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Hip-hop’s musical integrity is too quickly discredited due to the efforts of idiots such as Soulja Boy, Lil Wayne, and 50 Cent. It is one of those genres where the best music is found outside the mainstream, and if people would give it a chance, they’d find that it has a lot to offer. What needs to be understood is that hip-hop is more than acting like a thug and rapping about going to clubs. There exist individuals who truly deserve the title of hip-hop “artist,” and I’m going to explain what to look for to find them.

The three things I believe define a great hip-hop song are meaning, rhythm, and flow.

Meaning consists of the subject matter and quality of the rapper’s lyrics. It also extends to the level of emotion that a rapper is able to convey through what they say. Needless to say, a song like “In Da Club” is lacking in all of these areas. Political hip-hop is the best example of hip-hop with meaning, as every song is clearly imbibed with it. To provide an example of this, I recommend “Peruvian Cocaine,” by the popular political hip-hop artist Immortal Technique. In this song, Technique describes the flow of cocaine from Peru to American streets, as something of a heartfelt guide to what I’ll call “troubled black youths.” He’s not propagating idiotic behavior, and he is not making simple rhymes like “Soulja boy up in that ho, wah me crank it wah me ro’.” His song has meaning, and he believes in what he’s saying.

Meaning is not restricted to political hip-hop, of course. Atmosphere, another fantastic group, write songs rich in meaning and depth. One of my favorites is “Sunshine,” a warm song about days spent in the sunshine of summer. Again, there is a level of integrity here that is completely absent in all hit hip-hop songs at the moment. In a song like this, there is imagery, there is artistic expression, and all manner of good things you learn in Literature classes in high school. As an afterthought, I find it amusing how bad Eminem has gotten these days. Early songs like “The Way I Am,” “Kim,” and “Go To Sleep,” were filled with a palpable rage. Now, we get “Ass Like That.” Eminem is by no means a lyrical genius, I just felt like pointing out the dichotomy, and that there may be some legitimacy behind claims that rappers sell out when they hit the mainstream.

Rhythm, to me, is about the creativity of the backing track used by the artist. Is it using a creative beat? Does it have more than just a catchy hook? In particularly pleasant cases, a song might even have more than a simple melody as the backing track, although this is not the point of hip-hop, honestly, so I rarely throw rappers out the window just because they repeat chords. There can be great songs with little to them in terms of melody that are rescued by a good sense of rhythm. “Daylight,” by Aesop Rock, is almost a tutorial on how to execute rhythm well. It has a creative melody that is smooth enough to close your eyes to, as well as a dynamic and refreshing beat throughout the song. This may be contrasted to the banality of club trash like Far East Movement.

To me, a hip-hop song with good rhythm is the most accessible kind of song to someone who doesn’t like the genre. The late Nujabes was an artist known for his brilliant musical contributions to hip-hop, and I could list dozens of excellent songs he wrote, but for the sake of demonstrating rhythm, I’ll provide “Kumomi” – one of his songs with no vocals. Songs like Kumomi are considered “instrumental hip-hop,” which, although lacking a rap element, are still part of the hip-hop genre. For those who are averse to rapping, but are interested in transitioning into the realm of hip-hop, I recommend artists such as J Dilla (try “Waves“) and Flying Lotus (try “Camel“).

I bring up instrumental hip-hop because I recognize that rap is usually what people most dislike about hip-hop. However, rap is an integral part of hip-hop music, and is often the best part of a hip-hop song, when performed well. This begins with meaning, but ultimately comes down to “Flow,” which is strictly how the artist chooses to rap what he’s trying to say. Technically speaking, it is the meter and timing of the spoken words. Flow is what keeps your attention during the song; it is how the rapper entices you to listen and feel every word he speaks. It is the difference between a nursery rhyme and a poem.

A great demonstration of flow is R.A. the Rugged Man’s contribution to Jedi Mind Tricks‘ song “Uncommon Valor.” His part of the song begins about 1 minute and 34 seconds in, and it is distinctively captivating, even compared to the beginning of the song. What makes it captivating is R.A.’s flow. Where he stops and starts speaking, the tempo he keeps, and even how all of it rhymes produces a piece that “comes together” brilliantly, and this is the power of flow. Another good song is “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System),” by Dead Prez. The song is an amusing instruction manual on taking advantage of the American bureaucracy, but what really makes it stand out is the excellent flow by both members of Dead Prez. In both of these songs, or any song by an artist with good flow, you can visualize the peaks and valleys of the words as they are being said. It’s a constant, flowing stream, and without it, the song is no better than what you’d sing while playing jump rope in elementary school.

To dislike hip-hop because of what you hear on the radio is like hating rock because of Nickelback. There are so many creative artists in hip-hop that criticizing it based off the material on the Billboard chart is simply ignorant. To those willing to check hip-hop out, take a look at any of the artists listed in this article, or on this list, and look for the ones that follow my three criteria closely – these will be the best among them. Stop listening to the radio.

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2 thoughts on “Appreciating hip-hop

  1. Good article. I like the three elements you’ve identified. I can think of two more things that for me help define quality hip-hop on top of meaning, rhythm and flow.Lyricism:Sometimes it matters not only the meaning of the words you say, but the words themselves. A masterful vocabulary can be a very pleasing thing in music. Especially when a rapper chooses to you use a seldom used word that you don’t expect and still manages to rhyme it with another word. It adds flavor and intelligence and it was makes a rapper stand out.Poeticism and Witticism::One of my favourite parts of hip-hop is the puns, witticism’s, allegory and symbolism rappers manage to pull off. Sure meaningful lyrics are nice, but be clever about it. It is still a form of poetry and storytelling, and the better you tell that story – the more you are going to maintain my interest. For eg. “You think your a winner, you think your a hero but your rhymes taste fake like a coca-cola zero”. Rather than just saying someones rhymes are fake, a clever pun makes it more interesting, intelligent and enjoyable.

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  2. I can’t argue with that. The thinking behind the three concepts I listed was that I could listen to a good hip-hop song without needing it to be pure poetry, and still enjoy it. If the rapper has flow and rhythm, in particular, he has a great grasp of the art. Busta Rhymes is a great example of that. He’s talented at those two things, but his lyrics are often lacking.That song Daylight by Aesop Rock is a good example of your point, though. His lyrics are insane, and I still listen to this song today and have no idea what he is talking about, and it’s fun to think about it. Things like “I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent.”

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