At the end of last year, the Complex put together an article titled "25 Things Everyone Thinks About Hip-Hop (But No One Will Say)." We were very proud of it as it was an attempt to get to the root of a lot of the disagreements people have about hip-hop.
But one person wasn't so happy about it: Talib Kweli. On a slide entitled "Most conscious rap is condescending, simplistic, and corny," we used a picture of Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli, something Kweli took issue with. He had a point: The photo caricatured careers that deserved more credit. But we've always respected Kweli and his work, which is why we did an episode of Magnum Opus with him about "Get By" (An indisputable classic track that is not at all condescending, simplistic, or corny).
After Kweli expressed his criticisms on Twitter, we reached out to him and talk about the arguments around "conscious" hip-hop. With his new album, Prisoner of Conscious, in stores now, we figured our conversation was a fitting companion to the theme of his new record. We talked about a wide variety of issues related to identity, morality, and hip-hop, and what roles both artists and listeners play in this grand drama. Over the course of several conversations, we put together a transcript of some of the most interesting moments.
As told to David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
First, a mea culpa: I was involved in the writing process for many of these blurbs, and you were not explicitly who we had in mind. But you’re definitely in a unique position to talk about some of the ways you can be straightjacketed by identities in hip-hop.
I appreciate you saying what you said, but I feel like you painted broad brush strokes. It’s a little bit more nuanced than what you wrote in that blurb, just the way the language reads. It was said as if it were a statement of fact: “Conscious rap IS condescending and corny,” as if all conscious rappers are hypocrites. There wasn’t any alluding to anyone who is not. You’re on point to say this is what a lot of people think, but taking a perception and stating it as a fact? I feel it’s a flawed perception. I understand why a rap fan who has been beaten in the head with hip-hop radio would think that, but I wouldn’t expect Complex to take such a flawed perception.
To be fair, the exact headline was “Most Conscious Rap Is Condescending, Simplistic and Corny.”
“Most” is a heavy word. I mean do you truly feel like that? There was a DJ who played me his album, it was conscious rap and it was corny to me. It was like, “I don’t watch Jersey Shore," “I don’t know why girls listen to Nicki Minaj.” I agreed with everything he was saying, but it just didn’t come off as genuine. It came off as you’re telling me what to do.
I tell conscious rap fans all the time, you have to support what you say you like. You can’t just tell me what you don’t like. You tell me what you don’t like, you might as well not be supporting at all.
So I get what you’re saying. But to say “most?” There’s a lot of [conscious rap] that is [condescending and corny], but I just think that it’s irresponsible to say “most." With hip-hop on the radio, with artists telling you basically, “Fuck you, I’m richer than you, I get more bitches than you, I got a bigger car than you.” Isn't that condescending?
It can be, depends on the song. Most rap is corny. This may be a fair correction that you’re making—but a lot of people take it as a given, that when someone is creating music from a moralistic place, that means that art is inherently more valuable than music that is more honest about its selfishness.
Oh, I agree with that. I don’t know if that what was written.
This was an attempt to articulate or to force people to confront that idea. I think that there’s a trend with listeners, particularly people who are going to be reading about rap music, to dismiss out-of-hand music that is populist. That they will celebrate, uncritically, stuff that is "conscious."
Look at the balance of hip-hop. I’m not a hip-hop purist at all. I go to nightclubs very often, a lot more nightclubs than 50 Cent. [Laughs.] I do songs with artists that my fans get mad at me for.
So for when I go through all that, then I read an article that says “the epidemic that conscious rappers are too self-righteous," it’s like, is that what’s really not being said? I go back to the thing about "condescending." Maybe I got the definition slightly skewed, but I feel like if you’re going to call our segment of rap condescending, mainstream rap is far more condescending than anything any conscious artist is doing, and it’s far more influential.
It’s definitely far more influential. If you looked at the rest of the slides, you see that we have plenty of things to say about drug use and so on.
Of course. That’s another part of my criticism. How do you criticize all of these things that are wrong with hip-hop—talking about how hip-hop is horrible to women and it's the number one promoter of drug use. These are fair points. But then you demonize the one group of people in hip-hop who are fighting against that? How do you take the teeth out of their fight by saying that as Complex?
You’re saying, “We’re a magazine that’s telling you we’re hot and we are on the cusp of the culture,” and you’re saying this is what's wrong with rap, but you have a group of artists who are trying to do something positive and are trying to demonize them. You’re going to make them feel “less than,” and you’re going to tell the whole world that they’re condescending and corny. How does that work?
Who are the mainstream artists that people who are listening to hip-hop consider lyrical right now? You got Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Wale. But what is the main subject matter with all those artists? It's about drinking, having fun, and getting p****.
I do agree that that was shortsighted and completely unfair to use your photo. It basically caricatures your work. But the argument itself was fair, even if using your picture undercuts the argument that we were trying to make.
If it undercuts the argument, then the argument is no longer fair because now you’re demonizing me. I’m out here working hard, I don’t have marketing dollars behind me, there’s no Bad Boy, MMG, there’s no nothing. No music videos on BET, no videos on MTV, no Hot 97, no nothing. Yet with nothing, just from pure skill, I’m still able to be relevant. I’m still able to feed my kids. I’m a working artist. This is not a game for me.
I’ve been in it for 15 years, 20 years, this is what I do. I’m working on behalf of the strength in hip-hop and in a magazine that claims to say they love hip-hop undercuts me like that, it’s really undercutting everything. How can you criticize these other aspects for the culture and yet do something as damaging as that? How can you not be self-critical? How can you say all these things are wrong and then a magazine is doing that to me?
I think that you’re right about it being unfair to you, but also hurting the argument that we were hoping the article would present. That is the reason I was hoping to discuss this with you, actually.
I like Complex, I read Complex. When I read the article, I agreed with the vast majority of what you wrote actually. I think it also just does a disservice to the large amount of fans. I tell conscious rap fans all the time, you have to support what you say you like. You can’t just tell me what you don’t like. You tell me what you don’t like, you might as well not be supporting at all. So it’s like there’s a lot of fans who want to hear better music on the radio who just backed out of the culture. I’m not down for that.
One of the things that’s really interesting to me is it seems like people should be thinking less in that conscious/commercial dichotomy, considering hip-hop has fallen off the charts compared to the late 1990s/early 2000s. That kind of "underground vs. mainstream" argument seems less relevant, wouldn’t you think?
Yeah, it’s become more high school-ish. Who are the mainstream artists that people who are listening to hip-hop consider lyrical right now? You got Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, Wale. But what is the main subject matter with all those artists, at least what their hooks are about?
I’m not sure that I would put them all in as talking about the same thing.
I’ll make the case then. It’s about drinking, having fun, and getting pussy. Pick any of their singles that’s cracked the mainstream. They’re all about the same subject. They’re not making conscious rap singles, they’re making singles about partying and having fun. I think that’s where it’s at right now. You can’t wear it on your sleeve. You can’ t do it with the African medallion and the dashiki on.
Kendrick is using a Trojan horse method on getting substance into his music. You’re attracted by the same imagery. Like Kendrick’s verse on “F***** Problems” is a good example. He almost doesn’t even belong on that record.
You listen to Kendrick and he’s like, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe,” and “Pussy and patron,” and “Pour up, drink,” these are the hooks. When you listen to him, you know that there’s consciousness there. You buy the album and you realize what he’s trying to do. Kendrick is using a Trojan horse method on getting substance into his music. You’re attracted by the same imagery. Like Kendrick’s verse on “Fuckin’ Problems” is a good example. He almost doesn’t even belong on that record, but he makes it work.
He even announces himself like, “Bitch, I’m Kendrick Lamar.” Like, even the way he announces himself on that record is like, “Listen, I’m letting you know that I’m out-rapping all these other rappers, but come into my zone and I’m going to give you something different.” I think that’s a more accessible, more relatable way to present consciousness and substance in music rather than showing up and saying, “My name is MC God Body, I’m here to tell you about...,” you know?
Any rapper can have moments where they can be simplistic and corny. But Kendrick is almost never condescending, which is a tricky thing to do when you’re addressing things like alcoholism.
He’s not saying for you to do it. That’s something that I try to do in my career. I think the Black Star album, more than anything, was a statement of purpose. My song “Manifesto” was a statement of purpose. I’ve always been careful to say it’s about me, it’s about my experience and who I am as a person.
To a fault, I’ve never been a person who says, “Something’s wrong with you, something’s wrong with the music you’re making.” Of course I brag and boast and I always diss wack MC’s, but wack MC’s are just a random caricature, like a random target for me to throw darts at.
You mention this Trojan horse strategy, do you feel like there’s a way to make political engagement something that people don’t have to feel tricked into enjoying?
No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how it is. I think the stuff Kendrick and J.Cole and them do is more relatable. I’m not interested in someone beating me over the head with a song. I’m interested in using your platform to create action. If Kendrick Lamar gets rich off of music, I hope he goes and helps people in Compton, where he’s from. That’s what I’m more interested in.
