Statistics say about 90 percent of pop songs are about love. The Grammy Awards and critical recognition show hip-hop continues to be marginalized in mainstream music culture despite increasing acceptance in public opinion. Hip-hop as a genre, while underrepresented, is underrepresentative itself—of love.
This past New Years’ Eve my friends and I were counting in the year to the soundtrack presented by BET’s “Top 50 of 2012.” Around count 10 I proposed a bet to my friends: we each picked a word we expected to hear in the next song on the countdown, whatever that song might be. I lost that bet.
BET’s list is not balanced genre-wise, skewing toward hip-hop and R&B. Fresh off hearing Nas’ “Daughters,” at number 10, which ends with the word “love” (its only mention of the same) I picked “love” as my word, knowing popular statistics were on my side. My two friends selected “niggas” and “pussy.”
The next song, Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin’,” included plenty of “niggas” and even “pussy,” yet not one mention of “love.” Following songs were also heavy on the N and P words, and naked of the L word. My mistake, I admitted, may have been I was expecting to hear more R&B, the preferred form for love ballads, and gangster rap was a wholly different genre.
Yet both genres originated in the underground. Hip-hop originated as a genre of rebels and protesters looking for an alternate musical outlet, and while not yet homogenized, hip-hop as a culture has developed its own norms. One apparent norm today is not rapping about love.
On his 2008 album, I’m Innocent, rapper Murs drew attention to this problem in his song “Love and Appreciate 2.” In the song, Murs speaks as intro “we’ve been talking about how for our hip-hop generation it seems like there’s no more love songs—it’s like all the women are Bs and Hs, and it seems like nobody’s man enough to talk about love.” But is the problem really a lack of manhood in hip-hop, or is the problem a misunderstanding of manhood?
Despite that I am a woman, I recognize my genre of choice (hip-hop) is yet another place in the world where gender stereotypes predominate and male and female roles are far out of balance. Likely this is another contributing factor to hip-hop’s over-developed testosterone. To prove their manhood rappers too often assert their dominance over women. Note too that Murs, a vocal critic of his own genre’s direction, is considered an “indie” or “underground” rapper—not a rapper likely to be displayed on the Billboard’s top charts.
Back in the day, in old school hip-hop’s origins, with groups such as Public Enemy and Rum-DMC leading the development of a new sound, love was not yet a hip-hop taboo. To the contrary, Public Enemy’s early works included songs “MKLVFKWR (Make Love Fuck War)” and “Whole Lotta Love Goin On in the Middle of Hell.” Among Run-DMC’s originating works was the song “Let’s Stay Together (Together Forever).”
As this article goes to press, topping the Billboard charts are Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” Though these songs are considered perversions of the genre, they adhere to its norm—not a single love reference. On the other hand, the top R&B songs, by Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake, are unafraid to drop the L word.
Maybe this explains hip-hop’s evolution: the “soft” in the culture are relegated to R&B, and those who want to keep their hip-hop label (and avoid becoming one of Dre’s “Bitch Niggaz”) develop a harder edge. Yet to avoid becoming a genre of anger and flash, and lose its substance, hip-hop artists need to step up, and remember the words of Run-DMC.
To quote “Let’s Stay Together,” on behalf of the relationship between hip-hop and love, may hip-hop remember with love the genre has “been down together since day one.” So hip-hop, this is love speaking—and let’s stay together.