In something that probably should have been written 20 years ago, Theodore Kupfer at National Review comes out in favor of rap as a valid cultural experience. The fact that it was written in 2017 is the saddest part.
But it does make some valid points (that most of the country understood decades ago):
The first track on Straight Outta Compton is a clue that the critique might be wrong. The song begins with the sobering reminder that, “When somethin’ happens in South Central Los Angeles, nothin’ happens. It’s just another n**** dead,” letting that last word echo before the music kicks in. In other words, N.W.A., which became infamous among conservatives for glorifying violence, began its first album by noting how pervasive such violence is in their hometown, and how little anyone seems to do about it.
As anyone paying attention has understood since the genre became popular in the 1980s, hip-hop is largely a reflection of the diseases infesting the broken communities where it was created, not a celebration of them.
But much of the criticism of rap doesn’t grant its creators the same artistic privilege that those in other genres receive, and even Kupfer’s plea on their behalf succumbs to it.
Of course, I can’t defend N.W.A.’s call to shoot police officers. But the conservative critique of hip-hop reduces a genre that contains multitudes to its least defensible instantiations.
N.W.A. wasn’t calling for people to shoot cops. They were expressing their anger and frustration at their own personal experiences with LAPD.
And this is the problem in a nutshell. Black rappers have every lyric they spit taken literally, as if every crime committed in their songs has happened in real life, and all we’re waiting for is the physical evidence to emerge.
Artists in other genres, like punk, metal, and even country that perform songs featuring innumerable stories of violence are never treated like criminals who just haven’t been convicted yet. Johnny Cash did not actually kill a man in Reno just to watch him die. To my knowledge Carrie Underwood has not vandalized anyone’s automobile. Garth Brooks did not advocate women kill their cheating husbands in “The Thunder Rolls.”
Songwriters are granted license by the mere act of creation to use imagery and exaggerated emotion in their music. But for some reason, hip-hop rhymes are taken more literally. By treating rap lyrics as transcriptions of actual crimes instead of the expressive art they are, the genre is denied that same license and is instead otherized. That makes the alienation of black culture even worse and has the opposite effect its critics intend.
Instead of persuading rap to “clean up its act”, it persuades rappers to react in defiance. Kendrick Lamar uses clips of Fox News hosts criticizing him in his music. Eminem writes an entire album about efforts to censor him.