Every rapper’s favorite tagline seems to be that the game is always changing. However, I doubt 1988 Ice Cube, having just released the massively influential album Straight Outta Compton, would ever have believed that he would go on to create family fodder like the 2005 kiddie roadtrip film Are We There Yet? In the 24 years since his N.W.A. classic, Ice Cube underwent the amazing development from gangsta rapper to cuddly movie father figure.
The stark contrast between these two personas highlights a trend that the hip-hop/rap genre has witnessed in the past decade. Put bluntly, industry stalwarts like Big L, Tupac, and Biggie are not dying anymore, let alone being associated with gang violence like they were in the late ‘90s. Rap is now a safe haven for producers and artists committed to a genre that represents artists who are more often topping the charts than starting a jail stint for intent to distribute or murder. Though once plagued by the hatred of parents everywhere, hip-hop is nearing acceptance as a genre of the masses like pop and rock. It is a curious shift in identity that is affecting the perception of the entire hip-hop industry.
Violence and rap have been integrally linked since the beginning of the East-West Coast rivalry. Rebellion, greed, and pride were the catalysts for open gang affiliation. With label owners like the infamous Suge Knight of Death Row Records supporting and working with members of the Bloods, clashes were inevitable. The two most influential names on their respective coasts in hip-hop, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, were far from inculpable in the shady dealings of their affiliates, but age and family were starting to hit home before they were gunned down a mere six months apart in 1996 and 1997. Some have died since then, like Big L in 1999, but a shift in the definition of hip-hop culture has led to the mega-success of a different breed of rapper, personified by Drake and Kanye West. There has been less murder across the board, rappers included. Just this year, homicides dropped out of the top 15 causes of death in the U.S., which has not happened since 1965. But an overall reduction in murder cannot entirely explain away a reduction in this culture of violence.
Kanye West models one theory of gaining rap success without holding street cred, and his 2004 release of debut album College Dropout embodied the change in focus. The producer-turned-rapper relies on an image based on fashion and a presupposed grandeur that has catapulted him to mainstream success. Predictably, Kanye displays a voracious desire for money, yet he recognized early on that his audience didn’t need to see him affiliated with this rapper or that gang to ferociously accumulate such wealth. Focusing on his business and actively ignoring the feuding of gangsta contemporaries like 50 Cent enabled Kanye to succeed. Even after his rise, the rapper remains at the forefront of changing the way hip-hop is perceived. With Watch the Throne, he and Jay-Z created a tribute to their self-indulgent glorification of success, a rare collaboration between rap superstars. Forgetting antagonistic competition, they produced one of the best-selling albums of the year.
A strong academic background has given Kanye and others currently in the hip-hop industry a business acumen not existent in rap startups like the Wu-Tang Clan. Increasingly more rappers have come to the realization that the music sustains itself—the criminal activity that has been associated with rap in the past is irrelevant because of its marketability as a mainstream genre. There is a reason why rappers are abandoning the drug-dealing, gun-wielding lifestyle of Biggie and Tupac. Growing older, as many of the current greats are, has proven that the money is in the music. Kanye and company understand that there is no reason to project an image of violence when there is so much promise and safety on the golden boulevards of Hollywood.