9 Revolutionary Rap Albums To Know: From Kendrick Lamar, Black Star, EarthGang & More
These nine rap albums exude Black solidarity and revolutionary fervor.
Studied observers know that hip-hop rarely goes along to get along, or consents to being made a cat's paw of. The genre is punker than punk. When Ronald Reagan's austerity government caused deep harm to Black communities, hip-hop spoke up, asserting its humanity with albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy and Pure Righteousness by Lakim Shabazz. And when subsequent presidents beefed up their strategies of surveillance and entrapment, hip-hop spoke up again; sometimes in song—who could forget Ice-T's disavowal of the security state on "Drama"?)—and sometimes in person. In fact, X Clan were among the demonstrators who in 1989 descended on hostile territory for a Day of Outrage.
But hip-hop responded differently to COVID-19, even when the pandemic snarled Black and brown people like nobody else. It's not like life continued as normal. How could it with so many rappers' livelihoods hanging perniciously in the balance? But many would argue the hip-hop community didn't push back all that forcefully on the bunglers of our national COVID-19 response. There were hand-washing PSAs aplenty, but very few howls of indignation.
Does this mean the flames of revolt have been extinguished? Absolutely not. Thirteen-time GRAMMY winner Kendrick Lamar—a familiar face at police reform rallies—shares his forebears' penchant for protest. So do Jay Electronica (a GRAMMY nominee), Isaiah Rashad, Noname, and others.
Below are nine hip-hop albums of "revolutionary" character. Some are faith-based; others advance a Black nationalist or Marxist perspective. But they all exude Black solidarity and revolutionary fervor.
Related: From Aretha Franklin To Public Enemy, Here's How Artists Have Amplified Social Justice Movements Through Music
Jungle Brothers, Straight Out The Jungle (1988)
Where would hip-hop be without the Jungle Brothers? On Straight Out The Jungle, the Harlem trio sculpted verdant soundscapes that were at once naturalistic and futuristic. They improvised rhymes with effortless deft. They created out of whole cloth wonderfully lifelike characters. ("Jimbrowski" introduces us to Dreadlock Man, a lion-maned prophet of truth.) And they cleared a path for plucky, socially conscious overachievers from De La Soul to A Tribe Called Quest to Black Sheep.
Hip-hop was still very young in 1988, but already it was the target of a disinformation campaign. Rappers were said to be "small-minded," slothful, materialistic, basically pliant stooges for the sportswear industrial complex. Thank god for Straight Out The Jungle. Much like De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, which came out the following spring, Jungle rebutted the most intransigent mistruths about hip-hop and Black youth culture more generally.
Poor Righteous Teachers, Holy Intellect (1990)
Miraculously, the Five Percenter community was big enough to accommodate Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian. Both were professorial, tough as leather and unyielding in their convictions; stenographers to no one except Allah. Both could be high-handed and self-regarding, yet they coexisted without incident.
Brand Nubian was a great group, but too homophobic to pass moral muster. To its credit, Holy Intellect doesn't wade nearly so deeply into hip-hop's confected gay panic. The album is about three things: Allah's grace, Allah's mercy and Allah's beneficence. This is weighty stuff, to be sure. Luckily, the music is effervescent, with turntable scratches, rolling triplets, harmonica flourishes, and Doors-style organs.
Divine Styler, Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (1992)
Divine Styler had a minor hit with 1989's "Ain't Savin' Nothin'." At that point in his career, he bore the impression of a chin-stroking sonneteer making music for coffee shop revolutionaries. But Styler underwent a dramatic transformation, and he did it inside of three years; by '92, all that remained of his former self was the hushed spoken-word cadence.
Spiral Walls is gutsy and eclectic—very, very brazenly eclectic. The polarity between hip-hop and noise rock, or hip-hop and exotica, ceases to matter. These are all just ingredients in a bitchin' brew concocted by Styler, the gamest fusionist you'll ever meet.
We haven't even gotten to Styler's writing, which is breathy at times and garrulous in a way that only he could be. But no one can deny the extraordinary scope of his imagination. A devout Muslim, Styler, like so many Black men, was born anew in the image of Allah, who he credits for his creative, not just spiritual, awakening.
