of Shakur’s musical ingenuity. If he were to have a full career like Lamar, there’s no telling how many different styles he would have experimented with.
Experimenting with genres not only makes their music exciting and listenable, it is also a way to help the hip-hop industry evolve. They expand the consciousness of the listener while appealing to a wide audience, therefore bridging the gap between popular and socially conscious rap.
Great rappers also stay true to themselves, and their cadence is unapologetically unique. They sound like their own rapper, not a knockoff of somebody else. Lamar has an exceptionally unique flow, and uses it to bring his music to life. He can rap at blistering speed, incorporate vocal melodies, and then he can turn around and slow flow just like Biggie Smalls or any of the old-school greats.
Shakur has all the same traits. He is smooth but boisterous, can rap at any speed or in any rhyme style, and incorporates melodies seamlessly. Though he relies more on features for hooks than Lamar, he is still capable of producing melodies that tie his songs together. Their collective versatility is part of what makes both of these hip-hop icons so great. By switching up their flows and bringing their unique voice to the rap game, they both opened up their music to a wide audience while raising the standard of hip-hop artistry.
In addition to their rapping style, the content of their lyrics is genuine, and comes from their own honest experiences. They’re not fronting or trying to be someone they’re not. Lamar was born and raised in Compton, California, and his connection to west-coast hip shines throughout his discography. He tells personal stories about his friends, family, the traumas of his childhood, and how his experiences relate to broader issues. Section.80, arguably Lamar’s breakout album, was mostly written in his mother’s kitchen. When asked about the impact of this album in an interview with Billboard, Lamar said “When I go to these neighborhoods in Compton, people tell me, ‘you did something that not only represents you but it represents all of us. Thank you for making this music that represents me, that represents my struggle.’ That feels good to me.”
Lamar represents where he is from in a way that pays tribute to the people in his community and the pain they’ve experienced. That genuineness is more valuable than any rap accolade.
Shakur is similarly true to himself. In an era dominated by gangsta rap, he was one of the first major artists to truly open up and be real with his music. On all of his albums, he finds ways to pay homage to his roots. Though he was born in New York, he was raised in the Bay area, so his music is deeply rooted in the west-coast, gang-affiliated environment. In a review for Shakur album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… The Source said “2Pac is not afraid to speak his mind … [balancing] the gangsta tendencies of street life with insightful revelations”. He was in a league of his own at the time and is still one of the greatest rappers of all time, in part because of his authenticity.
However, just rapping about authentic personal experiences isn’t enough on its own to be considered great. To ascend to the stratosphere of hip-hop icons, an artist must not only talk about personal issues, but extrapolate them to societal ones. Only rappers who raise the consciousness of their audience can truly be considered great.
Kendrick Lamar has done this throughout his career. There are many examples, but in terms of consciousness raising, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers may be his most ambitious album yet. His lyrics explore themes like childhood and generational trauma, infidelity, accountability, therapy, religion, gender identity, fatherhood, fake news, and cancel culture. He touches on deeper themes to make an impact and spur societal change in a way that makes millions of people want to listen.
Shakur’s career, though much shorter than Lamar’s, exemplified accessible conscious rap as well. On 2Pacalypse Now, he comments on issues that plague American society, including police brutality, black on black crime, teenage pregnancy, and racism. Yet, he does so in a way that does not limit his appeal to the audience affected by these issues. He touched millions of people’s lives and created societal change that goes beyond objective measurement.
Lamar and Shakur are unquestionably some of the greatest rappers of all time, and these are just a few of the reasons why. Everything that makes them great can be found under one umbrella: the ability to produce conscious rap that is massively popular. Only time will tell who the next great MC will be, but there is no doubt that they will share these traits that continue to define hip-hop greatness from generation to generation.