Conscious Rap: The Sharpest Double-edged Sword in Hip-Hop

Why conscious rap is the sharpest double-edged sword for hip-hop artists

Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli. Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images

Conscious Rap Defined

Conscious rap is a sub-genre of hip-hop that focuses on creating awareness and imparting knowledge. Conscious rappers traditionally decry violence, discrimination, and other societal ailments. It's propelled by the conviction that radical social change comes through knowledge of self and personal discovery.

Elements & Style

Most conscious rap songs contain positive, uplifting messages, often delivered over smooth, ear-grabbing beats. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5's "The Message" and Slick Rick's "Hey Young World" are grand examples of early conscious hip-hop tracks.

Conscious Rap vs. Political Hip-Hop

Conscious hip-hop is often confused with its musical cousin, political hip-hop, possibly because they both speak to social turmoil. A disdain for commercialism is another common thread that weaves the two styles together. Politically charged songs by the likes of Dead Prez and Public Enemy are usually delivered in a militant fashion. The conscious message, on the other hand, empowers by uplifting the listener. Close your eyes and pick any album from The Coup's catalog and you will have walked in on a crash course on political hip-hop.

The Gift & The Curse of Conscious Rap

Socially aware hip-hoppers often dissect the attitude and ideals propagated in mainstream culture, but the approach is not without its limitations. Since they often create music for headphones, and not necessarily for mass radio, conscious rappers are generally less accomplished than their mainstream counterparts. With the exception of a few (Nas and Kendrick Lamar, for example), conscious artists typically lose the chart race to their more popular mainstream peers.

Despite the prestige attached to being the Voice of the People, many rappers detest the "conscious rap" label because of its limiting virtue.

Notable Conscious Hip-Hop Acts

Essential Conscious Rap Albums

  • It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy
  • Resurrection, Common
  • Quality, Talib Kweli
  • Black on Both Sides, Mos Def
  • Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Black Star