Retrospective: Hip Hop and The Death Fascination

In hip hop, for many years, bravado and ego have been one of the main components of hip hop. The aggression, the lyricism, the "I'm the best" mentality has carried artists to new heights. For some, there has always been the sense of being invincible in their music, but a large number of artists over the years have seemed infatuated with the concept of death. It's understandable: what is the only thing that's truly certain in life? Death. It's a grim reality to accept and for the majority of hip hop artists who discuss it in their music, there is a sense of desperation. A sense of hopelessness. Artists who were murdered before their time, like Soulja Slim, Camoflague, Pac, Big L, Biggie, etc had all spoke about the concept of death and their untimely demise in their music. Today, @CurlsAndSports and I discuss this.

It was all a dream! Or at least, we thought so. He left the world with just his music and a legacy that can't be matched, even if anyone tried. Notorious BIG, Biggie, BIG, Frank White, managed to record just two albums in his young life. I feel like his music career was short lived and had he not been murdered, he probably would've continued recording classics. But alas, we can't go back in time and alter history.

Nobody likes to talk about death. It's an uncomfortable topic, but when certain individuals talk about it freely, it's a tad shocking and probably even more uncomfortable to hear it. For Biggie, this topic must've been a breeze because of how psychotic he ended up sounding. The two albums he did leave us with, Life After Death and Ready To Die, have a huge death undertone, which is totally worth discussing.

Biggie's albums have a few songs that have a huge death undertone. In Life After Death, you have: "Somebody's Gotta Die", "Last Day", "Niggas Bleed", "My Downfall". They clearly have death related topics. This doesn't mean that, for example, Kick in the Door doesn't have a death lyric, "Should I start your breath or should I let you die in fear, you start to cry." Biggie somehow managed to incorporate a death lyric in his songs.

In Somebody’s Gotta Die, the chorus just spews death, “Somebody’s gotta die...If I go, you gotta go…Let the gunshots blow, somebody’s gotta die.” I can only wonder what was going on in his head as he was writing these lyrics. It’s almost like he feels powerful because he said, “I know where them niggas at and they don’t be strapped.” Having power meant a lot to Biggie, but then again, he couldn’t go through with murder, because the man who he was trying to kill was holding his daughter at the end of the song. Talk about shattering plans. With Niggas Bleed, Last Day and My Downfall, these three songs go together. I think with My Downfall, he became more accepting of what death is about, especially since he seemed to have known his fate. The ongoing battle he had with death came to a rest. If he would’ve made a third album, I wonder if he still would’ve had an obsession with death(On a sidenote: in My Downfall, he used the word motherfucker a lot).

In Ready to Die, for starters, that album cover was too adorable for words, but the songs that started off his obsession with death definitely are the title track, Everyday Struggle, and Suicidal Thoughts. He wrote for all three songs, but none like Suicidal Thoughts. Both the title track and Everyday Struggle led up to what would be the sick and twisted lyrics of Suicidal Thoughts. Ready to Die was clearly a personal album and in today’s music, you still haven’t seen an album quite like this. He really did speak through his music. With Suicidal Thoughts, he must’ve been really sick in the head to write these lyrics. “I swear to God, I just want to slit my wrists and end this bullshit.” With that alone, it’s enough to make you even question his sanity. If you jump around the song, it’s filled with hateful lyrics that just demonstrates how fed up he was with living, “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion… I wonder if I died would tears come to her eyes?” How can someone with a sort of successful career be that, in a way, ready to actually die? Everyone felt his death, but did he even really care? Based off his music, you can argue that he didn’t care to live. In other words, he just didn’t give a fuck at all.

With all this obsession with death, the cynical mind might even begin to think that Biggie almost wanted his murder to occur. Was Biggie obsessed with death? I think so. One can even argue that in his final breath, if he had one, Biggie must've been somewhat satisfied or understood that his fate was this sadly. In a strange way, I think he was content with how his life turned out and perhaps his soul was at peace? His former friend and rival 2Pac also shared some of the same sentiments throughout his music as well as others. True, what do you think drives this fascination with death in hip hop?

