Whatever your opinion on him, Donald Trump is the President of the United States because he perfectly harnessed the anger and resentment of anyone who felt uncomfortable with a changing America—not just economically, but culturally. Trump understands the sense of a cultural divide in America, a country of two rather than one, and knows how to exploit it for his own gain. Far from backing down, Trump has continued waging this cultural war long after taking office.
Trump’s army have followed him into war against Hollywood, the major television networks, most of the National Football League, LeBron James—himself the poster boy of America’s other major sport—and numerous communities associated with ethnic minorities, notably the hip-hop community. Whilst this may result in certain career suicide for any other politician, not Donald Trump. The nature of Trump’s rise and his audience put him in a unique situation of being able to shit on almost anyone, and command unequivocal loyalty from his core voters - who don’t care about any of that stuff as much as they care about their idea of the ‘America’ they need to restore.
Eminem represents something slightly different though. Trump, whilst denying holding racist views and having a small but very dedicated following composed of ethnic minorities, has never exactly claimed to be a champion for people of color. This is why it’s never felt particularly effective or groundbreaking when black artists have criticized him - Trump doesn’t seem to care enough for it to put a dent in his image.
Hip-hop has attacked Trump time and time again over the last couple of years, from call-outs from Kendrick Lamar to YG’s hit ‘Fuck Donald Trump’. None of this slowed his momentum and stopped him from winning office, because it didn’t phase his core voters in white, working class, middle-America. As already discussed, this is the America that generally couldn’t care less about what today’s rappers are saying, or the mainstream media in general.
This is where Eminem comes in. If there is a single window from Trump’s America to hip-hop, it’s Eminem. Marshall Mathers has proudly worn the badge of white-trash, trailer park rap in the past, having grown up in working class Missouri and Michigan. Eminem’s rise was characterized by angry, poor, rejected-by-society white boy rap, and people loved it. He’s one of the best selling artists of all time, and nobody sold more records in the 2000s in America than him. For many white kids, he was their introduction to hip-hop, and putting on those headphones was an emotional shelter from the reality of their own white, working class lives.
This is why Eminem’s latest cypher, ‘The Storm’, felt so different. From YG’s ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ music video to the 2017 Emmy Awards, to any late night talk show episode over the past 2 years, all mainstream media mockeries of Trump have had this echo-chamber feeling to them. It’s never felt like a tough topic to address, never an uncomfortable or dangerous opinion. YG, Nipsey Hussle, their friends and their entire combined audience agree ‘Fuck Donald Trump’. Anyone who shows up to a Colbert show or watches John Oliver is bound to hate him. 90% of Hollywood hates him. In all these communities, insulting Trump is the safe thing to do—if anything, it’s starting to get old.
Eminem has always been aware of his mixed audience, and like Trump, understands the anger and resentment certain parts of America feel. Eminem has capitalized on this sense of a broken America too, but in an entirely different way. If Trump wanted a culture war, Eminem was probably the last person he wanted to take up arms against.
This feels like the first celebrity call-out into Trump’s presidency that might actually impact Trump’s followers. We’ve all had enough of LA-NY celebrities insulting Trump from their flashy studios, or from the podium as they accept an award in a $10,000 suit. All of this has played perfectly into Trump’s hands so far. It reinforces Trump’s point that there is such a cultural divide in America, and helps him continue to exploit it—the rich don’t like him, and the unseen poor do. Eminem’s choice to get real with some of his fan base from a grey, dank parking lot in Detroit, with no audience cheering him on, or even a beat, has struck a considerable blow in a culture war that so far, Trump has controlled.
Trump has been accused of undermining the office of President time and time again by over-sensitively responding to celebrities. He’s attacked some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, the nation’s most popular news stations, and even America’s most popular sport. Whenever anyone defies Trump who he sees as vulnerable in some way, he can mobilize his loyal fanbase to tear down. The NFL is already backing down - hushing the kneeling controversy and even going so far as to debate forcing players to stand for the anthem (not to mention a certain quarterback who still doesn’t have a job). The Emmys’ ratings have plateaued, and trust in mainstream media is at an all-time low. Despite all this, I don’t think even Donald Trump can survive a war of words with Eminem - it’s no wonder that Trump totally left Eminem’s latest attack alone on Twitter.
