by H. Beecher Hicks, III, CEO & President, NMAAM
Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed listening to Jay-Z’s most recent album 4:44. The predominant thought that comes to mind – over and over – is that hip-hop has turned a significant corner with this one.
I’m sure that my sentiment is not unique, as the album has topped the Billboard charts for the last two weeks. But it’s worth making the point anyway.
I think it’s important to consider that this is an album that deals with very adult subject matter – credit and financial investments, fidelity and fatherhood, racism and homophobia, and entrepreneurship. This is quite a distance from the counter-disco origins of the genre, the east coast – west coast battles that followed and the apolitical pre-Obama era that we’ve only recently left behind. Instead, Hov reminds listeners about where he’s come from, but also insists that he’s in a better, more mature place now; and he cautions us to learn the lessons that he has.
“I’m trying to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99.”
This corner we’ve now turned matters more than we might at first think.
Those of us who came of age with hip-hop as central to our culture must admit that our growth has, until now, been stunted. The tragic deaths of Tupac, Biggie, Left Eye and Aliyah impacted us more than we know. These poet prophet prognosticators fed us the important musical nutrients that helped us put an understandable beat to the otherwise perplexing world around us. And, while they were robbed of their lives, we were robbed of the maturity and wisdom that comes from being well nourished by their lyrical insights.
Make no mistake about it, there is still a lot of “lifestyle” music available to entertain us. Although I’m amazed at the glorification of strip clubs and drug culture in music at times, I will also confess to bobbing my head to some trap music from time to time. Notwithstanding this, people are streaming 4:44 on Sprint and Tidal in droves, and the consciousness and behavior of these fans will soon adapt in response to the knowledge dropped in this album.
No, Jay and this single album won’t be solely responsible for this change. I’ve been recently observing that there seems to be something of a “new morality” emerging in urban music; a more prevalent expression of topics relating to maturity and faith.
For example, Common and John Legend have lent their pens to songs on uplifting films such as Selma and shows such as Underground; Childish Gambino tells us to “Stay Woke!” in his latest single “Redbone”, “Uncle Charlie” Wilson and Avery*Sunshine regularly take us to church during their shows, and Lecrae’s song “Blessings” features Ty Dolla $ign, has done well on Billboard Christian and R&B charts since January and gets frequent airplay on radio.
Further, I went to a recent Chance the Rapper concert with my teenage son and was confused at times about whether I was at a hip-hop show or a gospel concert. The diverse crowd of 60,000 seemed to know the words to “I’m the One,” “No Problems” AND “When the Praises Go Up.”
By then I was thinking that something was different, but I was sure that we had turned an important corner when the rapper, between marijuana references and mild profanity, asked the audience “How many of y’all want to go to heaven?” Without much prompting, the screams were the loudest of the night.
I kind of miss Jay-Z rapping about “Run(ning) This Town” with Rihanna and Kanye West. Maybe a party anthem will be on the next album.
As I said, it’s a “new” morality, so I’m not sure what this public display of responsibility means, or where it all goes from here. But I welcome it and I’m sure that we will all be better, more at peace and probably wealthier for it.
Hip-hop has turned a corner.