The month February is dedicated to celebrating the excellence and history the black culture and the black community. Since 1926 with Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month, African-Americans have used multiple platforms to commemorate the leaders, innovators and pioneers who’ve shaped black society. Hip-hop, one the most revered and powerful genres in black culture and beyond, is one those many platforms.
Hip-hop’s roots can be traced back to the cadences and rhythmic drums the African slaves who were brought over to the United States through the Atlantic slave trade. The poems and melodies that the slaves created were used as a form escape from the inhumane acts slavery they faced every day. Hip-hop is in the same vein as some artists past and present, using their verses and beats to voice the struggles the black community faces today while also providing a sense hope. Despite money, women and drug use being among the most popular topics, issues like racism and police brutality are still at the forefront hip-hop.
Since hip-hop's beginnings, there have been a number artists who have used their canvas to give us extraordinary works art illustrating the black community. They discuss what the community is forced to experience and celebrate the excellence that oozes out every single member that community. MCs continue to follow in the footsteps civil-rights figures like Malcolm X and Angela Davis, whose teachings and beliefs have pushed the black culture forward. The celebration blackness in hip-hop has gone through a number styles. From the Afrocentric activist movements the X Clan and Public Enemy to the political, socioeconomic conversations J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, “blackness” will forever be a topic discussion.
In honor Black History Month, Billboard takes a look at a few albums that exude blackness and black excellence. These albums explore the trials and tribulations the black community while also fering a sense awareness that leads to these artists teaching the black community about their excellence and how standing together is the answer to all the problems. Take a look at the list below.
Honorable Mentions: Common – Like Water for Chocolate, Nas – Untitled, Poor Righteous Teachers – Holy Intellect, X Clan – To the East, Blackwards, Boogie Down Productions – Edutainment
Brand Nubian – One for All
Brand Nubian’s influence on the culture will always be considered one the game-changing impacts in hip-hop history, and One for All is evidence that. The early ‘90s were awash with socially conscious and politically charged rap. The style that time was a representation the black culture. The colorful clothing paired with necklaces and emblems representing African culture was a perfect depiction the beauty that is Africa. There were all types rappers and groups channeling their inner activists to present messages black self-love, justice and peace. Brand Nubian was one those groups in this golden age hip-hop, and their debut album, One for All, became a staple the conscious hip-hop that dominated the era.
Brand Nubian adopted the teachings the Five-Percent Nation in their lyrical content and music, especially on their album One for All. The album introduced a number young black individuals to the idea black excellence. Many artists that time preached the same ideas, but the difference with Brand Nubian was the fun, good-humored tone the album. Production was handled by not only Brand Nubian, but Skeff Anslem, Dante Ross, Stimulated Dummies and Dave “Jam” Hall. Grand Puba, Sadat X and Lord Jamar Allah released one the most influential debut albums in hip-hop history.
Messages black knowledge and living as black kings and queens were found all over the album. Records like “Concerto in X Minor,” which promoted black consciousness, and “Slow Down,” a record dedicated to black women upholding their beauty, showed the group’s creativity and ability to discuss serious topics while adding a sense playfulness to the conversation. It was a sharp difference from the record-selling gangsta rap the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t as overbearing as other Afrocentric releases that time.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Lyrical wordsmiths Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) released one the most intelligent and extensive examinations black culture with their collaborative album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Released in 1998, Black Star was a major turnaround from the big-time production that dominated rap in the late ‘90s. The album featured minimal yet uncompromising production from Hi-Tek, 88-Keys, J. Rawls, Da Beatminerz and more. The lyrical content, however, was far from sparse, as the duo spit some the most complex, thought-provoking lyrics that time. Keep in mind that both Kweli and Bey were fairly new MCs who didn’t release a full-length project before the release Black Star.
The chemistry between the two MCs is on full display on this album. Kweli and Bey never miss a beat as they address the issues that plagued the black community while also teaching the importance black history and culture to their listeners. Records like “Brown-Skin Lady” on which the duo encourages women color to embrace their beauty, and “Definition,” where the topic violence in hip-hop is discussed, Kweli and Bey filled the immediate void that 2Pac and Biggie Smalls left after their untimely passing. Right from the start, on the opening song “Astronomy (8th Light),” Kweli and Bey explore the meaning the word “black” in a positive light as opposed to the negative connotations surrounding the color. Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey’s influence on black culture runs deep, and Black Star is their introduction into that role.
dead prez – Let’s Get Free
The debut album by dead prez, Let’s Get Free, is direct and confrontational. No stones were left unturned as M-1 and stic.man criticized the media, politicians, society and the music industry as a whole. The ideas socialism and black power are discussed with a sense urgency that hadn’t been seen since the days Public Enemy. The production is sparse and at times difficult to take in, but it truly captures the raw emotion the entire project.
