There’s a moment during Lil B, the Based God’s performance at the 2013 Pitchfork Festival when shit gets emotional. In the final minute of his performance of “I’m God”, Lil B – whose adoration for hip-hop has lead him to release well-over 2000 songs for free – turns to the crowd. “Close your eyes”, he says. “Trust me. Trust everybody. Put your head down. Take the time to meditate”. The crowd obliges: following the request to breathe in and out. A mantra – “I love life” - is repeated in unison. Lil B’s performance beamed; like sun-rays he shined through a year that had seen rap propagated with the cold, harsh beat of Trapaholics, the consumerism of A$AP Rocky, and Kanye West’s Yeezus.
The Based God is all about cultivating healthy reflections on one’s self, but the positive approach he fosters is neither a gimmick nor unique. From groups like A Tribe Called Quest and the Souls of Mischief to Mos Def and Erykah Badu, past strands of hip-hop have promoted positivity. Now, in 2015, it feels like we’re experiencing a resurgence of their self-image movement.
While young upstarts like Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan are on an unrelenting mission to turn the planet up, shooting hip-hop into the stratosphere with extra-terrestial harmonies and hooks that threaten to imprison themselves in your head, it seems like the stepping-stones of another trend are in place – one that’s not dissimilar to the New Age ideals of by-gone collectives Soulquarians and Hieroglyphics. Instead of focusing on post-trap beats, pulling up to the pussy, or boasting about achivements - sexual and economical - the other set of artists are writing music that feels connected to the naturalistic sides of life - the world, the people in it, and the positivity we can gain from being alive.
Just take a look at Mick Jenkins’ mixtape, The Water(s), one of the standout releases from last year, which rode loosely on the spiritual nourishment provided from the natural elements. The lyrics to his track “Healer” feature references to the “solar-plexus”, “the solar-systems” and the belief that a “passion for life will exceed the paper”. It’s a celestial age away from O.T Genasis’ love with the “CoCo”.
Of course, artists like Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino embraced positivity a couple of years before Mick Jenkins. 2013's Acid Rap was populated with “Everything Good” feels and Chance’s follow up tracks, released late last year, embraced the spirituality that’s often been a centerpiece in his work. Yet rappers who focus on positivity and feelings continue to be seen as ironic or a joke by rap fans who refuse to believe that someone could honestly have so much love for the world, as if Lil B would have release over 50 mixtapes for the sake of cheap lulz. The paramters that define popular rap have long been based on conventions: having the ability to turn-up, referencing fashion brands, talking about success, rather than the ins-and-outs of what it means to be an organism living out life on planet earth. As T.I said on his prodigious collaboration with Thugga last year, “if it ain’t about the money, don’t be blowin’ me up, nigga I ain’t getting’ up”.
That's all changing. In 2014, the unrelenting passion of Lil B, the vibes spread by Chance, and the belated-positivity injected by Kanye’s first three records – which can be seen in young artists who grew up with Kanye on the come-up a decade later – started to push a larger shift into motion. Two tracks released last year provide ample foundation for change, because this time round it’s not just mixtape rappers spreading positivity: it’s the biggest artists in the game. And when that happens it’s probable that the field-players, the hype-beasts, the up-and-comers, will follow suit.
The two potential catalyst tracks are pretty obvious. Think of the biggest rap songs released last year that weren’t “Hot Nigga”, “No Flex Zone”, or released by Rich Gang. You’re left with Kendrick Lamar’s “i” and Kanye West’s “Only One” – two huge tracks, two dramatic shifts for both artists.
Much has been said about Kendrick Lamar’s “i” as a proponent for shifting attitudes. The track is inherently positive – its hook features Kendrick screaming the words “I love myself” from the depth of his lungs. You’ve probably heard enough about that already. It’s Kanye’s though that’s the biggest signifier. Listen to “Only One” and bang “On Sight” a minute after and it’s hard to believe the same artist has made them. One is discordant; a harsh disarray of sound that attacks the listener. The other is brimming with love.
The transition toward another side of hip-hop, one that focuses on heartfelt adoration for oneself, the world, and those in it, can be seen in a myriad of releases pushing forward, not just Acid Rap, The Water(S), and 90% of Lil B’s discography, but in lots of last year’s big records. Artists like Isaiah Rashad – whose 2014 release Cilvia Demo saw him infiltrate Dungeon Family-tinged rap with introspective thoughts centered around his own well-being; Goldlink – whose God Complex tape features a sure-fire confidence in one’s sober self; and Makonnen – whose career is an extraordinary story built on acceptance and peace within inner-turmoil, suggest that the grounding for change is there. All it’s going to take is for Kanye or Kendrick to drop what should be projects rife with positivity, and the shift will be complete.
Rap moves in circles that oppose each other. Gangsta rap and tranquil constructivism in the early 90s; G-Unit’s arrogant strong-talk against the laid-back cool of the Neptunes at the turn of the century; Young Money’s aggressive peacocking and 808s and Heartbreak sparseness in the late 00s – rap transitions frequently and when it does, there’s generally two strong new sounds that oppose each other. It’s within that, that genius is created. So, while the rise of artists like Young Thug, Lil Durk, or YG can’t be understated, it feels like we’re also going to see things come full circle and have another strong movement that focuses solely on just being. It will be concentrated on ideas about oneself, not material possessions, pussy, or Pyrex.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason for the shifting attitude. The positivity has always been there - you can see it in songs by artists ranging from Atmosphere to Gang Starr to Blu & Exile to Brother Ali; or pretty much the whole conscious rap scene. The difference this time is the artists sound wildly different - even from those listed above, Lil B, Gambino, Chance, Kendrick, they’re all producing sonically divergent music with a shared outlook.
The boundaries and conventions of hip-hop have long been broken down, and I think what we’re seeing here is something more wholesome and reflective of an open world. Positivity no longer needs a Dilla-esque beat, a connection to the spiritual or conscious realm, or a butt-load of weed. This time around it’s just artists being unafraid to express themselves.
In an interview with Truthisscary.com in 2012, Kendrick layed down the baseplate for what we’ve been seeing - “Fuck all that religion shit. Believe in one God, and do right. Try your best to do right, we ain’t perfect. Just do that and everything will be straight”. I think what he’s trying to say was eventually put across in “i” – that it’s important to find serenity within yourself. Now hold up. With that in mind, imma go watch that Lil B video again and breathe in and out some more.
Ryan Bassil is on Twitter.