Let’s dial back the criticism of today’s “millennial” rappers. They shouldn’t be saddled with the burden of returning hip-hop to its “glory days” – that shipped sailed 25 years ago when Public Enemy and Rakim were supplanted by the Digital Underground, 2 Live Crew and every rapper during the 1990’s who prioritized flash and p*ssy over substance.
Rap is certainly veering in a perplexing direction, but the fabric of this artform began unraveling several years ago.
For instance, despite the criticisms often thrown at “Migos,” Desiinger, and Young Thug, “mumble-rapping” was pioneered by the 1990’s supergroup Bone Thugs and Harmony. And while there appears to be a blossoming drug epidemic permeating the hip-hop landscape, the seeds of this problem may have been planted when “The Luniz” unleashed their 90’s classic “I Got 5 On It”. Cypress Hill deserves honorable mention.
As older generations continue to lament the demise of rap, they should be reminded that materialism and drug abuse have been synonymous with hip-hop since the 1990’s (and part of the 1980’s). Rhyme-sayers from these eras indulged their vices regularly and penned lyrics about the aftereffects.
A song that comes to mind, “Bling Bling,” was released in 1999 by the New Orleans rap group “Hot Boyz.” It served as the launching pad for a scrawny teenager currently known to the music world as “Lil Wayne”. If it’s been too long since you’ve heard the song (or if you’re under the age of 23), allow me to refresh your memory with a few lyrics from Bryan “Birdman” Williams, the founder of Cash Money Records:
“Hit the club, light tha bitch up
The Cash Money motto we got to drank ‘til we throw up
Nigga point the hoe out, guaranteed I can f*ck
Wootay, I’m tattooed and barred up
Medallion iced up, Rolex bezelled up and my pinky ring is platinum plus
Earrings be trillion cut and my grill be slugged up”
These verses are hardly complex or lyrical. Nevertheless, “Bling Bling” ruled the airwaves, even though it lacked the skillful wordplay and conscious undertones that fans of rap were accustomed to hearing throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
A year earlier (1998), songwriter Jermaine Dupri and rapper Jay Z connected on “Money Aint a Thang,” which also topped the hip hop charts. In this song, the duo dedicates every verse to opulence, boasting about their respective financial portfolios and the many things they can buy. Jay Z’s first few lyrics are as follows:
“I flex the Rol’, sign a check for yo’ hoe
Jigga’s style is love, X and O
Save all your accolades, just the dough
My game is wide, all lames aside
Tryin to stay alive, hundred thou’ for the bracelet
Foolish, ain’t I? The chain’ll strain ya eye
Twin platinum gun son, aim for the sky”
In the music video for “Money Aint a Thang”, they each cruise the highways in expensive cars while flashing their jewelry and multi-millions dollar property.
Iconic rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac were also part of the “Bling Bling” culture, taking every opportunity to flash their abundant wealth and Rockstar lifestyles. In his 1994 classic, “Big Poppa,” the New York rapper says:
“Tremendous cream, fuck a dollar and a dream
Still tote gats strapped with infrared beams
Choppin’ O’s, smokin’ lye an’ optimo’s
Money hoes and clothes all a nigga knows a foolish pleasure, whatever
I had to find the buried treasure, so grams I had to measure
However living better now Gucci sweater now
Drop top BM’s I’m the man girlfriend”
Much like his rival Smalls, Tupac often vacillated between conscious rap and the much darker alternative, immersing himself in a harmful mix of street life, opulence, and promiscuity. In the raunchy 1993 hit, “I Get Around,” he articulates the following:
“All respect to those who break they neck
To keep they hos in check
‘Cause, hos, they sweat a brotha majorly and I don’t know why, your girl keeps paging me.
She tell me that she needs me
Cries when she leaves me
And every time she sees me, she squeeze me.
Lady take it easy”
Back in the Day
There were a handful of storytellers during the 1980’s (Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane come to mind) who covered themselves in furs, gold necklaces, shiny rings, and velour track suits. They birthed the genesis of “ghetto extravagance.”
Girls, fast cars, flashy clothes, booze and jewelry (in no particular order) were the staple ingredients of your typical rap song during the latter half of the 1990’s, and the lyricists who are admired most by hip hop fans are partially responsible for “dumbing down” the once meaningful nature of this sound.
The 90’s generation opened a can of worms that spilled into the new millennium and permeated urban culture. Rappers from the early 2000’s onward used hip hop purely as a ladder to gain wealth and fame. These benefits quickly advanced to the forefront of rap, replacing the original purpose for this craft – enlightenment.
Whether the focus was police brutality, racial discrimination, or the struggle of living in poverty, rap music was once an outlet for gifted wordsmiths to reveal their truths to society. It started with profound intentions and noble aspirations, but the integration of “bling” spawned negative results.
The proverbial torch now belongs to a new generation of young twenty-somethings who value the curve of dollar signs more than delivering quality material. This mindset isn’t a new phenomenon – it’s the extension of a culture that stretches over three long decades.