The opening track features Chairman Omali Yeshitela, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, giving a speech about a method hunting used by African tribes that lures wolves to suicide. The speech is then compared to the crack epidemic and its relevance to the black community. From that point on, listeners are taken on an uncensored, unfiltered ride through what it means to be black.
The album can be seen as a revolutionary cry to black liberation and socialism. “I’m a African” is a moving tribute to the Pan-Africanism movement. “They Schools” is a response to the power that white people have in the public education system in the United States, while “Police State” and “Behind Enemy Lines” discuss the systematic oppression black Americans by law enforcement and the government.
Despite the radical, uncensored mood the album, M-1 and stic.man fer requests for self-respect, love and happiness. “Be Healthy” is an ode to eating natural foods and exercise. “Mind Sex” is about appreciating your significant other mentally as opposed to physically and “Happiness” is a reminder that even though there are transgressions, the black community can still be happy.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a masterful look into Kendrick’s thoughts on personal and political subjects related to race, culture and discrimination. The album showcases Kendrick’s transition from his outlook Compton to his outlook on being black in America. The album has elements jazz, funk, soul and conscious rap spread throughout as Kendrick released an album fitting the renewed black activism at the time.
“Wesley’s Theory” takes a look at the idea that black men aren’t taught money management, while “These Walls” tackles sex, prison and the human psyche all at once. “King Kunta,” “i” and “Alright” fer strong messages empowerment and hope. Kendrick Lamar, being the prophet that he is, understands his place in not only hip-hop, but in society as well. Kendrick explains it perfectly on the album’s closer, “Mortal Man,” on which he aligns himself with leaders in the black community like Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur. Just like the leaders he mentions, Kendrick has to reach out and inspire those to change the world for the better with the time he has left on earth.
JAY-Z – 4:44
When word got out that JAY-Z would be releasing his 13th studio album, very few people knew it would be this open and “black.” 4:44 is a personal, emotional ride redemption, forgiveness, race and family lineage. With contributions from JAY-Z, the entire album is produced by No I.D., a move unfamiliar for Jay, as he’s worked with numerous producers on previous albums. No I.D. provides JAY-Z with a raw, unfiltered sound that allows him to enter a state vulnerability he’s unfamiliar with but masters gracefully.
When JAY-Z speaks, people listen — and 4:44 is no different. The album features the God MC touching on a variety topics, such as the culture hip-hop and his relationships and family life. Most importantly, Jay speaks on the issues black stereotypes and racism while giving his views on how black ownership and capitalism can free the black community. “The Story OJ” references these ideas along with the experience being black in America and how the black community should use their money.
“Family Feud” is a call to action against separation among the black community, and “Legacy” promotes black capitalism. Jay has always been the voice in hip-hop for the modern black community, so for him to admit his mistakes and try to change for the better, Jay is giving the blueprint to the community in order to do the same.
Public Enemy – Fear a Black Planet
With their first two albums, Public Enemy became the leaders a hip-hop movement that promoted a new sense black awareness. Their previous album, It Takes a Nation Millions to Hold Us Back, was critically acclaimed and found itself on many year-end top albums lists for its production and heavy sociopolitical lyrics. The follow-up would have huge shoes to fill, but that was quickly dismissed as Fear a Black Planet shattered expectations. The album would change the landscape hip-hop forever with its effects still felt to this day.
Dealing with the controversy Pressor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments and the resulting backlash, Public Enemy used that as a fuel for the writing behind Fear a Black Planet. What Public Enemy was able to do with their third album was create a heavy project that channeled upstanding anger and incandescent avidity. The chaotic blend sounds ranging from countless samples to shifting rhythms created a masterpiece that fit the conflicted tone the album.
The lyrical content Public Enemy preached on the album focuses on the sociopolitical issues impacting the black community and the liberation and organization African-Americans. Fear a Black Planet became the quintessential conscious rap album. It took hip-hop to astronomical heights and shook up the foundations the music industry with their use heavy sampling and their blunt, unfiltered attitude toward white America.
“Fight the Power,” “Power to the People” and “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” are just some the records that present a retort for the black community to the issues that plague them. “Revolutionary Generation” praises the enduring resilience black women, while “Pollywanacracka” examines the idea that white is good and black is bad within the black community while asking the community to love each other. If there’s an album that should be played every year for Black History Month, Fear a Black Planet is it.