Grassroots Rap: A New Subgenre
What a year it’s been for rap. This slew of fucking awesome is actually the forthcoming of a movement that was arguably born in late 2011. That was through Watch the Throne, one of the most culturally specific projects in recent memory. The only phrase applicable to label this new genre what has been decided on as “grassroots rap”. Defined simply, “grassroots rap” is comprised of projects that find rappers, more specifically those in the mainstream, ignoring demands to make smash hits while elaborately recapitulating what they left behind before hitting broadway and practicing some pedagogy of the oppressed in the process. Moreover, these grassroots projects draw parallels with circumstances on the ground throughout the country.
While WTT was not so much a grassroots rap album, it’s packed with similar themes of those that followed. But more to credit with this latest trend in rap than the megalithic collaboration of music’s most esteemed Blacks was rap’s youngest classic album, good Kid, m.A.A.d city. Enter Kendrick Lamar, the most introspective rapper out today, who with his debut effort -second LP, if you count Section 80- put the world in the front seat with him as we rode around for an account similar to what we get during pre-whoop ass scenes during COPS that show officers giving accounts of their reasons of being. It gave us a look inside of the psyches of the young, black male just before the development of the frontal lobe ends, before it becomes tremendously harder to avoid making decisions that sweep young men and their families into the proverbial “vicious cycle” of illicit activity, jail and hopelessness. It was a job Tupac worked to complete save for stints where it seemed he’d been enraptured as well.
good kid, m.A.A.d city brought it back though, but had it not been for the death of Trayvon Martin, this grassroots movement may have not been so successful. The seventeen year old, respectfully became the James Chaney of this movement taking place in rap. Further this movement has been put on the backs of the youth but lead by Kendrick, as SNCC and CORE -youth powered organizations- put the Civil Rights Movement of a half century before upon their shoulders. The very essence of this movement requires that those most affected take matters into their hands as they stand to take the brunt of all the injustice and mistreatment to come.
Let’s return to the specs of Kendrick’s breakout project though, as they are too imperative to the movement as a whole. Like any great album, its impact cannot be relegated to awesome production and amazing word work. Context is key and the mindstate where we find Kendrick is more important than anything else.
Immediately, we are introduced to a situation, as opposed to a rapper we are trying to fall in love with. Before Kendrick’s first words, we get a small group of young vulnerables likely not much older than the sophomore-aged Kendrick on the album praying that all they do/done is forgiven. They are beyond convicted they’ll soon be convicted or killed. Needless to say they will all be put in this situation just a few minutes into the story. Let’s not count out the lack of financial security and progressive opportunities for the youth to seize that morph their situations. On top of the vulnerables, a term applicable to adolescent minorities in the US, being on the verge of losing it all at any minute through shootouts, and other felonious offenses, the youth must also face the realities that all other teens face; mainly, sex. Following beatdowns and vengeful murder (if this has spoiled anything for you, i’m not sure how you got here, but thanks for reading), despair is the only natural course for the young to take. Unfortunately, natural courses seldom exists in this context and the only visible path available for most of these young men follow take them to the grave or the penitentiary. Does it seem much like the makings of movement that could spur a group of youth to radically react, yet?
And this comes at a time when the hip-hop world was looking toward the West Coast, hoping Tupac’s hailing ground introduced a viable opponent who might come closest to filling Pac’s shoes. Combined with a Dr. Dre endorsement, the world was ready to be fucked for 72 hours by the west’s next. In other words, Kendrick had our ears from the beginning. And he delivered like a mutherfucker. Rap game fucking Spartacus. One could liken the situation to the fervor the country felt when Ronald Reagan stepped into office as the scrounging American public looked for new direction. Soon after, the Republican party we’ve love to hate came into its own and has since become a formidable institution. Let’s pray this grassroots does the same. That exact process is what GKMC brought to not only the rap game but its reeling delegation and subjects alike.
