I want to begin this list by stating the obvious: this is one man’s opinion and the word “best” is subjective here. I also want to declare my bias, so you know what kind of sound I’m in to. This is my Mount Rapmore:
*note: #4 is subject to change every two months or so, but #1 through #3 are locked in.
Another, less obvious thing that I want to point out is that hip-hop is inherently political. I have certainly left some great overtly political and less so songs off this list because of the seemingly infinite options I had. Rap grew out of the War on Drugs, and its message cannot be divorced from choices made in our nation’s capital. I’ll get to that shortly, but first, I want you to listen to Marco Rubio—yes, I genuinely mean it—eloquently and earnestly speak about hip-hop’s relation to the politics of its era, specifically the 1990s.
You can see the D.C. machinery take over around 50 seconds as he drops his voice and sheepishly says “I don’t listen to music for the politics of it,” then immediately snaps back into genuine Rubio and riffs about how rappers are “reporters” reporting on “what life was like in South Central, and the L.A. area, and the—they were reporting, you know, what life was like, in that…and that’s really what you found in hip hop back then.”
Translation: “I liked hip-hop because they ‘reported’ on the economic and human strife placed upon a marginalized community by the mechanisms of the American state and ignored by major American media, but my political training won’t allow me to say that’s political.”
Me too Little Marco. Me too. I have always loved the sound of hip-hop, but I never got into the message until I studied political science in college and really dug into our nation’s racist past and present. Now, if you’re not familiar with the pure, unadulterated evil of the War on Drugs, listen to Jay-Z quickly highlight decades of inherently discriminatory policies.
The rise of hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s coincides with the escalation of the War on Drugs. It was launched by Richard Nixon seven years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was supposed to stamp out the legacy of explicitly racist Jim Crow laws. Instead, politicians packaged Jim Crow’s spirit into a more politically palatable vehicle: the War on Drugs.
Before we get into the greatest political hip-hop songs, here are some inescapable figures which provide context to the anger and alienation underlying this music genre.
— The average wealth of a white American is 713% more than that of a black American. Median white wealth is 1,217% higher than median black wealth.
— The United States spends over $50 billion annually on the War on Drugs.
— Even though all races use drugs at the same rate, 57% of those incarcerated for a drug offense in state prisons are black or Latinx (both minority groups comprise 31.1% of the population).
— Of people charged by the federal government with selling powder cocaine in 2016, 30% were black, 62% were Latinx, and only 7% were white.
— Of people charged by the federal government with selling crack cocaine in 2016, 83% were African American.
— White people get tons of sympathy in the media for America’s present opioid epidemic, but only 16% of offenders in federal heroin cases were white, compared to 40% black and 42% Latinx.
— 97% of people charged with drug crimes plead guilty.
— 41 U.S. states have higher incarceration rates than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
— The United States jails more of its people than anyone in the world, housing 22% of the globe’s prisoners, yet only 4.4% of its population.
— Roughly half of our prisoners are non-violent drug offenders.
Hip-hop covers the entirety of this malaise and traces it back to its racist political roots. Frankly, there is more discussion of policy on most hip-hop albums than there is on most cable news. So with all that in mind, here are 10 of the best political hip-hop songs of all time.
Note: I limited myself to one song per artist, otherwise this list would probably be all Kendrick and 2Pac songs.
Laugh all you want at the white boy putting Hamilton on here (and you should), but this is a certified banger (you could’ve tricked me into thinking the beat was produced by Dr. Dre). It also perfectly captures a pet peeve of mine. I’m of the opinion that if Thomas Jefferson had his way, our nation’s financial arrangement would look similar to the mess that is the Euro today—and Texas, California, New York and Florida would effectively run national monetary policy like Germany does with all the semi-failing states in Europe. Alexander Hamilton’s verse is everything I’ve ever wanted as a history nerd, but I never talked about any of this pre-Hamilton because no one cared. Now, I just sound like I’m jumping on the Broadway bandwagon, but dunking on Thomas Jefferson with biting personal insults AND cogent economic theory in the 18th century context is an exceptionally high bar, and Lin-Manuel Miranda cleared it with ease. I couldn’t allow myself to leave it off this list.
Killer Mike provides a political service by bookending his first verse with Ronald Reagan denying involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, followed by the 40th president acknowledging that his administration did exchange weapons for hostages. This is a more honest discussion of Reagan than you’ll find on almost any mainstream political website. However, this song isn’t just about Reagan, as Killer Mike compared him to Barack Obama, calling them both “actor[s], not at all a factor, just an employee of the country’s real masters” and “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters.”
