Hip-Hop Is Having Its Punk Moment, and It’s a Quiet Revolution

“I like to think that I made a punk record,” Solange said of her new album, A Seat at the Table. “A highly honest, disruptive, angsty record with all of the nuances that I wanted to express. With punk music, white kids were allowed to be disruptive, have rage, destroy property and provoke riots. I like to think that this is my punk moment, and that I’m doing that through this album.”

At first brush, A Seat at the Table doesn’t sound like a punk album. Instrumentally, it’s understated. If Solange was looking to tell us a story, she’s given us the rhythms of a life: steady, with some interruptions. Instead of bass blasts and hype-men, she croons under falsettos and muted keyboards and silences. But after my seventh or eighth run through the album, my ears started popping, and I realized Solange had actually made a punk record—just a quiet one.

As the silences accumulate, the album’s eruptions become that much more rattling (through an explosion of horns on “Don’t Touch My Hair”; behind the Dirty Projectors-esque choral play across “Junie”), but the past year has turned this tranquility into a mainstay for hip-hop. In the absence of spaces for healing in the larger culture, black musicians are paving them on wax.

That concept—a healing hip-hop—might sound like a paradox for the uninitiated. But really it was inevitable. Its subjects are contemplative. Its choruses are triumphant. And despite our stupidass pundit narratives, we get a parallel portrait of black life in America, available for anyone willing to look (you’ve just gotta open your eyes). Because when the political discourse enveloping black Americans deems you bombastic and inept—since of course we’re all living in Gotham, incapable of portraying beyond the imagination—what could possibly be more rebellious than turning down the volume? And whispering your grievances? And chuckling softly on the chorus? The tracks are filtered through the lens of their blackness—a lens as necessary, and revolutionary, and, ultimately, as motherfucking punk as any the genre’s ever heralded.

That moment’s been a long time coming: in his essay on punk for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh says that “no matter how heavy or hard the mosh parts get, [punk] never pretends to be anything other than a bunch of young men blowing off steam. Hearing them now, you’re tempted to wonder whether that’s all hardcore ever really was.” It’s a sentiment you could just as easily give this blend of hip-hop. Having emerged from the garages and alleys and basements of outsiders and misfits and fuckups across America, a genre with a face as pale as punk might feel like the antithesis of hip-hop offhand. You couldn’t be faulted for wondering what The Ramones and The Clash and Turnstile and Green Day and have in common with Sampha and K-Dot and Moses Sumney and The Internet. But in the same way that punk reacted to an authoritarian state, in a system that boxed them in, today’s hip-hop artists are actively butting with the same affairs, scaling back an emphasis on beats and glitz for the sake of interiority and reflection.

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