20 Classic Story Themes (from Rap)

Build narratives like a rapper

My friend Jason Levin DMd me an idea I hadn’t heard:

What if we write an essay on what you can learn about storytelling but the lessons come from rap?

Intrigued, I asked Jason who his favorite artists are. I won’t name names, but if he said certain ones I wasn’t going to let him write this. 

Thankfully, his top two are J Cole and Mac Miller.

Jason takes over from here…

Before we begin… a huge thank you to this week’s sponsor

I’m a newsletter snob. And there’s only one I let in my inbox on the daily. Morning Brew takes just 5 min to read and gives you the essential information needed to start your day. Click here to check it out.

Jason writes an excellent weekly piece to help you become a smarter content strategist. He’s someone I learn a lot from. I recommend his writing.

I love rap for the storytelling. Every artist is like a character in a movie. If you listen to enough of their music, you see their backstory, mentors, quests, enemies, allies, everything Joseph Campbell talks about in The Hero's Journey.

Whether it's the bravado of 2Pac or the pensiveness of Kendrick Lamar, I see myself in every rapper. 

I think that's the mark of a great storyteller—even if a character is completely different on the outside from you, can you still see yourself in them? 

And that often comes down to the theme driving that character.

In today's post, I'm going to show you 20 timeless story themes that come up again and again in rap music.

You'll read lyrics from 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and more. Rap music has inspired me to become a better artist and writer. Hopefully, these themes and lyrics inspire you to tell stories like a rapper.

Steal These 20 Classic Story Themes:

  1. Broke & Unknown to Rich & Famous: “From standing on the corners boppin' to driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen,” Jay-Z raps in Hard Knock Life's first verse. With a hook like that, how could you not want to hear this rags-to-riches story?

  2. Importance of Family: He might be seen as the ultimate thug, but 2Pac was a Mama's boy. In Dear Mama, he raps, "When I was younger, me and my Momma had beef, 17 years old kicked out on the streets, though back at the time never thought I'd see her face, ain't a woman alive that can take my Mama's place."

  3. The Perils of Fame: What happens when you finally get famous? "No more parties in LA, please baby no more parties in LA," Kanye West begs Kim Kardashian on No More Parties in LA. There's something fascinating about the struggles of a famous character because it's simultaneously foreign (being famous and partying in LA) and relatable (I want to skip my fiancée's parties and stay at home too). 

  4. Falling in Love: "No matter what you say or what you do, when I'm alone I'd rather be with you [...] I'll be right by your side til 3005," raps Childish Gambino on 3005. You just know a love story is gonna be good when he promises to be with her for the next 1,000 years. And it doesn't disappoint, the music video is unforgettable. 

  5. Romance Goes Bad: "I'm sorry Ms. Jackson, I am for real, never meant to make your daughter cry, I apologize a trillion times," raps André 3000 on Ms. Jackson in the opening lines. It's hard not to wonder what André did to make her cry. 

  6. Finding Mentors: In Kanye West's Big Brother, he raps about his metaphorical big bro JAY-Z. "He got me out my mama crib, then he help me get my mama a crib [...] here's a few words from ya kid brother, If you admire somebody you should go ahead and tell 'em, people never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em." Joseph Campbell would be proud, a true Hero's Journey.

  7. Inner Demons: From the Greek god Zeus to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, every great character has their inner demons. "I'm still trapped inside my head, it kinda feels like it's a purgatory," raps Mac Miller on The Star Room. "Boy you got a problem, you ain't foolin no one but yourself, you're like a hot revolver, but you ain't killing no one but yourself," goes the chorus of Lil Wayne's Hot Revolver. Don't be afraid of showing your protagonist struggling with their inner demons—not only will your character be more interesting, but they may also help your readers feel not so alone in their battles. 

  8. Racial Struggles: "Do this for my ancestors in them slave fields rockin' corduroys, you can get the picture like a Polaroid [...] a confrontation, what I won't avoid, my confidence, that's what they won't destroy," raps Polo G on Black Man In America. Notice how Polo G uses imagery to paint the picture like a Polaroid. 

  9. Doing Crime: From The Godfather to Catch Me If You Can, there's something naturally intriguing about a crime story. Well, Pusha T is the master of the cocaine stories. On Let The Smokers Shine The Coupes, Pusha raps "If kilograms is the groove, I done sold the golden goose, I got 'em, baby, I'm Jim Perdue, Cocaine's Dr. Seuss," somehow managing to simultaneously compare his sales skills to Jim Perdue (founder of Perdue Chicken) and his rap skills to Dr. Seuss. How can you not be fascinated by a villain this despicable? 

  10. Getting Over Pain: "I know it hurts sometimes, but you'll get over it, you'll find another life to live, I swear that you'll get over it, I know you're sad and tired, you've got nothing left to give, you'll find another life, you'll get over it," raps Lil Uzi Vert on The Way Life Goes. What's beautiful about storytelling is your story can help people you've never met get through the darkest periods of their life. That's what this song did for me. I listened to it on repeat when I was deep in a depression in 2017 and hoped I really would find a new life. Uzi was right. I did. I found a new life and I got over it.

  11. Overcoming Fear: "At 27, my biggest fear was losin' it all, scared to spend money, had me sleepin' from hall to hall, scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin'," raps Kendrick Lamar on Fear. Kendrick starts out the story showing the fear and vulnerability he felt at age 27. It makes you wonder how he's doing now, and you need to listen to find out. 

