When we’re talking about hip hop subgenres, there are so many to choose from. Each with a different tone and texture, subgenres can form in several ways and have a rich history. In fact, some subgenres become so far removed from their predecessors that they actually become new genres in their own right. However, sometimes subgenres can be formed as a result of lyrical content and sometimes even lyrical delivery. An example of this is conscious rap.
Over the years, many different subgenres and terms have been created within hip hop as a result of lyrical content. When the genre was first created, almost all records were made with the intention to make its listeners dance with lyrics pertaining to parties, dancing, positivity and more.
However, that changed upon the release of ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. This track’s lyrical content was more realistic than optimistic about the predicament of African-Americans and was very politically charged. Slowly but surely, more people began to make music like this.
Other acts began to make hip hop with a similar tone. As it developed, many came up with different names for it, some labelled it as political rap because it addressed political issues, and others labelled it as activist rap because it seemed to be made by social activists, but over the years, it came to be known as conscious rap.
It was labelled so because those who made it were evidently aware and conscious of social and political issues, whereas many were oblivious to them. Consequentially it came to be known as conscious rap.
Other kinds of rap have emerged and prospered since, such as gangster rap, mafioso rap and mumble rap. However, conscious rap remains suppressed. Many have questioned why educated, conscious rappers who promote change are not supported to the same extent as gangster rappers by major record labels, but to no avail.
Irrespective of whether or not they are currently held in the same regard as mumble rappers, conscious rappers are a huge part of hip hop culture, and if they were not present, hip hop would see an uncomfortable void so as a tribute to conscious rap, we have attempted to find the five best conscious rap songs ever made. Take a look at our picks below.
The five best conscious rap songs ever made:
5. ‘Black Girl Pain’ – Talib Kweli, (2004)
Not the kind of song one could ever imagine hearing on the radio, Kweli must say the word “black” over 20 times within the first 16 bars. ‘Black Girl Pain’, unsurprisingly, is extremely racially charged and faces head-on the reality of what has come to be known as misogynoir. It also speaks heavily about colourism and heavily condemns the notion that African-Americans are in any capacity American.
A very afro-centric track, it also subtly references something known as the ‘barbie doll experiment’. In his verse, Kweli talks about his daughter and proudly speaks about how he “bought her a black barbie”. Kweli also speaks about “supporting black business”. A fantastic track it most definitely may be uncomfortable listening for some with its brutal honesty.
4. ‘Murder Runs the Globe’ – Akala, (2015)
Akala is undoubtedly the most known and respected conscious rapper in the UK. Furthermore, not only does he make music, but he actually helps at-risk youth from ethnic minorities at a grassroots level. He does this through his company, The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, as well as doing lectures and speeches across the globe.
Akala has been noted for his intellect and knowledge of African history, which is why he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford Brookes University and has been featured on a number of political news programmes to speak on issues pertaining to the black British community.
Akala utilises his knowledge in his music and is a potent conscious rapper. Not expecting commercial support or mainstream success Akala continued to release politically charged music through his own label and along with artists like Lowkey, couldn’t be denied. One of his most controversial songs is ‘Murder Runs The Globe’, take a listen below.
3. ‘R.E.A.L.I.T.Y’ – KRS-One, (1995)
KRS-One is one of the most renowned conscious rappers alive. Conscious rappers usually end up blackballed or dead. However, KRS-One is a rapper who, irrespective of money, has continued to speak truths, refusing to work within the ridiculous parameters of the music industry, which has an insidious structure that really only detriments black and Latino people.
KRS-One is a legend who has been around since the days of Juice Crew, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. The Bronx rapper, along with Scott La Rock, even had a battle with the Juice Crew which resulted in his track ‘The Bridge Is Over’ referencing the Queensbridge neighbourhood of Queens.
KRS-One is unwavering and has spoken openly and honestly about the USA. He has spoken in historical terms about the treatment of black people in the states and has highlighted the obvious flaws that the country has and how it has poisonously indoctrinated people to happily stare down a barrel. KRS-One is just a speaker of honesty and unavoidable truths. This is proven by his 1995 track ‘R.E.A.L.I.T.Y’.
2. ‘Never Let Me Down’ – Kanye West, (2004)
This track features Jay-Z and spoken word artist J. Ivy and analyses a number of issues, although it is fair to say Jay-Z’s verse is a bit of a stain on the record. While Kanye and J. Ivy deliver reflective and well-thought-out rhymes about social injustices, Jay-Z, who opens the track, enters with off-topic mafioso rap lyrics about Cristal champagne and being number one.
Irrespective of Jay’s misinterpretation of the track, ‘Never Let Me Down’ is one of the best tracks from Kanye’s 2004 debut album College Dropout. It is hands down one of the most famous tracks that falls into the conscious rap category. Kanye West is actually behind a lot of the conscious rap tracks produced in the 2000s, as his soulful, gospel-infused beats worked well for rappers and tracks in that genre.
Conscious rappers that Kanye produced for include the likes of Common, Talib Kweli and Nas. However, Kanye has sonically and mentally come a long way from College Dropout. On this track, he speaks on racism poignantly, so to know in 2022, he is wearing ‘White Lives Matter’ t-shirts is sad.
1. ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ – Lauryn Hill, (1998)
Few female hip hop artists have been able to fill the void that Lauryn Hill left after she stood back from the limelight. Considering Hill’s solo discography is only comprised of one album, the New Jersey native produced some of hip hop and neo-soul’s most beloved songs. Her abrupt exit from music confused many and disgruntled an entire genre.
One of the most successful tracks from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, the song has gone down in history as, arguably, Hill’s best. Not only because it has an upbeat and jazzy beat, but because it exposed and analysed issues that were plaguing the African-American community, in the process condemning both men and women.
The track is an example of Hill’s knack for telling stories from a human perspective and shows her deep understanding of society. With regard to women, the track addresses issues surrounding vanity, European beauty standards, alcoholism, excessive promiscuity and effective prostitution. In regard to men, she addresses issues surrounding gun possession, negligence of paternal duties, sexual exploitation and the domestic abuse of women.
The track is hand down the highest quality, most eloquent and most potent conscious hip hop track ever made.