At the end of the first episode of Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America, Kanye West prophetically says, “I didn’t come here to be liked. I came here to make a difference.” It might be impossible to meet that goal any better than Kanye did. Nothing encapsulates his impact more than his single ‘Jesus Walks,’ the first of many culture-changing songs chronicled in the excellent AMC docuseries.
This song is a perfect place to start. There may be songs that made a wider impact across the country than ‘Jesus Walks,’ but there wasn’t anything that broke the mold more. In 2004, hip-hop videos were crammed into the club or on some boat with champagne pouring somewhere (or worse, on somebody), with no thought of challenging any masculine social norms. Kanye came in with a polo and a backpack to a world full of oversized retro jerseys and catchy hooks, questioning rhymes about subjects that mostly didn’t matter.
Expect the same production level that AMC brings to its dramas to this documentary. It’s what sets this series apart and it’s no surprise that this comes from the minds of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Legendary Roots Crew — they’ve forgotten more music history than most of us will ever know. They foster a foundation for artists to talk about what these songs meant to them and how they changed society.
For example, ‘Jesus Walks’ made it okay for you to speak about your vulnerabilities about being a flawed human being and defying all odds and getting that on the radio. This song brought church into hip hop. This song led to the rise of John Legend (who makes an appearance here). Anyone who ever spit a line after hearing this song was influenced by it, whether they’ll admit it or not. This song put Chicago on the hip-hop map like it had never been before.
That’s the best part of the pilot episode: While ‘Jesus Walks’ is artfully deconstructed, the city of Chicago becomes the main character. Not even Kanye takes precedence here. This is a story about how Chicago shaped him, how is mother was the most influential person in his life, how Rhymefest helped him find the beat from the Harlem ARC Choir, who recounts how singing helped them overcome addiction, how Roc-A-Fella Records Founder Dame Dash doubted Kanye, but eventually gave in to his perfectionist tendencies (Kanye made three videos for ‘Jesus Walks’) because of his incredible work ethic. It takes a village to change the landscape and this series gives a voice from every perspective.
While Kanye doesn’t make an appearance here, he doesn’t have to. We know his story. Hearing all of the other stories that led to his rise are the most impactful — in full context, you truly feel the impact of the song more than you would by merely cueing it up 15 years later (though, to be fair, those drums will move your soul either way). The stories shake your core even more than the song.
Pharrell makes an appearance here and says something telling about Kanye not as a musician, but what is truly at the core of his character: That no matter how much Kanye can polarize us one way or another, that ‘Jesus Walks’ is truly at the center of who he is. We get to explore the man who brought people together through his music more than he ever divided through his actions and words. And this documentary expertly gets us back, through this genre-bending and defining song, to who this musician truly is — and in 2019, boy, do we need that reminder.
If you need more hip-hop in your life (and who doesn’t?) the legendary Angie Martinez has you covered with Untold Stories of Hip Hop. When she’s not busy being “The Voice of Hip Hop Radio”, she’s sitting down with some of hip hop’s greatest getting up close and personal. Think of this show similarly to her radio show with some of her best interviews where there happens to be a camera in the room. Many times, that room just happens to be in these artists’ spots.
While there is some misleading editing to get you to come back after the commercial breaks, it really doesn’t need it. Martinez gets some surprising antidotes and stories from some of the most influential artists in the game. Really only personal stories that someone with 30 years of experience in this industry could get. Like ASAP Rocky detailing his life as a sex addict to DJ Khaled revealing the struggles he had becoming an artist in Miami and how the biggest collaboration of his career came together with Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Even if you consider yourself a hip-hop head and your familiar with many of these storylines, it’s insightful to hear from the perspective from the artists themselves. This is encapsulated well by Ice Cube speaking about his beef with Common and how he’s grown from that moment since. No one can elicit these stories like Martinez can and to see her commodore with these musicians is worth the watch alone.
Watch new episodes of Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America at midnight ET Sundays on AMC and Untold Stories of Hip Hop at 10pm ET Thursdays on WE TV. Both series are available on demand the following day.