If the rap world is anything, it’s a game of thrones. There are self-proclaimed Kings in every corner of the realm, scrambling to be seen as number one. Regions with unique sounds each celebrate their own patron saints, their unique ancestries and evolution, their own claim to a pivotal role in history - the hip-hop pioneers in the East, the Gangsta Rappers in the West, the Dirty South. Proud, powerful kingdoms everywhere. Alliances come and go, friendships are made and broken, and rivalries have been known to end careers, and even lives. It’s a dog eat dog world, in which you can only trust the people very closest to you, and sometimes not even them.
It’s in the epicenter of this chaotic, brutal realm that Jay Z emerged. The Brooklyn native made his money selling cocaine on the streets of New York in the 1980s, using the profits to fund his initial music ventures. When he wasn’t getting shot at during deals-gone-bad, he was selling CDs out of his car because no record label would sign him. His ascension was the realest of the real, whose journey lives underneath the lyrics of every ‘came from nothing’ rap song today, the archetypical story of hip-hop, that so many others are desperate to emulate for their own bragging rights.
Of course, Shawn Carter has had a lot to brag about in the last 20 years. His first album, Reasonable Doubt, is still hailed as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, and kicked off the Jay Z era. The rarely disputed King of the game is now worth around $800 million, he has the most number 1 solo albums in US Billboard history, second only to The Beatles, and has his own queen in Beyonce, herself one of the greatest artists of this generation. He has established a business empire consisting of music labels, sports agencies, night clubs, private jet companies, and more. He’s fought off challenges to his rule from the very best, and emerged more than intact. In a hyper-aggressive, macho kingdom, Jay Z has been the alpha and on top of his game since he first came up.
But under the legendary persona, Jay Z is still just a man, Shawn Carter. 4:44, his latest album, is the first time we have seen Carter as an artist, open up to this truth. The truth is that the warrior-king in 'Jay Z' must eventually be put to rest, or Carter risks a mid-life crisis. Being a young man, an invincible conqueror, never getting old or settling down, never having anybody to hold him to account, is the spirit of hip-hop. For 20 years, Carter has been happily feeding the Jay Z beast. His affably impeccable braggadocious lyrics have defined his sound, his ego and hyper-masculinity has been unchecked, his wealth and success on full display, and his rivals met with absolute wrath. The Jay Z we grew up listening to has been accountable only to himself and where he decides to limit his own power.
I said “don’t embarrass me” instead of “be mine"
This began to seemingly change in 2016, with the drop of Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade. Titled after the “when life gives you lemons…” saying, it was the story of Carter’s infidelity. The oppression of black women, adulterous behavioral patterns of the men in her life, and the “thin line between love and hate”, as one critic put it, were central themes of the album, and exposed details of Carter’s apparent failures as a husband. Angry Beyonce fans blew up Twitter with memes of Carter looking humiliated, broken, and exposed. The biggest blow to Carter's invincible image had been dealt not by any of the hungry rappers that have challenged him in the past, but by his wife.
He only want me when I'm not there
4:44 is the overdue, much anticipated reaction of Jay Z: a redefining of himself, as a father and a husband. It’s a universal story, he must admit to himself that he can no longer chase individual wants success as his priority in life, and focus on the collective spirit that comes with establishing a legacy. This revelation often comes with difficulty. For decades, Jay Z haas helped define the essence of hip-hop. It’s not in Jay Z's nature to want to submit to anything that isn’t himself. But to bring order and happiness back to his family, he must face his failures and become something else.
The rapper realizes he has to ‘Kill Jay Z’. The first track on the album is a self-described “killing of the ego”. Jay Z has been the alpha-male, the king for over 20 years, doing what he wants when he wants, and running the game. Carter knows his marriage and relationship with his children is at risk because of who he is, so he is saying goodbye to what he was, in order to be more open and vulnerable.
