The year I started that miserable adolescent odyssey known as middle school was the same year Eminem released his mega-successful third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. I vividly remember a certain class clown, just before third-period social studies, repeating, “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?,” before (poorly) rapping some of the other lyrics from the song. (The album dropped in 2000, by the way.) For me, that was the moment. Not necessarily the moment I first heard rap, but definitely the first rap song that resonated with me. At the time, rap was still very much waging an uphill battle against its critics, and it was largely seen by parents of all stripes as this nefarious all-corruptor of America’s youth, with its copious references to drugs, violence, sex and misogyny. This ethos had actually pre-dated Eminem by a long shot by at least another decade and change, what with the rise of “gangsta rap” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, led by polarizing artists such as N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Though Eminem was certainly a controversial and edgy figure (he was white, too, an anomaly for the genre)—on the album, he composed a song entitled “Kim,” about murdering his ex-wife—his rise at the tail-end of the ’90s and into the aughts represents a watershed moment for my generation. Like rock-and-roll before it, rap was something that everyone was listening to everywhere. You couldn’t escape it.
Jump ahead nearly two decades (wow, I’m starting to feel old), and things have changed quite a bit. Though many rap songs and CDs still get slapped with that ridiculous “Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory” sticker, the debate over rap’s corrupting influence has, for the most part, faded away. (Plus, people don’t really buy CDs anymore.) The Grammy Awards, which first awarded a rap duo, the decidedly noncontroversial DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, a Grammy for “Best Rap Performance” in 1989, and only first introduced the “Best Rap Album” honor in 1996, now has four rap categories, and golden gramophones have been given out to a wide range of artists from Lil’ Wayne and the aforementioned Eminem to Kanye West, who’s been stirring up his own, non-rap-related controversies of late. On top of all of this, rap is now being taught in high schools (including a special masterclass taught by Kendrick Lamar back in 2015) and has even penetrated the ivory towers of academia, with classes on the genre regularly offered at Harvard, Yale and Syracuse, among others.
It’s not news to anyone that rap is part of the mainstream, but with Lamar, we’re seeing rap reach a certain level of popularity and acceptance that most music genres have never gotten close to. Back in April, Lamar’s fourth album, DAMN., was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. Not only is Lamar the first rapper to win the award since the Pulitzer Prize board first began recognizing the music category in 1943, but he’s also the only winner of the prize who doesn’t play jazz or classical music. Even music legend Bob Dylan, who became the first musician to win a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016, has never won a Pulitzer.
Which brings me to Kendrick Lamar and his concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center last Saturday, June 9, which also featured Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and other supporting acts. I was there, and I’ve never seen so many people at SPAC before (or so much smoke, cough cough). It was practically the atmosphere of a Dave Matthews Band or Phish concert. Decades ago, most parents—well, let’s be fair—most white parents would’ve balked at the thought of their son or daughter going to a rap concert at SPAC. But Saturday, I couldn’t help but turn my head as I watched multiple carloads of young people being dropped off and, later, dutifully picked up by their parents. “Have a great time, sweetie,” I heard one mother say as her daughter hopped out of the van and joined the queue of other excited fans. And not that it’s good or bad, but yes, most of the attendees at Lamar’s concert were white. I only say that because it speaks volumes about how public opinion has shifted. Rap, once considered the ultimate corrosive agent to the status quo, is now recognized not just as a legitimate art form, but also one that can serve to instruct and critique society, not tear it down.
Indeed, without the contributions of African-American musicians, the world wouldn’t have jazz, R&B, blues, rock, funk or rap (all musical forms that were demonized before going mainstream). Maybe it’s time Saratogians recognize that American culture is black culture. And without it, we would probably all still be whistling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”