The construction of identity in hip-hop
Article by David Andrews
Art by Olive Welsh
As I pulled up next to a faded red Honda Odyssey, I noticed a hand protruding from the driver’s side window. I glanced over and saw a middle-aged Denver dad-type slamming his head into the headrest and rapping along to the beat of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE:” “Bitch. Sit down, be humble.”
Stay humble in that Odyssey. Keep making moves. I hope the U-10 soccer league has gotten off to a good start this season, I thought. “DAMN.,” Lamar’s most recent album, is clearly a crossover hit if the dads of our world are rattling their Honda Odysseys with the politically-charged tracks of the most popular rapper in the world.
I could see myself as that dad one day. For now, though, I’m left standing in my kitchen, fielding questions from my mom about why I listen to rap: “Why does your white, suburban, 140-pound-ass listen to hip-hop music?” she asks me. (My mom talks exactly like that.) “Do you wish you were on the block living a life of selling bricks and dodging bullets? Do you think it helps you understand the difficulties of being black in America? What is it, David?” I usually stumble for a few minutes before offering to send her some songs so she can listen for herself. Usually I feel like what I share just confirms her perception of what hip-hop is. The lyrics are boastful and there is an underlying tone of violence and misogyny. However, recently I felt like I was able to send her some more introspective songs that I previously didn’t have in my library. I think this was a result of personal growth in the variety of hip-hop I’m listening to, but also symptomatic of a rapidly changing and expanding genre.
We are witnessing a rap renaissance in 2017. With a larger audience than ever, and more record labels constantly sniffing for their next big check, hip-hop finally has the financial backing and subsequent social clout to become the most popular music in America. In mid-July, Nielsen reported that hip-hop made up 25.1 percent of all music consumed in the U.S. This moment is significant for a genre that has constantly been demeaned and pushed to the side by mainstream white society. The lack of respect for black culture is even more evident today with a bumbling and overtly racist Commander in Chief in the White House. In this political landscape, hip-hop has become the primary political voice in American music. From YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump” to J. Cole’s “Neighbors,” rappers are using their lyrics to confront a racist president and the systemic racism exhibited by police forces and society at large.
Black artists created hip-hop and continue to drive the art form today. Rappers have always questioned the racist social structure of America, even all the way back in the late ‘80s when N.W.A. was bringing rap into the national scene. Ice Cube, a driving force behind N.W.A’s rise, released Death Certificate in 1991, a raw, emotional, and angry hip-hop album that shaped the rap canon.
It is the dual nature of hip-hop that makes it so intriguing. While artists in the genre have shown the ability to look outside of themselves and address pervasive American problems, there is also a prominent introspective element of hip-hop that is often criticized as egotistical. Even now, Cardi B is sitting at the top of the charts with her song “Bodak Yellow,” which some claim has its merits as a song of female empowerment and freedom, but realistically does little else besides talk about her shoes, money, and gigantic ego. The song uses tired tropes to transmit a skin-deep message of empowerment. The genre is capable of more than just pushing the same threadbare narrative of financial success. To me, the reason that hip-hop has power is not because it can beat its chest, but because I can listen to a rap album and experience an artist’s deliberate creation of identity.
For every vapid trap anthem and new Lil Somethin’, there are plenty of artists who are telling powerful stories. Because hip-hop is a lyrically-based genre, it is ideal for artists to create poetry and blend it with beats to form a meaningful story. If listeners choose to commit their time to understanding the lyrics, message, and historical context of an album, a door swings open. It’s impossible to bridge the racial divide between my “white suburban ass” and a black person who has dealt first-hand with the racial injustice of the U.S. But I do believe that close listening is an act in the direction of empathy. Through rap it is possible to glimpse another person’s seemingly isolated reality. This is why hip-hop will continue to stay relevant.
Three albums in particular that dropped this year illustrate the potential rap holds as the most popular music in America. Brother Ali’s “All the Beauty in this Whole Life,” Tyler, the Creator’s “Flower Boy,” and Milo’s “Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!” are attempts by the artists to understand the external reality of the United States and construct an identity and musical message in response.
“All the Beauty in this Whole Life” by Brother Ali
“Get free being what it is that you know you are / She said “Beauty’s the splendor of truth / You will never cut loose ‘til you’re suitable to you / And your living is the proof just let it do what it do.”
Brother Ali’s measured tone and level-headedness speak of a life lived fully and conscientiously. While Brother Ali (born Jason Douglas Newman) is a veteran presence in hip-hop, he is not a household name or social influence. A devout Muslim who is white and has albinism, his identity is not widely accounted for in the rap game, and this makes him all the more interesting.
“All the Beauty in this Whole Life,” released in May 2017, is Brother Ali’s first album in five years. His 2012 project “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color” was a response to white privilege, inequality, and broken American promises. It was a continuation of Brother Ali’s personal-made-political style of questioning his own white privilege and what his voice means as an artist and activist. On the opening track “Letter to My Countrymen” he declares, “I want to make this country what it says it is.” The album made some small waves in the rap world but did not see major commercial success. Following its poor reception, Brother Ali stepped out of the music world in favor of civilian life. The following six years of his life were marked by world travel, growth in his Muslim faith, and the birth of his son.