Carter notably addresses his strained relationship with Kanye West - whose story could be said to reflect what Carter might be scared of turning into. Kanye’s struggles through marriage and fatherhood have arguably been very evident in recent years - with bizarre rants on stage, an alienated friendship with Carter, cancelled tours and hospital admissions. The picture Carter briefly paints in 4:44 is that of a man in chaos, who hasn’t yet conquered his demons, nor learned to adapt his life and self to suit the needs of his family. Carter is almost contrasting this chaos with who he wants to be - a stable father and husband.
Throughout 4:44 emerges a Jay Z who learns to submit to husbandry and fatherhood, whilst also keeping the individual and hyper-masculine parts of himself which will continue to serve him. He is working his new life into his old one - figuring out how Jay Z can make Shawn Carter happy. This struggle is portrayed well on the second song, ‘The Story of OJ’. The title is a play on the novel ‘The Story of O’. The titular character, O, is a woman whose love for a man pushes her to be more and more submissive as the story unfolds, resulting in her being graphically used for the pleasure of others, just because she loves this man. O is a financially successful and independent woman, but nonetheless loses who she is to this struggle. The main theme of the novel is submission and freedom in a romantic relationship. The Story of O reflects Jay Z’s natural concerns about submitting parts of who he is for his relationships - at first, he is scared he may change for the worse if he has to give up parts of who he is to be a father and a husband.
‘The Story of OJ’ describes the conflict between the “house ni**a” and the “field ni**a” - a reference to slavery, when house slaves were not treated as harshly and would be more likely to choose their servitude over the risks of attempting escape, whereas the slaves in the field had a very hard life, and more often wanted to take the risk. This reflects the inner conflict inside Jay Z when coming to terms with the fact that he must accept his responsibilities to his family, rather than to his own selfish pursuits. Carter appears to begin embracing this, with the line “What’s more important than throwing money away at a strip club? Credit.” Carter is realizing how investing in families and relationships pays off, rather than the superficial physical relationships often portrayed and bragged about in hip-hop culture.
Our external reality is an opportunity to heal our internal upset
Jay Z’s maturity, as established in this album, is symbolic for the way hip-hop is growing up. Note the themes of black-owned enterprise throughout 4:44, with Carter assuming a paternal approach to hip-hop in many songs. In ‘Family Feud’, he is the father-figure, discouraging the “old vs new” beefs, promoting the growth and social responsibility of the entire community - “What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially when they from the same hue as you.” Carter references the Godfather movies, comparing himself to an almost-Michael Corleone - who ignores his father’s advice to focus on the family above all else, instead becoming consumed by a life of crime and wealth - eventually resulting in the death of his child.
Having played the game of thrones so well, for so long, Carter is trying to 'break the wheel'. Hip-hop’s state of infancy has passed, and what started as a sub-culture has transformed into something bigger than any single artist. Hip-hop has more power than its original pioneers ever imagined, with artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar showing how much good can be achieved through it. Adolescence is no longer an excuse, 4:44 is not only Jay Z’s welcoming of his own maturation, but a paternal call to all of hip-hop to come together and realize the bigger picture - building together.
Generational wealth, that's the key
4:44 is the birth of a new Shawn Carter, finding peace acknowledging his mistakes and letting go of certain parts of his rap king persona - the behavior that led to his family almost falling apart - and entering a new stage in life: as a husband, and father to not just his children, but the entire hip-hop community.
Kendrick’s first studio album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, perfectly captures the experience of Kendrick’s time as a young boy in the Compton ghetto - the chaos, the fear, the violence, the pressures, the desires. What is too often a passing one-line boast for other rappers today, about growing up in the struggle, Kendrick expanded into a cinematic masterpiece of an origin story, establishing the essential foundation for his career as the best conscious rapper of this new generation.
In Kendrick’s follow up, To Pimp A Butterfly, we find him as a man, with the mad city behind him. The final poem summarizes all of the lessons he learned after he “went running for answers”, lessons he feels his loved ones back home can’t see, since they’re still “trapped" in the middle of the maze. To Pimp A Butterfly is a powerful opera of black identity in today’s America, an infusion of jazz and soul, exploring issues such as gang violence, self-hate, police brutality, hopelessness, and the justice system. The story of the caterpillar, the cocoon, and the titular butterfly represents what Kendrick believes is the strong gravitational pull of the ghetto, even to the most beautiful, creative inhabitants (the butterfly).
