The ten best Rap songs about life encapsulate time and place in popular consciousness. As a form of poetic journalism and social interpretation, Hip Hop is the great chronicler of modern times.
- Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy. Biggie’s ode to growing up in the ghetto is straight up classic. Alternating between his impoverished childhood and life at the top of the charts, Big creates a rags-to-riches narrative exemplifying the American Dream lived through Hip Hop. “Juicy” is one of Rap’s best songs about life, told with the perfect mix of nostalgia and realism.
- Outkast – Ms. Jackson. “Ms. Jackson” is a southern space funk anthem about the difficulties of unexpected parenthood. The song tackles adult themes with a complex maturity rarely present in mainstream Rap. Big Boi and 3K discuss male anger and arrogance, the fury of a woman scorned, fatherhood, and the turmoil of modern relationships. “Ms. Jackson” is one of Rap’s great songs about life for its refusal to paint a clear picture.
- Talib Kweli – Get By. Motor-mouthed Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli spits fire over “Get By’s” soul beat. He speaks of American ghetto conditions, but expands his focus, presenting a cinematic vision of American life. “Get By” can be bleak, but Kweli stretches his palette to include provocations of political activism. He even mentions The Beatles. “All you really need is love,” Kweli declares in his ultimate statement of life. Real talk.
- Mos Def – Mathematics. Using math as his starting point, Roosevelt Projects’ prodigal son adds up the obstacles facing black Americans. Mos talks iniquity in African-American wage demographics, mandatory minimum sentencing, crack, and black on black violence, throwing out classic lines like “streets too loud to ever hear freedom ring”. He manages profound universalities like “69 billion spent on national defense in the last twenty years, but folks still live in fear”. Word.
- Missy Elliot – Back in the Day. Misdemeanor’s exuberant homage to youth and Hip Hop is one of Rap’s great songs about life. Missy and guest Jay-Z remind us of being young and discovering the culture and music that defines our lives. Missy reminds us that Hip Hop is about creativity, communication, and fun, a profound statement in a world of thugs who can’t find much to talk about beyond drugs, violence, and promiscuity.
- Immortal Technique – 3rd World. Infuriated Harlemite Immortal Technique’s enraged tirade about conditions in the 3rd World gives us a harrowing account of life in the world’s slums. It’s a sobering, brutal attack on faux altruism and an apathetic world, detailing with righteous indignation how many of the world’s citizens live. Technique’s conclusion? “Nationalize the industry and take it over”. Gangsta.
- Nas – Memory Lane (Sittin’ in the Park). Nas’ flow on “Memory Lane” is so nasty it’s difficult to follow. Listen carefully, and you’ll witness a prodigious lyricist painting a panoramic view of inner city American life. Throughout his album “Illmatic,” Nas weaves a self-contained world of colorful characters as thorough as a Dickens novel. “Memory Lane” is one of the best chapters, containing all the the triumphs and tragedies of urban American life.
- Dizzee Rascal – Sittin’ Here. At eighteen years old, London MC Dizzee Rascal laid plaintive ruminations on early adulthood over a claustrophobic beat. While Dizzee’s Cockney-cum-Kingston accent is near indecipherable, it’s worth the effort. In one of Rap’s best songs about life, the Briton expertly articulates the disillusionment and lost innocence of childhood’s twilight years.
- Game – My Life. “My Life” is maligned for Lil Wayne’s auto-tuned chorus and overtly pop production. Despite detractors, the track expertly details life’s struggles and sacrifices. We don’t all have heroin-addicted fathers, thugs trying to kill us, and recording and child rearing schedules to juggle, but there’s something beautifully universal about Game’s conflicted delivery: half swagger, half self doubt.
Kanye West – Homecoming. With the help of Coldplay’s Chris Martin and an infectious piano hook, Ye gives us one of Rap’s great song about life. Usually a pedestrian lyricist, Kanye steps his game up in “Homecoming”, spinning a metaphor about his tumultuous relationship with hometown Chicago. In paralleling his rocky affair with Chi-town to human relationships, Yeezy creates a snapshot of our interactions with people and place.