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You grew up bumping classic hip hop tracks with powerful messages about overcoming oppression and fighting injustice. Artists like Public Enemy and NWA were dropping truth bombs over dope beats, educating you about institutional racism and police brutality while making you nod your head. But somewhere along the way, hip hop lost its social consciousness. When did “Fight the Power” become “Pop Bottles” and mansions and Maybachs replace messages that mattered? The genre that once gave a voice to the voiceless and made you think now mainly makes you dance. What happened to hip hop’s heart? With Hip Hop now 50 years old this year, we’ll explore how hip hop transitioned from music with a purpose to a soundtrack for conspicuous consumption and why we should care about its lost social consciousness.

The Roots of Hip Hop: A Movement for Social Change

Hip hop music was born in the 1970s Bronx as a way for marginalized youth to express themselves. Early artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Run-DMC created songs that gave voice to social issues like poverty, racism and police brutality.

In the late '80s and early '90s, artists took Hip Hop to new heights. Groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A produced anthems that rallied against injustice and oppression. Solo artists such as Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. told gritty stories of life as a young black man in America. Lyrics focused on empowering the disenfranchised and fighting "the powers that be." But by the mid-'90s, hip hop began to change. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie left a void. The next generation of stars like Jay-Z and Nas still made meaningful music, but they also glamorized wealth, women and partying. A new generation of hip hop fans and artists emerged that valued materialism over messaging. Rappers discovered they could gain more commercial success by promoting an extravagant lifestyle instead of social consciousness.

Hip hop lost its way as a catalyst for change. Of course, meaningful hip hop still exists today. But as a genre, it has strayed far from its roots as "the CNN of the ghetto" - a way to spread knowledge and empowerment. Instead, hip hop often celebrates excess while ignoring the real struggles of its original audience. The power to fight injustice has been replaced by the power to "pop bottles" and make it rain.

The Golden Age: Hip Hop With a Message

The Golden Age of Hip Hop, from the mid-'80s to mid-'90s, was defined by artists using their music as a platform to spread messages of black empowerment, political dissent, and social justice. Artists like KRS-One, Rakim, and Lauryn Hill produced music that both sounded great and meant something.

Public Enemy's 1989 anthem "Fight the Power" became a rallying cry against racial injustice and oppression. N.W.A's "F*** tha Police" protested police brutality and racial profiling by law enforcement. Brand Nubian's "Wake Up" called out government corruption and encouraged black people to empower themselves through knowledge of self.

A Powerful Force for Change

During Hip Hop's golden age, artists felt a responsibility to use their voices to raise awareness of important issues affecting the black community. Their music was a catalyst for sparking conversations, influencing culture, and driving real legislative changes.

Unfortunately, as Hip Hop entered the mainstream in the late '90s and 2000s, the focus shifted away from substance to superficial party songs about "popping bottles" and lavish lifestyles. While escapism will always have its place, Hip Hop has lost much of its ability to drive positive social change.

Many fans today long for the return of empowering, thought-provoking music that defined Hip Hop in its early days. A revival of meaningful, issues-based Hip Hop could once again make the genre a powerful force for change. The golden age proved that music with a message can also be commercially successful. Conscious Hip Hop needs a comeback.

The Rise of Gangsta Rap and Materialism

The rise of gangsta rap and emphasis on materialism in the mid-90s led hip hop down a path that strayed from its social roots. Artists started focusing more on portraying a “thug image” and bragging about money, cars, clothes and women.

  • Rappers like Jay-Z, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. became popular, promoting themes of drug dealing, violence and lavish lifestyles. Their gritty, hardcore styles and braggadocios lyrics defined the “bling era.”

  • By the late 90s and into the 2000s, hip hop’s content and image became almost entirely centered on conspicuous consumption and excess. Rappers filled their lyrics and music videos with non-stop boasting about their wealth and possessions. The message seemed to be that you haven’t “made it” unless you’re popping bottles in the club and decked out in designer clothes.

  • While the gangsta rap and bling eras produced many popular artists and anthems, the focus on materialism ultimately hurt hip hop. The music lost touch with its roots as a voice for the marginalized. Rapping about social issues or one’s community became less common.

  • Some artists, like Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli, continued making meaningful, socially-conscious hip hop. But they were outliers swimming against the tide of mainstream rap. For the most part, hip hop had traded its message for money and status. Superstars like 50 cent, Lil Wayne and more had fans from all around the world mesmerized by their lyrics and lifestyle.

