There’s a riot goin’ on.

I mean that literally, because of the riots in Baltimore last week, and figuratively, because hip-hop is on fire right now.  So I’ll just cut to the chase, if you’d rather not hear me go off about it for another 3000 words, here is a playlist of 25 hip-hop and R&B songs from this year.  It’s some of the most exciting music to come along in some time. The playlist is book ended by 2Pac and Ben E. King because they are still incredibly relevant today.  King died last week and I’d like to think he’s kicking it with Pac in heaven right now, chatting about how rap and soul music aren’t so different after all over a couple of ice cold Thug Passions.

Rap music is blowing up for a lot of reasons right now, not the least of which is the staggering amount of good music being released.  Rap hasn’t been this popular since the nineties, which has prompted a lot of talk about how we may be experiencing a new “Golden Age.” I think another apt corollary would be with jazz in the 50s and 60s. Today’s hip-hop is just as complicated musically, and there is an impressive amount of collaboration going on.

Yet perhaps the most interesting comparison to the old school that I’ve come across lately has been made by the some of hip-hop’s biggest artists in their own music.  Namely, Kanye West, Drake, D’Angelo, and Kendrick Lamar. Who, if I’m not mistaken, have all deliberately inserted references to 2Pac’s “R U Still Down (Remember Me)” into their music over the past few months. It could be a coincidence, or maybe I’m making a big to do about nothing.  Then again, if I’m right, why would the four most important men in hip-hop all reference the same song within such a short period of time?  It certainly seems worth looking into.  Which is what we’ll do today. But first, there is something crucial to consider before we dive into Tupac’s relevance in 2015, and that is how the death of Eric Garner has affected a lot of people in America.

To quickly sum up the events surrounding his death: Garner was an unarmed black man killed in the streets of New York City by the police. The whole ordeal was recorded and posted online for the world to see. Garner was arguably resisting arrest, a misdemeanor, though it is unclear if he had committed the crime he was accused of (selling loose cigarettes, another misdemeanor). He was placed in an illegal choke hold, thrown violently to the ground, several police officers dog piled on top of him and deprived him of oxygen for an unnecessarily long length of time, even as he plead repeatedly to be allowed to breathe. As he lied there, unconscious, dying, no attempts were made to resuscitate him.

It was clearly a murder.

The fact that this sickening event happened in the wake of Ferguson didn’t help things. Weeks of peaceful protests ensued. Did they make a difference?

A grand jury, who answers to seemingly no one, decided that the officer who killed Eric Garner did not need to stand trial. Worst of all, the grand jury didn’t even have to justify why they made that decision.

At least the protests were peaceful, right?

One problem with this was it made a lot of people very angry.  Unsurprisingly, a few weeks ago, when yet another black man, Freddie Gray, died while in police custody it caused riots.  And this is where it get’s interesting. What happened after people rioted? Swift and decisive action. These officers will stand trial.

I’m not trying to argue that all cops are bad, they’re not. What is apparent, though, is that a lot of them are abusing their authority, with impunity, and until now no one in power seemed to have the political will to do anything meaningful about it. So perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned about people in power. Marching and talking can be ignored, but burning down businesses cannot.

Or to put it another way: riots work.

Normally I’d resist the urge to insert politics into my music coverage but at this point, where in the past few months we’ve seen the release of Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly, neglecting politics would be a huge disservice to the music.

 

And speaking of that: I should say right off the bat, I’m a 40 year old white man living in Salt Lake City. A lot of people might say that I’m the last person who should be writing about hip-hop. I often think about that myself. Truth be told, I only got into rap music a few years ago, which means I’m as guilty of being bigoted against hip-hop as anyone. So it feels strange that I’m the only person in a city of 200,000 people willing to write about rap on a regular basis. Why is it that so few people in Utah find hip-hop interesting, I wonder?

I think it’s time for that to change.

