Lyrical Toxicity: The Rap World

In a study conducted by Italian music data company Musixmatch, it was concluded that around 1 in 47 words in rap songs are of profane nature, adding up to an average of 10 curse words per song. The closest following genre by profanity was heavy metal with an average of 1 in 352 words, an immense difference. What is this marriage between rap and profanity, and most importantly, what is its impacts in the long run?

Photo by WoodysMedia

Today, it could very easily be assumed that derogatory sexual references, graphic depictions of drugs, sex and murder as well as general profanity has anchored itself as the cornerstone of rap culture as well as becoming widely present in general chart music. Since the year 2001 – with only 2012 as the anomaly – there has not been a single year in which at least one chart topping single didn’t carry a parental advisory label. In a 2015 study by Musixmatch, it was concluded that rap was by far the most “profane” genre, trailing well ahead but followed by heavy metal, electronic and pop music. The least profane chart topping genre on the other hand was country music (believe it or not), with an average of one term of profanity per 4438 words.

Maybe the deeper questions should be, is music – particularely rap – becoming more profane and sexual? Or is it simply that profane expression in music has been around for a long time, but we are only just realizing now because studies of profanity hadn’t been of interest before? Journalist Larry Bartleet at the British based music magazine NME has an interesting take on the issue in which he claims that there hasn’t been an increase in profanity per-se, but rather a lifting of the curtain of control as streaming services have began to dominate the music world, rapidly replacing radio stations. “The main reason we’re getting more number ones with swear words is the rise of streaming services,” says Bartleet. “Chart success used to depend on radio play, and artists had to make radio edits to get played, whether that was by bleeping out swear words or by replacing them. Thanks to streaming services, artists can have it their own way, and they don’t have to worry as much about censoring their own music.”

While that may be true, it is undeniable that the accessibility of profanity laced content, particularly for those of a younger age has increased dramatically in the age of music streaming and social media. The question lies in whether there is an unforeseen long term impact of such exposure and saturation in an entertainment world that glorifies drugs, sex and money. I surely can’t be the only one who has compared their childhood to what seems like an army of pre teen tik-tokkers that dance to often sexualized music we have today. Despite short term harmlessness, one can’t shake off the unease that is accompanied by the popularity of such content.

To better understand todays impact, its important to track back into the earlier instances of explicitness in chart music. To date, the very first song to claim the Billboard number one with an “explicit” label was Prince’s Lets Go Crazy in 1984 whereas by 2011, The Atlantic reported that 92% of top ten Billboard songs were about “sex appeal, arousal and other body parts”, a drastic musical revolution that seemingly is here to stay, but should we be entirely happy about that?

Like the next person, I too feel that profanity in its essence is married to rap. You cannot have rap without rebellion, and you certainly cannot have rebellion without unconventionality. In this sense, the use of profanity in itself is not the real issue when it comes to rap music, but perhaps the direction it has taken since its mass popularity. Today, conscious rap or even conscious thought in rap has been generally ousted from the charts and what little is left of it tries ever so hard to mould itself into an attractive consumable product. The jaw shaking 808’s, hi hats and trap snares in this case are used to disguise a message that unfortunately many tend to miss. One beautiful example of a medley between consciousness and trap in my opinion was presented by Lil Baby in his expressive track to the Black Lives Matter protests that characterized the American tragedy. The Bigger Picture is nothing more than Baby’s opinion, pure and simple. It isnt accompanied by complex literary schemes, mind boggling rhymes or even ambitious vocabulary. It is simply an act of rebellion, but wrapped in the appealing candy wrapper of modern trap.

Certainly Lil Baby isnt the only one to experiment in this manner, nor is he the pioneer. Dreamville’s expansion into incorporating rising trap artists came together beautifully in projects such as Revenge Of The Dreamers III, Freddie Gibbs had been lyrically taming trap beats as far back as 2009, T.I had exported trap to the greater US and the world way back in 2004, the infamous Guwop and producer Zaytoven revolutionized Atlanta underground back in 2000, and yet there are still many more! However today, most top rap/trap artists often do so with songs marinated in toxic mysoginy, expensive stones, crime culture and a “you can’t buy this” attitude.

Now I won’t lie to you and say this particularely bothers me. As a person who appreciates a wide range of rap, I indulge more than enough in music promoting scamming and swiping whilst I wouldn’t steal a pack of gum from the corner store. I don’t particularely think you must relate to the lyrics of a song to truly enjoy it, but this we all already know and have been subconsciously practicing for a long time. My real worry emerges with the impact I suspect this saturated rap culture must have on youth, primarily through overexposure that social media facilitates. Back when I was say 14, promiscuity for me didn’t go further than google images, but profanity on the other hand was much more common in talk. Mentally speaking, such music undoubtedly plays a role in shaping unhealthy expectations of relationships and sex, it advocates particular gender roles and creates a direct association between money and sexiness. At the age most of you are at reading this, surely we have passed a mental threshold in which such music does not particularely alter our state of mind or outlook on the world, however we are quick to forget that there are probably more children listening to such music than people our age. All it takes is one look at your instagram explore page to realize this from the mountains of lip syncing videos and dangerously sexualized expectations from young people. Is this the direct fault of profanity and promiscuity in music? Probably not, but then how could overexposure of this manner be controlled? Should it be controlled? Surely this will leave marks that will adversely reverberate through social relations in the future? The questions are endless and the answers are scarce, primarily because its quite hard to see the bigger picture when the phenomenon itself is still in action. It might be a long time before we can look back and answer the questions we ask now.

In a conversation with my roommate, he rightly so pointed out that rap today – despite rising from rebellion and exclusion – seems to serve more the tastes of the very people that rap was excluded by. Money, a lavish lifestyle, expensive cars and general carelessness do not seem to accurately represent what many coming from tough childhoods, poverty, broken homes and injustice live like. In fact, the picture painted by (primarily) the trap scene today might have an even further polarizing effect on younger individuals. But perhaps the very nature of its disobedience is what makes it rebellious? That no matter the odds, I as a rapper from a difficult upbringing and background am able to relish in such a lifestyle when not too long ago, such a reality could never have been dreamt of. Perhaps this is a metaphorical middle finger to those who tried so hard to shamelessly segregate human population into class and race ideology. I don’t think there is ultimately a final answer to artistic expression, its against the nature of art for there to be a concrete explanation, but thats where the beauty of it is.

All I can say is I hope further down the line, the more roughed out edges of the rap and trap industry will take a deeper moral look at some of its shortcomings, especially with expressions of mysoginy that undoubtedly must have echoing effects on domestic violence and general boxed in perceptions of relations. At the least, I hope the odd expression of consciousness will steadily grow in trap in order to balance out the intellectual scale because lets be real, the beats go way too hard to give up on…