On the other side of this six-year journey Brother Ali has emerged as an angry, calculating, and clairvoyant voice on “All the Beauty in this Whole Life.” On “Dear Black Son” Ali’s political vision rings out in a heart-wrenching letter to his mixed race, dark-skinned son. “You are not defined by anybody else’s crimes / You don’t need to answer for what happens in their minds / You are not confined by their imaginary lines / You don’t need permission to exist with the divine.” On his newest album it’s clear how comfortable Brother Ali is after almost 17 years as a professional rapper. His words spill out in rhyme and cadence with a cohesive and thought-provoking message. The emotional landscape of the album is created through Ali’s voice, not through the beats.
On “Pray For Me,” Brother Ali weaves his experience growing up albino into a narrative of his affinity for black culture. Brother Ali recounts having been ostracized throughout school for his albinism and eventually finding power in the stories of Muddy Waters and James Brown. Brother Ali raps, “Lot of money spent just to get me presentable / Message that it sent, the real you ain’t acceptable.” The album is in many places an ode to the black artists that Brother Ali pulled his strength from during childhood.
Brother Ali does his best to tell his history and stay as far removed from the traditional business of hip-hop as possible. “I don’t like asking people to mess with me,” he said. “Growing up albino there were so many people that just straight-up rejected me. It’s literally asking people to like you these days. Please like me. Me, me, me.” Ali’s perspective on the business of hip-hop speaks against an industry and culture obsessed with wealth. Ali prefers to respond to America’s broken social systems by using stories from his own life, rather than by building a surface-level brand. His tweets feel like texts from a drunk parent. Ali’s mission is not to rack up record sales and retweets, however. Throughout the album, he fights to open eyes and ears to his experience and the larger social forces that are driving racism and inequality.
Brother Ali attests to being drawn to music by a belief in a power that can “see us better than we can see ourselves.” Ali said, “If we are just charting our own course, our course is as limited as we are, because we’re veiled. We need mentors, guides, and leaders to help us progress.” Brother Ali’s thoughtful and intentional raps will be an important guide for young artists looking to channel both the political and the personal in their songs.
“Flower Boy” by Tyler, the Creator
“They say the loudest in the room is weak / That’s what they assume, but I disagree / I say the loudest in the room / Is prolly the loneliest one in the room (that’s me).”
“Ain’t nobody fuckin’ with T, but that may just be my ego” raps Tyler, the Creator on his fourth studio album “Flower Boy.” On the album, Tyler paints a picture of an occasionally confident, but mostly splintered and contradictory, conception of himself. He addresses loneliness, sexuality, and memory of old lovers. The cringe-inducing cockroach video and homophobic lyrics of Tyler’s 2011 hit “Yonkers” have been replaced with bumblebees and a new introspection on “Flower Boy.” Tyler succeeds on “Flower Boy” in creating an album that veers off the tracks of the generic rap project, both musically, with a background of soaring strings, and substantively, by questioning his sexuality. Early in his career he was labeled as offensive and vile; now, music blogs are swooning over his re-made sound.
It is Tyler’s entire creative vision that propelled him to be one of rap’s most important figures. Tyler takes a clearly different approach than Brother Ali in how he manages his personal brand. Tyler is at the helm of a massive industry, but it isn’t a hokey marketing ploy thought up in an Interscope Records board room. He has masterminded an Adult Swim cartoon show, created his own festival in Los Angeles, founded the immensely successful Golf Wang clothing lines, and stars in a Viceland show called “Nuts & Bolts.” His other show, “The Jellies,” portrays one of the only leading black characters in the world of cartoons. In an America where police kill people of color without punishment, this creation of an entirely new world is an essential and revolutionary act.
While Brother Ali chooses to connect his experiences clearly to larger American narratives around race and oppression, Tyler chooses to speak through his lyrics to the individual: maybe to the lonely American kid who thinks he might be gay as well. Tyler raps on “November,” “All my day ones turn to three, fours / ‘cause of track seven.” On the album’s seventh track, “Garden Shed,” Tyler hints heavily at being gay and is worried his closest friends, his “day ones,” will distance themselves due to his coming out. The rap world is still deeply homophobic and features few openly gay artists. His vulnerability is not only subject to American scrutiny, but also to that of his peers, many of whom are straight and aggressively masculine.
The key to understanding the more mature and perceptive message of “Flower Boy” is tucked at the end of Tyler’s first verse on “Where this Flower Blooms.” Tyler references Okaga, California, a fantasy world he created in his previous album. If we take Tyler’s word that he is “rolling through Okaga” then it’s clear he’s still dwelling in the fractured, imagined world that the entire “Flower Boy” project represents. He knows that he can reach for the beauty and intimacy of his Okaga dreamland, and he does his best to live there, but he will also be endlessly pulled back into reality by the music world’s desire for an answer. Is Tyler gay? Like, is he gay? Really, gay? It’s the label that is meaningful for the genre, but it’s one that Tyler refuses to use for himself.
“Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!” by Milo
“Spit like Zadie Smith with a Jay Z lisp, or like / J.Z. Smith, you can take your pic / The point is my vocabulary pays my rent.”
Writer James Baldwin is the first voice on the album: “I want to suggest that the poets are finally the only people that know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t. Only the poets. That’s the first proposition.”
Milo casually parted the curtains of the stage at Denver’s Marquis Theater and sauntered to the mic. As he emerged, I thought about the Baldwin quote that he pinned at the beginning of “Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!” Milo (born Rory Ferreira) looked like a decent candidate for the transcendent poet role, but by no means Baldwin’s omniscient figure. He wore a denim shirt and wire-rimmed glasses partially obscured by his cheek-length braids. His eclectic performance quieted my initial apprehension and confirmed my view of Milo as an unclassifiable contrarian in the world of rap. Milo is weird. He’s a good weird, though, like your cousin at the barbeque who threw up potato salad last year but still eats potato salad and fake-keels over Aunt Susie just to make her scream.
Milo raps on “Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!,” “I’m probably not the rapper for you.” At times, I have found his music over-reliant on a show-offy intellectualism, but his most recent album is a well-crafted personal manifesto. Milo’s bars are a delicate balance between chaos and repetitive meditations. He is a clear MF DOOM disciple, pulling references out of every dusty corner of academia, entertainment, and world history. While most rappers reference retired NBA players and their favorite wing spot, Milo reaches outside the prescribed rap reference box.
Milo’s style lies between Brother Ali’s clear-headed precision and Tyler’s emotional requiems. He shares Brother Ali’s distaste for the business of rap and raps on “call + form (picture),” “Why’s your favorite rapper always bragging about her business acumen? / Like we asked ‘em? Like we asked ‘em? / Why’s your favorite rapper always babbling about his brand again?” Milo’s sound is rarely, if ever, radio-friendly, in part because he has a clear disdain for commercial success.
His eccentricity is his intrigue. A 2013 news feature with the Green Bay Press Gazette shows a clip of Milo screaming and twitching in time with distorted vocals at a sparsely attended club. The segment cuts to Milo, and he says, “I want people to leave my shows and think, ‘man, wow, where do kids like that come from?’ I want them to see this group of people and immediately be like ‘I could be a weirder person.’” I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I heard him say this, but I absolutely felt like I could be weirder when I left his show. Like, maybe I could kiss the bouncer on the forehead as I leave and whisper to him: “You are my son. May Jehovah bless you.”
Milo throws lyrical curve balls, but he is also documenting history in his raps, paying homage to black artists who came before him. He is constantly dropping references to the likes of James Baldwin, Henry Dumas, and John Gilmore. The world that they were all struggling through seems vivid and close to the world that Milo inhabits. Their weirdness was of different shades—intellectual, fictional, jazz-based—but always revolutionary. On “poet (black bean)” he shouts out his fellow black creatives, dead and alive: “Fuck your notepad, wrote a poem with a toolkit / Shocking moment as the pupil thought / ‘me and my n----s is a school of thought.’” The fact that Milo so obviously sees himself playing a role in the tradition of disruptive black artists is refreshing. He knows he is not alone in his quest as a young black man in search of an identity.
Milo’s vision for his raps is that they will “embed themselves in [listeners’] minds and blossom.” He’s successful—after listening to “Who Told You to Think??!!??!!?!?” endlessly before seeing him live, hearing him rap his songs felt like returning to a well-traveled childhood memory. Another Milo project is not far off and will likely leave an imprint on more young word lovers before the decade is over. In an interview with Will Schube in Noisey magazine Milo says, “As a weird fucking kid, black, disenfranchised, I just didn’t see evidence of me very often in anything. Now I feel obligated to leave my mark on all of the things.”
For many, the veneer of gaudy spectacle and dollar bills will never be cracked. It’s easy to nod along to Migos and Future, but a new thirst hits quickly after a glass of syrupy trap beats. There is fresher water at the bottom of the rap well. Brother Ali, Tyler the Creator, and Milo are multi-layered artists who have become influential in their own circles, but they are simply the latest iteration of a healthy lineage of American rappers. As the genre grows, so do its future possibilities. There is a 16-year old somewhere in the world listening to these albums as she walks to school everyday. The next generation is on its way and will carry blueprints from 2017 with them into the future. They will taste the unrest and see how their predecessors made sense of themselves in choppy, American water.
The question Method Man raises on his legendary track, “Bring the Pain,” rings true when discussing what will last as rap morphs and evolves. “Is it real, son, is it really real, son? / Let me know it’s real, son, / if it’s really real. / Something I could feel, son, / load it up and kill one / Want it raw deal, son, if it’s really real.” Whether it’s the pain of a father watching his black son grow up in a country that doesn’t value him, a young man shedding his past to try to find meaningful love, or a black philosopher pounding on God’s door demanding answers, this is what’s at the core of rap: the search for what’s real.
Part of the Ego issue