The Key's Year-End Mania: MH the Verb's top ten "woke" songs of 2016 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
MH the Verb | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2016 incredible. Today, Philly rapper MH the Verb shares his favorite social conscious cuts of the year.

Backpacker. Underground. Conscious rapper. Alternative. All code names and terms used over the years to identify a sub culture of artists in hip-hop that can be simply defined by economics – broke. That characterization may be unfair to some standouts like midwest MC / producer, Tech N9ne, Chicago MC Lupe Fiasco, Queens legend Nas and a few select others who have found success in niche markets, but overall, making music with a conscious message hasn’t been the fab for those trying to sell millions and find themselves on Forbes’ Cash King List.

Historically, reflections of social and political struggle have always fueled popular music. Decades ago artists like James Brown, Gil Scot-Heron and Marvin Gaye provided the soundtrack for black empowerment during the civil rights movement. In the 1960’s, anti-war poems were beautifully crafted into lyrics by songwriters like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Today, we still “Imagine” John Lennon’s vision of a peaceful world, but it just so happens to be followed on our playlist by N.W.A’s horrific description of what it’s like “Straight Outta Compton.”

While American popular music has always maintained a certain rich history of social commentary, it has seemed over the last couple of decades that commercialism has caused a shift, relegating music with conscience messages into a subcategory opposite the mainstream. In hip-hop especially, artists have drawn a line, leading some commercially successful artists to shy away from exploring deeper topics and more meaningful concepts, leaving many fans to wonder what could have been. As giants of the genre, like Jay-Z have famously acknowledged the divide, it has become more than just an idea – it has become the norm.

If skills sold truth be told
I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five Mil)
I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
– Jay-Z, “Moment of Clarity” (2003)

However, it seems to be a new day in hip-hop. Recently, a new generation of artists have ascended, shifting the definition and perception of what it means to express consciousness through art and entertainment. America’s first Black President, Barack Obama has welcomed hip-hop into the white house, giving artists empowerment in the political arena like never before.

In 2016, on the heels of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and in the wake of one of the most divisive Presidential elections of all time, artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West are tackling issues head on with various forms of art and media. Artists are even taking to social media to extend their voices with hashtags and direct commentary of social issues. Even the aforementioned Jay-Z has embraced his voice for causes including an initiative for clean water in Africa and in support of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign this past year.

Beyonce shocked the world with the release of her politically-charged video for “Formation” earlier this year. Taking it a step farther, she received both praise and backlash for her Black Panther inspired half time performance at Super Bowl 50. Not to be outdone, Solange Knowles (previously best known as Beyonce’s sister or the girl who beat up Jay-Z in the elevator), released one of the year’s most introspective and beautifully arranged albums with little warning or build up. The album, A Seat at the Table, is a calm yet chilling depiction of the black female experience in America told as only a soul artist could.

The year’s biggest story may have been the surprise resurgence of legendary hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest. The group released arguably the most important project of the year on November 11th with their aptly timed release, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. The group that defined the conscience sound of hip-hop’s early 90s golden era arose from a 18-year hiatus after the passing of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor. The album seemed to be the perfect answer to inspire a hip-hop community struggling for life in the days after Donald Trump’s historic presidential election victory.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis did what they do best – released a heart-wrenching music video for their single “Drug Dealer“ in which they point the finger at pharmaceutical companies for promoting opioid addiction in the suburbs. Kendrick Lamar continued his progressive artistic growth with a release of untitled songs about police brutality, racial divide, and misogynistic culture that still found their way onto dance floors as club anthems. Even J. Cole chimed in before the end of 2016 with the controversial release “False Prophets” calling out the artistic integrity and awareness of his peers Kanye West and Wale.

While billboard charts are continuously topped with more diverse songs showcasing a number of topics including female empowerment and anti-bullying messages, there are still a large group of artist who haven’t embraced the movement. For every “Alright” there’s still a “Truffle Butter.” However, it’s obvious that conscious and woke artists are alive and well, even inspiring emerging artists like myself. We can only hope that the trend continues as we prepare for four years of a Trump presidency. For now, let’s enjoy the great music of 2016.

My Top 10 “Woke” Songs of 2016

Solange Knowles – Don’t Touch My Hair
Anderson .Paak – The Season / Carry Me
Kendrick Lamar – untitled 3 (aka Peace of Mind)
A Tribe Called Quest – We the People
J. Cole – Ville Mentality
Childish Gambino – Baby Boy
Run The Jewels – Hey Kids (Bumaye)
Common – Little Chicago Boy
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Drug Dealer
Alessia Cara – Scars to Your Beautiful

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