By Dan Teano
“Last night I took an ‘L,’ but tonight I bounced back,” said Big Sean in his Billboard Top 40 hit, “Bounce Back.”
Even if you’re the slightest bit up to date with American pop culture, you’ve probably heard the term, “L” (shorthand for “loss”) recently. Along with Big Sean, several mainstream rappers have colloquialized slang words and phrases we use every single day—like “lit” or “turn up.”
Today, hip hop is everywhere. From Kanye West memes, to the outfits we select, and to the words we most commonly use, it’s nearly impossible to escape hip hop’s sphere of influence.
More than any other musical genre, hip hop has the ability to dictate American culture. For instance, though rappers did not start the trend, they certainly popularized the countercultural signature of men wearing jewelry. If you Google search your favorite rapper, you’ll most likely see a picture of them sporting very slightly diamonds around their neck and wrists. What’s interesting, though, is that a rapper’s fan base tends to emulate the rapper’s sense of fashion; when West wore a necklace with the face of Jesus on it in 2010, streetwear companies like Good Wood, Plndr, and Karmaloop flooded their sites with necklaces of the same style. Ultimately, whatever sounds or looks cool to a rapper will eventually become a trend throughout the entire country.
But why is hip hop so powerful—so much so that China agreed to ban it altogether? Isn’t it just a script of simple rhymes mixed with made-up words and mildly clever wordplay?
Yes, and that’s probably why it’s so powerful.
Although most English scholars would question mainstream rappers’ literary competence and poetic expertise, these artists’ ability to reach critical mass is undeniable. When a rapper says something clever over a catchy beat, a feeling of near euphoria overcomes the listener—partly from witnessing a stroke of genius, but more so from the creative potential that we possess as human beings. In West’s song, “Last Call,” he concludes his verse with a punchline that Rap Genius heralds as one of the most clever lines he’s ever produced, “mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push miracle whips.”
And here lies the power of hip hop. On top of the witty stringing of words, the rapper infuses passion and motivation into his or her lyrics. While there’s nothing inherently inspirational about a “mayonnaise-colored car,” the poignancy of the line comes from the rapper’s background.
Most rappers, West included, come from truly humble beginnings. Top artists such as Kendrick Lamar frequently rap about their struggles growing up in project housing, drug violence, and in a family without a father. In his song “ADHD,” he says, “when you’re a part of Section 8, you feel like no one can relate, because you are a loner, loner.”
Whether through lyrics or the story behind the song, hip hop inspires people to chase their wildest dreams by being who they really are. The underlying message of hip hop is to speak, dress, and create a lifestyle that’s congruent with your uniqueness.
Today, however, hip hop has gotten a bad rap—pun intended. While there have always been rappers who boast about their drug intake and lustful obsessions, nowadays it seems to be the industry norm. As a result, our desire for material possessions, power, and fame is amplified, while the pursuit of what actually matters (i.e. gratitude, kindness, and love) becomes forgotten.
In the end, hip hop’s influence on culture is neither positive or negative. Nevertheless, it is critical to distinguish what we find musically entertaining from what we think is worth pursuing. Fortunately, not all rappers espouse the “blow money fast” lifestyle. In J Cole’s song, “Love Yourz,” he reminds us that there will “always gon’ be a whip that’s better than the one you got/ always gon’ be some clothes fresher than the ones you rock.”