Every interpretation of music is subjective, and people are motivated by different things, so there is no single way to define a “motivational” hip-hop song . You just know one when it smacks you upside the head. You know the ones that get you hyped, and the ones that make you move.
There are certain tracks —songs like “Dreams and Nightmares” and “Knuck If You Buck”— that are motivational to the extent that, if played at a specific volume with a particular group of individuals, can convince you to commit violence against another person. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are uplifting hymns like “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Ultralight Beam,” and “Love Yourz,” which inspire by radiating hope and positivity. Somewhere in the middle lies rags-to-riches classics (see “C.R.E.A.M,” “Juicy,” “Exhibit C”) that are inspirational largely because they tell tales of young men fighting their way out of poverty by any means necessary.
Then there is the top tier of motivational rap songs, which is made up of tracks that embody qualities similar to the aforementioned group but share an unmistakable identity. Banger isn’t the word; anthem, more like. An anthem is like a banger or slapper, in that it’s carried by the type of production that’ll have your group of friends throwing bows in the club like Disturbing the Peace circa 2000, only it doubles as gospel.
There aren’t many musical experiences more beautiful than when a rapper waxes poetic over an earth-shattering beat—a core tenant of all anthems. While not every rap song that inspires is necessarily an anthem, all anthems are inspirational, so it’s hardly surprising that our canon of all-time great motivational hip-hop songs is chock-full of them. Think Eminem’s iconic “Lose Yourself.”
Cue up the theme music to Rocky, and let’s get to it.