Hip-hop is a remarkable phenomenon to explore – there are so many different sub-genres belonging to the scene, making it a whole world worth looking into. It is undeniably one of the most influential and relevant genres in the music world with an interesting history and outstanding development over the years.
Many elements make up the distinctive genre and all of them are worth exploring. It is the combination of different parts that make the whole so impactful. For this particular post, I want to look deeper into one certain aspect of the hip-hop scene – storytelling. There are many great artists who use the storytelling method to breathe life into their art and tell captivating stories that begin rolling in our heads once the music starts.
Storytelling is not only interesting to look into as an aspect of hip-hop but also one of the most important and distinctive elements for the genre. Artists getting a grip of listeners’ attention and transporting them to a world of their own where stories and characters come to life thanks to their execution of music and lyricism is truly admirable. A story being told by music becomes even more impactful and long-lasting – it feels like watching a movie, but instead of being a passive observer you feel the emotions of the characters and become part of the narrative.
An example from one of the best in the storytelling hip-hop – a story told from the point of view of a gun
Hip-hop is one of the oldest music styles in the world – it has naturally undergone a steady development, reaching new highs during different time periods and artist generations.
What originally started as a style bringing people together and spreading good vibes, quickly grew into a form of expressing serious social and cultural issues. It became a movement with high importance and the most reliable way of standing up for causes that need attention.
Hip-hop also became a medium for telling personal stories. Some would use it as a method of coping with personal psychological issues by sharing their thoughts and concerns, others would use it as a platform for bigger causes; to connect with listeners on a new level; tell stories of love, pain, betrayal, salvation, and everything else that a normal human being experiences sooner or later.
I personally believe that there is music for all occasions, moods, and states of mind.
Storytelling hip-hop is one powerful way of music expression – a way which allows listeners and artists to get closer, get to know each other better without even talking, a way to share feelings, thoughts, and emotions. It is a way of getting to know a whole different world just by lending an ear for a while. The support of appropriate beats and instrumentals, giving the genre its distinctive feel is at the core of what makes this manner of telling stories so powerful.
Below is a list artists I personally consider masters of this specific niche – their way to use storytelling in music just hits different for me. And again, this is my personal choice and by no means does it mean they are the best (they are for me, but “the best” has a different shape for each individual).
Bliss N Eso
Bliss N Eso are one of the most vivid icons of Australian hip-hop music. They are also a symbol of positivity, durability, and creative passion for their fan base – a strong reminder of the power of positive thoughts and determination.
The appeal of their music is a product of combining several powerful elements, the highlight of which is the outstanding storytelling.
A song that displays the level of storytelling in question, the intimacy of the music, and the irresistible power of relatability
The band’s 2000s debut – The Arrival was enough to indicate the massive success that was ahead of the band. The more material they would put out, the more we would learn about their struggles, joyful times, and various experiences. Their music illustrates all kinds of experiences – personal struggles, fighting addiction, family issues, losing loved ones, proving people wrong, appreciating life, etc. The colourful life of Bliss, Eso, and Dj Izm would become a source of important reminders, strong reassurance, and uplifting soundtrack for many life events of other people.
Storytelling is the signature power move of Bliss N Eso – their music takes shape and form with personal details illustrated in their songs, comic elements added to the narrative, high relatability, and comforting remarks for listeners.
Starting with Flying Colours (2008) the band also began featuring a unique character. A personification of their ideals, the protagonist of the stories they would keep telling with their music, videos, and merchandise. They simply brought the game a level higher.
The storytelling and subtle references hinting about the concept of the album (Circus In The Sky) in this video are absolutely stunning. And underrated as f*ck.
There is no way the band would transmit the messages and express the feelings they want to push through without using storytelling as the main method.
The mix of personal stories with crazy instrumentals and beats, rapid-fire flow, one-of-a-kind dynamics, and well-thought comedic elements creates an image, an atmosphere, a whole environment around the band. An environment that helps you appreciate life and take it easy for a while.
