The autobiographical song is a critical part of hip-hop. Most good MCs are constantly sprinkling autobiographical elements throughout their work—listening to your album I should be to learn about your neighborhood, your background, your favorite stores, your troubles, your friends, your ethos. But I love it when a song is a full-on memoir.
These audio autobiographies often fit within the Black literary tradition (books like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Manchild In the Promised Land, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Assata, Black Boy, and Monster). So many of those classics could be subtitled “My Rise Up From Hell.”
In a hip-hop context these songs often serve to confirm an MC’s hip-hop bona fides—that he’s from the street and has fought through tough circumstances and proven his mettle and his character.
Sure we now have Kanye, Das Racist, Drake, Gambino, and others who are succeeding without talking about being from the ghetto, but hip-hop’s central conversation remains life in the hood and what becomes of those who rhyme their way out of it—i.e., You Can Take The Boy Out Of The Hood But Not The Hood Out Of The Boy. See, Look: He’s Eating KFC While Flying Private.
But slowly, it’s becoming less and less of a prerequisite that MCs be from the hood. Class norms are being challenged in class-ultraconscious hip-hop, and Gambino’s part of that movement. He’s unapologetic about being or sounding “untraditionally” Black and attacks normative Blackness by not accepting that he should accept it. And yet, he is from the hood.
Hmm…I guess I’ll be spending the rest of my boring workday listening to “Outside” and figuring out my 2 cents.