Hip-hop is a lot of things, but the least discussed of all its facets is how it operates as a philosophy. I don’t mean as a KRS-One riff or as subject matter; I mean structurally.
Consider Thomas Kuhn. In 1962 Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he describes the field as having stretches of “normal science,” interrupted by moments of “crisis.” Every once in a while, there’s a revolution in the field, challenging and ultimately subsuming the existing paradigm. This kind of intellectual coup is how we came to understand that Earth rotates around the sun (the Copernican system) rather than the reverse (a framework Ptolemy had theorized).
New concepts flaring up to challenge and even replace core systems of understanding is an extremely applicable principle in hip-hop. First, the “Rapper’s Delight” party style of rapping was supplanted by the “new school” sounds of Run DMC, then the denser verbal gymnastics of practitioners like Slick Rick, KRS-One, and Rakim became the norm. Eventually, those gymnastics morphed and were excised out of the Rap Olympics, replaced with other stylistic contenders over time, with even mumble rap — the seeming antithesis to layered polysyllabia — becoming a standard paradigm. On and on the revolution turns, the atoms of culture smashing themselves against one another until something new and powerful enough to take the throne for a while comes along.
The music of hip-hop is loaded with as many ethical questions as it is moral imperatives, and the bulk of its practitioners adhere to at least one personal philosophy. (Rap has very few dadaists.) In fact, the work and statements of some of our favorite rappers line up quite comfortably alongside philosophy’s greatest — and most notorious — minds.
Lil Wayne: Friedrich Nietzsche
“I open the Lamborghini, hopin’ them crackers see me / Like, “Look at that bastard Weezy!” / He’s a beast, he’s a dog, he’s a mothafuckin’ problem / Okay, you’re a goon, but what’s a goon to a goblin?”
— Lil Wayne, “A Milli”
“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzche presented a quasi-historical character who sought to dismantle popular notions of human nature, God, religion, the state, and ethics. Nietzsche thought the pursuit of an afterlife kept people from living their best lives now, in the world we know to exist. Instead, he espoused the notion of a “Superman,” a person who has done away with historical ideas of piety-based values and is able to access their full natural potential as a human being (and lives/parties like it). You kind of get why Nazis are into him — or at least their highly edited and misapplied version of him.
To be clear, Wayne is not Nietzsche here. He’s not that intentional. Instead, he’s Zarathustra: the man who believes he has all of the answers, that he answers to no one as God is dead, and that humanity should seek to surpass its own nature. Wayne lives to contradict by the very nature of his appearance, his deeds, and his ideas. His extended bouts with self-destruction — drugs, cozying up to Donald Trump, dismissal of Black Lives Matter — are not the machinations of a charlatan, but of someone who wishes to destroy whatever social strictures the world would place on him. Much how Zarathustra came to see a hermetic existence as a sin against living (because blaspheming God was so 580 B.C.E.), Wayne is a model of world-ending nihilism as a lifestyle. Sip up.
Other adherents: Gucci Mane
Jay-Z: Ayn Rand
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
— Jay-Z, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)”
“We are on strike against martyrdom — and against the moral code that demands it. We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another. We are on strike against the morality of cannibals, be it practiced in body or in spirit. We will not deal with men on any terms but ours — and our terms are a moral code which holds that man is an end in himself and not the means to any end of others.”
— Ayn Rand
It makes sense that a philosophy that says 1) reality is pretty much what you see is what you get; and 2) that the pursuit of one’s own happiness is man’s greatest purpose would find an avatar in hip-hop’s richest mogul. If Jay-Z doesn’t claim to be an Objectivist, it’s only because he doesn’t know what the word means. When you recall Jay’s chilling response in 2013 to being challenged by actor and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte about not utilizing his fame more in the interest of social justice — “my presence is charity” — it reads like a line out of the Cliffs Notes for The Fountainhead.
Other adherents: 50 Cent, T.I., Ja Rule
Kanye West: René Descartes
“Blacks really get caught up in the idea of racism over the idea of industry.”
— Kanye West during his 2018 White House visit with Donald Trump
“It is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
— René Descartes
Descartes was a proponent of “the method of doubt,” a skeptics’ interrogation in which the exaggerated questioning of nearly all things leads to greater knowledge. Kanye never met a contradiction he couldn’t turn into a T-shirt slogan, seemingly in love with the idea that he knows something the rest of us just don’t get. Descartes’ idea of an “evil demon” — a higher power who shrouds the minds of men from their true lot in life — is the precursor to the kind of sheeple-speak that Kanye used when he referred to Donald Trump and Infowars founder Alex Jones as “matrix-breakers.”
