Assessing the Candidates for Hip-Hop President

On July 23, Lauryn Hill had a baby, her sixth. A week later she performed at L.A. Rising Festival. All in a week’s work, y’know. Word to Zion. Now I’ve been wrong (and hurt) before, so please correct me if this comes off sounding a little Miseducated, but I can’t help wonder if either on a symbolic level (she now has more children than Grammy’s), or just a fiscal level (so many kids to feed), this bodes well for Lauryn making a full-on return to the landscape as an artist, a performer. We all have the same wish, don’t we? The same flashback? It was an August much like this one when we first heard the 1-4-1-1-1-2-1-1 finger-snaps on “Nothing Even Matters,” announcing the undeniable truth: Lauryn Hill was president — nay, EMPRESS — of these here United States. The skies could fall! Your boss could call! But L spitting hot fire, singing lullabies could make the world seem so very small (snap-snap).

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill felt like a genuine Presidential moment, a space where we find not only music and escapism, but bars that explode with inspiration. And, like those Barack speeches that gave us goosebumps in the night, Lauryn delivered something akin to leadership. Her fireside chats were nostalgic and sentimental: “Today we’re gonna talk about love.” Giggles from the class, but they still listened to the reassuring voice of the best teacher ever. It was a stream of music that was impossible to rally against.

Of course it couldn’t last. The politics of the business started eating away at the good stuff. Eventually Lauryn abdicated office, setting off to make love in Jamaica with a Marley (could be worse, I imagine).

Lauryn proved to be the end of an era, and I’m not certain we’ve tasted that same stew of talent, beauty, poise, accessibility, all topped with just the right dollop of political consciousness. So delicious!

Flash forward to today. I wonder if the throne Jay and Kanye are watching isn’t Lauryn’s to watch. Isn’t she the one artist we all think could throw the sophists and heathens off the stage? Pardon me, but what nourishing “so-soulful” music do Jay-Z and Kanye have for me? Is it this “Otis” you’re referring to? Please don’t answer that.

With Lauryn back on the radar, and strong shots from the Throne, Eminem, Beyoncé, amongst others it’s a good time to profile the field of respected, inspiring, makers of crossover Leadership Music. Artists we can invest our heart and souls in … let’s call them our 2012 Presidential Music Candidates.

Here’s your field of 2011-2012 Candidates:

Lauryn (Return of the Queen): Return of the Queen? It may sound sexist, but if she can get back to where she was she’s the only truly viable female candidate. Katy Perry = Sarah Palin, just, uh, pales in comparison all faux-rebellion and winking “Hey, ya!”; Nicki Minaj is interesting, but far too young and green. Lady Gaga is a fascinating crossword puzzle, but too much of a reality “show” to get real with us. We don’t want synthetic air-bubble suits. We want green, sustainable, back-to-basics, no air-quotes, straight-up uncut raw top-shelf goodness. And that’s Lauryn, or was Lauryn. I love the media meta-narrative Gaga’s games and hijinx provide, but Lauryn (and later Chappelle as well) proved there’s only one statement to make about media and the celebrity machine. Don’t play the game. Two artists who illustrate why it’s so difficult to get a pure product. Like Hillary, she had her heyday around the turn of the century. Unlike Hillary, Lauryn never had a partner who rivaled, let alone overshadowed her. Have we seen her best?

Eminem (A Kinder, Gentler Em): You could say, even more so than Lauryn, things haven’t been the same since Marshall Mathers reigned supreme. I miss him being the Joker in the urban-Gotham music world. His satirical Slim Shady persona was an inversion of Lauryn in almost every way; an aggressive don’t-care-who-dies nihilist, LOSE YOURSELF and, by the way, FUCK YOU brand of leader. A sheriff to subvert the game, mentally in step with the cultural explosion that came from technology, the Internet, and George Bush-era politics. As important is his role as “the first [only?] great white rapper”, meaning he’s dealt with the same American blend of pressures as Obama being the first black president. Eminem knows how to utilize the politics of that to wield influence, engender success.

Right now he feels a bit like like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas, perhaps in witness protection for killing Moby, and now forced to live the rest of his life as an average rap schnook. But this could be the calm before the storm. The transition to a more mature leader, his bleeding heart, paired with the foundation of respect for his skills, work ethic, 8 Mile rags-to-riches narrative keeps him a viable candidate. His recovery narrative is a future template for political success as well. Coming from Detroit makes him iconic, and like the motor city it’s possible the heyday has passed. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the start of a new dawn (or something similarly cheesy that people from The D never say or think, but is true!).

