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:
2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Outkast*
*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 Latino (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 Hispanic, 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% Hispanic.
— 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.
10. Cabinet Battle #1 by Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Okieriete Onaodowan
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.
9. Reagan by 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.”
8. White America by Eminem
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,
7. Impeach the President – Immortal Technique, Saigon, Dead Prez
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