Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Drake are the rap triumvirate of this century. Apologies to the semi-retired Jay Z, and the rapidly declining, rather distasteful Eminem. Their music is listened to by millions of people. Their social media accounts are followed by millions more, and they’ve received a cumulative 153 Grammy nominations.
With great power, comes great responsibility. Lamar, West and Drake have taken three different paths when it comes to using their music and celebrity to highlight social injustice issues.
A large chunk of Lamar’s lyrics are about racial inequality. On “For Free (Interlude)” he raps, “Oh America, you bad b*tch/ I picked cotton that made you rich.” He has rhymed on how corporate America reinforces negative Black stereotypes: “They wanna say it’s a war outside, bomb in the street/ Gun in the hood, mob of police/ Rock on the corner with a line for the fiend/ And a bottle full of lean and a model on the scheme,” spits the Compton rapper on “i.” Lamar also writes about not wanting to misuse his influence as a successful rapper: “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it/ let these words be your earth and moon, you consume every message,” Lamar says on “Mortal Man.” His song “Alright” has become a staple at Black Lives Matter protests. Lamar received a Pulitzer Prize in Music for his 2017 effort, “Damn.”
Drake was the most listened to artist of the 2010s, based on streaming numbers, beating the likes of Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. He has been likened to a modern-day Michael Jackson in terms of worldwide fame. However, aside from the occasional bar or Instagram post, Drake has remained noticeably apolitical throughout his career. He has prefered to flex his fortune, rapping about being, “25 sittting on 25 mil,” on “The Motto” or his way with women. “The girl of your dreams for me is probably not even a challenge,” boasts the Toronto tunester on “R.I.C.O.” He also frequently croons about unrequited love and loneliness. “When the party’s over, just don’t forget me,” he sings on “Take Care.”
Lastly, West was praised early on in his career for his political and social consciousness. He famously said during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that George Bush did not care about Black people. And on albums as recent as 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” West rapped, “Hands up, hands up, we’re just doing what the cops taught us/ Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us.” Things took a left turn during the past four years. West buddied up with Donald Trump, and has made many controversial statements that receieved boundless press, such as that slavery was a choice and abortion is an act of murder. While his mental health during these incidents has been questioned, West still managed to alienate many people.
Recently, three Long Islanders answered questions about the rappers’ music, politics and influence:
Do you think rappers are morally obligated to rap about political or social issues in their music?
Nick Pucci, 23, East Hampton
I don’t think rappers should have a moral obligation to talk about social issues in their music, but I definitely think it is a missed opportunity. I think when you have a platform you should use that opportunity to talk to your fans or listeners about issues that matter, especially when that artist is directly linked to the issue at hand. With “stan culture” becoming more and more of a thing, I think audiences, especially younger audiences, will listen to what their favorite artist has to say, even more than they would to a politician. Also, the origins of rap come from a place of struggle. Now that hip hop is popular music and commercial, artists are taking the path of making things as accessible as possible. The reason I find Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” so impressive is that it was able to discuss current issues while also being on the same level as some of the biggest pop songs. I think Kendrick really hit the mark with that album.
John Exum, 51, Brentwood (host of the hip-hop podcast “Born Into Trouble”)
No, rappers should always choose the subject matter that most resonates with them.
What political messages, if any, do you take from their music?
NICK PUCCI: When I started listening to music by Kendrick Lamar, I definitely started to care more about the issues he was talking about. My initial impression was that he was making great music, but when I started to actually listen to what he was talking about, I realized he was also making a point. I think Kendrick is a perfect example of an artist inspiring those to look at social issues differently. Kanye is a different breed because he often talked about real issues in his music up until now, despite his Trump loving antics in 2018. The issue is that it’s hard to respect him for talking about relevant issues on songs like “New Slaves” and then proceed to make billions off of his clothing lines. If Kanye stuck to his roots with talking about social issues, I would find him to be way more effective in getting messages across. When it comes to Drake, it’s obvious that he’s just making pop music, which is fine. I would like to see him switch up his style one day and make some super socially relevant concept album or something, but I can only hope.
JOHN EXUM: None. I don’t frequent Kendrick Lamar, although when I do hear his songs I recognize his message and respect his point of view. Drake has no social messages in his music, and Kanye lost his way after his mom died. He no longer has a social voice that resonates outside of the Republican Party.
Is Lamar a better artist than Drake or West for making more political music?
NICK PUCCI: Not necessarily. Music comes down to its enjoyability at the end of the day. Kanye and Drake make some of the best sounding hip hop songs. However, Kendrick’s ability to add a social message to his music makes it a little deeper, which can be argued as being better. I think depending on who you ask, people will justify who is the better artist for different reasons.
Casten Mata, 23, East Hampton
I believe Lamar is better. Kendrick is more real with his audience and he comes from such a crazy struggle. Drake has ghostwriters and that makes me think he’s the worst out of the three because some of his lyrics are not really coming from him.
JOHN EXUM: Not for that reason. He [Lamar] is a better artist because he is passionate about his subject matter and this is evident in his lyrics and delivery. Drake is an artist who is more melodious in his delivery. Kanye has lost his music.
Drake has never been very vocal on social injustice issues throughout his career. Does he deserve criticism for this?