The other day I was listening to an episode of Studio 360 on NPR and they did a story about how hip-hop is having an extraordinary year. The host was interviewing an expert on hip-hop. However, the most interesting thing about the interview, to me, was that after hearing a snippet of Drake’s “6 God” the host, Kurt Anderson, was astute enough to notice that it was inspired by Philip Glass yet in the same breath he essentially dismissed it’s artistic merit. Apparently it wasn’t sophisticated enough for him, “I’m glad you’re excited (about hip-hop),” he told his expert at the end of the interview, “and I’m almost excited vicariously.”

Not his cup of tea, apparently. But, let’s think about that for a moment.  What makes Philip Glass more sophisticated than hip-hop?

The history of American music gives us clues. Even a cursory look will show over and over again that black artists innovate while white artists appropriate and often cash in. Indeed, one needs look no further than Elvis Presley to see who went down as the “King Of Rock N’ Roll.” Don’t forget that the Beatles cut their teeth playing The Marvellettes, The Shirelles, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and The Isley Brothers. Then, of course, there was the appropriately named, Paul Whiteman, who led the most popular big band of the 30s even as Duke Ellington made some of the most important music of the century. Before that there was The Original Dixieland Jass Band, a group of white musicians who tried to take credit for inventing Jazz, even though they surely knew better as musicians from New Orleans.

Don’t even get me started on Al Jolson.

The point is, all of this nonsense persists today. Iggy Azealia sold more records than any other rapper last year and Eminem won this year’s Grammy for Best Rap Album (his 6th) while vital artists like Freddie Gibbs and YG went un-nominated.

The most frustrating part of it all is how willfully ignorant it is. If I were to make a conservative estimate, I’d say that hip-hop is about 20 years ahead of the rest of American music—not that most white people over the age of 25 have even noticed.

As for rock music, it has become exceedingly obvious how unbearably white, backward-looking and boring it is of late. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of Tobias Jesso Jr. who’s greatest musical achievement seems to be that he kind of sounds like Harry Nillson and nearly knows how to play the theme song to Cheers.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, is exploding with ideas. So let’s get real about where the action is.  Again, there are four songs from this year that I think really exemplify why Tupac’s “R U Still Down (Remember Me)” has become, in my opinion, the psalm of 2015.  Or as a great man once said, “That’s the anthem / Get your damn hands up.”

Here are four ways for us to understand what Tupac was really asking 20 years ago when he posed the question, “R U Still Down? (Remember Me)”

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Cherry Bomb1) Tyler, The Creator (Ft. Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne): “SMUCKERS”

Sometimes being down is about oppression.

A lot of commentators have wondered how Tyler, The Creator convinced two of rap’s biggest names to lay down bars on this thing. To me, it’s obvious. He simply had the opportunity to play them the beat. If I were Kanye I would have rapped on it, too—this is one of the fiercest, most adventurous pieces of music you’re likely to hear all year.

Tyler kicks things off like he’s got something to prove, probably because he does, “Money, money, money, money, money ain’t the motive …Don’t speak to me nigga, you not important.”

It’s an interesting sentiment coming from a guy who’s been dismissed for years despite the fact that he’s been on the vanguard of hip-hop the whole time.

Kanye, for his part, contributes an outstanding verse. “Why, oh why, why? Why don’t they like me?” he begins, and you can almost hear him laugh in frustration while he raps, “Richer than white people with black kids / Scarier than black people with ideas.” Meanwhile the beat swirls around like a kaleidoscope of jazz, funk, hip-hop and everything in between. When out of nowhere, Kanye says something very interesting, indeed:

“I dreamt of Tupac, he raps, “he asked me, ‘Are you still down?’”

Kanye doesn’t skip a beat, “’Yeah my nigga,’” he answers, “It’s on, it’s on, it’s on, it’s on!”

