Rap as genre – does it have meaning or is it just dumb lyrics?

Michelle Townsend

Credit: Megan Hannan

Rap is undoubtedly one of the most popular genres of music these days, either on it’s own or as a compliment to hip-hop or R’n’B.  Since the nineties the charts have been awash with rappers such as Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T.I and in recent years additions such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Macklemore have been added to the mix. For fans of rap, there has been no shortage of artists or records to invest themselves in.

However, despite the genre retaining it’s popularity over the years and continuing to do so, there are also negative connotations attached to rap – many people argue that it is violent, aggressive and casts a bad influence over those who listen to it.

A survey conducted by Survelum shows evidence to suggest that these negative connotations associated with rap music exist, albeit being a hugely popular genre of music. 71 per cent of people surveyed believe rap music does not have a massive negative effect on its listeners overall, however, 43 per cent believe that rap lyrics contribute to corrupting the minds of young people.

86 per cent of those surveyed agreed that rap music is unsuitable for children to listen to, and when asked “when you think of a rapper, what do you think of?”, 71 per cent answered gangster and 57 per cent said a hoodlum.

Statistics such as these make it hard for rappers and their fans to shake off negative stigmas associated with the genre. However, upon closer inspection it is clear to see that topics which are rapped about – sex, drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, to name but a few – are only done so as a means of release for the artist rapping about it, and the fan listening to it. Therefore it can be argued that the negative stigma arises from people who are unable to relate to such topics, and do not care enough to delve deeper into the meaning behind an artist’s lyrics.

Take for example the lyrics of Eminem and Kanye West, two of the most successful yet controversial rap artists in modern music. Both artists are equally liked and disliked for their honest and open lyrics. They draw upon their experiences of troublesome times, much like other rappers, to create songs which are music to some people’s ears, but unsettling and uncomfortable to others.

Two of Kanye’s songs which most notably highlight problems he has had with poor mental health are “Through The Wire” and “I Feel Like That”. “Through The Wire” details the hopelessness he felt in the aftermath of a car accident where his jaw was wired shut. “I Feel Like That” is an honest and open account of how consuming depression and anxiety is and how lonely and helpless it can make one feel.

Eminem’s lyrics tie in more with dealing with bad relationships. Although he is also known for his rather humorous songs, his heavier material goes much deeper. “Mockingbird” deals with how fragmented his relationship is with his daughters, and “Love The Way You Lie” is embedded with lyrics relating to abusive and controlling relationships.

Looking a little closer to home, we can see how important and meaningful lyrics can be to an artist through the work of upcoming rapper Aaron J Hart. Aaron, who recently competed in the final of Ireland’s Got Talent, was praised throughout the entirety of the competition for his painfully raw and honest lyrics about battling poor mental health and the struggles he faced being brought up by a mother addicted to drugs.

Aaron’s song “Show Pain” struck a chord with viewers due to the lyrics leaving him completely exposed as a person who has faced his fair share of tough times. Both the judging panel and viewers, despite not having gone through the exact same problems, were able to see just how much rapping about such struggles worked as a healing factor. He explained to the judges, “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that song”, and judge Denise Van Outen praised him for it, saying “you just made me fall in love with rap. I understood your story, it really moved me.”

Like any other music genre or art form, rap music is a means of expression. If people are uncomfortable listening to music which tackles with controversial issues and dark themes, that is completely justifiable. However, they should not hold the opinion that these rap artists are using these lyrics to be purposefully negative or to cast a bad influence over impressionable listeners. Like any other artist, they just need an outlet to express their emotions.

People can argue that dark lyrics always gravitate toward rap music, but the fact of the matter is that a precedent has been set for aspiring rappers to release their thoughts and feelings through this style – to suggest the lyrics are too negative and hold no value is ignorance to recognise honest music.