NICK PUCCI: Yes. Drake has become one of the biggest artists around, so I think it’s a missed opportunity that he doesn’t speak out on certain issues. Drake also doesn’t even need to include these messages in his lyrics. When an artist has a social media platform with millions of followers and still doesn’t take the time to discuss relevant issues, that is foolish. Drake could easily make a fun pop song and discuss social problems on social media. If he does neither of these things, I think that’s worth some criticism.
CASTEN MATA: I believe he can say whatever he wants, and if he doesn’t want to talk about a certain thing, no one should be criticized for that.
Would Drake be less successful if he made political songs or used his social media more to highlight social injustice issues? Do you think certain celebrities are scared that they will alienate half the country by picking a side on an issue?
NICK PUCCI: If Drake started out his career with discussing political issues, then I think he definitely would not be as popular. For years, I feel that Drake’s music was used for putting on at parties and that definitely accentuates his popularity. Now that Drake has such a big fanbase, he could easily transition into a deeper concept without losing many followers. I think when an artist has such a dedicated fanbase, it can be easier to turn them onto new things and new styles. I do think certain celebrities might be afraid of alienating half the country, but I think you shouldn’t be afraid to voice what you believe in or work to change people’s minds hopefully for the better.
CASTEN MATA: If Drake made political songs or used his social media more to highlight social injustice issues, yeah I believe he would have a big impact on society. Many people look up to Drake and in the past he’s released many love songs and that’s why people love him. People can emotionally connect to his lyrics. If he geared towards highlighting social injustice issues, people would be able to connect because we’re all in some sort of way in the same shoes, going through the same rough times right now. Yes, of course celebrities are scared to pick a side of an issue because in this day and age, people are so judgmental and one wrong move may ruin someone’s reputation.
JOHN EXUM: He [Drake] would never do this. He is too dug in with his fanbase. Age and relevance are more of an issue to him now than content. Certain celebrities today do not consider “making waves” and running the risk of losing the support of their labels and sponsors. That has always been a thing with minority artists. It is a choice to sacrifice your artistry in order to make more money. It’s not a new phenomenon. Especially now during COVID-19, when artists cannot tour and make money that way, losing sponsors could mean not paying bills.
Do you enjoy West’s music any more or less due to his support of Trump or any other political stances he has taken in the past few years? Can you separate his music from his antics?
NICK PUCCI: When Kanye first came out with his support for Trump, I definitely found it difficult to enjoy his music for a while. Listening to the subject matter of some of his songs, it was hard to believe that it was the same guy that now supported Trump. As time passed, and Kanye’s vocal support for Trump kind of dwindled. I don’t find it too difficult to listen to his music. However, before that event, I did find myself defending Kanye and his antics out of respect for him as an artist and person. Since then, I have lost a ton of respect. I don’t rush to his defense. I’m able to separate the art from the artist in that way.
CASTEN MATA: I try to look past the fact of where people stand on the political scale. I enjoy his music regardless of where he stands politically, of course, as long as it’s positive.
JOHN EXUM: I don’t listen to Kanye anymore because his genius has dulled as an artist.
Do you think the political or social stances that these artists take in their music and with their social media platforms have any actual impact on how Americans think about these issues?
NICK PUCCI: It did for me. I started out listening to Kendrick as someone who just enjoyed rap. After listening to albums like “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “DAMN,” it was hard to ignore the substance that was contained in those projects. It made me look at certain things in a very different way and I developed empathy. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me.
CASTEN MATA: I personally do believe that they have an impact on how Americans think about these issues. Many people look up to these artists and social media is the best way for the artists to speak out and express exactly how they feel.
JOHN EXUM: Yes. True fanatics do whatever their favorite artist tells them. There are not many of those left. But for the majority of fans? Many make their decisions based upon identity politics, which says more about the public and times we live in than the artists! Politics is more of a commodity than music. That says something about the quality of music today too. True music inspires and delivers a message that resonates. Labels avoid those artists today for commercial reasons. Any artist who doesn’t speak their mind and does what is true to themselves is not an artist. They are performers. I used to work in the Rap game in the 90’s and still know many, many artists and executives. Most artists are hand-picked by labels who have purposefully moved away from socially conscious rappers and promote gangsterism, violence and everything except social justice. The labels control the narratives. Note, Public Enemy at the onset was the biggest rap group in history in terms of sales and merchandise. However, many don’t know them today. This should tell you that social justice is not something labels look to cultivate.
Between Lamar, West and Drake, which rapper do you think will have the greatest legacy decades from now?
NICK PUCCI: I think Kendrick will go down as one of the greatest rappers, if not artist, of all time, especially if he keeps up with his output. There’s also a good argument for Kanye West because of how influential he is on hip hop as a whole. But I do think his personal actions will still taint his legacy a bit. If it wasn’t for his antics, he would definitely take the top spot. Drake will also have a great legacy, but not nearly as great as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West.
CASTEN MATA: Kanye West, unless Kendrick Lamar steps up.
JOHN EXUM: Kanye is most polarizing and his early work will be better received than the crap he does now. Drake makes music women like so mothers will be playing him ‘till they become grandmothers. Kendrick Lamar is far from finished, so it’s hard to say. Their legacies also depend on the direction the world takes.