Kanye’s response to Tupac’s “R U Still Down (Remember Me)” is notable for a few reasons. Not only is Kanye promising Pac that he’s still down for rap, he might very well be responding to Pac’s assertion in “R U Still Down,” that, “(He’s) seen the future and it’s hopeless.” Make no mistake, Kanye is reporting that black folks are still down, in general. He alludes to everything from lynchings, to slavery (calling himself the “free nigga archetype”), and even remarks on the aftermath of Ferguson rhyming, “Are you still down” with, “I wanna turn the tanks into playgrounds.”

 

Interestingly enough, this was the 4th time this year I noticed an A-List artist reference, Tupac’s “R U Still Dow.” There was also …

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drake2) Drake: “Jungle”

Sometimes being down is about staying true.

Funny thing about Drake, a lot of people thought If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a collection of outtakes from his actual album. Drake arguably created this narrative himself by calling the album a mixtape. How modest of him. But as anyone who’s spent some time listening to this thing can tell you: this is definitely his album. And not for nothing, it happens to be a particularly solid one.

“Jungle,” is a deep cut from IYRTITL, 16 songs deep to be specific, and it’s one of the finest soul cuts this side of Luther Vandross. On the surface, it’s a heartbreaking ode to unrequited love—but it has more dimensions than that. And much like Kanye, Drake flips the script on Tupac’s “R U Still Down.” He sings presumably to his lover, and from the sounds of it, he’s a man who knows what being abandoned looks like, “Are you down for the cause?” he asks, “You still down / You still down / You still down”

This is such a captivating moment on a gorgeous song—I struggle to put into words how I feel about it. I’ve listened to it almost daily for months. So even if you’ve heard it already, I suggest playing it again. The part that always stops me dead in my tracks comes at the end when Drake finally asks, “Are we still good?” It’s the sort of question you only ask when a rupture has taken place.

Hearing him ask that question, one gets the sense that he isn’t just talking about his relationship with a girl. After 2014—a year that many critics hastily wrote off as a poor one for hip-hop—here is one of rap’s biggest names, at the end of the year’s first truly great album, coyly asking the world, “Are you still down?”

If I didn’t know better I’d think these guys planned it.  Anyway, I’ll let you decide:

 

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Black Messiah 20153) D’Angelo and the Vanguard: “Betray My Heart”

Sometimes being down is about having the blues.

If there is anyone alive who knows about the blues it is D’Angelo. And to understand the blues one must not only understand the music, one must understand the duality of the blues: sadness and soul. These two things so perfectly describe his music that to question D’Angelo’s commitment to the most fundamental part of black music is, in my opinion, absurd. Nevertheless, for anyone who’s ever wondered if D’Angelo is still down, I’ll allow him to answer that question for himself:

“Whenever you’re feeling down, down, down / You, my soul, can depend on me / You don’t have to fear / That my love is not sincere / I will never betray my heart.”

The man worked on this record for 15 years. If you’ve never heard it, the least you could do is listen to this one song:

 

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Kendrick Pic1) Kendrick Lamar (Ft. Tupac Shakur): “Mortal Man”

“Cause in my mind I see the sunshine / I thought I didn’t have to run / Now I’m duckin’ from the gun yellin’, “One time!” / Take your time to feel my record and if you did, chill a second / My blind method will still wreck it / My young homies stay strong / I wonder if they’ll listen to a nigga when he’s gone?” Tupac from “R U Still Down (Rember Me)”

Sometimes being down is about accepting the humanity in others.

Consider the terrible things that Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby have been accused of. How do we reconcile these accusations, no matter how credible they are, with the good work these men did?

Being a fan of Tupac can be similarly difficult when you look at his life. He was accused of sexual assault and murder, among other things. For example, there is no way to know if Pac pulled the trigger or not, but a gun registered to him killed a child in 1992.

Does this negate his artistry?

When that fateful gun went off, Tupac’s entourage was in the middle of being attacked by another group of men. Even as one of the world’s most famous people, Tupac had to deal with the prospect of random acts of violence (he was shot several times, mind you: once walking out of a recording session in New York City, that’s in addition, obviously, to the shooting that ended his life).