When Erika brought this idea to me, I began to look back at all the artists and all the lyrics that referenced death or an untimely demise. As artists, myself included, we tend to play with the idea of our own deaths in the lyrics. As a black man in America, any day you walk out of your home could be your last day. It's the harsh reality. For Biggie, he knew that reality. For Soulja Slim, he was actively involved in the world where death is commonplace for young black males. The fascination with death in hip hop comes from the conditions that we are placed in and surrounded by. When you see murder occurring on a daily, or you dodging bullets in your everyday life, that becomes norm. It has been said that the black male life expectancy was always short and for the most street orientated rappers, this reality shows in the music heavily. For 2Pac, he would speak about death in a manner that alluded to him knowing he was truly destined to die young.

Now, Pac was more of a poet and his talks of his untimely demise always felt artistic in the way it was delivered. Songs like "Pain", "How Long Will They Mourn Me", "Death Around The Corner", "If I Die 2Nite", and countless others dealt heavily with the concept of an early death. "So Many Tears" is one of my favorite Pac songs and it features the cryptic lyric "to bring me closer, to embrace an early death". On Pac's "Me Against The World" album, released after he was shot multiple times and sentenced to a jail bid, Pac spoke so heavily about death and this was the album that truly drove the point home. Death is of the tongue they say, and unfortunately Pac would be murdered in September 1996, but his legacy grew even bigger from his death. Same with Biggie. Which leads me to another point....

Hip hop's fascination with death goes beyond the artist talking about their untimely demise in the music, it stretches to the fans and their adulation of artists who are no longer physically here. Now, Pac and Biggie were true stars in their own right and two of the biggest artists at the time of their beef/eventual deaths, but their stock and legacy was raised much by their unfortunate deaths. This holds true for some other artists, as in death, Big L and Big Pun became bigger by design. Both were always great MCs and Pun went platinum, but it wasn't until their deaths that they truly got the recognition they deserved. Why is that? In hip hop, a lot of artists don't get the recognition they deserve until they go to jail or die, and it is a bit troubling. The world looked down upon Amy Winehouse for her problems with drugs and made mockery of her for her issues, but in death she is remembered as a legend to many and for her beautiful music. Kurt Cobain took slander for much of his issues and such, but is immortalized in death. So, it's not just hip hop entirely, but with hip hop, we do praise those who are no longer here to truly bask in it. 50 Cent, an MC who rose to prominence after being shot 9 times also often features death in his music as a topic often and he even spoke directly to those who wanted him dead on "Many Men" off his Get Rich or DIE Tryin' album. Artists such as Lil Wayne, Young Buck(who speaks of death just as much as Pac did in a way if you listen to his music heavy) and even Drake speaks on it(if I die, I'm a legend). Hard to escape the topic in hip hop period, even if the artists infatuated with their demise are successful. It doesn't matter, death permeates the psyche even through the seemingly best of times. It doesn't go away.

The most tragic thing for me was the death of Soulja Slim, as he did speak of it heavily in his music and lived that life, but he was murdered right as his single with Juvenile, "Slow Motion" was getting ready to take off. The sadness that still hits me when I think about it is stifling. There are many others who have died and their legacy lives on. To some, Aaliyah has a place in hip hop as well, and her early death still rocks many and increased her legacy as well. Maybe that's just it though: early deaths. Our fascination with these artists who passed away before their time reminds us of ourselves and how much can be accomplished in such little time. For the artist who lives a full life, gains notoriety, leaves the game and retires, your death is one of sadness and remembrance, but your legacy was already built and you got to witness the ups and downs. For hip hop, many of us don't live to see 25 or even 30 in our neighborhoods so the reality hits us as fans. More recently, the deaths of budding stars Lil Snupe, Chinx Drugz, even Stack Bundles(not as recent, but the effect is still felt) all bring us back to the reality yet again. The fascination with death from the fans and artists perspective will never alter and I understand.

For artists, the fascination lies in the reality that you can go any day and either be a nobody who didn't make it or live on as a name forever etched in history through death. For the fans, it's much easier to give props to an artist who isn't here to truly appreciate it or make a legend out of someone before they truly got to develop into one. What do you think about the hip hop fascination with death? Write us in the comments below.



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