Your actions as opposed to lyrics. People feel different things, a song can make for different moods. I’m not a music snob, I enjoy all different types of music, and I attempt to make all different types, there’s just a type that I’m better at than most.
You described doing interviews was the first time you felt like you were experiencing being put in a box. Where did you most often feel that tension? Talking to fans or was that pretty much just dealing with media?
For most of my career, it’s never been the fans or the artists. The artists, we have to work together. It’s like a fraternity. I ran into Gucci Mane at Summer Jam and I’m like, “What’s up?” He’s like, “What’s up? Let’s do a song.” I’m like, “Why not? We’re both artists, let’s go.” I don’t think about him like, "Oh you make trap rap music and my fans don’t like you." I don’t think about none of that. I respect what you’re trying to do. You respect what I’m trying to do, let’s try to create some art. I think the fans, for the most part, get that.
I think the labels, in conjunction with the media, they are trying to make their jobs easier. The easiest thing you can do as journalists is call me up and go, “Yo describe yourself.” You describe me, that’s what your job is. I just rapped a whole album, what do you mean "describe myself?" It makes it easier for journalists and labels to put it in a package, a box, and sell it. It’s a shortcut to thinking.
What is this? "It’s conscious rap." What am I to expect? "He’s going to be talking about the government." What is this? "It’s gangster rap." What am I to expect? "He’s going to be pointing his gun at you." So you don’t have to challenge yourself. I think the labels push that because it makes their job easier, to market it, and then I think the media follows suit.
What do you mean by the title of your new record?
Prisoner of Conscious deals with people’s perceptions of me as an artist, and the boxes they place me in, that I don’t at all put myself in. These are boxes that are not based on my output, more based on the state of hip-hop, not based on what my participation is.
Would you say it’s more or less true now than it was in the past?
I have the same amount of freedom, but I’m exercising it more. I didn’t exploit it as much before. I put myself—not whole albums, but certainly songs here and there—I put myself in that box, without even realizing it.
The vast majority of mainstream hip-hop is about sex and drugs. It’s not about violence, but it still displays attitudes that perpetuate. I use the word perpetuate because I don’t believe music can "cause" anything. I believe these lyrics are symptoms, not causes.
Do you feel like these industry changes affected you?
It’s affected me positively. The reason I’m looked at as someone who’s still viable, the reason why I can always get a deal, always get a show, is because I’ve had to be like this for years. And now the industry’s caught up to how I’ve had to be.
I first noticed it on Eardrum. Eardrum debuted on Billboard behind High School Musical. The number three record that week was Swizz Beats' One Man Band. That year, Swizz Beats had the radio and clubs on lock [with "It's Me Bitches"] and I beat him that first week. That’s when I really noticed that record sales don’t necessarily determine what’s impacting the culture. Same with Black Star, that's not necessarily a record that has sold the most, but it’s the record that people ask me about the most.
It seems to me that club music doesn’t sell like it used to. The way that musicians make money now is different.
People get invested in the song, that’s it. They’re not invested in the artist at all. They’re like, “This is my jam that I like when I’m drunk.”
When I think of what mainstream, corporate hip-hop is today, some of the most successful artists—you’re talking about J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick Lamar has, I think, the best-selling record since Nicki Minaj’s album.
Right, and I bring up Kendrick and J.Cole as examples of why people shouldn’t be talking this doomsday shit when they talk about hip-hop, because here are two artists who are not doing that. The vast majority of mainstream hip-hop is about sex and drugs. It’s not about violence, but it still displays attitudes that perpetuate.
I use the word perpetuate because I don’t believe music can "cause" anything. I believe these lyrics are symptoms, not causes. But they do glorify—you named Kendrick and J.Cole, who at any given time will have a record in the top ten. Well, the top ten is still ten, so let’s give Kendrick and J.Cole two of them, what are the other eight?
And keep in mind I’m fans of these people. I’m a fan of Future, I’m a fan of Rick Ross, I’m a fan of Drake. I know these people. I’m a fan of theirs, I’ve spent time with them, I know them. But Future’s music is about drug use and having a good time at the club. There’s nothing wrong with it. But we do need a balance. But instead of bitching and moaning about the balance, I’ll go and try to create the balance. And work hard to get it on that same platform.
It seems there is now a balance.
What is there a balance of in the mainstream top ten?
We’re talking about Kendrick having as successful of a record as Lil Wayne has.
But Kendrick’s two singles, “Swimming Pools” and “Poetic Justice,” what are they about? “Swimming Pools” is about alcohol, “Poetic Justice” is about sex.
Those are fairly universal—
That’s my point. There’s no balance in mainstream hip-hop. All of the records are about sex or drugs.