So as we feel for the child that died, perhaps we should also feel for Tupac. “Please God, come and save me,” he raps on “R U Still Down,” and continues, “I had to work with what you gave me.”

On “Mortal Man,” Lamar openly wonders if he might fall prey to the same fate as Pac asking, “When shit hit the fan are you still a fan?” This directly echoes “R U Still Down” where Tupac muses, among other things, “The same motherfuckas that was callin’ me will be the first to turn their backs when I’m fallin’ see.”

Indeed, the validity of art made by imperfect people is the central question posed by Kendrick Lamar in “Mortal Man.” Not only is Lamar admitting his faults as he does when he raps, “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression,” he’s also pointing out that all of the most important black leaders have been shunned in the past. “Do you believe in me?” he asks, “Is your smile on permanant? / Is your vow on lifetime? / Would you know where the sermon is if I died in this next line? / If I’m tried in a court of law? / If the industry cut me off? / If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car?”

“Mortal Man” is the final and most complicated track on To Pimp A Butterfly. In my mind, it cements Butterfly as being among the finest jazz, rap or R&B albums of all time (take your pick). The ghost of Tupac is all over this record in other ways too. Kendrick spends the last several minutes of “Mortal Man” talking with Tupac, using an interview Pac did before he died. It’s a captivating exchange between the two men. Not only is it enormously relevant to current events, hearing Tupac talk about the hungry poor looking at the “fat and appetizing” rich may even make you laugh, “there might be some cannibalism out this motha,” he jokes.

But it’s serious art, too. Unlike our national discussion right now, which all too often boils down to an argument between the left and right about whether cops are justified to kill this person or that one. Maybe instead of arguing, perhaps we should notice that in Baltimore last week crips and bloods worked together to halt the rioting there.  Or as Lamar recommended in “Mortal Man” months earlier, “just because you wore a different gang color than mine doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man. Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets.  If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.”

The news of bloods and crips working together is heartwarming to hear and one hopes it continues. But reality is likely to set in.  Black men have roughly a 30% chance of going to prison. It’s not as if black men are more likely to commit crimes, they’re just more likely to be arrested for them. And once they are, our society essentially shuns them. Ultimately, we’ve rendered large portions of the black community unemployable.  And we wonder why Eric Garner, for instance, engaged in the black market. He could have been doing much worse than selling cigarettes, it would have been more lucrative for him if he had.

Consider this: when was the list time you heard about Ty Segal or Mac Demarco’s entourage being bumrushed by the police, as Migos was a few weeks back?  It doesn’t happen.  Some might point out that Migos was carrying guns.  Fair enough, but if you lived in constant fear of being shot at you might carry a gun, too.  Just this year both Freddie Gibbs and Lil’ Wayne had their tour bus lit up.

Does anyone really think racism is over? Or is that simply something people tell themselves so that they can feel better about shrugging off the fact that huge swaths of America lack the basic opportunity to improve their lives.  Perhaps part of the problem is that rich and poor rarely get to know each other.

It reminds me again of “Jungle” where Drake raps, “I feel like we’re one in the same / I feel like our relationship changed / That or it never existed.”

Listening to hip-hop doesn’t solve any of this, mind you. But choosing not to is essentially ignoring the only creative force involved in truly developing a new American music right now. By the way, it’s also akin to saying, “I don’t like the music black people make.”

Just as today’s hip-hop will be relevant decades from now, Tupac’s “R U Still Down (Remember Me)” is as potent as ever. But I ask you again, do you care about rap music? Or is it simply not your cup of tea, as so many white people I know have told me.

At the end of “Mortal Man” Lamar openly wonders if he is “just another nigga?” It’s uncomfortable for me to hear him say that. But that’s how America makes him feel. And while we argue about whether or not black lives matter maybe we should remember that black music matters, too.  After all, without it America would have no music to call it’s own whatsoever.  So if you don’t already, maybe it’s time you start trying to appreciate rap.

 

dannyvesper
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you're enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com