  12. Fighting an Archenemy: Every great hero needs an archnemesis. For 2Pac, that was Biggie. It's a rivalry still talked about 20 years after both of their deaths. In diss track Hit Em Up, 2Pac calls Biggie fat, says he had sex with his girlfriend, and tells him to grab his gun the next time he sees 2Pac. "Grab ya Glocks when you see Tupac [...] Get out the way, get out the way, Biggie Smalls just got dropped." If you want to tell a story of a hero and archnemesis, study 2Pac v. Biggie. 

  13. Dealing With Death: Death is chaotic and messy, so it's a great way to kickstart a story. "Grandma's passing, but I'm too busy tryna get this f*ckin album cracking to see her, so I apologize in advance if anything should happen, and my priorities f*cked up, I know it, I'm afraid I'm going to blow it," Earl Sweatshirt raps in the opening lines on Burgundy. 

  14. Partying Hard: There are 3 Hangover movies — 3 movies about drunk dudes partying and having fun. While it won't be the stuff that impresses English teachers, we all know that party stories are a hit. "Crush a bit, little bit, roll it up, take a hit, feeling lit, feeling light, 2 A.M., summer night, hands on the wheel, uh-uh, f*ck that," starts the chorus of Hands on the Wheel by Schoolboy Q. It's not deep, but it's not supposed to be. It gets you hooked on the story. He's drunk and high, what crazy thing happens next? 

  15. Battling With Drugs: Well, what happens when you party a little too hard? "And the ecstasy had me tryna drown face down in the Chesapeake, the next month I dropped 'Down on My Luck' and had Europe goin' nuts, but I couldn't even appreciate it at the time, I was goin' through too much," raps Vic Mensa on There's A Lot Going On. It's a story as old as time from Elvis Presley to Elton John: an artist getting famous but they're too high to even appreciate it. There's something fascinating about this archetype because it's just so foreign to 99% of people. 

  16. Inner Transformation: "As the winter turned to spring, and the leaves start changing, her dress get shorter and her weave start changing [...] old Gucci Mane was addicted to drinking, new Gucci Mane, I'm addicted to Franklins, no, we not the same, I'm evolving, Imma elevate long as the world keeps revolving." Gucci Mane has had the ultimate transformation story: from an overweight drug addict in prison to being sober, wealthy, and healthy. How'd he make this remarkable change, everyone wonders. And that's why The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is a New York Times bestseller. 

  17. Me Against The World: "It's just me against the world, I got nothing to lose [...] stressin the question will I live, no one in the world loves me," raps 2Pac on Me Against The World. Your protagonist could have a dream so big they feel the world is against them.

  18. Madness and Sanity: From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, some of the best stories blur the lines between madness and sanity. Maybe it's why Kanye West's Monster is such a legendary song. "Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Lochness, Goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience, question, what do these things all have in common?, Everybody knows I'm a motherf*ckin' monster," raps Rick Ross on the track. Then Nicki Minja comes in with an unforgettable feature, "Okay, first things first I'll eat your brains, then I'ma start rockin' gold teeth and fangs, 'cause that's what a motherfuckin' monster do." Blur the lines between madness and sanity and you may just have a hit story. Even better, have your characters embrace their inner monsters like Kanye West, Rick Ross, and Nicki Minaj.

  19. Growing Up: "It wasn't nothin' like that first time, she was in my math class, long hair, brown skin, sat beside me, used to laugh at mad jokes, the teacher always got mad so we passed notes, it started off so innocent," raps J. Cole on Wet Dreamz. Losing your virginity is a universal part of growing up, don't be afraid to tell the story of it. 

  20. Perseverance: "Never ever quit, I just kept on pursuing, teachers always asked me what was I doing, scribbled in my notebook and never did homework [...] whoever thought I'd be the greatest growing up?" Danny Brown raps on Grown Up. Listening to this song at age 16, I knew all I'd have to do is keep trying. I was that kid scribbling ideas down and writing tweets in class. Now I write online for a living. That's the power of a story. It can make you feel like you're not alone and can push you to chase your dreams. 

I hope this helps put your pencil on fire.

Have an awesome weekend,


Quick note from Jason. 

You're posting random stuff on social media with no plan. I get it. I was right there with you a few years ago. I had no clue what I was doing or why I was doing it.

Luckily, I began studying the strategies of the world's smartest internet-native creators. It was only then that I started finding the hidden patterns, strategies, and hacks I needed to succeed on social media. 

I stopped posting random stuff and I figured out my content strategy. I've since grown to 35,000+ followers across platforms and 10,000+ readers of my weekly newsletter on content strategy. 

If you want to learn hacks and strategies to become a content master, tap the button below to subscribe to my free newsletter.

Nathan’s Notes

4 things I found worth sharing this week:

Want to go deeper on storytelling? 3 ways I can help:

1. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (350+ students).

2. To get ahead of the AI curve, check out 90-Minute Novel. It’s a 90-minute mini-course digging into writing fiction with AI. Prompts, processes, and more. We had 180+ students in the live session and it was awesome.

3. If you’re interested in starting or taking your newsletter to the next level, check out my Newsletter Crash Course (100+ students).

Thanks for reading! Reply any time.

What'd you think of today's newsletter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.