MTV/Julia Panek

Blues Run The Game

How Kendrick, Young Thug, Mick Jenkins, and more are tapping into the painful prayers of a bygone era

Rap fans were taken aback two years ago when J. Cole showed up to CBS’s Late Show and decided against performing anything from his just-released album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Instead, accompanied by a single keyboardist and hardly anything else, Cole sang, “All we wanna do is be free!” Well, he didn’t really sing — there wasn’t much consideration for melody. He wailed. Cole’s face, wet with tears, revealed an exasperation common among black Americans living with the trauma of hypervisible black murder. The events in Ferguson earlier that year, and the lack of substantive change in government since, clearly weighed heavy on his heart. In that moment, rap’s dizzying metaphors and braggadocio couldn’t speak to Cole’s emotional state. The pain he felt predates him; it predates rap altogether. He needed a sound as ancient as his misery to announce it, something simple and plain.

Cole’s vocal style that night sprung out of a hotbed of angst, anger, and unease, landing closer to the Great Depression incantations of Peetie Wheatstraw’s “C and A Blues” than a traditional 2010s rap or R&B joint. Audiences praised the performance as powerfully moving and deeply cathartic. It was an early peak in what’s become a wave of prominent rappers — from Kendrick Lamar’s magnetic performance of “i” on Saturday Night Live in 2014 to Vince Staples’s eerie rock jam “Smile” on The Tonight Show last month — who have brought a similar intensity to mainstream doorsteps. All of them have tapped into the enduring power of the blues as a way of keeping up with troubled times. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has unveiled an audience that demands accountability from the artists who claim to speak for them. The jarring simplicity of the blues seems to be the language most clamored for, and rappers are responding in kind.

The music we call the blues was birthed in the late 19th century out of a marriage between enslaved black work songs and Negro spirituals in the American South. Those spirituals reflected the fundamentally untenable religious order of the antebellum period, when white slave masters forced enslaved blacks into Judeo-Christian religious practice. That didn’t mean they loved the same God: While most white theologians were silent when it came to black liberation, enslaved black Christians’ hope was an essentially subversive one, pushing against the injustice and oppression of the day and toward justice and truth. Even so, black spirituals generally accepted the theological premise of a just God. Black Christians in the first half of the 19th century believed they’d be delivered from their earthly subjugation, either through realized political liberation or through spiritual vindication on Judgment Day. As time went by, though, a significant number of black people found it difficult to accept those biblical promises, especially following a disappointing emancipation, when political freedom was supposedly afoot but remained unfulfilled. By 1877, the glossy promise of true freedom for black people had begun to dull. That year, the Hayes Compromise removed all federal troops from the South, leaving freed black people in a lion’s den of angry former slaveholders with vastly superior education and business acumen. In 1896, black Americans once again felt the pang of dehumanization when the United States Supreme Court established the “separate but equal” dogma of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. “By the end of the nineteenth century, the political disenfranchisement of black people was complete,” theologian James H. Cone writes in his essential work The Spirituals and the Blues. A tragic, costly cycle of promises, disappointments, and dehumanization would come to define black political existence in America.

That peculiar feeling of disappointment was central to the massive popularity of the blues in the first half of the 20th century. Artists captured their quotidian reality, addressing the way their living conditions created a perpetual state of gloom. Robert Johnson, perhaps the most influential guitarist in American history, called the blues “a low-down, aching heart disease, like consumption, killing me by degrees” in “Preaching Blues.” Long after he died under mysterious circumstances in 1938, Johnson’s work went on to encourage the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards to get busy playing the blues guitar. The electrified blues known as rock and roll became America’s premier musical expression up until the late 20th century, when hip-hop took its place, translating the spirit of the blues for a new generation. Today, disproportionate law enforcement, gentrified neighborhoods, dilapidated schools in largely black areas, and innumerable other racist policies have brought the gloom of the blues back to the fore. After lifting rock and roll to the stratosphere and back to Earth again, the blues is back in black hands, back to reflecting the exhaustion that black people collectively endure under the racism woven into the fabric of this country. The blues isn’t just music; it’s a feeling. The great folk and blues artist Lead Belly once said, “Blues was composed up by the Negro people when they was under slavery. They was worried.” In today’s America, black people are still tormented. Videos of black men being murdered by police have gone viral. The streets have spoken, through protests of police violence and an infinite number of social media posts calling for rap artists to speak up. The need for the truth of the blues has become abundantly clear.

Whether it’s J. Cole pleading for freedom on “Be Free” or Chicago’s Mick Jenkins questioning our ability to love ourselves in times of perpetual hate, rap artists today are reflecting the blues of the streets. Jenkins’s “Drowning” is a pentatonic march led by BADBADNOTGOOD’s Delta blues stomp. The rapper at once evokes Kanye West and ponders the tragic burden of understanding the truth of black suffering: “When the real hold you down, you supposed to drown, right? / Wait, that don’t sound right.” Jenkins does away with material fantasies, searching instead for spiritual legitimacy. On “Spread Love,” he raps, “I quit the fantasies and started planting seeds / Tryna usher in a little growth.” Water, for Jenkins, represents a truth the world must swallow in order to love each other a bit more. But he also sees THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — as a healer. Jenkins brings together drugs, truth, love, and God with straightforward honesty and a deep wail. “I mean I’m only smoking weed because I’m stressing heavy," he says on “1000 Xans.” “All this water in me, I just pray the Lord’ll bless my levies.” The Healing Component is a sparse, grungy, bass-heavy record that allows enough space for Jenkins’s exasperated raps and exhausted vocal sentimentality. Even though his blues centers on self-love, Jenkins carries the weight of a loveless world. The chorus of “Spread Love” is a tired sermon. His voice droops during the serenade — “Spread love, spread love, spread love” — as if he knows the message could fall on deaf ears.

Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade is perhaps the bluest rap album since fellow TDE artist Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. “When I’m sober I might testify / That this world has fallen out of place,” Rashad belts on “Rope / Rosegold.” “But thank god I found this rope.” Using the materialist gold chain as both a sign of economic prosperity and a method of asphyxiation, he speaks to the futility of wealth when the world is imbalanced from the jump. For Rashad, art reflects life — he’s said his drug and alcohol addiction almost led to TDE dropping him completely. On “Bday,” Rashad’s hazy, static vocal style gives the lie to his lyricism. Lines like “Oh, believe I feel great today / I can’t help but just pour my drink / ’Cause they keep talkin’ to a nigga / And sometimes I be talkin’ back” ring out untrue, simply because his voice is without energy. You can hear that Rashad is worried. He later waxes poetic on lost love and perhaps finding respite in God: “Sasha, why you gotta leave me? / We was like forever, life is so confusin’, fuck it / Take me, take me to revival / Maybe this’ll help me, maybe this’ll ease my mind.” The Sun’s Tirade is an album of concern. From manager Dave Free’s urgent demands for Rashad to find a topic to write about or risk losing his career, to the psychological struggles of stasis on “Stuck in the Mud,” Rashad’s blues is a bleak harangue detailing his state of mind.

The rise of contemporary “mumble rap,” too, stems from a much earlier blues tradition of indecipherable speech in the South — a kind of interior language that only those with time and paid dues can understand. One of the main reasons Cone penned The Spirituals and the Blues in 1972 was to undo white scholars’ basic attempts at deciphering black speech in black music. In today’s blues, no artist exemplifies the spirit of interior language quite like Young Thug. His most recent album, Jeffery, boils with blues underneath his mumbled materialism. Thug reveals that he’s “scared to trust you, scared you’ll trick me” because he’s spent his life “[driving by] in an armored car but they still tryna hit me.” It’s a quick revelation that could be easily missed on “RiRi,” but in the midst of his confident vocal tones burns a worry that’s crucial to his content. The final lines of Thug’s opening verse on “Guwop” pick up that worry, as Thug juxtaposes his sexual tenacity with an appeal to the spiritual: “In that ho mouth like Colgate / Keepin’ that cold case, God, please give me that cold case / Man, I don’t want new friends, forgive me for all of my sins.” On “Harambe,” he remarks that he has a “devil inside of [him],” recalling the common blues theme, from Robert Johnson onward, of selling one’s soul to the Devil in exchange for talent. Thugger quips that God is in the midst of deciding whether to “leave [him] or sign [him],” followed up by a direct plea to God himself: “I know I did a lot of sins / I hope you still let me make it through.” Thug comes across as apathetic toward sounding melodic, per se; his tones reach peaks and valleys without warning. His voice is a brilliant instrument, reminiscent of the squeaking tones of a blues musician. He uses his vocal cords to bare his roiling spiritual dynamism.

Neither the blues nor hip-hop are singularly political. The blues was vivid and vulgar, because black blues people were interested in freeing themselves from constraining notions of sexuality brought on by slavery. In 1929’s “She Moves It Just Right,” Barbecue Bob sang, “I passed her way, night before last / She was movin’ that thang and movin’ it fast ... / Ahh, she moves it just right.” And it wasn’t just black men — blues women like Bessie Smith were decisive about the kind of men they lusted after. “The groundhog even brings it and puts it in his hole,” Smith sang on “Put It Right There (Or Keep It Out There).” “So my man has got to bring it, doggone his soul / He’s got to get it, bring it, and put it right here / Or else he’s gonna keep it out there.” Black women sang their fantasies to show that they were human beings, capable of receiving and reclaiming the pleasure denied to them under chattel slavery and Jim Crow. Vulgarity allowed disenfranchised black people to speak to their humanity in a world that valued their bodies only as laborers. That theme — indecency as honesty — is another common link between the “evil” personas of some blues artists and hip-hop’s acceptance of black criminality, sexuality, and materialism.

Unlike 20th-century blues, which was focused heavily in the South before the Great Migration drove it north to Chicago and St. Louis, the current iteration of painful prayers isn't limited by geography. Today’s blues plague the entire country, and advances in technology have made it easier for national audiences to demand a particular sound from artists. From L.A. to Chattanooga to Charlotte, then, artists across the country are forgoing melody to get to the truth without fluff. Increased racial tensions, coupled with hip-hop’s ongoing trend toward austere and minimal production, make for a perfectly tragic crucible for rap’s blues to resurface. As blues’ prodigal child, rap is coming on home, exhausted from the long journey through the noise.