At the end of the album, we listen in on a conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur. Discussing these problems, Tupac suggests that a violent revolution is inevitable, seeing no other way to turn things around. Kendrick disagrees, still true to his belief that music and vibrations are “the only hope” he sees right now, that you can use the system to change it. If the caterpillars use their cocoons for consciousness and creativity, they’ll begin to see above the city they’re all stuck in, and change the system that way. However, Tupac never responds to this, and the last sounds of the album are Kendrick desperately crying out for his response.
DAMN - A Journey Through Hell
Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth
Kendrick’s two previous studio albums have not only served to encourage and relate to those on the inside of the mad city, but also to those on the outside, appealing to two worlds at once. The albums have clear themes, and tell a vivid story for the listener. When keeping this in mind, it’s hard to identify exactly what DAMN is actually about, or what line it is taking. This is because DAMN is a project entirely about duality, and the hell duality can bring. DAMN is a hypocritical, conflicted, bipolar experience if you enter it searching for a clear take-home message, and indeed it wasn’t until I stopped doing this that I felt any sense of ease listening to the full album.
It isn’t a coincidence that, as well as the red background, the big red ‘M’ on the album cover is positioned right above Kendrick’s head, as if it were a set of devil horns. DAMN emulates the experience of Kendrick falling into his own personal hell, and confronting his demons. Kendrick literally dies at the beginning of the album, before the first real song begins, in order to get there. One of the lines repeated throughout the album is “I don’t think I can find a way to make it on this earth” - implying Kendrick must instead go somewhere else to find the meaning he’s looking for. Perhaps the line “I don’t trust people enough beyond they surface world” relates to this too - Kendrick feels not enough people are prepared to face this terrifying spiritual journey in life. The album is full of religious references, mostly to the Book of Deuteronomy, which lays out the consequences of being damned, or breaking God’s laws. The tracks ‘LUST’ and ‘PRIDE’ are named after two of the deadly sins, and describe Kendrick’s internal conflict over his own sins as a religious man.
Wickedness Vs Weakness
Hell-raising, whale-chasing, new worldy possessions
The first line of the song introduces the two opposing forces of hell - “Is it wickedness or weakness? You decide, are we gonna live or die?”. From the perspective of somebody controlled by their own demons, they often feel they must either behave in a wicked, cruel way towards others, or be seen as weak, as if these are the only two options. Throughout the album, the tracks constantly switch between wicked, macho and boastful songs such as 'DNA.' or 'HUMBLE.', and vulnerable, "weak" songs like 'FEEL.' or 'FEAR.'
For example, 'PRIDE.' is a wicked song, in which Kendrick asks “flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen?”. His tone implies that in the song, this Kendrick is only concerned with satisfying the flesh at the expense of the spirit, whilst also showing us the danger of doing so. We see Kendrick brag of how he is “hell-raising, whale chasing” - a reference to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Captain Ahab is an archetypical character horribly consumed by pride, and obsessed with killing the whale that took his leg from him at any cost. In referring to Captain Ahab, Kendrick confronts us with the hypocrisy and duality of the situation - the dangerous and dark side that always comes with being a hell-raising badass, often unbeknownst to the badass until it’s too late. It’s very unnerving that whilst Kendrick poses the question of materialistic fulfillment vs spiritual fulfillment as “Happiness or flashiness”, what we experience throughout the album is a Kendrick erratically changing his mind over which he is seeking.
In 'LUST.' we experience the ugly side of fame and fortune; the repetitive and spiritually vacuous lifestyles of the rich, consumed with materialistic pleasure, or lust. Kendrick repeats lines about his daily routine, which consists of little more than sleeping in, sex, weed, Instagram, and the club. Kendrick contrasts this with the current political situation in the US, and concludes that our materialistic pleasures eventually lead us to ignore the real problems with society, to regress back into these old routines again.