This anti-establishment theme is embedded throughout hip-hop. “Fuck the police” doesn’t solely mean the police. They’re just the first line of defense in a large bureaucracy created to keep black and brown people down in this country. But don’t take it from me, take it from an adviser to Ronald Reagan who also served as head of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater, speaking about how the Republican Party changed its message and policies in order to win votes from racists:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Eminem’s very existence is political. As hip-hop became commodified, the search for a Great White Hope kicked off within the bowels of Corporate America. Dre brought them something they were not ready for, as Eminem’s fatherless backstory is nearly identical to the racist caricature painted of hip-hop in the halls of Congress. I know that politics today is ridiculous, but American politics has always been patently absurd. They actually held Congressional hearings on hip-hop in both 1994 and 2007. Eminem knew how Corporate America was trying to use him, how he was viewed within the broader public (“little Eric looks just like this!”), and he spoke to the manipulation within the industry and white Americans’ views on hip-hop in this song specifically designed to ruffle the feathers of White America:
Let’s do the math, if I was black, I would’ve sold half, I
Ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that,
But I could rap, so fuck school, I’m too cool to go back,
Gimme the mic, show me where the fuckin’ studio’s at,
When I was underground, no one gave a fuck I was white,
No labels wanted to sign me, almost gave up, I was like
“Fuck it!” until I met Dre, the only one to look past,
Gave me a chance, and I lit a fire up Under his ass,
A song that truly fits the times. Listen to Saigon remind all of us why we should not view George W. Bush (another “figurehead”) with rose-tinted glasses:
When 2Pac comes back the beef is on, W
You wonder why the Black and Latin people don’t love ya
Well I’m first, we can start with the church
You’re politicizing religion, you and your father’s the worst
And um, next: Ya’ll took welfare cheques
Give us diseases and then collect health care debts?
(Whatever, what else?)
You only think about yourself
You sendin’ niggas to war while your rifle is on the shelf
George, you’re something else
Osama, could be 10,000 times worser than you
Find him your fucking self
And why act like you care about the troops in Iraq?
Cause if you did, you would let them fly back
It’s because of you that those planes got hijacked
You’re also the reason Katrina victims had to die like that
They say you was hesitant, we say you was negligent
Perhaps the tensest relationship between hip-hop and mainstream American culture is its open defiance of the police. Colin Kaepernick staged a silent protest during the national anthem, and he was blackballed out of the NFL entirely because a political firestorm charged him with disrespecting the troops (despite the fact that he coordinated his protest with a Green Beret). America fiercely respects its armed forces, and we tend to believe that anyone with a badge and a gun is infallible. The anti-police trope is prevalent throughout hip-hop, and for my money, this is the song that best captures the anger towards the police within America’s poor communities while cogently explaining the genesis of that anger.
Police man come, we bust him out the park
I know this for a fact, you don’t like how I act
You claim I’m sellin’ crack
But you be doin’ that
I’d rather say “see ya”
Cause I would never be ya
Be a officer? You WICKED overseer!
Ya hotshot, wanna get props and be a saviour
First show a little respect, change your behavior
Change your attitude, change your plan
There could never really be justice on stolen land
Are you really for peace and equality?
Or when my car is hooked up, you know you wanna follow me
Your laws are minimal
Cause you won’t even think about lookin’ at the real criminal
This has got to cease
Cause we be getting HYPED to the sound of da police!
If you think that the charge of police selling crack is hyperbolic, here is but one example out of seemingly infinite proving that maxim true. Perhaps the biggest scandal in the Baltimore Police’s history is happening right now. Per The Baltimore Sun:
The case started with the drug overdose of a 19-year-old from New Jersey in Harford County in 2011.
Authorities worked to find out who provided the drugs to the woman. The search led to a Northeast Baltimore drug crew supplying Harford and Baltimore counties.
It was during an investigation into that crew that federal task force officers realized that a Baltimore police officer was an active participant in the crew’s activities.
That led authorities to Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force — and the federal indictment of eight members of the elite unit on racketeering charges. They were accused of executing searches without warrants, invading private homes, robbing suspects and innocent citizens of cash and reselling drugs on the street.
Six have pleaded guilty, and four are cooperating with the government.
We’re all just pawns in a bigger game that very few of us have any access to.
This opens with an excerpt of a speech by the founder of the Uhuru Movement (an African internationalist organization), Omali Yeshitela, about the bureaucracy of the state—and specifically the police, saying “the reality is..the police become necessary in human society only at that junction in human society where it is split between those who have and those who ain’t got.” The chorus is essentially an elevator pitch as to why hip-hop exists:
The average Black male
Live a third of his life in a jail cell
Cause the world is controlled by the white male
And the people don’t never get justice
And the women don’t never get respected
And the problems don’t never get solved
And the jobs don’t never pay enough
So the rent always be late; can you relate?
We livin in a police state
White Americans fearful of Trump turning America into a fascist state should listen to more hip-hop. Authoritarianism is a feature, not a bug of the United States of America. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the closest country to his ideal in terms of racial segregation was the United States.
There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but [the US], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially. By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalisation, it professes in slow beginnings a view that is peculiar to the People’s State.