2013 was much a year of absorption and contemplation for the rap game. The world immersed themselves in the Trayvon Martin case while rap seemed to wonder how they would react to Kendrick Lamar’s momentous entrance.The two events sparked the community. Kanye, likely irrespective of GKMC went ahead and dropped Yeezus, which he’s proclaimed to be a protest album since its release. The project that fought fire with fire. Abrasive lyrics dueled with dissonant instrumentals inciting backlash from those he attempted to represent. In other words, the hood didn’t love it. It was too radical, even for a group or looters and rioters who were fed up with the injustice at home. Obama’s jackass label of Kanye, unlike the Hope-speech he spewed, had made its way into the community and the albums assumed purpose fell to the wayside. Yeezy though, did what no one else had the balls to do but was also necessary; the man said to hell with singles and let listeners decide what cuts they wanted to hear on the radio. In his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe, Kanye sorta predicted that this grassroots movement would take off. But on the wayside with Yeezus’ purpose was the Sway interview that exhibited an oppression comparable to what many Blacks civilians were feeling. Unfortunately, the rant was dismissed as lunacy and unrelated. And muchly too electronic beats and synths of Yeezus, along with distance from being an inhabitant of south Chicago disqualified him from being able to shake something up. He was not grounded enough to lead the grassroots movement.
Cole also dropped in ‘13 and he did in fact bring some of the consciousness that GKMC boasted but it failed to say what listeners had never been able to verbalize before. Wale did the same but struggled to find his own voice, thus a voice for his people. Drake’s third LP dropped as well but the Canadian found no time to galvanize the impoverished youth. Regardless of this, the grassroots movement was percolating. Though Jay Z, like Ye, was too far gone to really give us roots on Magna Carta, Frank Ocean’s lashing out on “Oceans” surely kept some momentum going. As the year came to a close, one player threw a spark plug through this ceiling and created a set of small ripples that started addressing the problems from holistically. Because the Internet and all that Childish Gambino had to say on his coming-of-age release began to pique the game some. This carried us into the new year impatiently waiting for Kendrick’s new album but offered more than a little bit to digest. Out of the right pocket though came 2014’s Comeback Player of the Year, bringing us back to the ground with accounts of his Krazy life, as rap fans stood in limbo.
Unexpected to say the least, YG, previously only known for pioneering the ratchet rap era, made a statement loud enough to ease any reservations critics had for his first studio album. Like GKMC, My Krazy Life was an account of life in Compton and bore tons of similarities to the album that first made grassroots rap cool again. And it seemed so effortless on YG’s part as all he did was tell the stories that end up as statistics on government websites that “explain” how the inner-city is made up. The narrative was strikingly similar to the observations found on Kendrick’s breakout record, but it would be disrespectful to say YG was anything more than inspired by the album.
In some ways, YG went deeper into the mind of the at-risk youth than did Kendrick. While Kendrick witnessed the toxicity of life in the city, the gangbanging YG seems much more related to the group of guys begging for God’s forgiveness during GKMC’s intro. For no other reason than its sheer authenticity -Mustard’s A1 production could be to credit as well, this album became the talk of circles everywhere. Fans who never lived the life of these artists were coming eerily close to the streets and for all of the listeners who drew parallels to the artists, they once again had a voice for the world to hear, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that they could be heard no other way. For Jay Z’s decadent ass, digital release of Magna Carta, Holy Grail was making block boyz surprised to hear he ever sold dope and shot pistols.
The artistry of the album was spectacular but failed to garner even a Grammy nomination in the rap album category when some would argue that it could have vied for run for the show’s top honor. The snub may have best for the people though, as the album remained in the streets’ hands, where grassroots movements were meant to remain (shoutout to Macklemore for keeping GKMC in the streets, as well). Reference to Barack’s first campaign shows that people are more likely to turnout when they feel the movement is theirs.
Now, 2014 was no lull for the genre as Em dropped, ScHoolboy Q made a lane for himself, and Nicki Minaj murked any beat thrown her way but neither of those albums bothered to give a narrative to tell how much anguish the hood, aka the heart of hip-hop, suffered daily. On the other hand, The Roots provided an entire commentary of the situation inspired by the aforementioned transgressions plaguing the Black community. But, and a huge “but”that distinguishes the legendary group from the type of album being discusses here was their lack of representation on radio dials and timelines. Further, their instrumentals stood too close to the old guard’s beats, disallowing the message to incite the youth who need the message most.
But soon YG’s project was woven into a frayed, dirty quilt that was placed on our consciences as Mike Brown was shot down and Eric Garner’s choking murder was caught on tape. There was a real problem at hand. Who better to address these situations than community representatives?
