How Important is “Keeping it Real” In Rap?

13 years ago view-show 744,183

I decided to run back Mobb Deep’s The Infamous on a whim during my morning commute via the ever-so-reliable NJ Transit train service. Odds are you know the story of Mobb if you’re on this site. They etched out a following with mostly hardcore rhymes, deft wordplay and a no-nonsense street image exhibited on The Infamous and Hell on Earth. Then Prodigy started beefin’ with Jay-Z about ten years ago for whatever reason and Jay exposed dude as a “ballerina” (more like Michael Jackson, which is funny b/c Mike performed earlier in Jay’s set) at Hot 97’s 2001 Summer Jam.

Fan support for Mobb fell by the wayside after their gangsta persona was crushed. With that said, I still think The Infamous is a good album even if the duo aren’t “official Queensbridge murderers” in real life. They’re often labeled as studio gangstas and whatnot but it doesn’t matter much to me as long as the music sounds good. Perhaps it’s because I don’t care much for artists’ personal lives. But they still created some dope songs in spite of not living the lives they portrayed.

Rap is mostly entertainment in my eyes. Ergo, rappers tell stories or act like the characters they portray in their songs much like authors or actors. Yet writers and actors aren’t taken to task when they don’t live the lives they create or enact in literature or film/television. Of course such entertainment can be based on first hand accounts. At the same time there’s always some sort of backlash when urban artists don’t live the lives they claim to lead in their rhymes.

I think this split occurs in rap because the “keep it real” mantra persisted as the genre became more commercialized. It was a rule to stay true to their upbringing and not come off as fraudulent or forget where you came from. And with that rule plenty of careers were ruined as rappers who fronted like they were hard became exposed. At the same token plenty of heads CB4’ed it to varying degrees as they gained popularity; Just ask Biggie’s mom. Times may have been hard for her and her son. Yet she’ll be the first in a line of people to tell you he didn’t come up in a “one room shack” and wasn’t a drug kingpin among other claims. He’s still a legend in spite of this but let’s not act like his narratives were 100% factual.


Also, in case you haven’t heard, having a hook, gimmick, image, or whatever you want to call it has always been an instrumental part to selling records. Few rise strictly on the strength of their talents. The hardcore image was synonymous with rap at one point and cats followed suit: even if that wasn’t their experience. So a lot of heads, at the very least, played up certain parts of the lives in order to gain more recognition. That doesn’t sound very “real” to me. Still it’s an ironic trend to observe when put in perspective.

For example, EPMD is one of my favorite duos. But they got progressively hardcore with each of their releases up until Business Never Personal: their fourth album laced to the brim with aggressive lyrics and even harder beats. EPMD swears Brentwood, Long Island, their hometown, isn’t as sweet as people perceive. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been there. Yet they admitted to not living that lifestyle “all the time” in this interview with SPIN magazine back in ’92. With that said their influence on rap isn’t revoked because they didn’t live up to their lyrics. If anything they helped write the blueprint on how duos should tackle songs with more complex flows than Run DMC. The fact that they branched out with their samples, featuring everything from Roger Troutman to Albert King, let alone flipped them years before producers used them in similar ways should prove their place in rap is undeniable.

Things are way more lenient these days: word to this list. But that backlash still exists on a smaller scale. For example, the Rick Ross as a C.O. fiasco along with his beef with 50 was pretty funny. But I already had a hunch that he wasn’t the drug lord he claimed to be in his rhymes. Besides I’m not a fan of Rawse so I didn’t feel any kind of way about it.

Conversely, I’ll admit that I like when rappers share believable rhymes or first hand accounts in songs. Take Tribe’s 8 Million Stories for example. What happened in the track may have been inspired by real life experiences. Still the song unfolds like a short fiction story and is incredibly relatable. Everyone’s had days where everything goes wrong. Yet we roll with the punches and keep living. While I prefer songs of this nature such honesty isn’t required to make a good record.

Every entertainer doesn’t have to go down the same tried and true road in order to make a great music. While identifying with an artist helps, I’m primarily concerned with the quality of the product as well as his/her skills rather than the “authenticity” of the his/her background. Honestly it doesn’t matter much if a rapper got shot 20 times or came from the ‘burbs without major life struggles. I’m not going to mess with a sub-par project regardless of who makes it.

Well that’s just my long winded opinion. What do you think about the “keep it real” movement in rap music. Does it matter to you?


  1. In prodigy's defense, everyone does some questionable shit when they were younger ( No homo). The nigga obviously liked to dance ain't nothing wrong with that.

  2. As long as the music is good I dont give a fuck what they do, have done, and are about to do. Everybody, know rappers do do what they rap about. For example, T.I infamous for saying “no snitching” “stop snitching” ” I kill snitches” in his lyrics, yet when the nigga got pulled over the other day guess who was in the whip with him: The nigga who snitched on him. How he promulgates not fucking with snitches than fucks with a snitch is ” fucking ridiculous” (rza voice)

  3. What do you think about the “keep it real” movement in rap music. Does it matter to you?
    According to wikipedia:
    Suspension of disbelief is
    the audience's temporary acceptance of story elements as believable,
    regardless of how implausible they may seem in real life.

    As a music listener/consumer,
    I want to be entertained by quality product.
    If it's music then, real instrument sounds,
    refined talents with great voices and great stage presence. ahhh! .

    Also a plus, artists who are articulate have rhythm
    and have invested some time to perfecting their art-forms.
    Not drop out of high school and former narcotic runners.
    The question should be asked will short term gains pay for your long term goals.
    This is true for many genre of entertainment,
    will your art stand the test of time?
    Also, If keeping it real!
    refers to artist getting training from traditional music schools
    and presenting a well crafted product then I'm for that too.

    C'mon! get out here performers and make us proud.

  4. True that's a fair point I didn't highlight. I glossed it over because I understood he was a kid at the time and he obviously wasn't thinking about his future as a hardcore rapper. That's why it seems off in hindsight to hold him to task on that especially considering how Jay was considerably older than him.

  5. Rappers not lining up with their lyrics is usually funny. That's part of the reason why I don't really care if they live out their lyrics. The T.I. situation is just the latest example and it was avoidable too. I'm far from the moral police but that's what it boils down to.

  6. That's fair enough although plenty of musicians have been and will be bred without having their talents shaped by a formal education. Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix instantly come to mind. Of course you have to practice to make sure you're on top of your game and not every instrumentalist can be as talented as them. Still great music can be made outside of the classroom; not that I'm against formal music training of course.

  7. I feel like this it don't matter where you from or what you did if your music hot I'm going to listen to it like you said about Ross i mean even though he was a co I know people who use to be a big time dealer and are now lawyers or use to be police and now big time dealers. so you cant say he wont a dealer but can't say he was either I really don't care he make good music so I listen to it

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