Furthering Rubio’s “reporting” point at the top of this column, Geto Boys provide a window into the psychological terror created by the War on Drugs. Setting the scene in the housing projects, Scarface opens by telling the listener how he’s sitting “alone in my four-cornered room starin at candles.” The third verse is where the stress reaches its boiling point, as Scarface provides a window into his tortured mind:
Day by day it’s more impossible to cope
I feel like I’m the one that’s doin’ dope
Can’t keep a steady hand, because I’m nervous
Every Sunday morning I’m in service
Prayin’ for forgiveness
And tryin’ to find an exit out the business
I know the Lord is lookin’ at me
But yet and still it’s hard for me to feel happy
I often drift while I drive
Havin’ fatal thoughts of suicide
Bang and get it over with
And then I’m worry-free, but that’s bullshit
I got a little boy to look after
And if I die, then my child’ll be a bastard
I had a woman down with me
But to me it seemed like she was down to get me
She helped me out in this shit
But to me she was just another bitch
Now she’s back with her mother
Now I’m realizing that I love her
Now I’m feelin’ lonely
My mind is playin’ tricks on me
Mos Def takes the “reporting” angle of being poor and black in America and combines it with some brilliant wordplay that uses D.C.’s data-based mindset to highlight inequalities which exist by design.
Yo, it’s 1 universal law but 2 sides to every story
3 strikes and you biddin’ for life, mandatory
4 MCs murdered in the last 4 years
I ain’t trying to be the 5th when the millennium is here
Yo it’s 6 million ways to die, from the 7 deadly thrills
8-year-olds getting found with 9mils
It’s 10 PM, where your seeds at? What’s the deal?
He on the hill pumping krills to keep they bellies filled
Light in the ass with heavy steel, sights on the pretty shit in life
Young soldiers trying to earn their next stripe
When the average minimum wage is $5.15
You best believe you’ve got to find a new grind to get cream
The white unemployment rate is nearly more than triple for black
Some front-liners got their gun in your back
Bubbling crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty
And end up in the global jail economy
Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence
Budget cutbacks but increased police presence
And even if you get out of prison still living
Join the other 5 million under state supervision
This is business: no faces, just lines and statistics
From your phone, your Zip Code to SSI digits
The system break man, child, and women into figures
2 columns for “who is” and “who ain’t niggas”
Numbers is hard and real and they never have feelings
But you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel’s back?
Here’s the secret
The million other straws underneath it
It’s all mathematics
How great was Tupac Shakur? (and how depressing is our time?) This song was recorded in 1992, and you wouldn’t have to change a single word to fit it into today.
And still I see no changes
Can’t a brother get a little peace?
It’s war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts giving it back to you
Don’t let ‘em jack you up, back you up
Crack you up and pimp-smack you up
You gotta learn to hold your own
They get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone
But tell the cops they can’t touch this
I don’t trust this, when they try to rush I bust this
That’s the sound of my tool
You say it ain’t cool, my mama didn’t raise no fool
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
‘Cause I always got to worry ‘bout the payback
Some buck that I roughed up way back
Coming back after all these years
“Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” That’s the way it is
When the “if you could reverse one ‘died-too-young’ death, who would it be?” debate arises, there is no other choice for me than 2Pac. He would have turned 47 this June, and there is no doubt in my mind that he would have dramatically improved America’s race relations had his life not been cut short by America’s gun violence epidemic. He passed away at age 25, accomplishing more in his short time in hip-hop than anyone else has throughout a full career. Savant doesn’t even begin to describe this man who was ahead of our present time, let alone the one he inhabited.
Many of the songs on this list speak directly to the offenses of American policy and the War on Drugs, while this one tells a story that accomplishes the same task. The first verse is one of the great accomplishments in the history of words and sounds. The present day G.O.A.T. earns the top spot, narrowly edging out the all-time G.O.A.T. because it’s a better song. m.A.A.d city is like two songs, but one familiar story—all while describing tragedy on a granular policy level using broadly understandable, yet artistic and alliterative language. He sets the stage by highlighting the commonplace of what he’s about to speak about, saying “This is not a rap on how I’m slingin’ crack or move cocaine, this is cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac and major pain.”
Kendrick’s just the best. He’s the only one who can truly be compared to Tupac. Just like King James in basketball, hip-hop’s present-day King has more than earned his title. There is a lot of really good hip-hop these days, and Marco Rubio’s quip that “it’s not like that anymore” couldn’t be farther from the truth—but no one comes close to this man with no living equals, who is now chasing ghosts. Hip-hop was born as something of a protest against the racist American system, and I wrote in 2016 how it has helped turn public opinion against the War on Drugs. Kendrick Lamar’s megastardom constructed on a message explicitly expanding on the greats who came before him is proof of Martin Luther King’s belief that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.