This commentary follows into 'XXX.' two tracks later, where wicked Kendrick explains why he may have been violent at times in his youth: “Throw a steak off the ark to a pool full of sharks, he’ll take it”. The sharks represent the young black men of inner-city America, and the ark those who have been “rescued” from being left in that situation. Kendrick takes on the persona of a violent man in the city, explaining how he would even kill an enemy who was leaving church if it was his only chance to do it. This epic hypocrisy for a religious man is then put next to the hypocrisy of America as a religious country, and its foreign policy of dropping bombs on civilians -
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
The weak, vulnerable songs are just as extreme. 'FEEL.' is like falling into a deep depression - the echoey, haunting noises make it sound as if you’re alone in a dark, empty room - often a literal and metaphorical place depressed people constantly find themselves in. Kendrick muses all the musings that occur in a depressed mind - isolation, distrust, resentment, and no regard for the future at all. “Nobody praying for me” is a repeated line, exposing Kendrick’s deep fears of being unrecognized, and that deep down nobody cares for him or his life’s work - this is examined much further in 'FEAR.' which lays bare the three greatest fears of Kendrick’s life so far.
It isn’t until the very end of the album, 'DUCKWORTH.' that Kendrick, who is known for telling stories in his rhymes, tells one with a clear narrative. Kendrick raps the true story of how his boss Anthony ‘Top Dog’ Tiffith, whose company Top Dog Entertainment signed Kendrick when he was 15, had many years ago planned to rob the KFC where Kendrick’s father worked at the time. However, Kendrick’s father was often generous and gave free pieces of chicken to Top Dog, causing him to decide not to commit the robbery, which otherwise might have resulted in Kendrick’s father being killed. Kendrick ponders an alternative reality in which this is what happened. Top Dog would have spent most of his life in jail and would never have been able to give Kendrick the opportunity he did. Kendrick would have grown up without a father, making him more likely to resort to drugs and gangs in order to make money and find a father figure.
This story acknowledges how Top Dog could just have easily ruined Kendrick’s life as improved it, reflecting duality. But because of a simple everyday act of generosity, things went differently and worked out much better for everybody. At the end of the final song, the entire album rewinds back to Kendrick’s first line - “So I was takin’ a walk the other day”, and finishes, and we can assume that this time, Kendrick isn’t killed, and goes about his life. This everyday generosity, if done more often, might “rewind” a lot of potentially horrible situations where people might have otherwise found happiness and prosperity. Whilst being slightly inconclusive, this is definitely a message you can take from the album and be mindful of, and a good start in Kendrick’s search for answers.
DAMN is a classic journey into the darkest area of one’s own self, in this case, Kendrick’s personal hell. Kendrick’s journey in DAMN might draw comparisons to one of the greatest films of all time, Apocalypse Now, which is about a soldier’s journey into his own ‘heart of darkness’. Francis Coppola, the director, went through a similar experience whilst making the film, and his wife described it as follows: “It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the centre of himself and confront his fears, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane. You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.” This could easily apply to Kendrick’s journey in DAMN, and explain the sense of unease I initially felt.
You could say that Good Kid M.A.A.D City is about Kendrick’s city, and To Pimp A Butterfly is about Kendrick’s people. If DAMN is anything, it’s Kendrick’s first album purely about himself. Kendrick deeply explores his own demons, his own issues, and his own personal hell, where, as illustrated on the album cover, he is his own Satan. The entirety of the album is spent trying to understand and defeat this Satan, in order to escape damnation. The first sentence of the final song proclaims “I found out it’s me vs me”, representing this inner struggle. Kendrick’s expression on the album cover also displays this conflict - he looks menacing, but he also sort of looks as if he’s experiencing a lot of pain and confusion too.
This is the one central theme throughout the album - duality. Kendrick is both wicked and weak, he is both a good man and a sinner, he is concerned with both material and spiritual fulfillment. He has touched on this issue before, but never before have we seen it stressed so much on one album, particularly an album representing Kendrick’s battle with himself. In essence, we can see duality as the answer to this struggle, and the acceptance that we are, and to a degree always will be, imperfect and hypocritical. Kendrick slams the concept of a ‘perfect’ anything throughout the album - on one song bragging about his money, and on the next saying “In a perfect world I’d choose faith over riches”.