At the foot of nauseating amounts of digital activism, botched media representation like that of CNN’s, apathy from all walks of life, and surging hopelessness that had Blacks ask if their lives mattered, hip-hop was there to say to America what no other entity could effectively.
Enter J. Cole’s incendiary “Fire Squad”. Instrumentally, the beat took the form of Sonny Corleone on his way to make an all-out assault on the complexities that not only snubbed YG, but overall had Blacks thinking they were less than human. Within hours, the controversy had spread, the song had sent blogs and media outlets up in flames -no pun intended. And unapologetically, Cole went on to drop a whole album capturing the struggle with a long exposed shutter. With allusions to his childhood home, foreclosed on as a consequence of the house market crash, on top of finding his back against the wall in too many situations, Cole was back trying to build on his foundations that were also those of young, Black America. With no designated singles or even a feature to garner more listenership, the bareness of the project still prompted international attention. Thus, we have our third grassroots album.
And in case his ideas weren’t conveyed clearly enough, the “G.O.M.D.” video couldn’t be any more plain to display his feelings as a Black man in 2015.
Following that effort was the somewhat depressing Dark Sky Paradise. While it’s certainly not as heavy as Forest Hills Drive or the grassroots albums before it, the project draws from the specific experiences that could well have stopped him from making it to this point. Sean takes on more of the GKMC approach, as opposed to the first-person accounts of YG’s. Making it a family affair with interludes from his dad, brother, and recently deceased grandma, DSP is born of the essence to which his rap career owes its success. These reasons are why the project is being called Sean’s best yet. The allure of true stories, full of passion and desperation are what the rap fan is now coming to expect and anything short of that would be soon this forgotten or perhaps overlooked completely.
But there does exist a cohort of those who’d rather listen to the screen dramas turned albums that offer what might be an escape from reality. This is the same group saying Kendrick’s long-awaited, heavyweighted To Pimp A Butterfly is hard to get into or that it makes their head hurt. For they are not to fault though, a clear cut digest of Black agony is more than capable of doing so.
In the event that Kendrick’s oration in 2012 came across as music to be taken lightly, he has returned this year to wipe away the smiles that “Recipe” may have induced. With the project, K Dot has rounded up all the aspects of the previously mentioned grassroots and unbraided them to lay out all that hinders the community from elevating, bringing the grassroots rap movement full-circle. Putting on his pedagogical pants for TPAB’s entirety, paying close attention to the contents of the record could prepare a listener for a literacy test that bring the oppressed one step closer to parity. No gimmicks or schemes exist to get someone to listen to the project. It could be argued that project exists to push away some listeners, the way SNCC and CORE had to separate themselves from the polluted efforts before them which had lost sight of issues at hand. The album, like one in the grassroots genre should, is almost off-putting. It could sever those bonds that cloud the path the community should follow including disruptive radioplay, spliced with commercials and songs whose existence is infinitely less significant than those that belong to the subgenre. One cannot passively reap the benefits of this music just as the community cannot sit back and expect the burden of being oppressed in 2015 to alleviate itself. One must go get this knowledge from the source just as this vibe must be disseminated from the source where it is most concentrated. This is what Ella Baker decided was the right move when coordinating SNCC and the other ventures she lead in hopes to bring a brighter day.
While this subgenre grows and becomes more popular as it has since late 2012, it will begin to spark conversations around the country as the sound’s undeniable appeal gains even more traction. It will soon reveal that what these rappers observe is not exceptional but the norm in ghettos everywhere. In To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick posits, “I don’t see Compton, I see something much worse. The land of landmines, the hell that’s on Earth”.
Whether subconscious before or not, rappers will now intentionally tells us they’re from Forest Hills Drive and give us details of the botched robbery that landed them in prison, on top of having their mom’s tell us how these artists’ fathers wound up in jail to make for a story that either brings a feeling of cautionary calm to a listener who will never have to deal with such issues or speaks for the youth in the ghetto who can offer a similar accounts of all these that’s happened to them and their loved ones.
This is grassroots rap; an impetus for discourse the nation should have frequently, as it will lead to viable solutions for its betterment.