The Coup, Genocide & Juice (1994)
The Bay Area might vote reliably blue, but there is no love lost between Boots Riley and America's oldest bourgeois party. Riley will probably never perform at an inauguration ball or headline a Democratic fundraiser. He's not a Democrat; he's an unreconstructed Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist, and he's suspicious even of like-minded people with pretensions to the electoral office.
Genocide & Juice is refreshing, not least because it affords us a rare opportunity to hear about class exploitation from afflicted persons. Riley is a relatively anonymous gear in the capitalist machine, not a paid politico, well-coiffed pundit, or tenured academic. And on Genocide & Juice, he rails jocularly and impassionedly against the people: landlords, debt collectors, prosecutors, energy monopolists, CIA spies--who not only butter his congressperon's bread but make life hell for working Black folk.
Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Mos Def is a competent yodeler and raps in a twangy patois over island-inspired sampledelia. (Give him a crate full of dub or reggae 45s and presto—a great song is born.) Talib Kweli is no flyweight, either. His flow—sturdy as stucco and fearsomely articulate—is one reason Black Star's 1998 debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, has held up through the millennia. He also makes powerful cases against colonialism, consumerism, colorism, and every dastardly "ism" in between. Still, this album is remarkable for its unqualified positivity.
BUSDRIVER, Fear Of A Black Tangent (2005)
Rich kids do the damnedest things. Given his penchant for undecodable jabberwocky, you might assume that BUSDRIVER was raised by wolves. But no: He's the son of a screenwriter, showrunner, and all-around straight arrow (Ralph Farquhar, whose credits include "Moesha"). Despite his fortuitous background, BUSDRIVER has always felt most at home in the wacky world of mass transit.
Fear Of A Black Tangent's production is slightly gauzy, but it doesn't matter because BUSDRIVER's protestations are so spot-on. He calls out the white establishment for its persnickety elitism and credential humping: "They want to hear good freestyling with the sarcasm of Woody Allen," BUSDRIVER raps on "Cool Buzz Band." BUSDRIVER is many critics' Platonic ideal of a rapper: smart, adenoidal, free-associative, self-lampooning. But he's tired of being fetishized as "one of the good ones," and he's tired of bohemian critics with denigrative attitudes about hip-hop. "I'm a post-rap wizkid," he says on the mocking "Sphinx's Coonery." "My speech is littered with double entendres and sharp sarcasm."
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Imagine if Adrian Nicole LeBlanc had followed up her groundbreaking book "Random Family" with a scrapbook of fortune-cookie-like benedictions, incantations and truisms. That's sort of what Kendrick Lamar did. His 2012 breakout, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, was like a Victorian novel, densely plotted and stuffed to the brim with interweaving characters.
To Pimp A Butterfly is different. The record mosies along at an unbothered pace, lapping up the borrowed wisdom of Lamar's elders. Typical of To Pimp A Butterfly is "Institutionalized," where Lamar's grandmother is quoted as telling her grandbabies, "Don't s*** change until you get up and wash your ass."
Loving TPAB, by far the most inward-looking and "experimental" of Lamar's four studio albums, is, to quote "U," complicated, at least for those who prefer K.Dot as the rough-and-ready, battle-rapping prole from times past. But even when he's singing—in a coiled, stricken, serpentine falsetto—Lamar has plenty to say about obstacles one faces when seeking self-love and self-cultivation in the Black underclass.
Read: Black Sounds Beautiful: How Kendrick Lamar Became A Rap Icon
Smino, blkswn (2017)
If you find fault with Smino's unlofty personal commandment ("I know I'll be aight if I just make it through tonight," he raps on "Amphetamine"), it's because you live in a rose-scented never-never land. Smino does not. He's from North St. Louis, a poor, internally colonized lazaretto with one of the highest murder rates in the developed world. Ambition is a luxury Smino, a self-described "ashy lil' black boy," can ill afford; it's not a foundational human need.
