If you think this genre isn’t deep, you’ve been listening to the wrong kind of hip-hop
I am a massive hip-hop fan. I’m not only talking about the stuff on the radio because some of those songs admittingly lack substance: I’m talking about lyrical hip-hop.
Rap was created to be a voice for Black people and has been a perfect outlet for oppression and racism ever since.
It has also been a voice for other people of other nationalities that may not have these deep roots in the genre, but still enjoy performing the music and writing the rhymes.
Atmosphere, God’s Bathroom Floor
From a head full of pressure
Rests the senses that I clutch
Made a date with divinity but she wouldn’t let me fuck
I got touched by a hazy shade of god, help me change
Caught a rush on the floor from the life in my veins
I’ll start this list with my favorite rap group, Minnesota’s Atmosphere. Slug, who is the rapper of the group and writer of the rhymes, writes storytelling hip-hop lyrics about struggles he’s never experienced.
This is my favorite thing about this group, Slug is so good at capturing the essence of struggles he has never had himself. Ant, Atmosphere’s deejay, picks the perfect musical backdrop to showcase Slug's amazing wordplay.
This song is about drug addiction. He is describing an overdose and how he intended to kill himself but a higher power didn’t allow it and his life is spared. After he realizes what has happened, he begs for the strength to kick his addiction.
These lyrics are set to a deep drum and sax beat, making for a beautifully haunting, melancholy song.
Ice Cube, Bird in The Hand
I didn’t have no money so now I have to punch the
Clock like a slave, that’s what be happenin’
But whitey says there’s no room for the African
Always knew that I would clock G’s
But welcome to McDonald’s can I take your order, please
Gotta sell ya food that might give you cancer
’Cause my son doesn’t take no for an answer
This man needs no introduction, he was one of the founding members of the legendary rap group N.W.A. Ice Cube, along with rapper and producer Dr.Dre, and rapper Eazy-E (RIP), formed the group in 1987.
Following the group’s breakup in the early 90s, Ice Cube went solo and released a series of albums.
This is my favorite Ice Cube song. It is a short song but it’s packed full of amazing lyrics. This song is about why it’s so much easier for a young Black man to sell crack and gangbang, than it is for them to find work that pays well.
He astutely observes that he is serving terrible food at Macdonald's for a minimum wage to feed his child when he could turn to the streets and make more money out there.
Eyedea & Abilities, Smile
Tears soak each card the dealers dealt
But time taught me how to see every second as Heaven
Even though they’re perfectly disguised as Hell
And I refuse to let past bruises cover the light
It ain’t all good, but it’s all good enough, so I know I’m alright
Agony is truth, it’s our connection to the living
I accept it as perfection and keep on existing in the now
Eyedea was a young rapper who signed onto Slug’s record label Rhymesayers. Rhymesayers is known in the rap scene as the label for wordsmiths. They sign rappers who have a gift for poetic rap and Eyedea was one of the best.
This song is a masterpiece. It details the many struggles some people face in life that some of us will thankfully, never experience. Eyedea speaks about homeless veterans, children growing up in foster care, and the hypocrisy of the general public when it comes to dealing with these issues.
Although the song is very dark at times, he has a glimpse of optimism shining through in his lyrics. He speaks that although life may be difficult, we have to strive to accept the uncomfortable circumstances that life brings us and continue to smile.
Eyedea died of opioid intoxication in 2010, at the age of 28.
Aesop Rock, Daylight
I got a friend of polar nature, and it’s all peace
You and I seek similar stars but can’t sit at the same feast
Metal Captain, this cat is askin’ if I’ve seen his bit of lost passion
I told him: “Yeah,” but only when I pedaled past him
Aesop Rock is another Rhymesayer artist. His lyrics are incredible but it is also essential to read them and decipher them as you would a poem. Many of his lyrics are deep metaphors. I still don't understand many of his lyrics, despite being a fan of his for many years.
This song is my favorite of Aesop’s. If you get a chance, you should definitely listen to this song and read the lyrics: They will blow your mind. This song is a combination of thoughts Aesop has about his life.
In this passage, he is talking about a friend who is very different from him. Although they have the same goals, they can’t seem to collaborate professionally. There is a great level of respect between them even if they can’t work together.
Some people believe “metal cat” is a reference to the amazing MF Doom, another wordsmith rapper who performs while wearing a metal cat mask.
The last line was my favorite in this song. He has been asked by his friend if he ever has regrets in his life and he replies that he only regrets his mistakes when he goes back to the past and reflects on them. This is my interpretation, but other fans may have a different view.
Either way, Aesop Rock never ceases to amaze me.
R.A The Rugged Man and Jedi Mind Tricks, Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story
I must’ve died, then I woke up, surprised I’m alive
I’m in a hospital bed, they rescued me, I survived
I escaped the war, came back, but ain’t escape Agent Orange
Two of my kids born handicapped
Spastic, quadriplegia, microcephalic
Cerebral palsy, cortical blindness, name it, they had it
My son died, he ain’t live, but I still try to think positive
’Cause in life, God take, God give
R.A is one of the best, most outspoken, and fastest rappers in the game. This was a breakout song for him. He wrote Uncommon Valor about his father, John Thorburn, who was a Staff Sergeant in the US Army and went to Vietnam in the 1970s.
John Thorburn was a father to four children and two of the four ended up with Agent Orange poisoning from the war. As a result, they had severe disabilities and one of the children passed away very young.
The song begins as an inner conflict between the side of the soldier who is terrified to go to war, doesn't believe in the mission, and wants to go home. The second side of the soldier says to not be a “pussy” and that he likes being at war.
This is a life story expressed through a song, that is worth listening to.
If you are a fan of military history, I definitely recommend watching the video of this song. Beware, some people may find the content disturbing.
Now they remind me what my lows look like now that I know the sky’s the limit, ok
Never claimed to be perfect
That’s an impossible dream
I’m just saying that I’m worth it
That’s the responsible thing
Spent half my life trying find my light from outside sources
While the only voice that mattered came from me
Sa-Roc is the best female rapper I’ve heard in a long time. She is another Rhymesayers wordsmith and she writes a lot of female empowerment rhymes. She strives to inspire Black women, and the video for “Forever” is a beautiful testament to the strength and beauty of Women of Color.
In this song, she speaks of her struggles to accept herself, self-harm, and her resulting strength to conquer insecurities. Set to a beautiful and simple beat, the lyrics have the floor. She resigns that she spent a lot of her younger life looking for the answers to life’s questions in others, when she had them all along.
Rap music gets a bad “rap”. Many people may not enjoy the sound and that’s ok, but the substance of the lyrics from many of the artists cannot be denied.
Unfortunately, this is not the rap we hear in the mainstream. The rap we hear in the mainstream is often not as powerful lyrically because these artists are very controlled in what they are allowed to say.
If you wrote off rap but are still curious about the genre, explore these artists on Youtube or Spotify. There a wide world of powerful words and beats you may be missing out on.
Amy Sarah is a freelance writer who hails from a small city in Canada. She enjoys interacting with fellow writers, dreaming of ideas for her next article, and researching a myriad of topics.