Other adherents: Joe Budden
Kendrick Lamar: Plato
“What money got to do with it / When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image? / I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it / Institutionalized, I keep runnin’ back for a visit”
— Kendrick Lamar, “Institutionalized”
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Much of Kendrick’s work unpacks his identity struggles: What and who is the real Kendrick Lamar; how has fame changed those answers; and how can one stay tethered to those things that make you who you are. All of his records are dispatches from his life, broadcast to the masses in an attempt to both illuminate and strip away his shadow (that is, popularized) self. This agenda strikes an eerily resonant chord with the notion of Plato’s cave.
In the Athenian’s allegory, people are raised from birth facing a wall upon which shadows are projected from behind. Chained and unable to even interact with each other, all they know of reality are the shadows; they have no real sense, even, of the objects casting those shadows. Should one of the captives lose their chains, they would be so confused by the scenario that they would long for their chains. If this same captive made it to the outside world beyond the cave and eventually became acclimated to the real world, upon returning to the cave they would be entirely alien to the prisoners, unable to communicate reality to them. Plato believed that the shadows were the world as we perceive it, and that a more perfect version (a “Form”) of everything existed in the world of Ideas. It is this tethering to ignorance that both Kendrick and Plato seek to undermine.
Other adherents: Killer Mike, Childish Gambino, Notorious B.I.G.
“Just like a Hillary Clinton, who masqueraded the system / Who chicken-boned, watermelon-ed / Traded hoodie for hipster, infatuated the minstrel / When we cool, they cool, we die as coon / We supa fly indigenous, now hop to the moon / Who wrote the movie to America? It’s still coming soon”
— Noname, “Blaxploitation”
“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”
The curator of a wildly popular book club online, rapper Noname is a great white shark when it comes to knowledge: never sleeping, never content with what she contains, devouring foes in pursuit of a deeper engagement. This is the same energy Socrates brought to ideas while trolling the streets of Athens, seeking not just knowledge, but a better way to arrive at it. It’s not enough to know a definition of justice; we must determine if there is some commonality to the things in our lives in which we apply the word. That dialectical method of inquiry was true for Socrates in 400 B.C.E., and it is true for the politically indefatigable Noname now.
Other adherents: KRS-One, Black Thought
MF DOOM: Diogenes
“Enough about me, it’s about the beats / Not about the streets and who food he ‘bout to eat”
— MF DOOM, “Beef Rapp”
“It is not that I am mad, it is only that my head is different than yours.”
— Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes held that to live the best life, one had to strip away the self-centered lens of society and materialism, thus freeing oneself from worry and achieving true contentment in the bosom of natural impulse. The philosopher so believed this that he lived in the streets, sleeping in a ceramic jar, free from social expectation: the OG of nonconformity. When you consider the fiercely independent career of MF DOOM, who eschewed major label advances and wore a mask as a challenge to audiences to focus on his art and not his person, the pairing of the two is a match made in the streets.
Other adherents: André 3000
2Pac: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
“All we know is violence, do the job in silence / Walk the city streets like a rat pack of tyrants / Too many brothers, daily headed for the big pen’ / Niggas comin’ out worse-off than when they went in”
— 2Pac, “Trapped”
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Thought this one was going to be Machiavelli, didn’t you? All you have to do is look at 2Pac’s business dealings to know it wasn’t that kind of cipher. Rousseau believed that the veneer of civilization had corruption baked into it. As man began to form societies and create more and more laws, natural balance was thrown out the window in order to protect the rich and hurt the poor. (You can almost see the “Thug Life” tattoo forming across Rousseau’s belly.)
While Rousseau and 2Pac would have been at opposite sides of the table when it came to the question of whether or not art corrupts, the two likely would have agreed on the concept of the “social contract:” that the people could rule themselves better than a ruling class, so long as a general will could be envisaged.
Other adherents: Ice Cube, Chance the Rapper
Ice T: Confucius
“So I blast the mic with my style / Sometimes I’m ill and other times buckwild / But the science is always there / I’d be a true sucker if I acted like I didn’t care / I rap for brothers just like myself / Dazed by the game in a quest for extreme wealth”
— Ice T, “O.G. Original Gangster”
“What you know, you know; what you don’t know, you don’t know. This is true wisdom.”
While Ice T is too much of a materialist to fully subscribe to Confucian teachings, the two share core values that they convey to the world through didactic means. In defiance of the religious beliefs of his time, Confucius believed that virtue was not something imbued by heaven in certain levels of society (meaning those of high station), but existed in every person. This virtue could be brought out by work and ritual, or by exercising values like loyalty and reciprocity. It was important to know your station, but also to carry yourself in such a way that you generate sincerity. Ice T would call this realness, and it is an aspect he has cultivated in his work and life by example. Having turned from a life of crime to rap, the Original Gangster honored those who came before him in the various gang territories he navigated, conveyed sincerity as a shield, and applied the golden rule — treat others as you wish to be treated — as a semi-religious guide to staying on the path of reform and success.
Other adherents: Rakim, RZA, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott