Common And The Current Political Ambiguity Of Conscious Rap

March 18, 2015  |  

First, who’s your favorite conscious rapper?

And secondly, what is a conscious rapper?

I asked this question about a month ago on my Facebook page and the consensus among most who responded was that a “conscious rapper” was an emcee who wasn’t afraid to make a much needed political and social critique in their music. While everyone who responded had their own ideas of which emcee out today best fit that label, they all pretty much agreed that the label gets thrown around way too much.

As wiki defines it, conscious rap, has its roots in the jazz poetry movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s, which included the likes of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. However in this essay, An Historical Definition Of The Term Rap, Hip Hop historian Davey D reminds us that rap itself is shaped out of a long tradition of signifying, which was loud, brash, boastful and at times political. Probably the genre’s most notable influencer is former SNCC and Black Panther organizer H. Rap Brown, whose legendary signifying found its way in the Sugar Hill’s Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

At any rate, as Hip Hop progressed, the conscious definitely have evolved over the years from its peak in the ’80’s when mainstream rappers like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, KRS-One weren’t afraid to directly and aggressively pump a Black fist, yell at the cops, tell us to fight the power and more importantly, make all kinds of political statements. However what often constitutes conscious rapping today is a little more ambiguous.

And I think no one more illustrates that ambiguity than Common.

It should be noted that upon his arrival on scene, he didn’t look or sound anything like he does now. There was no talk of Black Panthers or worshiping the Black Queen. There were no crochet hat and pant sets. Instead, on his first album Can I Borrow A Dollar? Common Sense was your typical backpacker in baggy jeans and oversized sweaters, using clever word play and rapping about tricking “Heidi Hoe” over jazz beats.

Common kept up the same jazzy motif and slick word play on his second LP Resurrection which dropped in 1994. And although not as blunt as his first album, Common still loved talking about the ladies, reminding us all on the title track, “I’m a hoe, not a hoe-nigga.” But admittedly his rapping got a little more deep and self-reflective.

In particular, he took his “admiration” for the ladies and turned it into a metaphor about the decline of true Hip Hop in I Used to Love H.E.R. The track was a weird bit of respectability politics, which equated the purity of Hip Hop to a woman’s lost innocence and virginity.

Naturally, some folks, including fellow emcee Ice Cube, would take issue with Common’s assertion that “gangster” rap, which was the mainstream at the time, was ruining this figurative woman. Yet the song’s insightful critique would resonate with and draw strong praise from many Hip Hop fans who had grown disenchanted by the ever-increasing commercialization of the genre. The track would not only become a quintessential reference in Hip Hop’s history, but it was the moment, which helped to solidify Common’s place as a conscious rapper.

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