A Look at Hip Hop’s Moral Compass in 2013

There’s a feeling that listening to hip hop gives you. The aggression is a defibrillator, giving life to the lifeless. The wordplay is a unique, poetic combination of cleverness and wit. Oh yeah, and hip hop is the most exciting genre of music for youth culture right now, and has been for quite some time. But despite all that’s great about hip hop, it has an issue with morality: its moral compass is broken. Actually, it’s never really been too functional.

When hip hop first burst onto the scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was heavily criticized for its subject matter. While scrutiny has waned since, critiques do appear every now and then: in 2013, we’ve seen outrage burst through the Internet-o-sphere, ranging from the mild through the histrionic to nostril-flaring rage. But it’s important to look at what kinds of controversies stirred commentators’ rage.

There was the Rick Ross date rape lyric fuckery (“Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/ I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it”). There was J. Cole, Tyler, and Eminem fumbling with their word choices (especially “faggot,” although Cole also managed to call someone “autistic”). And there was the cultural appropriation talk about Macklemore and Miley Cyrus.

Taking a detailed look at art’s cultural impact is great — it’s a part of what criticism is. But why take Miley Cyrus to task for twerking when — sorry to break it to you — white girls have been twerking on college campuses for years? It’s been a part of youth culture for a minute now. Sure, Macklemore made a song that (sort-of) critiques the excessively materialistic and consumerist spirit of hip hop, but “Thrift Store” is basically a hipster anthem: finding weird esoteric threads and designer items at thrift shops is a holy grail of hipsterdom.

More importantly, questions of morality in hip hop are larger than “appropriation.” As irksome as it may be, “appropriation” doesn’t really hurt anything besides maybe somebody’s feelings. What’s tangibly destructive in hip hop is violence, misogyny, drug culture, and general ignorance. Not to play a game of Hitler vs. Stalin, but Rick Ross’ questionable couplet concerning date rape only scratches the surface of his dubious morality. He’s been committing crimes — felonies — on record for the better part of a decade. He’s glorified poisoning not only communities, but entire regions of the United States of America, not to mention killing people. The fervent adulation of this persona is what earned him his Reebok sponsorship. And let’s face it, the fact that he has a lyric about drugging a woman is not what caused him to lose that sponsorship. It was the outrage that followed.

It’s important to examine why Rick Ross thought it’d be OK to co-sign date rape in a song. His apologies on the matter were sincere, but he also missed the point — he stated that he would never use the term rape, or never rape a woman, and he was earnestly under the impression that he’d done nothing wrong. He believed his lyrics had been “misinterpreted.” But they hadn’t been — what they depicted was rape. Such a lack of concern about the implications of language is common in hip hop. This is why J. Cole, the communications major from St. John’s University, used “faggot” and “autistic” in verses.

Then there’s Chief Keef, the young Chicago troublemaker who glorifies killing (“Believe me boy you don’t even want to go there, glock 17 so rare/ Shoot your ass dead in your ear” — “Hunchoz”) and routine hoodlumism, walking a thin line between authenticity and straight-out illiteracy. In 2013, Keef found himself in the critical cross-hairs due to the brash content of his music, which is an indicator of his personality and sensibilities. But as gauche as he is, Keef has frequently been lauded for his music — hell, the beats are cool and it’s perfect for living vicariously. Right?

The music of hardened thugs like Keef raises the timeless question: does life imitate art or does art imitate life? In hip hop, it’s an amalgam of both. Recently, Keef prophesied that his upcoming mixtape Bang 3 would be so hardcore that it was certain to raise the murder rate in Chicago. In 2012 there were a reported 509 homicides in the city. Does Chicago really need anyone making things worse than they already are?

The impact of hip hop’s culture on youth communities — mostly inner city, mostly black — doesn’t seem to register with critics and fans of rap outside those communities. So what is it that allows the gatekeepers, participants, listeners, and critics of the genre to turn a blind eye? Many listeners are numbed, desensitized, and apathetic. White privilege — a connection to the music’s sonic value and disconnection from its content — also often comes into play. Sometimes it’s in the cringe-worthy form of a wide-eyed outsider gawking in amazement at the exotic, otherworldly creatures that populate hip hop’s lyrics. Mostly, though, it’s a lack of courage for tackling the issues that don’t directly affect outsiders in hip hop’s land of anything-goes, Wild West speech.

This could be because (some) spectators don’t really give a shit about the effects the music has on the communities it comes from, all the while fetishizing with the romance of which street dreams are made. Or maybe they do care, but they don’t have the grit to speak out against it, except in cases when the issues actually hit home to the audiences who are lucky enough to observe from a safe distance the world that hip hop depicts — issues like date rape, homophobia, and misogyny.

In an essay on misogyny in hip hop earlier this year, Spin writer Brandon Soderberg stated: “There is a tendency for rap critics to hide behind our liberalism and entry-level sensitivity training when it comes to sexism and misogyny. First, by thinking that it’s acceptable to just acknowledge the problem and quickly move on (though very few rap writers do even that), or to entirely defer to female writers on the topic.” This much is true, and Spin itself provided a pretty vivid example of just that: the critical roundtable featuring “seven badass female culture critics” who “psychoanalyzed” Kanye West’s Yeezus.

In general, rappers like West and Drake have taken plenty of criticism for sexism and/or misogynistic content. But more attention was given to Kanye West’s lyrics on Yeezus — which, admittedly, were at times lurid and tasteless (“Put my fist in her, like the civil rights sign” — “I’m In It”) — than to more blatant violence and disrespect towards women in the work of other prominent artists (“As she put my dick in her mouth/ I leave that lil hoochie scared/ ‘Cause I can’t trust try to set me up/ I’mma shoot the stupid bitch,” Chief Keef — “Woulda Shoulda”).

But this reticence to criticize doesn’t just apply to misogyny — it applies to all the negative qualities of hip hop. This selective criticism and failure to acknowledge the particularly grimy parts of hip hop suggests that such content is welcome. To separate the rapper from the content is an exercise in futility. To see this content as unique to rappers, ignoring its wider impact, is an exercise in ignorance.

Pointing the finger at other genres for their misogyny and violence is a weak defense of hip hop. It doesn’t matter if Susie has no curfew. What matters is what happens in this house. This house has an abundant amount of subject matter that perpetuates violent sentiments. This is the house that inspires and feeds life to undiluted hedonism and websites that offer nothing more than a continued glorification of the least appealing aspects of hip-hop’s culture. Hip hop is a cultural force that has the ability to seize its devotees’ attention, to excite and solidify thought. It’s ludicrous to ignore its entertainment value and encouragement of upward mobility. It’s equally ludicrous to ignore its negative aspects and ugly impressionability.

Moving forward, it’s paramount that critics and fans actively question the content in rap music. An absence of liberal criticism and a plethora of selective criticism is a quiet way of expressing compliance. Taking pleasure in music about a person being murdered, music made by a person who also may have seriously murdered somebody, is a noisy way of doing the same thing. From a critical standpoint, if critics don’t see a point in criticizing the music so long as it’s enjoyable, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the merit of music. But, if there’s a desire to provide contextual analysis and existential theories, ignoring these uncomfortable topics is lazy and cowardly. Go hard or go home.

One of the main foundations of hip hop is the seal of authenticity. We’re led to believe that its artists are merely reflecting their life and persona on a record. As fans, critics, and artists, we shouldn’t let this content slide. From a safe distance, hip hop might just be art and free expression. But, look closer — it’s both an elixir and a poison.

H. Drew Blackburn is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @hdrewblackburn.