If we were asked to guess what artist was responsible for shattering first week digital sales records on iTunes last month, names like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Bono would spring to mind. But in the last 30 days alone, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative Watch The Throne album set an iTunes record selling around 229,000 records, only to be broken again by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV album three weeks later with 345,000 records.
This unprecedented display of hip-hop music sales means more than just a numerical quantity. It has cemented hip-hop’s place within pop culture, helping it become the new pop culture. Hip-hop is proof of a growing appetite for an alternative point of view, told by a new group of storytellers who are less apologetic and more unrestrained. Consumers have spoken, and they want news from the source, not from a filter.
Hip-hop has always been a window into the other side of America. Black neighborhoods have always been portrayed in movies and commercials as an exciting blend of violence, crude caricatures, and sexual deviance. The hip-hop “world” had always presented an unconventional story to tell and more importantly to sell. Movies like 8 Mile, You Got Served, and special programs on CNN and 60 Minutes allowed us to gain insight into the world that hip-hop exposes — one of poverty, drugs, and inequality. In the end, though, popular media ultimately packaged and delivered this story to America, not hip-hop.
With its seemingly irrepressible rise, hip-hop is now aggressively contending for a seat at the table among the traditional orthodoxy of American spokesmen that regularly speak to us on politics, society, and pop culture. As more ears continue to tune into Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, resistance campaigns decrying hip-hop’s message persist with the backing of traditional news sources who are threatened by a dwindling audience.
It is not surprising that the Bill O’Reilly’s and Sean Hannity’s of the world dismiss hip-hop as counter racist, derogatory, and sexist. Last May, conservative Americans lambasted Michelle Obama’s White House invitation to rapper Common for poetry reading night. Unfamiliar with his body of work, they derided Common as an advocate of cop killing and accused him, through lyrics taken out of context, of publicly calling President George W. Bush a murderer (“…Bush pushin’ lies, killers immortalized, we got arms but won’t reach for the skies”). They were appalled that a rapper from Chicago's South Side was invited to defile the morally pristine corridors of the White House with profane lyrical prose unbecoming of any White House guest.
By acknowledging the crude and beautifully unrefined lyrical content of hip-hop, America would be acknowledging the despairing reality of the social inequities troubling this nation. It has been nearly 20 years since The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die album, longer since N.W.A.’s brazen and unrepentant Straight Outta Compton album, and even longer since Eric B. and Rakim’s ingenious Paid In Full album. These albums and countless others present one recurring theme: frustrated young black men delivering an unapologetically candid point of view. Yet popular media still conveniently places hip-hop music in an isolated and pretend reality, ignoring that hip-hop is simultaneously impolite and poetic because its environment is usually both obscene and beautiful.
To borrow a line from Jay-Z, “Tell them I’ll remove the curses if you tell me our schools [are] gonna be perfect.” What’s frightening to conservative America is not the truth in hip-hop, but that there’s now a receptive audience for it.
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