(Check out the playlist of all 10 songs at the end of the post!)
1. "Changes" by Tupac
As one of the most prolific MC's that has ever graced the earth, Tupac left the world tragically and far too soon, but not before he dropped some serious knowledge on the public about a variety of social issues. "Changes" is one of Tupac's most famous and (in my opinion) best songs. It references the war on drugs, the unfair treatment of black people by the police, and the difficulties of life in poor areas.
Given how relevant the song is to what America is facing today, the lyrics still truly resonate 15 years after its release, reminding all of us that there are still many changes that need to be made in the government, in our choices, and, most importantly, in our hearts.
"I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place..."
2. "When I'm Gone" by Eminem
One things about Eminem that has never wavered is the love that he has for his daughter. He writes many songs about her, but I find that "When I'm Gone" shows his real, raw feelings about the impact his music career has had on his daughter and their relationship.
This is the perfect example of Marshall's ability to self-reflect. I think everything about this song is admirable, from the fact that he recognizes the paradox of his rapping to his willingness to admit it to the world. For a man who has made as many mistakes as he has made hit songs, his ability to not only acknowledge his wrongs, but to also apologize for them, will always continue to impress.
"I don't know go play Hailie, baby, your Daddy's busy
Daddy's writing a song, this song ain't gonna write itself
I'll give you one underdog then you gotta swing by yourself.
Then turn right around in that song and tell her you love her
And put hands on her mother, who's a spitting image of her
That's Slim Shady, yeah baby, Slim Shady's crazy
Shady made me"
3. "Fly" by Nicki Minaj ft. Rihanna
It saddens me that Nicki Minaj is the only female on this list, but it just goes to show how male-dominated the rap industry is - an issue that has not escaped the Pinkprint diva. In reference to her newest album, Nicki has addressed what being a woman in this industry has meant for her, stating in an interview with Vogue,
I am not the biggest fan of Nicki Minaj's music, but I respect her talent, something that she sadly has to fight for in the rap world. Most impressively, Nicki inspires young women to stay in school. She has visited many schools and supported programs to make sure that her young fans do just that.
"I think of myself as a woman who wants other women to be bosses and to be strong and to be go-getters... But I don't really identify with any particular label. I just speak my truth and if people like it, they like it, and if they bash it, they bash it."
4. "Waving Flag" by K'Naan ft. Will.I.Am & David Guetta
From K'Naan's album Troubadour, the song was originally written for Somalia and his aspirations of its people for freedom. The song got huge when it was used by a supergroup of Canadian artists, Young Artists for Haiti, as a charity to benefit relief efforts for those affected by the earthquake in 2010. It also became the official 2010 World Cup songs featuring Will.i.am and mixed by David Guetta. The lyrics are truly inspirational and represent the plight of the people of Somalia.
The tune carries such an uplifting message of hope, while still reminding the listener that things desperately need to change. Sometimes, we forget just how lucky we are to be Americans, and the massive amount of safety and rights we are given - rights that are not afforded to a large percentage of our fellow men.
"But we struggling, fighting to eat,
And we wondering, when we'll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day,
It's not far away, but for now we say,
When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag."
5. "Lighters" by Bad Meets Evil ft. Bruno Mars
Eminem is one of my personal heroes. I love the way that he writes his songs. It feels like I am reading his diary every time he comes on my iPod. For the past two decades, Marshall has been loved, hated, controversial, ignorant, and apologetic. Most importantly, though, he has always been honest. It's easy to dislike him for some of the things that he has done and said, and, interestingly enough, he knows that better than anyone.
This track was done by Bad Meets Evil, composed of Royce da 5'9" (Bad) and Eminem (Evil). One of my favorite aspects of many of Eminem's songs is that he not only acknowledges the haters, but let's them know just how they impacted his life: by driving him even harder.
Now that's something we all should take out of his playbook. Haters? Try motivators.
"Till nobody else even f**king feels me, till' it kills me
I swear to God I'll be the f**king illest in this music
There is or there ever will be, disagree?
Feel free, but from now on I'm refusing to ever give up
Only thing I ever gave up using is no more excuses
Excuse me if my head is too big for this building"
6. "Only One" by Kanye West ft. Paul McCartney
Kanye has the world's biggest ego, but, to be fair, he's kind of earned it. Just like Lupe, I am a little partial because 'Ye also grew up in Chicago, but that doesn't negate his skills.
In "Only One" ft. Paul McCartney, Kanye does more singing than rapping, but hip hop is hip hop, even if it's a ballad. It's interesting because I love "Hey Mama" for the same reason that I love this song: Kanye isn't up on his soapbox for this track. Instead, he talks to his mother in heaven and about how much he loves little Nori. Even in the studio released version, you can hear Kayne get a little choked up talking about his mother.