By the mid-2000s, hip hop started moving in a more positive direction with the rise of artists like OutKast, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco. But the hangover from the bling era would linger for years. Hip hop is still working to find the right balance between mainstream success and staying true to its original purpose as the “CNN of the streets.” Ultimately, hip hop lost a part of its soul in the pursuit of material excess. But with new voices continuing to emerge, its conscience could make a comeback.

Mumble Rap: Style Over Substance

Mumble rap, which emerged in the mid-2010s, emphasizes catchy beats and barely intelligible lyrics over meaningful content. Rappers like Future, Migos, and 21 Savage are known for their mumble rap style. Their music is more about vibing to the sound than understanding the message.

A Focus on Flashy Lifestyles

Mumble rap lyrics typically center around flashy lifestyles, rather than thought-provoking social issues. Rappers boast about their extravagant wealth, expensive cars and jewelry, drug and alcohol use, and sexual exploits. The repetitive lyrics and hypnotic beats are meant more for turning up at parties than sparking intellectual discussions.

While earlier hip hop acts like Public Enemy and Kendrick Lamar are known for crafting poetic lyrics with a message, mumble rappers are better known for popularizing slurred, repetitive choruses like “rain drop, drop top” or “bad and boujee.” Their lyrics are more about cultivating a catchy flow and hip sound than conveying meaning.

Style Over Substance

The mumble rap genre signals a shift to style over substance in hip hop. The flashy beats, slurred mumbling, and repetitive lyrics are meant to create a vibe rather than share a meaningful message. While mumble rap has been commercially successful, it has been criticized for its lack of artistic merit and social consciousness compared to earlier hip hop.

Mumble rap represents hip hop’s move away from its roots as a genre focused on amplifying marginalized voices and addressing social issues. In favor of mainstream success, mumble rap has embraced a culture that celebrates materialism, hedonism and ego over more profound values. For those who miss the golden era of hip hop, mumble rap signifies how far the genre has strayed from its original vision.

A New Movement? Conscious Hip Hop in the 21st Century

While mainstream hip hop in the 21st century has largely moved away from socially-conscious lyrics, some artists are keeping the spirit of political hip hop alive. A "conscious hip hop" movement is emerging with artists using their platform to spread messages of empowerment, justice and change.

Lauryn Hill

Known for her work with The Fugees in the 90's, Lauryn Hill has released pivotal conscious hip hop albums like "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (1998). Her music incorporates neo soul, R&B and reggae while addressing issues like love, spirituality, and black empowerment. Hill is considered an icon who helped widen hip hop's scope and pushed the genre in a more positive direction.

Kendrick Lamar

Hailed as one of the greatest rappers of his generation, Kendrick Lamar is known for storytelling lyrics that provide social commentary on issues like race relations, mental health, and the struggles of African Americans. His Grammy-winning albums "good kid, m.A.A.d city" (2012) and "To Pimp a Butterfly" (2015) are considered contemporary classics that have resonated with critics and fans alike.

Chance the Rapper

Independent artist Chance the Rapper is known for upbeat, jazz-infused music with positive, faith-based lyrics. His mixtapes "Acid Rap" (2013) and "Coloring Book" (2016) brought conscious hip hop into the mainstream, earning him three Grammys and a platform to promote community activism in his native Chicago.

While the bling era of hip hop still dominates, socially-conscious artists are gaining more mainstream attention and acclaim. Their music proves hip hop can be a vehicle for positive change, giving a voice to the voiceless and promoting love, empowerment and spiritual well-being. Conscious hip hop is poised to make a bigger impact in the coming decades.

So there you have it. Hip hop started as the voice of the voiceless, a way to fight against oppression and promote positive social change. Somewhere along the way, the focus shifted from moving the crowd to simply entertaining the crowd. The beats got bigger but the messages got smaller. The rhymes more complex but the meaning less so. Hip hop lost its soul in exchange for commercial success and pop stardom. Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe hip hop just grew up and got a job, started a family, moved to the suburbs. Can't really blame it. But we still long for the days when hip hop spoke truth to power and made us think as much as it made us move. The revolution may not be televised, but it sure used to be amplified. Here's hoping hip hop finds its way back home.



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