For music journalist and cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald, hip-hop holds healing powers. She copes with bipolar disorder, and through the years, bold beats and joyous grooves have helped keep her grounded.
To celebrate the genre's 50th birthday, Fitzgerald wrote Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music. Published by Running Press, its narrative begins in the New York City borough of the Bronx in the 1970s, rolling through the decades as hip-hop goes mainstream. We watch the artform continually break new ground, emerging as the dominant force in entertainment and culture that it is today.
Muse spoke with Fitzgerald about the albums featured in the book, ranging from Kurtis Blow's self-titled debut to Megan Thee Stallion's Traumazine. She also explores her deep connection to the rhythm and words, explaining how they've helped her through challenging times.
MUSE: In so many songs, hip-hop artists tell personal stories and reveal parts of their lives. I appreciate how you talk about your mental health issues and how hip-hop has been healing for you. Why was it important for you to share that?
Kiana Fitzgerald: I've been a fan of hip-hop since I was literally in the womb. My mom was the biggest fan, and she would play hip-hop throughout the house and during car rides. It was something that I always heard. I knew that it was going to be a very integral part of my life. But I didn't realize how important it would be until I got older and had my first bipolar manic episode. I think I had just turned 27… Every time I have those episodes, I'm very drawn to hip-hop. It sounds kind of bizarre, but it keeps me grounded. I remember one of the episodes that I had, I would listen to an album, and then I'd call my brother who introduced me to artists like DJ Screw. I'd be like, "Listen to this album. Come back, and let's talk about it." I would have all these thoughts racing through my brain, what I thought the album was trying to tell me.
It's interesting how your mind goes to this music that you are so passionate about when you are having an episode.
Yeah. I have maybe 12 or 13 journals that I've been keeping since I was in my mid-teens, and I was reviewing one of them recently. It was actually a notebook that I was given when I was in upstate New York in a facility when I was having my second episode. I had been very drawn to this song by an artist named Big K.R.I.T. called "Get Up 2 Come Down." For some reason, that song sounds like the immediate return of Jesus Christ for me. So, when I'm listening to that song, I get overwhelmed with emotion. When I was in the hospital, I wrote a short paragraph about that song, and I was like, "I'm going to submit it to somebody to be published." Even though I was manic, I was still like, I have to write about this song.
Do you ever write songs? Do you sing or play?
When I was younger, I played the flute and the piccolo. So, I know about the basics of music. But as far as actually creating it, I have never tried. Well, actually, I'm a liar. When I was, gosh, I want to say in sixth grade, I used to write poems, lyrics, for this guy I had a crush on so he could give them to another girl. That's how invested I was in that person but also in the creation of music. I'm very curious to see what I could make [musically] if I were to really put effort into it. I would probably lean more toward production.
So, when you sat down to write this book, what criteria did you used to select the 50 albums?
I really wanted to look at how an album made an impact on hip-hop culture but also American culture, Black culture, all the things that drive what we do as a country and as a world. I also wanted to dig into how an album affected other artists, whether it was their peers or foes or future artists. I wanted to look at it from an aerial perspective—what's going on in this genre at this moment? So much is shifting and changing and morphing and evolving. Hip-hop has always been in constant development. I wanted to look at that as well.
I loved learning details like how Tierra Whack [whose 2018 album Whack World made the list] took inspiration from Dr. Seuss, which absolutely makes sense, and how a chance meeting with Notorious B.I.G. on a street corner in Bed-Stuy kicked off Lil' Kim’s career. [Lil' Kim’s 1996 album Hard Core and Biggie's Ready to Die from 1994 are also featured]. Did you learn anything about a particular album/artist that really struck you?
It was interesting re-experiencing how Lupe Fiasco's album The Cool (2007) was rolled out. I forgot, for example, that the characters that he puts into his music had this very interwoven relationship. The way that he was able to tie the characters together in such an intricate way, and hearing how the relationships played out while listening to the album again, that was very interesting to me.
Why did you choose to kick off Ode to Hip-Hop with Kurtis Blow's self-titled debut?
He was the first rapper to sign to a major label deal and was someone who was active in the hip-hop scene basically from its beginning. He used to be a b-boy, he used to be a DJ. I would say he is an authentic representation of what it was becoming, and this album was a very important launchpad for hip-hop to become what it is today. When you listen to it now, the rhymes are very one and two and one. It's very formulaic, but that's not a bad thing. We have to start somewhere. This album, especially the song "The Breaks," was crucial to getting hip-hop to its next level, its next form.
Hip-hop was born in the Bronx in the 1970s and then spread all over the country. The South has their take on it. The West Coast has theirs. There is a big hip-hop scene in Texas. You're from Texas. When did artists from your state start getting noticed for their contributions to the music and the culture?
I appreciate the specificity on Texas. It definitely kicked off, I would say, around the late '80s with the Geto Boys. Their song "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" from their 1991 album We Can't Be Stopped—that song just blasted out of the state and into the nation and across the world. It's a song that carries a lot of weight when it comes to talking about mental health and mental illness. And not many people were doing that at the time in any genre, let alone hip-hop. It was a really powerful, breakthrough moment.
Traumazine, a 2022 album from another Texan, Megan Thee Stallion, is the last album to be featured in your book. Why is that album significant?
Megan is a true student of hip-hop, and with this album, I feel like she not only dove into her artistic abilities, but she also got to a point where she was ready to talk about the things that had happened to her, from the shooting and losing her mother ... losing friends, being unsure of the way the world thinks of her. That's something anybody can relate to. So, I feel like this album was important to include because she was able to document the here and now of her life as a woman in hip-hop, to be at the center of the conversation and the person speaking, not the person being talked about. And I really appreciated how the song "Anxiety" has got this really upbeat production, but she's talking about how she is really struggling with her mental health and her wellness. I want people to take a look back at this album maybe in five years or 10 years and be like, "Wow, she really accomplished something motivational and also poignant."