Beyoncé (Politics over Content): If politics trumps content, Bey might be our best defacto candidate. It’s tough to indict Beyonce over substance, but Lauryn and Em set the bar high. Their albums convey the vision of a singular voice. Beyoncé, while blessing us with a handful of national anthems, still feels a bit like a professor of urban-music thought exercises. A beautiful mind, but no genius.

When you submit 72 songs for your new album, is that a product of prolific talent, or someone not knowing what they want to do? And even though these days she trumps Jay in the power rankings, she still feels a little like Jay-Z’s wifey, the hottest chick in the game, wearing someone else’s chain. Her latest album a long ode to monogamy, to a partnership, to codependency. There’s something beautiful in that, and it does set them up as the First Man and Lady of music. But in that way it also feels a bit like Hillary and Bill Clinton. And the question is if she can get out of that shadow — she needs to get out of that shadow — in order to command that executive-level respect.

Still, in this field, she’s probably the most reliable, and best political strategist and all-around candidate we have. 4 was a wonderful step in her evolution, but her her genius doesn’t grab you in repose, only as a performer. And our presidents, in addition to good shows, they need to be able to go into the bunker and come out with an impeccable blueprint. Need more content. She’s got the strong woman vibe, and the flair for impromptu performances for school children, but Bey’s still finding her Leadership voice on that front.

Kanye/Jay-Z (The Throne Watchers): We know Jay and Kanye are trying: Watch The Throne aspires for soulful and epic. I don’t know if it delivers on that promise. There’s still a little too much Republican with these two. Too much wind machine. Too much that isn’t accessible and human. If Jay declares his ambitions, then comfortably lounges beneath them on a yacht, I’m sorry but: No throne for you. Needs more “I do this for my culture”. “Murder to Excellence” is a start. Kanye has the vulnerability and the seeming X-Men caliber mutant power to turn all his songs into transparent windows into his soul, but when the new Black president calls you an asshole, clearly you’re not hitting that sweet spot yet. A potentially volatile pairing, but they do complement each other well. Jay-Z as a lyricist and business man, gifted in terms of political strategy. Kanye’s transparent humanity, and music skills. His willingness to grow and, on occasion, be open to criticism. Only problem with these two we’d have to raise the debt ceiling again.

Lil “Weezy” Wayne (The Loose Cannon Independent): The window on Wayne’s candidacy might be closed. And The Carter III might still be too Weezy for public office. But don’t write him off because, one, he wants it. Two, his song catalog contains national treasures like “Tie My Hands”. No other rapper can get as soulful and inspiring, in part cause we see it complementing his wild money, B’s side. The excess of that side kills his candidacy, but that might just be a matter of maturity. His interest in rock music, while it didn’t amount to much, shows he’s pushing and searching for new ground. If he finds it and lands on his feet, he has an outside shot.

Drake (The Future Prospect): Drake almost feels like Obama when he had that break-out convention speech that put him on the radar. A young kid, who has all the measurements. An urban Ben Affleck being groomed for office in the public eye. In Drake’s case, it’d probably be better if he were married. Drake needs a wifey, a Hillary, (a Lauryn, really; or more realistically a Rihanna) and not all this emo hand-wringing about how he hates running through all his interns. He probably needs to break up with Weezie too. Become his own man. Right now he’s at a crossroad every young man reaches, a mid-life crisis at the quarter-life mark. He clearly wants to be a great, and maybe even has the tools to do it. But he’s got to choose between Young Money, or the less-buzzy, but more nurturing move like getting in the studio with Stevie Wonder. Even if the result isn’t a banger (likely), it’s exactly the sort of thoughtful move that ear marks him as a prospect to watch. The question is if his next album “Take Care” will deliver on the promise.

Patrice Evans is a staff writer for Grantland. His book Negropedia: The Assimilated Negro’s Crash Course on the Modern Black Experience will be released October 4.

Previously from Patrice Evans:
Cee Lo’s ‘Cry Baby’ Video: When Nostalgia Gets Tired
Watch the Diploma: On the Andover Rap Video
From Zero to the VMAs

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Filed Under: Beyonce, Drake, Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Politics, Watch the Throne

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