I think the lyrics to this song can resonate with everyone. We have all loved and lost, we have all felt shame from our mistakes, and we've all had moments in life where we have doubted ourselves. This song, as well as "Hey Mama," are clearly incredibly personal to Kanye. I wish he would do more of these types of songs because, like Eminem, it's a glimpse into 'Ye's softer side, one that he constantly tries to hide.
"I think the storm ran out of rain, the clouds are movin'
I know you're happy, cause I can see it
So tell the voice inside ya' head to believe it
I talked to God about you, he said he sent you an angel
And look at all that he gave you
You asked for one and you got two
You know I never left you
Cause every road that leads to heaven's right inside you"
7. "I Need a Doctor" by Dr. Dre & Eminem ft. Skylar Gray
Dr. Dre has quite a few songs about his success and how the people around him have treated him as a result. This rap duet goes back and forth from Eminem to Dr. Dre, starting with Eminem rapping about his start in the game and how Dr. Dre was literally the only one that believed in him.
Dr. Dre later chimes in to call out his haters and raps about how no one supported him until the money came pouring in.
"It was you who believed in my when everyone was tellin' you
Don't sign me, everyone at the fuckin' label
Let's tell the truth
You risked your career for me, I know it as well as you"
Dre really does have a point, people do tend to come out of the woodwork when you've struck gold. Given that Dre's net worth is $700,000,000 and he sold Beats by Dre to Apple for $3 billion, it's no surprise that now people want a part of the action. That was the largest single-year payday of any musician in music history.
"F**ck all you fair-weather friends, all I need is him
F**kin' backstabbers, when the chips were down
You just laughed at us
Now you're about to feel the f**kin' wrath of aftermath"
The life lesson here is obvious: stick with your friends through the tough times when they most need you because when they get to the top, they won't forget how you acted before.
8. "Same Love" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert
This is one of the most powerful gay rights songs in the entire hip hop genre. Which makes perfect sense given that the song chastises rap and hip hop for ignoring this important and incredibly relevant social issue.
Even though this truly is one of the only songs of its kind, the lyrics are infectious and eye-opening. The song sort of spun the issue on its head, comparing it to other social prejudices that, in the past, people thought were ok. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis left out all cliches and added the amazing vocals of Mary Lambert. As a lesbian, Mary Lambert's emotionally-charged lyrics add even more depth to an already groundbreaking song. Hopefully, like other human rights issues, we will be on the right side of history soon.
"A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It's the same hate that's caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins
It's human rights for everybody, there is no difference!"
9. "HiiiPoWeR" by Kendrick Lamar
This hip hop track was the lead single off Lamar's Section.80. While the entire album received positive reviews, this song in particular drew attention because of its lyrics and depth. The song, produced by J. Cole, is a melting pot of epic artists and songs, containing samples of Kanye West's "So Appalled," Sixtoo's "Duration Project Part 9," and Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says." Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul describe "HiiiPoWeR" as more of a movement than a song. The three 'i's in the song stand for heart, honor, and respect - the three main things that people should have and live by. The song's purpose, as described by Kendrick, is to promote the HiiiPoWeR movement to help lift a generation in a destructive society.
Lamar often refers to Tupac in reference to this song, who is one of his biggest influences. No surprise there given that Tupac also dedicated his music on highlighting social issues. HipHopDX awarded the song the Verse of the Year Award and XXL Magazine called it "one of the finest tracks of the year.
"Every day we fight the system just to make our way,
we been down for too long But that's alright,
we was built to be strong cause it's our life"
10. "The Show Goes On" by Lupe Fiasco
For the sake of this article, I am purely speaking to the Lupe of yesteryear. Being from Chicago, I am obviously partial to Fiasco. I saw him during the Glow In The Dark Tour opening up for Kanye West and he was phenomenal. His debut album, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor was produced with the assistance of Rap God Jay-Z and featured singles that also spoke to the positive aspects of life. The album garnered three Grammy Award nominations, including Best Rap Album.
His second album, The Cool, also featured thought-provoking lyrics and story lines (again, instead of talking about butts.) My personal favorite is "Hip Hop Saved My Life" ft. Nikki Jean:
I think anyone can relate to this song, hip hop fans or not. Who doesn't want to follow a dream and be able to pay back all of those that helped them? The message of this song is the exact opposite to what we're used to hearing: celebrate your successes with the people you love, treat others with kindness, and show people of similar circumstance that things can be different with hard work and change.
"He picked up his son with a great big smile, Rapped every single word to the newborn child
Then he put 'em down and went back to the kitchen, Put on another beat and got back to the mission
To get his momma out the hood, Put her somewhere in the woods
Keep his lady looking good, Have her rolling like she should
Show his homies there's a way, Other than that flipping Yay
Bail his homie outta jail, Put a lawyer on his case
Throw a concert for the school, Show this that's it cool"
Listen to all the tracks here: