Once upon a rhyme: a hip-hop story

Once upon a rhyme: a hip hop story

Aug 01, 2019
Stories have been interwoven in music since the beginning of time. Whether it’s Beyoncé’s narrative on infidelity in 'Lemonade', the endless pictures Amy Winehouse painted about addiction in 'Back to Black', or even Tourist’s album ‘U’ – which relied on samples and synths over lyrics – the story behind all these songs has been key to their popularity... but there’s one genre in particular that’s gone hand-in-hand with storytelling since it formed in the 70s.

It all started with turntables, breakbeats and MC Lovebug Starski shouting “hip hop, you don’t stop” at a South Bronx block party, and ever since, hip-hop has become a musical movement born from the art of storytelling. British-American rapper Slick Rick named his best-selling album ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ – a compilation of musical tales like ‘Children’s Story’ which famously began with the lyrics ‘Once upon a time’ and went on to explore the life of a fictional young boy embroiled in crime.


Storytelling like this wasn’t always limited to a three or four minute track either – other artists created entire albums that focused on one central narrative. Enter the concept album. A key part of hip hop’s evolution, the concept album gave way to a new space for storytelling – one where black artists could explore important issues without being silenced, represent the marginalised and empower the powerless – and for this reason, hip hop blew-up and gained a lot of literary value.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, the concept album continues to plays a key role in the hip hop and rap scene, with contemporary artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar using these drawn-out narratives to tell their own stories. We asked members of our Music and Voice team to tell us about their favourite examples – and they chose two of the most lauded works of recent times. 
 
 ‘This album is a story of wealth and power, and what a person sacrifices to live in the limelight’

‘To Pimp a Butterfly is a dark journey into the complexities of life post-fame. This autobiographical album takes a poetic approach to the depths of depression, crime, greed and anger.’
For projects like these, each song is another chapter – so next time you’re listening to your favourite hip-hop album, make sure you’re sitting comfortably, let the entire tracklist play, and see if a bigger story unfolds.