What I've Learned from Rap Music

I think it’s funny how so many people completely misunderstand rap (and country, although that’s a topic for a completely different post). I’ve heard tons of people say, “I listen to everything. Except rap. Oh, and country.” Who knew there were so many fans of Serbian turbofolk?

Rap music is literally spoken word poetry interlaced with background instrumentation — a point one of my English teachers (who I’ll probably direct this to) decided to capitalize on. In his example, he juxtaposed an older, exquisitely beautiful poem with a few song lyrics from LMFAO to show how modern day “poetry” and eloquence (or lack thereof) doesn’t even come close to touching that of the past. It’s a great example. I laughed! But I’ve also learned a great deal from our modern day poets: the poets from the streets of Compton, the poets that brandish racks on racks on racks, and the poets that have hustled their way to greatness.

Here are just a few of the many lessons that I’ve learned from rap music:

  • Hard work pays off. It’s hard to find another genre of music that contains as many self-made men and women as rap does. You won’t find many of Fortune’s fools here: these people know how to make money, and they do so on their own merits. Justin Kan puts it best when he writes, “Rap music is music for entrepreneurs.”

  • If you build it, they will come. In the digital age, literally anyone can write, record, and release music for the world to hear. To counter that, most rappers now release their music online in the form of free mixtapes. Considering the fact that musicians used to make a ton of money off selling records, this is an extremely bold move. It’s also become increasingly successful in launching new careers — nowadays, most rappers build a loyal fanbase by giving away their music and then go on to reap the rewards when touring or when they sign to a major label.

  • You don’t need to rely on someone else to succeed. Contradicting what I just said, some rappers actually choose not to sign to a label because they don’t even need them to succeed! Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park is a great example of this. Although it wasn’t very highly received by critics, Blue Slide Park debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 by selling 144,000 copies without the backing of a major label. You can question Mac’s musical merits, but you can’t knock his hustle.

  • There’s usually a deeper meaning behind even the simplest of rhymes. That’s great because it’s just as fun to simply listen to the songs (after all, music is a form of entertainment) as it is to dissect them. Exegesis at its finest.

  • Stand for something greater than yourself. A recurring theme in rap music is the idea that the rapper is not only representing himself and his “crew,” but more importantly, he’s representing his city. Some even manage to create an entire movement around their music: XV’s “Squarian” movement, for example, embraces individuality and teaches his listeners that it’s okay to be yourself. That’s music you can believe in.

  • Believe in yourself. I think the main reason I like rap music so much is because it’s such an authentic form of inspiration. This might seem ironic because the majority of rappers tend to aggrandize their own lives, but usually, it’s with good reason. These same rappers often had extremely humble upbringings — a stark contrast from the level of wealth they now boast about. But back then, all they had was their own spirit and confidence in themselves to push themselves to pursue a better life, even if it meant dealing drugs to survive. I think Drake says it best when he channels his inner Muhammad Ali, “I’m the greatest, man, I said that before I knew I was.” Pusha T also does the idea justice when he raps about his dark past, “CNN said I’d be dead by 21. Blackjack, I just pulled an ace as you looking at the king in his face.”

  • Triple entendres exist. Don’t even ask me how.

  • Age is just a number and talent matters a whole lot more. Nas was just 20 when he released Illmatic, which is regularly recognized as one of the greatest and most socially conscious albums of all time. Less macrocosmic examples include Earl Sweatshirt releasing EARL at 16 and Joey Bada$$ releasing 1999 at 17. The rap game is, for the most part, a meritocracy.

  • Respect those who paved the way for you. Another deeply rooted belief in the rap game is that you probably weren’t the first in your lane and you certainly won’t be the last. Because of that, you’ll find older rappers taking younger ones under their wing, cosigning their careers, and then propelling their newfound protegés to fame. The younger ones learn to respect their mentors and when the time comes, they return the favor by bringing in newer talent.

You can find more of my thoughts on music over at Lost In The Sound, where I’ll probably republish this post.