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10 Brilliant Examples of Intellectual Hip-Hop

by Nic Swaner
fact checked by Alex Hanton

Hip-hop can be an excellent form of artistic expression, but there is a strong stigma that anything related to hip-hop or rap cannot be a decent form of music. If you look beneath what the masses are listening to, you’ll find the subtle niches several artists have carved out and where the music is progressing, and though they are nowhere near as well-known, they are ultimately more lyrically powerful and moving. There are undoubtedly some artists that fell between the cracks during the making of this list, so just remember: videos are for your viewing pleasure.


Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Macklemore x Ryan Lewis “WINGS” Official Music Video

Memorable Lines: I’m an individual, yeah, but I’m part of a movement / My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it / They told me to just do it / I listened to what that swoosh said.

Macklemore’s masterpiece, using Nike’s multimillion dollar branding campaign, famed logo and slogan as an example to convey his message, is about consumerism and dreams and how companies pretty up their products and sell nothing more than a brand nowadays for prices that are thinly veiled as ridiculous. Ultimately, the brands you choose over another are still just things and mean nothing in the end; there is no need to attach more value to them if you paid more for them.


Brother Ali
Uncle Sam Goddamn

Brother Ali – Uncle Sam Goddamn (Official Video)

Memorable Lines: Now the grown up Goliath nation / Holdin’ open auditions for the part of David, can you feel?

Uncle Sam Goddamn puts on a show of criticizing the United States, as Brother Ali points out how its current and past racist actions, greed, patriotism tunnel vision, propaganda and government corruption still continue to taint the country. If you put up with the hypocritical constitutional rhetoric in everyday America, this song is a much needed consolation that others are just as fed up as you, if not more.


Atmosphere – Guarantees (Official Video)

Memorable Lines: But I don’t want to go home yet, so I’m gonna talk to my cigarette and that television set / It doesn’t matter what brand or station, anything to take away from the current situation.

Commenting on the struggles of day to day life, making ends meet and the emotional overload of reality, Atmosphere directly addresses his audience with the state of his life an end ends with: the only guarantee in life / is a life worth dying for. There are many interpretations to this lyric, as he could possibly be referring to his son, who is mentioned earlier in the song, or it could be a general statement about how life is worth the suffering of death.


Dessa “Alibi” (Official Music Video)

Memorable Lines: Now I’ve seen the way that you count your blessings / Like hatch marks on the wall / And I’ve seen you coming out of Sunday confession / With a numbered list and all / Now I don’t bow my head for supper / I never do kneel besides my bed / But it looks like your afterlife is covered / I hope on Earth you’re careful kid.

Dessa reaches out to a friend (or relative) in this song, singing to a half-innocent woman who is either covering for a criminal man or assisting a fugitive man, telling a story of a conflict between friends now torn apart by a felonious third party. She advises of the man’s future actions and intentions and offers the woman a place to sleep, which, by the tone of the song, we can assume the woman refrains from accepting the offer.


Eyedea & Abilities
Eyedea & Abilities – Smile (Official Video)

Memorable Lines: I can only build if I tear the walls down / even if it breaks me I won’t let it make me frown / I’m falling but no matter how hard I hit the ground / I’ll still smile.

Eyedea & Abilities’ (the former has passed on) last release revealed to us this beautiful composition on compassion. The lyrics are teeming with examples of people lacking and showing compassion for others and the chorus sums it up sufficiently. To put the chorus into perspective, the walls Eyedea refers to are not physical walls, but figuratively speaking, the walls we all have between each other.


Grieves – Lightspeed (Official Video)

Memorable Lines: Mom was a religion and happiness was a fact / It’s a shame how the time goes past / Movin’ so fast / Its like I’m movin’ at light speed / Slow down.

As a recollection of memories and how they seemed to pass by so fast, Grieves explains the importance of taking your time in life to see the beauty in things. Admittedly, it is a concept that has been done, but is explained succinctly in this song and taken to a length unseen before. You don’t need to go at such a pace all the time.


Sage Francis
The Best of Times
Sage Francis – “The Best Of Times”

Memorable Lines: Don’t listen when they tell you that these are your best years / Don’t let anyone protect your ears / It’s best that you hear what they don’t want you to hear / It’s better to have pressure from peers than not have peers.

A lyrical memoir, The Best of Times is another hit out of the ballpark by Sage Francis. Dealing with his childhood and molehills overcome and the memorable experiences he reflects on, he sends a message in the last few lines that promises the next generation that it only gets better from here as you get older and to not give in and give up.


Buck 65
Wicked and Weird
Buck 65 – Wicked and Weird

Memorable Lines: I figure when I make it to the heavenly gates / they’ll be working on my car and playing 78s.

Buck 65 takes us to a life on the road in this song, going nowhere, everywhere and anywhere in this random amalgam of imagery, wordplay and rhyme. He seamlessly combines the folk genre with the hip-hop flare as the banjo plays over his ramblings. There really is not too much to dig for in this song, he is straightforward and honest as he cruises along.


P.O.S – Purexed (Official Video)

Memorable Lines: Hush / let em try to find the beauty in your face / something more than a song / they hatin’? Aw come on / dust / let em try to find the beauty in the baseline.

The perception that outer physical beauty tarnishes peoples perceptions of others is the topic covered in P.O.S’s song, Purexed. No matter how righteous we all claim to be, everyone has been guilty of thinking thoughts about perceived visually differences and elevated social statuses because of it. P.O.S addresses the fact that skin and bone is the least important part of who you are.


Astronautalis – Contrails (feat. Tegan Quin of Tegan & Sara)

Memorable Lines: Lionel Terray said it the truest, I set it to music / We’re all “Conquistadores of the Useless.”

Astronautalis weaves a tale of a deceiving duo who feign being disabled to prey upon the generous souls of one city before moving on to the next. Although a highly unlikely scenario and an unsuccessful scheme as the way it is portrayed in the video, the concept is beautifully written and conveyed to the audience.


Doomtree “Drumsticks” Music Video

Memorable Lines: Here let me sign your poster strike a poser / Sleeping in my armor while you’re sleeping on your holster.

Not any one artist, but rather any of the Doomtree Collective, a record label which boasts several artists and two already included on this list. This song is their take on a mainstream bombast.

fact checked by Alex Hanton