Sick venom in men and women overcome with pride
In today’s world, things are simplified and made to seem black or white, good or bad, particularly within the media and politics. We are constantly encouraged to think as part of one side, and ignore the messy duality of reality. Kendrick refers to Instagram, a platform which often depicts fake “perfect” bodies or lifestyles, and has been psychologically proven to keep many young people trapped in a cycle of depression and dissatisfaction. The lesson we can take from DAMN is that we need to accept a lot of our duality and imperfections, and inevitably face our own demons in the process. Kendrick’s journey through hell and damnation in order to find answers could in fact be what he went through as a caterpillar in his cocoon. If interpreted in this way, DAMN can follow immediately on from To Pimp A Butterfly, and help inspire us in not only understanding ourselves, but understanding and sympathizing with others and their struggles too.
Maryland-native rapper Logic has earned his spot on many top-10 lists over the last few years through a series of albums and mixtapes, as well as his capacity to freestyle and solve a rubix cube at the same time. His third studio album dropped on May 5th, and is available to stream and buy now.
Following the cinematic brilliance of The Incredible True Story, Logic’s third album is certainly his most personal, vulnerable, and intimate album yet. At first it may seem a juxtaposition, but his decision to name it Everybody perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the 13 track project - that as people, we need to come together, open up to one another and treat each person we meet as if they were ourselves.
Tackling a number of themes he has stated he was previously too afraid to bring into his music, Logic opens up on his experiences with race, religion, sexuality, and other polarising topics, and how throughout his life they have obstructed his search for happiness, from the moment he was born as a mixed-race baby, constantly torn between two sides. We encounter fear, anger, and confusion in Logic’s attempt to make sense of this, and how the stated mission of his entire career - “peace, love and positivity” - is often met by forces seeking to tear that down.
Drugs, guns, smart phones, America, education and mental health are all pointed to, and although Logic doesn’t ever arrive at a clear explanation, that sort of feels like the point of the album. Not claiming to have all the answers but, like everyone else, a range of complicated and mixed emotions and an ultimate desire to just be happy, by the end of the album Logic gives his best prescription to society.
I'ma bring it back to the basics
As the album progresses, we follow the journey of Atom, a man who has died and is now speaking to God, through a number of skit tracks which interrupt the music. Atom learns from God that he will be reincarnated, as he has been before, and will eventually live the life of every single person who has ever lived. “Everybody is Everybody” isn’t the most complicated message for an album to convey, but if you’re listening in 2017, it feels necessary.
Following the track '1-800-273-8255' (the national Suicide Hotline number), Logic shares his own experiences of suffering from severe anxiety, transitioning into the uplifting crescendo that is the last few tracks. The album ends on an epic high note with 'Black SpiderMan' and 'AfricAryan', closing out with a speech from Neil deGrasse Tyson on the preciousness of life.
Everybody, anybody, somebody fill the void, somebody fill the void
I was at a Logic concert in London in the summer of 2016, when Logic began one of his most obscure songs (which admittedly I hadn’t heard before), and pulled a young, awkward looking kid from the crowd who, when asked by Logic, was one of the many in the crowd claiming to know all the words. The kid was given the mic and didn’t miss a single word, and it made me think back on my sixteen year-old self, and how many other kids around the world must spend countless hours listening to their favorite rappers, taking in every single word, again and again.
For rap fans in their young 20s, as with myself, it’s likely that Eminem and Kanye West were two of those rappers. In relation to Logic, these two stand out especially, since he has repeatedly said these are two of his biggest influences. Eminem’s pure anger resonated with disconnected, awkward kids everywhere, and Kanye’s outspokenness on societal issues has earned him a place in the hearts of rap fans from many disadvantaged communities. Both artists have given people a corner to retreat into during the harder moments in life, and Logic’s aim with Everybody is to follow in their footsteps in his own way, with his own style and message - peace, love, and positivity.
"People are permeable and art is never produced in a vacuum. I like exploring the political and social context of music."