In his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges makes the point that humanity is torn between Eros and Thantos, the Greek gods of love (or life) and self-annihilation. As we browse through the chapters of human history we see the cycles of war and peace revolve continuously as people are divided between the morality and depravity that is the sum of our existence. When we listen to Hip-Hop we are confronted with this same conflict. Within Hip-Hop we discover the struggle of the artist to make sense of their unjust world and to find the balance between their desires (and everyday survival) and the morality of their actions to fulfill these desires. The conscious result of this debate leads the individual rapper towards Eros or Thantos, life or death.
Examples of this struggle can be seen in the music of Hip-Hop since its advent, but has intensified and clarified since the mid 1990s, with such classic albums as Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers (1993), and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die (1994). Both of the albums represent the battle of the rapper between a world plagued with violence, drug addiction, crime, and poverty and their choices for survival—choices that are usually immoral, and run counter to the law and religious (mostly Christian) doctrine. The artist searches for salvation in their lyrics, looking for the light in a tunnel of darkness, but ultimately this salvation is to be found in the individual’s choice of Eros or Thantos. They must either continue in the conflicting morality of reality or sacrifice their selves to God’s judgment and the promise of salvation in death.
This decision is best exemplified in B.I.G.’s track “Suicidal Thoughts,” when he says, “When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell, cause I’m a piece of shit it ain’t hard to fucking tell…I want to leave, I swear to God I feel like death is fuckin’ calling me…” In this example, Biggie’s sense of despair is profound in its totality. Within these words he cuts himself off from even divine salvation and instead has judged himself beyond redemption. The Thantos urge here is as unmistakable as it is inescapable.
In contrast to Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003) is a statement of the artist’s decision to gravitate towards Eros. Jay constantly brings into the light all the crimes that he has committed against the law and God, accepting responsibility for those both in and out of his control, yet the album becomes the tool for him to find a median between the two sides and thus gain self-contentment. The issues that have plagued him in previous albums, such as his father’s abandonment of Jay’s family and his drug-dealing career, find closure in lyrics like:
“I don’t care what you do for stacks
I know the world glued you back to the wall
You gotta brawl to that
I been through that
been shot at shoot back.
Gotta keep it peace like a Buddihst…” (99 Problems).
“So pop I forgive you for all the shit I live through
it wasn’t all your fault, homie you got caught
and to the same game I fault…” (Moment of Clarity).
In both of these quotes Jay seeks a human balance between the chaos of the world and unattainable angelic purity. His forgiveness of his father provides a way to part with the pain that he feels has partially led him down a negative path, while his acknowledgment about the realities of the drug game shows his understanding that in America all actions for survival, whether legal or illegal, are viable when no other ‘ethical’ choices are provided by society. (To me it is not a coincidence that Roc-a-fella records, founded by Jay-Z and Damon Dash, is named after the Rockefeller family, who began their empire with money from bootlegging liquor during America’s prohibition era).
Once Jay comes to terms with his past, and his station in America he makes the conclusion to embrace life as shown in the chorus of “Allure:”
For life, once again it’s the life, yes!
(I don’t know why, I get so high on)
It’s intoxicatin man
y’all don’t know why you do what you do
(Get so high on, get so high – high off the life)”
Of course like Biggie and other Hip-Hop artists, he acknowledges that God will be his ultimate judge but unlike B.I.G., Jay’s perspective on God is more positive, advocating a Lord who is merciful and compassionate, and a Heaven which incorporates all those engaged in the Earthly struggle.
Interestingly, this same artistic dialogue regarding the Eros and Thantos urge also arose at the same time in the Seattle Grunge phase of rock music of the mid 1990s. Such bands as Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana all presented music that told of the artist’s fight between his immorality and desire for redemption. Through attacked through different perspectives (the Grunge culture was primarily concerned and plagued by drug abuse and drug escapism while Hip-Hop has been more concerned with the issues of crime (especially drug dealing), racism and the expression of the African-American experience) they both are unified by the alienation of the respective artist towards a society that it finds hypocritical and unjust.
The battle between Eros and Thantos within the Hip-Hop artist’s life is not to be rectified anytime soon, nor does this war seem to have a chance of ending in a world of injustice and deceit. However Hip-Hop has taken a very special place in the American psyche as the fastest growing and most influential genre of music today. The possibility of Hip-Hop’s potential for social and political change is an enormous resource that is only beginning to be tapped. Likewise its capability to reach the individual listener and inject hope into their despair is also beginning to be recognized. Now is the time when all Hip-Hop artists must discover their own place between Eros and Thantos, and to decide, for their audience and their selves, which side they wish to embrace, and why. It will be this acknowledgement that will finally steer the future direction of Hip-Hop. While I will not seek to tell our artists which way to go or who they are, I would care only to remind them of the old adage: Dead men tell no tales, and no matter how many posthumous albums a record company can hack together, neither can dead rappers.