Smino is flirtatious, even sex-mad, but he spends most of blkswn ducking and dodging oligarchs, not baby mamas. The corporate state has no use for "shiftless" Black youths like Smino—except, of course, in a 6-by-8-foot jail cell. The fidgety, cut-and-paste production is adventurous, and Smino is frantic in his febrile gaiety, but he hasn't gone daft. He's only too aware of what he's up against. "Life ain't even granted," he says on "Maraca". "Off the strength, I'm brown-skinned."
EarthGang, Mirrorland (2019)
EarthGang are an Atlanta duo with sherpa-like mountain endurance. The duo has been plugging along for nearly 15 years. In that time, many a nonbeliever has voiced displeasure with the duo's output, a spastic comingling of vaudeville, música latina and Southern trap; Twitter was not receptive when Julianna Godard likened EarthGang to a younger Outkast. For most of their career, though, EG were too marginal to generate significant hostility.
After years of thankless toil, EarthGang finally penetrated the mainstream with Mirrorland. Like Wakanda or Stankonia, Mirrorland is an egalitarian, vaguely transcendentalist, wholly self-ruling Black utopia. Based on communal ownership, Mirrorland nonetheless cherishes the sanctity of the individual. As Doctor Dut says on "Blue Moon," "We not each other's property."
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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances
The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more
To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.
Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz.
The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).
The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.
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Jay Z Tops 56th GRAMMY Nominations With Nine
Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams earn seven nods each; other top nominees include Daft Punk, Drake, Lorde, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift
Nominations for the 56th GRAMMY Awards were announced tonight by The Recording Academy and reflected one of the most diverse years with the Album Of The Year category alone representing the rap, pop, country and dance/electronica genres, as determined by the voting members of The Academy. Once again, nominations in select categories for the annual GRAMMY Awards were announced on primetime television as part of "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!! — Countdown To Music's Biggest Night," a one-hour CBS entertainment special broadcast live from Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
Jay Z tops the nominations with nine; Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams each garner seven nods; Drake and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig are up for five awards.
"This year's nominations reflect the talented community of music makers who represent some of the highest levels of excellence and artistry of the year in their respective fields," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "Once again, The Academy's awards process and its voting membership have produced an impressive list of nominations across various genres promising music fans a spectacular show filled with stellar performances and unique 'GRAMMY Moments.' We are off to a great start and look forward to GRAMMY Sunday as Music's Biggest Night takes the stage."
Following are the nominations in the General Field categories:
Album Of The Year:
The Blessed Unrest — Sara Bareilles
Random Access Memories — Daft Punk
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — Kendrick Lamar
The Heist — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Red — Taylor Swift
Record Of The Year:
"Get Lucky" — Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams
"Radioactive" — Imagine Dragons
"Royals" — Lorde
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Bruno Mars
"Blurred Lines" — Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams
Song Of The Year:
"Just Give Me A Reason" — Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
"Roar" — Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
"Royals" — Joel Little & Ella Yelich O'Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
"Same Love" — Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert & Ryan Lewis, songwriters (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Mary Lambert)
Best New Artist:
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Following is a sampling of nominations in the GRAMMY Awards' other 29 Fields:
For Best Pop Solo Performance, the nominees are "Brave" by Sara Bareilles; "Royals" by Lorde; "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars; "Roar" by Katy Perry; and "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake.
The nominees for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance are "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams; "Just Give Me A Reason" by Pink Featuring Nate Ruess; "Stay" by Rihanna Featuring Mikky Ekko; "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams; and "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z.
For Best Dance/Electronica Album, the nominees are Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Settle by Disclosure; 18 Months by Calvin Harris; Atmosphere by Kaskade; and A Color Map Of The Sun by Pretty Lights.
The Best Rock Performance nominees are "Always Alright" by Alabama Shakes; "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" by David Bowie; "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons; "Kashmir (Live)" by Led Zeppelin; "My God Is The Sun" by Queens Of The Stone Age; and "I'm Shakin'" by Jack White.
For Best Alternative Music Album, the nominees are The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case; Trouble Will Find Me by The National; Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails; Lonerism by Tame Impala; Modern Vampires Of The City by Vampire Weekend.
