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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IshDARR and the New Face of Conscious Rap

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Intelligence was a point of pride in ’90s hip-hop. From Q-Tip, Nas and Common on down, many of the best rappers of the era spoke important truths, contending that rap could and should be a force for societal betterment. By the mid-’00s, though, conscious rap had grown hopelessly stale, as MCs continued to chant the same tired mantras about positivity and responsibility long after the words lost any power. Even as the very commercial acts that conscious rappers derided were mining exciting new sounds, hip-hop’s purists remained stuck in the past, clinging to safe throwback beats that, without exception, had been done better the first time around.

Thankfully, in 2014 the future of conscious rap looks far brighter, thanks primarily to a new class of rappers with far less rigid worldviews. On his game-changing Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Compton, Calif., rapper Kendrick Lamar examined the moral quandaries of inner-city life, without casting judgment or implying in any way that he himself was a saint. On Chance The Rapper’s answer to that album, Acid Rap, the sympathetic Chicago rapper made a point of shouting out his demonized neighbor Chief Keef, rather than admonishing Keef’s violent content. These rappers don’t view the world in black and white; for them, even seemingly disparate shades of gray are much closer together than they appear.

That nuanced mindset has quickly filtered down to a generation of young rappers including Milwaukee’s IshDARR, a 17-year-old who came up listening to guys like Chance, Kendrick and the rest of Kendrick’s Top Dawg Entertainment imprint (including Schoolboy Q, who he’ll open for Thursday night at the Rave). Those artists, IshDARR says, have brought renewed prestige and creativity to conscious hip-hop.

“It just took a new generation that was inspired by what came before us to modernize conscious rap and make it fit into what today’s listeners like,” IshDARR says. “Kendrick Lamar and the other TDE rappers are smart about how they mix styles, and that’s exactly what I’m going for, too. There are ways to keep your music conscious while holding the attention of crowds who don’t care about being conscious. It isn’t hard. It just depends on what you say, how you say it and what your beats sound like.”

The day after his Schoolboy Q performance, IshDARR will release The Better Life, a debut EP that should instantly position him near the top of the list of Milwaukee’s most promising rappers. That’s partially a reflection of his youth, of course—rarely does music this realized come from an artist who can’t even vote yet—but mostly it’s a testament to his innate lyrical gifts. Over updated jazz-rap beats, IshDARR weaves together dense, twisty rhymes with a nonchalance that suggests a young Lupe Fiasco, before bitterness and ugly conspiracy theories sapped the joy from Fiasco’s music.

It’s no small feat pulling off raps this technical, and IshDARR concedes that he spends a lot of time—“probably too much time”—penning them, making sure that every line conveys meaning and that he’s not rhyming just to fill bars. As a young rapper, though, time is one area where IshDARR actually has a leg up over his older peers. “Right now the only things I have to worry about are school and rap,” he says. “That’s it. But the older I get, the more other responsibilities are going to interfere with my music.

“I don’t want to say I’m putting my raps before everything right now,” he continues, “but I’ve only got a month left of high school, and I’ve passed all my classes and proved that I could pursue rap and be on the honor roll. This fall I’m going to UW-Parkside to study music and that’s why my plan is to record as much as I can this summer. We’ve got a long summer ahead of us, so I’m going to constantly be writing songs and doing as many sessions as possible so that even when in college I’ll have plenty of new music to put out. I’m planning on staying on people’s radar.”

Stream
The Better Life at AudioMack.com.

IshDARR opens for Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, Vince Staples and Audio Push at the Rave on Thursday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m., then headlines a
Better Life release show Friday, April 18 at the Art is For Lovers Gallery (2228 N. Martin Luther King Drive) with VDF, Dee Phresh, Dom’ McNeal and DJ Aztek at 8 p.m.