I have a lot of admiration for music as a way of sharing information and ideas. It has the power to bring people joy and excitement, to catalyze casual or critical thinking and to incite discussion and reflection on problems. Music also teaches in a way that’s memorable and comprehensible. It has incited social and political change time and time again, and has ingrained all sorts information into minds. Because of its capacity for influencing and teaching, musicians like Baba Brinkman have tried to capture its power for education.
Baba Brinkman’s 18th educational hip-hop release, The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, takes on climate change, spitting verses on everything from policy to ecology to religion. He throws in nearly every vocabulary word from an introductory environmental science class, earning some real scientific merit when the information is correct. He casts moral judgements freely, referring to the United States’ lack of action on climate change and the religious implications of pollution and environmentalism. He throws in some well-established slang for street cred, dedicating a whole song to the “beef” between deniers of climate change and the scientific community, as well as one entitled “Mo Carbon Mo Problems.” He runs the gamut, adding every facet he can to intrigue listeners.
The problem with his reach for these elements is that Brinkman does none of them particularly well. All of the interest groups he reaches for — rap music, science and religion — are dispelled by the mediocrity of his execution.
Musically, the album is not well developed. The lyrics are overwritten and overcomplicated and his flow is clunky and unnatural. Good rap has relieving rhymes and a smooth flow, but the rhymes are often awkward and askew. The beats are a little better than the ones my friends made in our eighth grade technology classes, when they are more melodic.
Throughout the album, he tries to grasp hip-hop slang, and nearly always falls short. His appeal to the narcissism that makes many rap artists prominent is endearing but ineffective, as he is far to impressed with his own sub-par rap skill. Possibly more awkward are his references to hip-hop culture. The very first line of the album is “Straight out of Canada, not outta Compton,” immediately losing any cool factor he had from a fancy intro riff and from actually putting together and releasing a rap album. These jokes and references separate him further from the fans of rap music that he hopes to reach by making this music.
The album really does include a wealth of information on the science of climate change, and for the most part the information is accurate. The level of the information is fairly advanced, which definitely eliminates a large portion of potential listeners. It would be a great teaching and learning resource if it had more musical appeal. When music flows well, it’s a very effective way to learn new information. How would anybody ever alphabetize something without a song? When you give a information a rhythm and melody it becomes much easier to remember, combined with the social aspect of music — many people will share what they listen to — it becomes a really powerful way to learn. This album surely has the information to teach, but that is inconsequential unless it appeals to listeners.
A final point of weakness is the interlude of religious ideology in the middle of the album. The songs “Laudato Si” and “Yank The Plug” feature harsh moral judgements that are at a stark contrast from the other fact-based arguments he makes. He talks about “rampant consumerism and spiritual poverty” being the root cause of climate change and says “redemption lies in protecting creation.” Just for fun, he throws in an anti-abortion rhyme and raps from the perspective of the Pope. From an educational standpoint, these two songs are much more polarizing than even often-contested climate change.
While there’s definitely a lot of information in The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, it doesn’t present the information well enough or consistently enough to be a good learning tool. It’s not all that fun to listen to, even ironically. The grasp of rap skill and culture is evidently poor.
While music really does have the potential to make great impacts in teaching and learning, this is not the album to do it. If the import of climate change and some more basic principles were explained through good music, it could be a great way to increase dialogue and understanding. I think it’s possible to make a great environmental rap album, and I hope it happens, but this is not the one we’re looking for.