The nominees for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration are "Power Trip" by J.Cole Featuring Miguel; "Part II (On The Run)" by Jay Z Featuring Beyoncé; "Holy Grail" by Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake; "Now Or Never" by Kendrick Lamar Featuring Mary J. Blige; and "Remember You" by Wiz Khalifa Featuring The Weeknd.
For Best Rap Album, the nominees are Nothing Was The Same by Drake; Magna Carta…Holy Grail by Jay Z; Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar; The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis; and Yeezus by Kanye West.
The Best Country Album nominees are Night Train by Jason Aldean; Two Lanes Of Freedom by Tim McGraw; Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves; Based On A True Story by Blake Shelton; and Red by Taylor Swift.
The nominees for Best Americana Album are Old Yellow Moon by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell; Love Has Come For You by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell; Buddy And Jim by Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale; One True Vine by Mavis Staples; and Songbook by Allen Toussaint.
This year's Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical nominations go to Rob Cavallo, Dr. Luke, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jeff Tweedy, and Pharrell Williams.
This year's GRAMMY Awards process registered more than 22,000 submissions over a 12-month eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2012 – Sept. 30, 2013). GRAMMY ballots for the final round of voting will be mailed on Dec. 11 to the voting members of The Recording Academy. They are due back to the accounting firm of Deloitte by Jan. 8, 2014, when they will be tabulated and the results kept secret until the 56th GRAMMY telecast.
The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards will be held Jan. 26, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and once again will be broadcast live in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards are produced by AEG Ehrlich Ventures for The Recording Academy. Ken Ehrlich is executive producer, and Louis J. Horvitz is director.
For updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music
Ziggy Marley On 'Rebellion Rises,' Touring, Kendrick Lamar & More
The GRAMMY-winning reggae legend talks about the positive vibes behind his latest project, his admiration for Lamar's 'DAMN.' and more
GRAMMY winner Ziggy Marley still has plenty of fire left in him to spread a message of love for all humanity. On his seventh studio album, Rebellion Rises, which was released May 18, Marley ushered in a new set of songs that not only throw a spotlight on his overall purpose of unity, they also come together to form the album he feels is one of the finest of his career.
With such a rich history to draw from, Marley made Rebellion Rises in the now, with his son Isaiah literally by his side, as evidenced by his presence on the album's cover — Isaiah shows up hand in hand with Marley.
But the galvanizing musical and lyrical material contained within Rebellion Rises is what proves the singer/songwriter is committed to the message initially amplified by his iconic father and proliferated through his own legacy. Songs such as the title track and "Circle Of Peace" on the new album reveal the transcendent messenger Marley has become with lyrics like, "I stand in the circle of peace because only the willing will see their dreams."
Marley has also taken his music and message out on the road, kicking off the Rebellion Rises Tour on June 8 and performing a good deal of his new song — along with some of his and his father's most well-known classics — around the globe before wrapping up back in the States on Sept. 16.
We caught up with the reggae legend right before he headed out on tour to talk about his latest album, how his son has influenced his work, how he prepares set lists for his upcoming shows, his thoughts on Kendrick Lamar, and more.
Rebellion, as it's defined in the dictionary, can take on a negative connotation, as resisting authority, for example. But this album is filled with positive messages, inspirational moments and uplifting passages. Can you walk us through the theme behind Rebellion Rises?
The theme behind the album is really the voice of humanity and also representing humanity, and the rebellion is the awakening of the humanity within us so that we can balance the world with more love, with more unity, less divisiveness, less hate. So that's what we're rebelling for, and that's what the theme of the album is about. We don't want to focus on what we're against; we'd rather focus on what we are for.
I saw an Instagram post where you said that your son, Isaiah, has been a part of the album from start to finish. Can you detail how he played a role?
Isaiah is 2 years old now, so I think he was on tour with me when he was 1. … He has a strong connection to me ... and so he's always around me. So when I was writing the songs, he was there. And he's very smart. He's a very smart guy. So I'm taking guitar and repeat what I'm saying. And then I was taking the photo shoot, he was always in my photos. So he's just a part of this album, really. … He's an inspiration, a little angel beside me, just like being my shadow. So it was cool having him [there] like that.