NF is another hip-hop phenomenon that has mastered the skill of storytelling. His unfiltered realness and absolute honesty are methods of unveiling a story representing his state of mind. There is a whole world which materializes when you press play on this criminally underrated artist – a dark, slightly disturbing, but quite accurate world which his stories paint to perfection.
Of course, only storytelling is not enough to separate the exceptional from the generic hip-hop act. NF certainly falls into the first category as the storytelling is used in unison with his specific vibe, the recognizable flow, beat build-up, explosive choruses, and careful construction of the environment around each song.
A good example of how the artist uses storytelling combined with other elements to create a unique image for himself, which no one would be able to replicate
The journey through the discography of the artist is a satisfying experience in many ways. The high quality of music is one thing but what stands out is the progression of the story being told.
NF is one of the hip-hop artists who use music as self-therapy. His songs are a manifestation of his darkest thoughts – an honest confession of doubt, underappreciation, and anxiety. Despite being strictly personal, the lyrics of the artist resonate with his immense fan base and many see their own reflections in his music.
NF has managed to progress drastically since his debut ten years ago. The artist has used personification to various qualities such as fame, success, money, greed, etc. to use them as characters in the stories he is telling. This makes his music even more immersive and adds more power to the already strong grip of his artistic expression.
I have to say that Atmosphere is amongst the best storytelling hip-hop acts nowadays. Their strong focus on this exact type of songwriting and execution has led to some hard-hitting tracks which unveil stories in music like no other.
The duo has been not just active but seriously putting in the work for over two decades. This is imprinted on more than 25 full-length records, EPs, Mixtapes, or singles – all of them featuring the artists’ genuinely, open connection to fans, and most of all – highest quality hip-hop music.
The discography of Atmosphere is one very, very interesting ride. It is exactly like reading a captivating 1000-page novel which keeps unveiling new experiences, characters, and storylines to get lost into.
I hopped on the hype train with When Lives Gives You Lemons, Paint That Sh*t Gold and it still the best example of their work in my eyes. The conceptual construction and divine unity of storytelling and out-of-the-box sound experimentation the band played around with made it all stick quite well.
This is the first album where the duo stayed away from samples and used live instruments (also during live shows) which gave the whole record a fresh, unique… atmosphere (I couldn’t help it).
I find this particular album fascinating and a top-notch storytelling conceptual piece. The first track Like The Rest Of Us introduces the idea behind the whole record and foreshadows the main message – it describes a city and the characters living inside, highlighting that all of us are different people with different lives, but we all want to find happiness and have a good life.
The rest fourteen tracks on the record are formulated like case studies taking a closer look at several inhabitants of the city in question. We encounter a former superstar with failed potential in Puppets, cigarettes addict in The Skinny, single teen mom dreaming for a better life in Dreamer, and a plot-twisting story of a homeless father who keeps visiting his daughter each day in The Waitress amongst other interesting characters.
Every song is filled with fine-tuned details painting a hyper-realistic story (probably inspired by real life). This accurately displays Atmospheres’ outstanding qualities in this aspect. The beat and instrumental structure, as well as the beatbox by Tom Waits, showcase that the band is more than just a master storyteller for the genre – it gives away their versatility, willingness to push boundaries, and a splendid sense of creativity.
I have to admit I have only recently started getting in-depth into J Cole’s work. I would play his stuff occasionally, but I never took the time to go deeper or explore his discography thoroughly until now.
Even before deep diving into specific albums, I have noticed J Cole’s storytelling approaches in most of his songs. I find it very appealing, especially combined with the old-school delivery and beat structure united with modern inspirations when it comes to sound.
What made the strongest impression on me and convinced me the artist deserves a top spot as a quality storyteller was 4 Your Eyez Only – a conceptual album telling a real-life story dressed in J Cole’s signature style and touching narration.
