Conscious Rap

When you don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’


Conscious Rap or sometimes referred to as Political Rap is a style/sub-genre of hip hop characterized by content that addresses society issues and calls for political and/or social action.  There is no all-encompassing political hip-hop ideology; rather, there are multiple perspectives that range anywhere from Marxism to the values of the Five Percent Nation.



Conscious Rap is characterized more by the songs than the artists.  Most rappers do not limit themselves to only making “conscious” music.  Also, many artists that primarily do not make conscious music may come out with a conscious song.  Due to this the label of “conscious rapper” is often rejected by artists. 

Common themes in conscious hip hop include Afrocentricity, religion, aversion to crime and violence, culture, the economy, or depictions of the struggles of ordinary people.  Some conscious rap seeks to raise awareness of social issues, leaving the listeners to form their own opinions while other styles aggressively advocate for certain ideas and demanding actions. 

Anti-Racism, Black Liberation and Nationalism

As hip-hop is a music genre dominated by African-Americans, political rappers often reference and discuss black liberation. In particular, the Five-Percent Nation, an Islamic group that focuses on black liberation theology, has a high membership of popular rappers and has had an integral influence on hip hop culture. There are numerous hip hop songs expressing anti-racist views in hope for peace.  Also, artists advocating more for radical black liberation that is more controversial. 

Other songs criticize the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex from an anti-racist perspective. Hip hop music continues to draw the attention and support of the struggles of minority groups in a modernist method of communication that attracts a young crowd of activists. Kendrick Lamar and many other rappers have been credited with creating discussions regarding “blackness” through their music.

Anti-poverty, class struggle and socialism

Many hip hop artists come from underclass backgrounds and focus on class oppression along with racial oppression.  This includes lyrics regarding economic inequality and inadequate employment opportunities.  Other rappers have expressed communist views, Maoism, anarchist positions, and anti-capitalism in their music.


Feminist topics such as the use of “bitch” in hip hop culture and double standards have been addressed by women rappers.  Artists such as Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and Rapsody have each made popular songs regarding gender.

Views on Religion

Rappers often reference their religious views. However, outside of Five-Percenters and Black Muslims, they rarely translate into political views. Killer Mike, however, has been heavily critical of organized religion in many of his more political songs.  Chicago-raised rapper Kanye West’s Life of Pablo album release is another that offers an outlet for religious expression and self-assessment. Rap and hip hop music are outlets for whatever creative inner dialogue their creators wish to express, and religious beliefs are no exception.

Conscious Gangsta Rap

Although some gangsta rap embraces immoral behavior for shock value, some gangsta Rap is a legit criticism of the government.  For artists such as Tupac, the line between what would be gangsta rap and what would be viewed more as conscious rap is blurry.  Generally, though, conscious/political rappers such as Paris and Public Enemy would make music from the position that they were moral activists fighting for a positive cause.  Even if their music included violence they would describe themselves as militant, but never gangsters or criminals.  Whereas Gangsta Rap has more of a message of vengeance and embraces the image of being the villain.  Not only by referring to themselves as gangsters, criminals, and thugs but by cussing more, using the N-word more, and generally more disrespectful language.      

Sound and Content Summary

Summary of Common Elements of Conscious Rap Music

  • General
    • Content about society issues
    • Tends to use Boom Bap or Chillhop beats although plenty of songs have different sounds



Origins (1970s-1980s)

The Black Power Movement of the mid-1960s  and early-1970s inspired music from James Brown, Billy Paul, and others that embraced blackness and made political statements.  Gil Scott-Heron had a proto-rap style although his music fell under the genres of jazz, soul, and funk. 

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and conditions in inner-city African-American communities worsened.  The problems included mass unemployment, police brutality, incarceration, inadequate public schools, political apathy, and oppression.  

One of the first socially conscious hip-hop songs was “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” by Brother D with Collective Effort in 1980. The first majorly successful hip hop song containing conscious rap was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message”, an influential political and conscious hip hop track, decrying the poverty, violence, and dead-end lives of the urban poor of the time. Furthermore, the complex socio-political issues before hip hop and during all of its stages severely influenced its birth and direction.


The popularity of conscious rap has fluctuated over the years.  There was a drop during the late 90s to around 2006 but has remained present during each era.  Although it is usually not topping charts in the U.S.A. it has found a lot of success worldwide.  The worldwide popularity is not as concentrated on a few artists, instead the subgenre thrives because each nation with rap music contains rappers speaking to that nation’s struggles and politics.  The music may not connect to people outside of their country but around the world rappers are voicing their social frustrations making it a relevant subgenre in any nation with rap music.  


The reach of Hip Hop to the political world is evident with the spread of opinions, ideas, and informal dialogue on controversial topics. 

During the 1980s and 1990s the culture was often ignored or criticized by politicians on both sides.  It was viewed as destructive to American values.  This view didn’t taken into account historical oppression or injustices experienced by minority groups. 

Tupac’s debut album was called a “disgrace to American music” by Vice President Dan Quayle.  This was mainly because a Texas youth shot a state trooper and referenced the album as motivation.  Tupac contained a song with a fictional story in which the police officer slams him on the ground for no reason and his friend shoots the officer.

Similar Subgenres

Alternative Rap – Rap that doesn’t fall into a particular category or sound 


Some of the key conscious rappers and rap groups

  • 2Pac
  • A Tribe Called Quest
  • Black Star
    • Mos Def
    • Talib Kweli
  • Common
  • Dead Prez
  • Lauryn Hill
  • Paris
  • Public Enemy
  • Queen Latifah
  • Saigon


Some Classic/Popular Gangsta Rap Albums

  • Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
  • Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
  • Paris – The Devil Made Me Do It (1990)
  • 2pac – 2pacalypse Now (1992)
  • Queen Latifah – UNITY
  • Blackstar – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Blackstar (1998)
  • Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (1999)
  • Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free (2000)
  • Common – Like Water For Chocolate (2000)
  • The Roots – Game Theory (2006)
  • Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor (2006)
  • Lupe Fiasco – The Cool (2007)
  • Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
  • Joey Bada$$, ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ (2017)


Some Classic Gangsta Rap Songs

  • Public Enemy – Fight the Power
  • Paris – The Devil Made Me Do It
  • 2Pac – Changes
  • Mos Def – Mathematics
  • Dead Prez – Hip Hop
  • Talib Kweli – Get By
  • Common – Black America Again