Certain musical approaches facilitate hyper-personal songwriting. Folk artists craft tragic autobiographical tales; pop musicians convey public and private breakups. But nothing matches hip-hop artists when it comes to self-referential lyrics.
Apart from addressing clearcut social injustices, hip-hop music often molds to the ego or gritty lifestyle of the lyricist. And in such a competitive realm of music, boastfulness is transformed into a tool of the trade.
GZA encapsulates the attitude in Wu-Tang’s “Clan in Da Front” where he raps “How you sound, B? You’re better off a quitter/ I’m on the mound, G, and it’s a no-hitter.” Everyone from Eric B. through Jay-Z to Drake has shared that view. Lil Wayne even spelled it out on his song “Best Rapper Alive.”
Not every emcee chases domination of the game, but nearly all of them have some form of ego. It’s built into hip-hop’s genetics. Kanye West pack as much life experience into releases that ego blots out wider meaning. As a listener, it’s entertaining to hear about Kanye’s cousin stealing his laptop and his large financial debt on The Life of Pablo, but it provides little significance in anyone else’s life other than his own.
Kendrick Lamar’s boastings are more difficult to dissect because of his use of satire and irony. GKMC and DAMN. both have moments of ironic rapper ego — “Backseat Freestyle,” “DNA.,” “HUMBLE.” — but he’s also staked his claim in the rat race of rap with his caustic verse on “Control” and his subsequent disses to Big Sean. In hip-hop, the illusion of dominating the game matters even to those artists who possess the creative vision to make profound observations.
The only absolute way to remove ego from hip-hop is to remove vocals, a seemingly crucial part of the form. Although harder to suss out than lyrical hip-hop, instrumental hip-hop offers an alternative, hazier vibe that does not overwhelm listeners with flurries of pride and materialism on which some rappers rely. Producers such as J Dilla, Knxwledge, Samiyam and DJ Shadow amassed an audience and critical acclaim with beats alone. Searching the web, specifically YouTube streams, can unlock even more obscure but equally talented beat makers — Mt. Marcy and [bsd.u], for example.
The absence of having to process vocals makes instrumental hip-hop more tolerable and less distracting for a study session. And without the constraints of ego, each beat maker can create music without relation to any other artist, bringing the style back to the sound waves rather than the message and clout-mongering. Producers are seen more as vinyl crate-sifters whose main goal is to create a collage out of the new and old. In fact, J Dilla left a whole storage locker full of vinyl behind.
Sometime samples with traces of ego are employed in instrumental hip-hop, such as in Knxwledge’s “makemoney,” but the playfulness and bliss-out feel of the style keep it from veering too far into Rick Ross territory.
Of course, instrumental hip-hop is no replacement for lyrical hip-hop. Most people want to hear catchy bars, myself included. But beats without lyrics arise from the same approach and can offer an alternative to from rampant boastfulness when needed. Sometimes, it’s good to be humble.
Instrumental hip-hop is great choice for those who prefer to turn the ego dial down from 11 to zero and chill out to the head-nodding bare bones of the music.
Luke Furman is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.