Among the most important rap albums released over the last year or so, one contains a song about
The title of Drake's record, which last week won the Grammy Award for rap album? "Take Care."
To say that hip-hop has evolved over the last 25 years — since the days when rappers such as Ice-T and
And it's become more peaceful, at least on the surface. At a moment in which the depiction of violence in other forms of media appears increasingly graphic, much of the conflict in hip-hop has moved inward, its players fighting battles of ideas and emotions.
How did this happen?
In a sense the music forced itself to change. The back-to-back slayings of 2Pac and the
Avatars of a gang-related
But the diminishing role of violence in hip-hop also reflects the genre's shifting circumstance. One of rap's central victories is that it can move freely now through subject matter; it doesn't have to adhere to an enforced set of topics — at least not any more than country or R&B or rock 'n' roll has to. And that's opened the music to artists without the kind of street experience that once seemed required of them.
Drake, for instance, spent his adolescent years as the star of a Canadian teen TV show, while Kanye West (who's done as much as anyone in recent years to destabilize old hip-hop verities) grew up in suburban Chicago the son of a prominent English professor. Do these performers know violence firsthand? Possibly. But it doesn't seem to define their outlook, nor is it the thrill we seek vicariously in their records.
"The traditional gangsta-rap narratives don't hold the grandiose power they used to," said Nelson George, an author and filmmaker whose work includes "Hip Hop America," as well as the
In response, hip-hop's allure, more often than not, has turned aspirational, as on ASAP Rocky's 2013 major-label debut, "Long Live ASAP." Here this young Harlem MC describes a tantalizing lifestyle populated by beautiful women and filled with high-end luxury goods; one track, "Fashion Killa," basically amounts to a laundry list of fashion labels: "She got a lot of
The same goes for "Finally Famous" by Big Sean, a West protegé with little use for struggle. "I'm just doing better than what everyone projected," he boasts in "My Last," "I knew that I'd be here, so if you ask me how I feel / I'm-a just tell you it's everything that I expected."
If ASAP Rocky and Big Sean float above gang culture, as though its crude distractions had become passé, other rappers seem stationed outside it. On last year's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" — named the best hip-hop album of 2012 by many critics —
"I turned 20 and realized that life wasn't getting anyone anywhere," Lamar told The Times in October. "You hear stories from the '80s about people selling dope and becoming millionaires, but in reality it'd just be guys walking around with $70 in their pockets. I knew I wanted something else."
There are, of course, exceptions to this disarmament. The teenage Chicago rapper
Yet that development seemed to surprise even Ross, who's happily (and successfully) made himself into a caricature in the years since a website revealed his background as a former corrections officer.
The violence on Ross' records plays like Grand Guignol; it vibrates on an entirely different wavelength than N.W.A.'s did. The intrusion of actual gunplay into the rapper's actual life felt weirdly old-fashioned.