By Jennifer Fulwiler, warning some songs contain profanity and discussion of R rated subjects like the reality of drug abuse and gang violence.
- Changes by Tupac
I’ll start the list with a song that was included on the official Vatican playlist, alongside the work of Mozart and Dame Shirley Bassey. I may have been the only person in the world not surprised to see it on there, since I’ve long found Tupac’s heartfelt lament about life in the ghetto to be a powerful, if raw, call to reflect on the realities of the human condition.
- Description of a Fool by Tribe Called Quest
This little hip-hop number from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm has all the playful funkiness you’d expect from a good Tribe song, with a message that speaks out against social ills like the physical abuse of women and dealing drugs.
- Shallow Days by Blackalicious
In this smooth, mellow song from indie hip-hop group Blackalicious, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel speak out about kids “who at the young age of four / be seeing more drama than war veterans / instead of learning God’s laws” and implore their fellow rappers to “find a way to break the devil’s master plan.”
- Sweetest Girl by Wyclef Jean
This track is from an album with the subtitle Reflections of an Immigrant, and thus is a look at American culture from the perspective of someone from a different country (Haiti, in Jean’s case). Playing off of Wu-Tang Clan’s classic line “cash rules everything around me / dolla dolla bill, y’all,” Jean chronicles the tragic lives of women who are sexually exploited, weaving in reflections about how greed fuels some of their heartbreaking decisions.
- King Without a Crown by Matisyahu
This one is cheating a bit since it’s by a religious artist, but devout Jew Matisyahu has managed to infuse his music with enough raw authenticity that it appeals to secular markets, even getting some play on MTV. I listened to this song all the time during my conversion process, and have fond memories of driving around with the music blasting in my minivan, shouting “Thank you to my God that I finally got it right!” along with Matisyahu.
- She Watch Channel Zero by Public Enemy
I can’t believe I could actually find a Public Enemy song to include on the list. I read and re-read the lyrics, making sure that I wasn’t missing some reference to drugs or violence, but as far as I can tell it’s just a hard-jamming rant against the mind-numbing effects of television. It has a kind of angry edge, so I wouldn’t listen to it often; I mainly include it for the novelty of finding a Public Enemy song with nothing particularly offensive in it.
- Airplanes by B.o.B.
I just adore this song from the relatively new artist B.o.B., which features super-cute singer Hayley Williams (who openly identifies herself as a Christian), and talks about the fickle nature of show business, and how success doesn’t always bring the happiness you think it will. Sometimes I have to snicker at a 23-year-old writing such a world-weary song, but it really is very well done.
- Coming Home by Diddy
If you’ve turned on the radio in the past five minutes, you’ve probably heard the new song from Diddy (a.k.a. Puff Daddy, a.k.a. Sean Combs). I have to say, I’m touched by the honest self-reflection in this piece, with lines like, “What am I supposed to do when the club lights come on? / It’s easy to be Puff but it’s harder to be Sean” and “What if my twins ask why I ain’t married their mom? / How do I respond?” He also references his lingering pain at witnessing his friend Notorious B.I.G.‘s murder, saying “You know you woulda took the bullet if you saw it / But you felt it, and still feel it / And money can’t make up for it, or conceal it.” A nice little song about making wrongs right.
- The Ave. by Run D.M.C.
In this old-school song from hip-hop royalty Run D.M.C., Run, Jam-Master Jay and D.M.C. chronicle the chaos and destruction on an inner city avenue (“Ave”). I have a special place in my heart for Run D.M.C., and not just for their contributions to the genre. Run is now a practicing minister, and D.M.C. recently recorded a hard-hitting pro-adoption song with fellow adoptee Sarah McLachlan.
- The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
If The Message isn’t the very epitome of old-school hip-hop goodness, I don’t know what is. The 1982 song speaking out against the problems of the ghetto was also the first hip-hop song ever to be added to the United States Archive of Historic Recordings.