Hip-hop has always had a bit of a mean streak – whether manifested in words à la the battle, or in a real life drama with serious repercussions as with Biggie and Pac.

It’s a specter that just can’t seem to be shaken, looming over hip-hop like an ominous shadow. But depending on how it’s received there’s a lot that can be taken from it, the shadow telling us more about the figure casting it than the figure ever could on its own.

For starters it shouldn’t be blindly admonished. What would Dr. Dre and Snoop be without “Dre Day.” Ice Cube without “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.” Or Ice-T without “Colors:” [LISTEN]

"Colors"

Violent lyrics have polarized rap since its inception, but that hasn’t stopped it from seeping even deeper into the mainstream consciousness. UGK and Three 6 Mafia extended what NWA started, while guys like Pusha T, Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka are now considered household names.

So where do artists like Chief Keef – arguably the figurehead in this generation’s violent streak – stand in all this? What makes him the perfect fall guy to criticize rap? How is he considered a blemish in these times when Dre and Snoop were celebrated as kings in theirs? The answer is complex and begins with the lyrics.

In Keef’s debut album Finally Rich, “No Tomorrow” is a hopeless declaration on how 18-year-old Keith Cozart and his Chicago-based crew live their lives: [LISTEN]

"No Tomorrow"

Keef is not a traditional lyricist, and he’s proven that time and time again. In lieu of thoughtfully penned lines are droning hooks and mindless, almost inaudible catch phrases. Instead of concepts, it’s harsh white knuckled reality. And that’s what’s being sold, a lifestyle that outsiders can indulge in and insiders can feel proud of.

His story is nothing short of remarkable, a child basically who rose to stardom with no major label help – everything done primarily by word of mouth. Even Kanye couldn’t resist buying in. By remixing “I Don’t Like” he helped brand Keef with a level of mainstream notoriety that has found purchase in nearly every corner of popular music. Adopting Keef’s token rhyming couplets, only strengthened the buzz: [LISTEN]

"I Dont like (Remix)"

Keef would go on to make an ornamental appearance on Kanye’s Yeezus for “Hold My Liquor,” which was an unofficial inauguration of sorts. His worldview becoming a widely accepted and lauded form of expression. Keef’s reality – his hasty rise from the streets to the stars – likens itself to a supernova. It’s awe-inspiring in that it’s so chaotic. Neither Keef nor the world of privilege he now finds himself in can contain the energy.

He’s just too raw to digest, and that’s partly why he’s detested so much. Our inability to confine and catalog him reminds us of our own misgivings. It’s the classic story of Frankenstein.

The cataclysmic collisions between cultures don’t begin and end with Keef either. Bang da Hitta, also from Chicago, takes violent lyricism to new levels with “Die L’z.” In its contentious video, purportedly shot on location in the Rogers Park neighborhood, members of his crew casually brandish automatic weapons, and as each verse unfolds and the looks become more menacing it’s hard not to get a bit squeamish: [LISTEN]

"Die L'z"

What this shows us is not necessarily a disturbing trend, but a dark current that’s always been there. Guys like Keef and Bang da Hitta are both the victim and problem. They are products of their environment, and turning a blind eye won’t help. Some artists talk about violence through metaphors and symbols while others provide shocking firsthand accounts.

To his credit, Bang Da Hitta has come out and defended the song as “poetry.” But the corresponding video and the producer’s statement on Keef’s influence – the second producer; the first, due to its violent nature, wants ‘no part of it‘ – speaks volumes: “Everybody want to do it,” he says. “Everybody want to be Chief Keef.”

So what good would it do to ignore Chief Keef or Bang da Hitta? As soon as they disappear others will emerge, just as ravenous and even more desperate. Keef is still a teenager, and he talks about life as if it were a silly game. In “Finally Rich” he explains that it’s not just about the money. It’s about empowerment: [LISTEN]

"Finally Rich"

This motto seems to be a mantra for many of Chicago’s misguided youth, especially those in gang ridden communities like Englewood (Keef’s former residency), Washington Park, and Rogers Park (Bang Da Hitta’s current residency) where the murder rates are among the highest in the city – statistics that dub Chicago or “Chiraq” as the murder capital of America.

It is the decay of the human spirit, and a reflection that needs to be acknowledged and absorbed into the collective consciousness as to be understood in its entirety. If not metropolis’ like Chicago will continue to be a breeding ground for violence.

In the “Die L’z” video Bang da Hitta clearly shows us what’s at stake, turning to his young companions as he says:

"Die l'z"

It’s easy to look at these lyrics as crude cave paintings on a wall, but as a true archaeologist would attest, even simple strokes can tell us a great deal about where we are and how we got there. There are insights written all over them.

Unless outside forces intervene it appears that both Chief Keef and Bang da Hitta are perfectly fine with self-immolation. But how many Keef’s and Bang da Hitta’s need to come and go before the right questions are asked?

Is there such a resistance to truth that society has to detach in order to absolve itself from guilt?

The irony is that violent lyrics have polarized hip-hop when they should be galvanizing it – be talked about in such a way where they’re analyzed honestly and without conjecture. The reason why they’re being made is because for some it’s the only outlet they have.

Once light is shed and the truth is revealed, then perhaps we’ll be one step closer to making violent rap obsolete.