One of the greatest aspects of hip-hop,or any form of artistic expression for that matter, is the bridge we build between the past and present. I’ll listen to an album solely to detect how its creator was influenced by his or her peers and role models. I can imagine a young Wiz Khalifa, for example, listening to Bone-Thugz n Harmony on repeat, plotting his own ascent to hip-hop stardom. I find a new appreciation for artists and their music, just by tracking their inspiration and motivation.
In the case of hip-hop, the genre’s heavy reliance on sampled music makes this activity less of a guessing game, and more of a jumbled set of puzzle pieces. Every sampled beat, remixed song, and recycled lyric, contributes to a diagram of the artist’s childhood aspiration, and inspiration from current peers. After Drake released Take Care, I pictured the Toronto child star with his headphones blasting Juvenile and Jon B, wondering how he might manage to blend hip-hop and r&b into one sound. Drizzy transformed Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up” into the boastful sex ballad “Practice,” and on “Cameras,” rapped about the troubling difference between ideal and realistic images of women over a sped up Jon B’s “Calling on You.”
Now that I’ve ranted a bit about traces of the past in current hip-hop, I’d like to compare two songs that have a bit of a subtler connection than the aforementioned examples. First, you’ll have to listen to them. First, we have “Gasoline Dreams,” the first track off of OutKast’s 2000 funk-rap masterpiece, Stankonia.
“Gasoline Dreams” is a song of defiant protest. Andre 3k and Big Boi scrutinize the racial inequalities of American society, angrily underlining how the black youth face a daily struggle that makes the “American Dream” an unattainable ideal. The chorus embodies the song’s message and explains the title: “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline? Well burn motherfucker, burn American dreams.” In their verses, the Georgia duo cite racial profiling within the war on drugs, child support, and the general lack of opportunity for the youth as the large contributions to the burden blacks face from birth.
As a whole, the tracks shines a light on daunting perspective of black youth. Initially hungry to ascend from poverty and racism, blacks are ultimately struck down by the systemic racism hidden within American society; as the final lines of the chorus cry out: “The highway up to heaven got a crook on the toll/youth full of fire ain’t got no where to go, no where to go.”
Now, have a listen to a song made 10 years later, Kanye West’s “Gorgeous,” the second track off of his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
After the first spin, similarities between these two tracks aren’t exactly transparent. Yet, lyrically, both songs accomplish a similar commentary of racial inequality. With “Gorgeous,” Kanye highlights similar disparities between black and white youth, questioning racial profiling, mass incarceration, and mis-education as contributions to the inevitable failure of blacks in American society.
Take a look at the first verse:
Penitentiary chances, the devil dances
And eventually answers to the call of Autumn
All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’
Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin
Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon
And at the airport they check all through my bag
And tell me that it’s random
But we stay winning, this week has been a bad massage
I need a happy ending and a new beginning
And a new fitted, and some job opportunities that’s lucrative
This the real world, homie, school finished
They done stole your dreams, you dunno who did it
Right off the bat, Kanye argues that blacks are plagued from birth by “Penitentiary chances.” Constantly fighting off the “devil” in the form of a “cop” who “look like Alec Baldwin” (meaning: he’s white), a large portion of the black youth is inevitably doomed by systemic racism. “Lucrative” job opportunities are scarce, especially amid stereotyping and persecution from the justice system. “All them fallin’ for the love of ballin'” criticizes how black youth are made to aspire to be professional athletes to escape poverty, only to find out that success in that playing field is almost always an unattainable ideal.
The songs present parallels outside of lyrical commentary, as well. Consider that the voices on both tracks have a muffled tone, as if the songs are being broadcast over a PA system at a school. I interpret this effect as a call to arms to the youth, envisioning the rappers taking over the principal’s office as their personal studio to send their message of racial injustice to classrooms across America. While “Gasoline Dreams” isn’t Stankonia’s only track with political value, it’s lyrical commentary poses the album’s boldest claims against racial injustice in a loud, fiery manner. “Gorgeous” faced a similar impediment as the most political track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Perhaps their blatant call to arms message against racism is a credible reason as to why these songs received very little mainstream recognition, a common treatment for songs deemed too infuriating for radio play.
Created 10 years apart,we see vast evidence that “Gasoline Dreams” could very well have played a large part in inspiring Kanye West to create “Gorgeous.” What I find more intriguing is how this comparison accentuates how racial injustice as transformed from 2000 to 2010. While racism certainly hasn’t dissolved, the ways in which our society perpetuates black oppression has evolved. “Gorgeous” is a much louder track than “Gasoline Dreams,” as Kanye explains current racial injustices in much more detail. Perhaps, this augmentation was intended to match how the subtle nature of contemporary racism. Given that our racial caste system has been buried in nuance, Kanye feels the need to make an even bolder statement, to ensure that his voice is heard against the wrongful claims that America has reached a post-racial society.
“Gasoline Dreams” paints a bleak, picture for the black youth, while Kanye West provides a glimpse of hope ten years later. As Kanye does best, he uses himself as a model for the youth, exemplifying his own defiance of oppression to succeed despite ‘the way he was branded.” Where any notion of the black “American Dream” was burned with OutKast’s gasoline, Kanye leaves his listeners with a lingering motivation to rise above. Perhaps, in another 10 years, we’ll see a new artist create a song that attains the infuriating political value of these tracks. Then, we can take another glance at our past, to see how we have been inspired, how we have evolved, and how we are still facing many of the same problems.