4 Your Eyez Only tells a touching story – it paints the character of a young man who gets involved with selling crack and shows his metamorphosis after falling in love and becoming a father which unfortunately ends tragically.
J Cole eventually revealed that the album tells a true story. Without mentioning the real name of the person in question, the artist confirmed that the narrative the album paints so well actually happened– this only adds up to the strong emotional value and importance of the record.
4 Your Eyez Only is a track-by-track journey of a black man’s experience of growing up in our nation, from encountering ghetto violence at a young age, suffering inescapable racial prejudices in real life and in the media and dealing with death and mortality. He also discusses falling in love and having a child, which provides a source of levity for the album because after all, not everything in life is tragic.Casey Miller
The album is a well-executed conceptual piece with a solid story behind its true meaning and the recording process. Cole wanted to tell an important story, send a message, and expose a reality and he managed to do it successfully – the story told, the musical execution, the fitting flow and delivery – everything works together to fulfil one purpose.
The album’s goal was to humanize the people that have been villainized in the mediaJ Cole via New York Times (2017)
I cannot allow myself to overlook one of hip-hop’s brightest stars and legendary figures. 2Pac is an undeniable master storyteller– an artist specifically focused on this type of hip-hop who uses it to tell diverse stories bringing up important topics or sharing pieces of his reality.
I can’t say I’m a 2Pac expert, but I did get deeper into his discography inspired by a friend of mine. I was blown away by Me Against The World, and I still consider it a high-class display of storytelling hip-hop executed perfectly.
I wrote my first collaborative review on this record inspired and supported by the friend who introduced me to it. Check it out.
The album is a haunting depiction of the artist’s troubled mind during a rough time. He tries to cope with his paranoia and complicated situations – his feelings are imprinted on the record and also feature different topics that are troubling his mind.
The combination of illustrative storytelling with the classic old-school style of delivery and vintage beat-structure make it an irresistible combination.
Other artists worth mentioning
I don’t want to overextend the list, but there are some other artists I really want to give credit to without going into detail. I already talked about one of Australia’s iconic storytellers, but this is far from the only name worth mentioning.
Mind Over Matter is a former duo which also excelled in their narratives with several albums unveiling captivating stories filled with great takeaways and empowerment (This Way To Elsewhere, Just Like Fireworks). Similarly to Bliss N Eso, the duo incorporated various elements into the stories they were telling to achieve maximum effect and served as great sources of comfort and inspiration.
I believe this is one of the most underrated albums ever. I expose my reasons in a dedicated blog post – check it here.
Hilltop Hoods are another Australian phenomenon which excels in telling stories in a way that will most definitely touch your heart and make you think. Drapth, Kerser, and 360 – the latter getting seriously deep with his storytelling focused on personal struggles and battles won after a tough fight. He explores his war with addicting and all the side-effects he has to suffer in a hauntingly accurate way.
One of the most hard-hitting songs by the artist
An artist not entirely focused on storytelling approaches but with significant tracks using the method is Hopsin. His Ill Mind of Hopsin saga and individual tracks like I Can’t Decide or Sexy Cyber show off his diverse skills and ability to tell stories. Joyner Lucas – not strictly focused on storytelling but involving it into his art consistently and very skillfully also deserves credit.
Of course, I cannot make this public with mentioning names which we all know deserve to be mentioned – Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and Nas are people who have pushed the genre forward with their incredible storytelling and incorporation of unique for each artist touches.
Storytelling is a very powerful method. As old as time itself, it has been present in our lives more and more during recent years. The involvement of storytelling in different media speaks for itself, but I find it most fascinating combined with music.
The artists I talked about above have all proved how much can be accomplished, how much can said and experienced if stories are told in the right way. It can create a whole support system and connect people from all around the world, push important messages to the masses, and express things which cannot be explained otherwise. The great sound is a nice bonus with crucial importance for the end result.
I can’t wait to see how this particular segment of the scene develops and how it gets used to shows new perspectives and hidden truths about our world.
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