In theory, we’d be able to just press play on our favorite music and enjoy the experience without any guilt or conflict. But that’s becoming more difficult than ever, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon. 

There were many great things that happened in the rap world in 2021. High-profile projects from artists like Tyler, the Creator, Drake, J. Cole, and Kanye West asserted the genre’s commercial dominance. The internet gave independent acts more resources than they’ve ever had to sustain direct-to-consumer operations. Artists took advantage of the NFT craze to crowdsource projects and make quick windfalls from digital media. Rappers found exciting new ways to market their music and stir anticipation for releases, from creative billboards to social media savvy. Westside Gunn and The Alchemist were just a few go-to figures who helped a slew of previously unheralded lyricists gain more notoriety. Women in rap are thriving more than ever. Verzuz has been an exciting celebration of rap icons. There’s been room for genre-bending, boundary-pushing music of all kinds to thrive. And live music returned after venues were shut down for most of 2020. 

At the same time, many of us are feeling conflicted about going to concerts and festivals because of the spread of COVID. And even with all the game’s positive trends, it feels like too many new music Fridays were surrounded by a week of bad news.

The community experienced widespread loss, from the violent deaths of rappers like Young Dolph and Drakeo The Ruler to the fatal health crises of rap veterans like DMX and Black Rob. The justice system ensnared acts like Casanova, 9lokknine, and YFN Lucci, and the genre is continuing to be scapegoated to stir “crime wave” propaganda by cities using lyrics and videos as evidence. These developments have many fans reckoning with how they engage lyrics depicting violence. Acts like DaBaby and Kanye West dominated headlines by offending entire demographics of fans, which has some listeners mining the balance of enjoying music from artists accused of violent statements and actions. 

The calendar reset isn’t bringing a cultural reset. The external factors behind these letdowns are still too entrenched in society, setting a tenuous tone for the rap game as we head further into the 2020s. Enjoying certain music entails climbing obstacles to do so. Now, more than ever, we want our music rotation to be a refuge from real life. But too much of it has become a cruel reminder of what kind of world we’re in. 

None of the aforementioned ills are new to the rap game. Unfortunately, the genre has had violent headlines before, from shootings and fights at award shows to abusive artists. But the volume of rappers, the acceleration of the news cycle, and the echo chamber of social media are inundating us with disheartening news more than ever before. Seemingly every day brings a new challenge that has us re-considering how we engage the genre we love.