You mentioned your tour kicking off June 8. With such a growing catalog to choose from, how will you go about picking the set list?
I've been working on that. I'm gonna do a lot of songs from this album, cause this album, for me personally as a listener and not just my ego speaking, but I can be impartial to myself, this album is one of the only albums that I actually can listen to myself, like the whole thing, back to front without skipping or [hearing a song] I don't like. ... I really like this album. I'm planning to do a lot of these songs, new songs on this tour, which we haven't done in the way I'm gonna do it for a long time. The first three songs [are] new songs. … I love them, I love how they feel so I'm working on having most of them on the set list.
I have a set and then I have a master list and then we're like a hundred songs we can pick and choose and see what happens. I have some of my father's songs, which I mix in there. This tour is Rebellion Rises Tour, but in my mind I see it more as a rally for humanity. This is humanity's rally. … This is not about a specific social issue or a specific political issue or religious issue, this is about humanity as a whole and this is the rally for humanity. … I'm really sticking to songs with strong messages that affect and speaks on humanity and what we're going through right now and this album has a lot to do with it.
I read recent piece where you picked your top five albums of all time and one of them was Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. So what is it about Kendrick's music that you think resonated with you?
Honesty. I think honesty and seeing him as being true, not a façade. Some people do their music and then perform, and it's a façade. It's not who they are but the character that they're playing. Kendrick seems true to me. He doesn't seem to be trying to be something else than what he is. I respect that in art and a musician, so that's what I love in music and because of that, because I can sense the truthfulness in that.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask this question. You've won eight GRAMMYs, including three consecutive wins for Best Reggae Album when you've been up for it. Of course we want to know, where do you keep your GRAMMYs?
The GRAMMYs? My wife really manages the GRAMMYs. She's the one who takes care of them and puts them on the fireplace. She takes care of that for me. I'm gonna keep them. I like them. They look shiny still. Them really shiny [laughs].
Photo: David M. Bennett/Getty Images
Zendaya Took 300 Students To See 'Black Panther' Last Weekend
The 21-year-old actress and singer joined the ranks of artists and celebrities who have put money up so schoolchildren from their hometowns could attend free screenings of the blockbuster film
Multi-talented actress/singer and The Greatest Showman star Zendaya joined together with progressive activist and entrepreneur Michael Skolnik to take over 300 schoolchildren from her hometown of Oakland, Calif., to see a special screening of Black Panther.
Zendaya is just the latest celebrity to put together a free screening of Black Panther for members of her community, following on the heels of GRAMMY winners Kendrick Lamar and Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who bought out five showings at three cinemas in Los Angeles so children living in the city's Watts housing projects could view the film during its opening weekend. Meanwhile, rapper/singer Travis Scott rented out two theaters in Stafford, Texas, so local kids could attend the movie for free.
Atlanta rappers Big Boi and T.I. were also onboard, with T.I. partnering with Walmart to give out 300 free tickets to a local Black Panther premiere screening, and Big Boi arranging for patients housed in hospice care to also see the film for free.
Wakanda forever...Oakland forever. Thank you to all the beautiful young people of my home town for joining me this weekend. You all, much like this movie, are absolutely brilliant✨ #BlackPanther pic.twitter.com/qsO09ZnQJX— Zendaya (@Zendaya) February 26, 2018
For her own part, Zendaya has also promised on Twitter that she plans to set up additional free screenings for director Ava DuVernay's forthcoming adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle In Time, set for release on Mar. 9. DuVernay has said she hopes her film will help spread a positive message amid a national sentiment of "darkness and division."
Black Panther's director Ryan Coogler has also released a statement in response to the overwhelmingly positive response the film has received, saying, "Never in a million years did we imagine that you all would come out this strong… For the people who bought out theaters, … And to the young ones, who came out with their parents, with their mentors, and with their friends…Thank you for giving our team of filmmakers the greatest gift: The opportunity to share this film, that we poured our hearts and souls into, with you."