If you opened this page looking for another one of those totally hilarious articles that cherry picks some of the most misogynist and violent lines ever rapped in order to make a not so subtly racist joke about the value of hip-hop as a genre, turn back now. Actually, close your browser, and turn to anyone who’s sitting in the room with you and apologize for your terrible sense of humor and narrow-minded world view. No context needed, I’m sure they’ll understand.
Despite what your grandmother, Steve Harvey and the kind of people who say they don’t have a problem with black people, just “thug culture,” think, hip-hop can be a positive influence, in fact, it can make you a better person. Here’s how:
1. It Teaches Empathy
Do you know what it’s like to grow up having “holes in your zapatos?” Probably not, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean this music isn’t “made for you,” even though Jay-Z most likely didn’t consider how the line would sound to kids who grew up getting a new pair of kicks every month when he thought up that line. If you don’t know what it’s like to grow up struggling, then that just means you get to hear from someone who does. Think you can’t relate? Don’t worry about it; you’re seeing what it means to live life from a new perspective.
Even if you actually can relate to the hardships described in the music—or to some of the more mild hardships described; Childish Gambino, I’m looking at you—like any good piece of literature, hip-hop still forces you to think of what it’s like to be a different person. A good story teller like Kendrick Lamar can have you riding right next to him in that Caravan down Rosecrans, so when he has his epiphany, you have it too. When you learn to see outside yourself like hip-hop encourages you to, you’re going to be a more understanding, patient person.
2. It Motivates
This is true on a couple levels. If you throw on some Waka Flocka at the gym, you know you’re going to run a little faster and get those weights off you a few more times when you hear “BRICK SQUAD” in your headphones—and saying something is just club or exercise music doesn’t negate its value. Anybody who criticizes artists like Waka Flocka and 2Chainz for making music without any depth probably gets mad at their CO2 detectors for not getting HBO. Waka and 2Chainz have a specific intention for their music: They want to get people dancing, moving or just excited, and they’re pretty good at it.
Yet, if you want something that doesn’t just motivate you immediately, hip-hop still has got you covered. Besides songs that make you want to get out of your seat right now, there are countless songs that make you ask yourself what you’re doing with your life in the long run. Think of it this way: The most common story told in hip-hop is the one of an underdog using a combination of talent and determination to prove everyone wrong, beat the odds and find success. You think your life sucks? You think you’re stuck going nowhere? Start grinding, son. So much of hip-hop is about telling people how the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality can actually work. Bill O’Reilly should be a huge hip-hop head.
3. It Expands Your Vocabulary
Did you hear that? That was the sound of thousands of haters scoffing at once. Admittedly, yes, you will probably learn a few new curse words, brand names and a couple dozen different ways to say cocaine. I would argue there isn’t anything bad about that at all. Unless you decide to start forcing “word is bond,” into all your conversations, it won’t hurt anyone. The only result is that you know a few more words from a little piece of the world you’ve never seen and that can be nothing but good.
Plus, the wordplay and creative rhymes can change the way you think about words. Think of your vocabulary not just as a static list you keep filed in your head for occasional reference, but a complex web that can be strengthened when you hear a connection you never thought of before. You know that feeling when you find something that perfectly expresses something you’re familiar with in a way you never thought of? Hip-hop makes you feel that all the time, like when GZA calls something “weak, like clock radio speakers.”
4. It Builds Confidence
Many, if not most, hip-hop songs contain some pure bravado and confidence. As any self-help book will tell you, the best way to gain confidence is to pretend you have some. Hip-hop will give you a lot of material to pretend with. If you listen to enough of it, you are going to internalize tons of lines that were imagined, written, and spoken with the intention of proving how great the speaker is. You get enough of those floating around in your head and some of them are bound to stick.
This is no accident. Kanye West, the alleged ego-maniac so many love to hate, wants you to know he writes his songs with you—yes, you!—in mind. During one concert, he described the questions he asked himself while in the studio, saying he writes songs wondering, “What can y’all play on your way to school or on y’all way to work? What can we make to make y’all feel better?” The answer in this case was “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” a song everyone should listen to before asking their boss for a raise.