“An artist’s duty as far as I’m concerned is to reflect the times,” said jazz legend Nina Simone. From Aretha Franklin to Bob Marley, black artists have always been fairly outspoken on social issues. This year hasn’t been any different. Several months into the George Floyd protests, many artists have used their platform to speak out on the current moment. At their point it’s interesting to see how this current crop of artists captured this moment in history:
Anderson. Paak – Lockdown
Behind funky bass-lines and simple drum patterns, Paak paints a vivid and dark picture of a country going through social unrest. dropping cheeky references to hazmat suits and rubber bullets. The audio snippets of rioting brings you right into the chaos the song depicts. If there was any song that captured this year in a nutshell, “Lockdown” would be exactly that.
Lil Baby – “The Bigger Picture”
In one of the more pleasant surprises of the year, the Atlanta native had one of the most thoughtful responses to these protests. Seeing Lil Baby’s heartfelt retelling of his past issues with law enforcement showed a dimension of him we rarely see in his work. Whether we like it or not, this is a watershed moment for mumble rap.
Noname – “Song 33”
Featuring polished beat-making courtesy of veteran producer Madlib, Noname calmly brought out her pen game rebuffing J. Cole’s response on “Snow On Tha Bluff.” Noname referencing the deaths of both George Floyd and Toyin Salau while scolding Cole was perfectly summed up in one line: “He really ’bout to write about me when the world is in smokes?
Run The Jewels – “JU$T”
From their harsh lyrics to their boorishly eclectic production, RTJ has never been shy about their anti-establishment views. From the education system to politics, the song drives the point home of the absurdity that comes with conforming to a corrupt system.
H.E.R. – “I Can’t Breathe”
This song has been getting a lot of burn in NBA commercials, and deservedly so. On this song H.E.R. directly confronts not only how racism is propagated by media and law enforcement, but how even “allies” can still be complicit in that. The layered background vocals give this song much of its weight, giving the atmosphere of a local church.
Wale – “June 5th”
As a single from his new “The Imperfect Storm” EP, Wale speaks truth to power. The instrumental’s soothing guitar loop compliments Wale’s magnetic charisma. His cool demeanor is only a mask for the resentment we see expressed through his lyrics. From punchlines clowning Laura Ingraham, Wale as usual drops gems on the role black people play in American society.
Terrace Martin – “PIG FEET” ft. Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, Daylyt and G Perico
Released right before for “Dinner Party,” producer Terrace Martin linked up with some friends to create a politically-charged posse cut. Everything from Kamasi Washington’s wailing saxophone, to the deep piano note that rumbles through each rap verse, the raw instrumentation comes together to create an intense sense of dread. Matched only by the hard lyricism of Denzel Curry’s and Daylyt’s razor sharp, rap-battle-tested wordplay.
Jorja Smith – “Rose Rouge (Cover)”
Given that this is a cover of the St. Germain classic, Smith took a backseat to the musicianship here. This version features a live band that offers lush sounds of bass. While the lyrics “I want you to come together” on the original was just to fill dead space, Smith’s recitation of these lyrics act more as a call to action in this current context. Overall, it’s a solid cover.
J. Cole – “Snow On Tha Bluff”
J. Cole’s single was one of the more polarizing releases this summer and it’s not hard to see why. Pushing back on Noname’s tweet critical of rappers’ reluctance to speak on social issues, the Dreamville label head raised interesting points. Cole’s assertion that people like Noname should be patient with people for not being educated, and even acknowledged that even he lacks the education to even be a leader. On the opposite side, many of Cole’s detractors felt his response was more concerned with addressing Noname and brushing off his “socially conscious” reputation, rather than addressing the current social climate. In the end, the reactions to this track is an interesting case of how celebrity culture interplays with social activism.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – “Scottie Beam” ft. Rick Ross
“My execution might be televised” is a phrase that became popular during this year’s protests, and the author of that is Indiana’s own Freddie Gibbs. Rapping over a glistening piano sample, Gibbs details a violent run-in with the law. While the track’s content isn’t as dense as other parts of Gibbs’ catalog, “Scottie Beam” has potential to age very well with how it depicts anxiety associated with cops and traffic stops.