Conscious Rap Shows Genre's Uplifting Side

But its appeal and financial value are limited

Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli. Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images

Conscious Rap Defined

Conscious rap is a subgenre of hip-hop that focuses on creating awareness and imparting knowledge. Conscious rappers traditionally have decred violence, discrimination, and other ailments of society. Conscious rap is propelled by the conviction that radical social change comes through knowledge of self and personal discovery.

Most conscious rap songs contain positive, uplifting messages, often delivered over smooth, ear-grabbing beats. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5's "The Message" and Slick Rick's "Hey Young World" are grand examples of early conscious hip-hop tracks.

Conscious Rap vs. Political Hip-Hop

Conscious hip-hop is often confused with its musical cousin, political hip-hop, possibly because they both speak to social turmoil. A disdain for commercialism is another common thread that weaves the two styles together. Politically charged songs by rappers such as Dead Prez and Public Enemy are usually delivered in a militant fashion. The conscious message, on the other hand, empowers by uplifting the listener. Close your eyes and pick any album from The Coup's catalog and you will have walked in on a crash course on political hip-hop.

The Gift and Curse of Conscious Rap

Socially aware hip-hoppers often dissect the attitude and ideals propagated in mainstream culture, but the approach is not without its limitations. Since they often create music for headphones, and not necessarily for mass radio, conscious rappers are generally less accomplished than their mainstream counterparts. With the exception of a few emcees (Nas and Kendrick Lamar come to mind), conscious artists typically lose the chart race to their more popular mainstream peers.

Despite the prestige attached to being the Voice of the People, many rappers detest bearing the "conscious rap" label because of its limiting virtue. The music also is harder to find because some of the independent labels that once cranked out rap's "righteous underground," such as Rawkus and Def Jux, are no longer in the business, which has made seeking out conscious rap more akin to a scavenger hunt.

The conscious movement bears some resemblance to—and has some overhang with—rap's straightedge community, a moniker for hip-hop's drug- and alcohol-free emcees. It's a larger group than you might expect, even if some are recent converts.

Notable Conscious Hip-Hop Acts

Here are some artists that wear the mantle of conscious rap:

Essential Conscious Rap Albums

  • "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," Public Enemy
  • "Resurrection," Common
  • "Quality," Talib Kweli
  • "Black on Both Sides," Mos Def
  • "Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star," Black Star

The Glory That is Conscious Rap

One shining example is "Glory," performed and written by Common and John Legend. It was the theme song from the 2014 film "Selma," which recalls the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It says, in part:

"resistance is us
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, 'Stay down' and we stand up"