Hip-hop has a lot to say about a lot of topics, in some truly creative and interesting ways. We all know about “Fight The Power” and “F*ck The Police.” It’s not just about police brutality. Those are fantastic, vital songs, by the way, but focusing on those same songs over and over again overlooks plenty of other gems in which hip-hop talks about social and political problems, sometimes in unexpected, understated, and ingenious ways.
This Black History Month, Uproxx is highlighting some of those underrated gems, the songs that speak to important moments and cultural lightning rods, that give a perspective different from cable news talking heads’ takes. Maybe they’re too subtle, or maybe they’re too inflammatory. Maybe their artists are too obscure, or perhaps their subjects are. Maybe they just got overlooked in the frenzy for other, more obviously “political” songs or bigger hits from artists whose names we all know and love.
But after a year in which hip-hop’s political power was highlighted for a whole new generation to see, these songs deserve some time in the spotlight. Here are the most underrated hip-hop songs for change.
14. Jidenna — “White N****s”
Jidenna’s debut album The Chief was criminally overlooked. Maybe “Classic Man” wore out Jidenna’s welcome or perhaps he simply lost momentum by waiting so long to put out this album, but he speaks to an extraordinary personal experience throughout it, reserving this one cut to make some astute observations on race relations. The idea has been done before, but rarely with such a dreamy yet clear-eyed quality.
13. Nas — “Sly Fox”
On this fiery diatribe from Nas’ 2008 album Untitled, the Queens veteran unloads on Rupert Murdoch’s long-term experiment in mind control, rightfully calling Fox News “propaganda” and pointing out the detrimental effects of its biased “news” coverage. It’s an extremely necessary meditation on one of America’s most toxic institutions that was buried by yet another scattered and shambolic Nas Album Rollout.
12. Kanye West — “All Falls Down” Feat. Syleena Johnson
“Drug dealers buy Jordans, crackheads buy crack / And a white man get paid off of all of that,” might still be the most salient political point Kanye has made in his entire career.
11. Ice Cube — “Why We Thugs”
Look, all praise due to “F*ck The Police” and much of Ice Cube’s early Bomb Squad-produced catalog, but this is the song that best condenses his musical philosophy into a singular idea. By the time Laugh Now, Cry Later dropped in 2006, he’d perfected his pen. “Why We Thugs” is a master class in songwriting economy, succinctly summing up how America’s failings create its scariest boogiemen.
10. Lupe Fiasco — “Little Weapon”
“Won’t someone please think of the children?” It’s been a near-constant refrain about the threat of hip-hop’s deleterious effects on the youth since the genre’s inception and you know what? It’s a stale, pointless theme that’s especially undercut by the content of this gem from Lupe’s 2007 album The Cool. Taking on the prevalence of guns in the hands of children, whether through violent media or literally, in the case of child soldiers, Lupe takes to task our universal fascination with the tools of war.
9. Rapsody — “Hatshepsut” Feat. Queen Latifah
Protect Black women. Honor Black women. Support Black women. Listen to Black women. Believe Black women. And oh, yeah, let Rapsody and Queen Latifah show you what a rap song should sound like.
8. YG — “FDT” Feat. Nipsey Hussle
Wait, hasn’t “FDT” been, like, the anthem of the past four years? Yes, it has. And it’s still underrated. Not only is its refrain one of those things that can never be said enough, but had we heeded this extremely vital and necessary track upon its release, we never would have found out just how thoroughly it applied. Controversial? Sure. But unless you were hanging out on Capitol Hill on January 6, you have four years’ worth of reasons to agree with this song’s core sentiment.
7. Black Star — “What’s Beef?”
When Mos Def and Talib Kweli reunited on Chappelle’s Show in 2003, they shared a new song that somehow was never released. I don’t know why but I know this was a travesty. The highlight here is Mos’ verse, which runs down foreign policy, gang culture, the US’s global pandemic response, the failure of the economic system, for-profit prisons, and ties it all up with a neat bow. Yasiin Bey deserves recognition as one of the greatest writers of our time.
6. Noname — “Song 33”
It’s 90 seconds long. It’s clear, concise, and consistent in drawing attention to the plight of Black women in America, who are so thoroughly overlooked even as they stand on the front lines in the protests against police violence and unprotected by American society that future generations will look back in shame. And yet, it’s been reduced by fans to a diss track.
5. Run The Jewels — “A Few Words For The Firing Squad”
You’ve got to stand for something. Preemptively sharing their final words with their own imagined executioners, El-P and Killer Mike detail exactly what they stand for. They use their last words to point out the hypocrisy and toxicity of capitalism, to highlight the danger of elevating activists to celebrity status, and to flip a defiant bird to the powers-that-be.
4. Chika — “Richey Vs. Alabama”
When Chika, then a mostly unknown MC who’d gained prominence through a Twitter freestyle condemning Kanye West’s 2018 MAGA hat antics, made her television debut, it wasn’t with a well-known hit — she didn’t have any at the time. Instead, in what could have been her star-making moment, she chose to use her platform to call out her home state for voting a proposed abortion ban into law. She’s been tagged a “political rapper” ever since but her insistence on rejecting the title only underscores how deeply we are all affected by political power plays like this one.
3. Lil Wayne — “Tie My Hands” Feat. Robin Thicke
Lil Wayne has never been known for making too much music that feels overtly political, but he can create some truly urgent moments within his work all the same. “Georgia… Bush” usually pops up in lists like this, but “Tie My Hands” is the more poignant version of his observations on the failures of the federal government during and after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. When he says “My whole city underwater, some people still floatin’,” you should feel a lump in your throat.
2. Common — “A Song For Assata” Feat. Ceelo Green
At the end of Common’s ridiculously acclaimed 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate, the Chicago MC does something rare and beautiful. “A Song For Assata” is a glittering ode to an important figure in Black Americans’ struggle against white supremacist oppression, as well as an informative biography, detailing her story for a generation that may not have ever heard it told so sympathetically.
1. Hip Hop For Respect — “Tree Never Grown”
In the wake of the 1999 NYPD shooting of Amadou Diallo, a collection of New York’s finest underground rappers collaborated to create a spiritual successor to hip-hop’s earlier Stop the Violence movement, resulting in the defiant Hip Hop for Respect EP. While plenty of shine is rightly given to the fiery “One Four Love,” I always liked this more understated, soulful cut that focuses more on the life of Diallo, which makes his death feel all the more tragic.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.