But it seems to me that those are both things that are universally appealing. Doesn’t it, at a certain point, just become about something intrinsic to human nature? Isn’t that what a lot of rock and roll is about, isn’t that...
I feel like right now, on the radio—I don’t know about rock, I don’t know if rock stations are even popular right now. Certainly EDM is the most popular radio format, and that music is exclusively about being in the club, drinking, and throwing your hands in the air. On the white and the black side, right? But if we’re talking about rock radio in its heyday, the songs were about all types of shit.
I think hip-hop can be the same way. There was a time in New York especially when all the hip-hop coming out of New York was about hip-hop. About “I’m a rapper and I rap good.” That’s boring and corny too. That’s not a balance either. But I’m a Libra, I strive for balance. I like sex, and I like drugs! I use Aspirin! I drink coca-cola and alcohol. I’ve had sex before. I like sex and drugs just like the next man. But I want to hear a balance in the music that we’re listening to. I think we’re better than that.
If I think hip-hop is too violent, and I see an artist that has violent lyrics that young people who listen to hip-hop are enjoying, what’s the better solution? To degrade that artist, to be like, “I don’t f*** with that artist, he’s destroying hip-hop,” or do a song with him and show him a different way to do it?
Would it be better to say a diversity is what you're after? Rather than a balance?
Well, diversity to create a what? To create a semblance of balance. Hip-hop that I grew up on, there was nothing wrong with Slick Rick doing “Mona Lisa” and being explicit, because you know what? De La Soul was just as popular. That’s what I think we should strive for.
You’ve done music with Gucci Mane. Do you guys ever discuss violence? Because that’s obviously the subtext of a lot of his work.
To be honest with you, I’m not that familiar with Gucci’s catalog. What I know about Gucci Mane is that he was a phenomenon from a street level trap vein of rap. But he had a couple of songs that I liked, like “Lemonade” and “Freaky Girl.” To me, writing a song is so hard, and it’s so rare to write a good one, that anybody who writes a song I like, I give them props. I can’t say I’ve ever heard his album or know his mixtapes or know the name of any of his crew members. It’s a mutual respect thing.
He comes from, obviously, some hard circumstances, and he goes in and out of jail a lot. But he got to the point in his life where he became famous for doing music, and that’s commendable, so I respect the hustle. So when he came to me, and asked me to be on a song on his mixtape, I did it as a sign of respect for what he’s accomplished in this business. Our conversation was only around, “Send me the verse.”
It seems like a lot of the indictments people will have against, for example, the press covering violent artists is that it’s supporting something negative. How do you negotiate that tension when working with someone like Gucci?
I’m an artist. I wouldn’t want someone censoring what I had to say so I don’t plan on censoring what someone else has to say. I’m solution-based. If I think hip-hop is too violent, and I see an artist that has violent lyrics that young people who listen to hip-hop are enjoying, what’s the better solution? To degrade that artist, to be like, “I don’t fuck with that artist, he’s destroying hip-hop,” or do a song with him and show him a different way to do it? If you listen to my verse on the Gucci song, my verse is about what we’re talking about.
I was like, "I’m going to do a verse with Gucci, then I’m going to talk about people’s perceptions of hip-hop artists and what they should sound like." As an artist, why wouldn’t I run towards the challenge of doing a song with an artist that seems to be my polar opposite? That should be something that every artist embraces. I’m approaching it from a place of, here’s a fellow artist that I’ve got love for. It’s not a place of, “You don’t belong in this culture but you’ve got to listen to everything I’ve got to say.”
I was wondering if you’re optimistic about the industry? Is it improving, is there a hope for a diversity like when you saw when you first got into hip-hop?
I do, and I think a lot of the points that you’ve raised, in challenging some of the points that I’ve raised, are proof of that. The fact that we even have examples like J.Cole and Kendrick, I think are proof of that. We’re moving more in that direction. Especially with Billboard counting YouTube views, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis being the number one project—that’s essentially a hip-hop album. We’re seeing that happen, it’s going to happen quicker than I even imagine.
Are you optimistic about your own opportunities right now?
I am, I have taken a lot of my career into my own hands, and I’ve seen the direct benefit and result of it. I feel like my buzz is at a higher level than it’s been in awhile, and I feel like this is a direct result from me working my project myself. I think the timing is right.
It wasn’t my intention to be “The Rick Ross Guy.” That wasn’t what I was trying to do at all. It shows that all of a sudden my opinions on Twitter that I’ve been saying about rap count? I’ve been saying the same shit for four or five years! [Laughs.] But the fact that it’s become an issue now shows that there are a lot more eyes on what I’m doing now.