Given the onset of the 2017 XXL Freshman release, I think it’s a pretty good time to analyze the state of hip hop culture. With a bunch of fresh faces seemingly appearing on a daily basis, coupled with the breakout of streaming plus sales, hip hop has not only branched out, but evolved, holding a strong arm on pop culture as a whole. One glance at the Billboard Hot 100 and you can see pieces of the culture sprinkled from top to bottom. As of writing this, April 10th, there are three hip hop cuts in the Billboard Hot 100.
Before we start picking at the possible causes for the direction the culture is headed, let’s give a brief outlook on what’s going on. As Vic Mensa put it, “There’s A Lot Going On.” As guys like Chance push fresh and hungry artists away from the hands of labels, Soundcloud has become a home for budding talent. Names like Playboi Carti, Ugly God and XXXTentacion have garnered huge fanbases through the music sharing site. With that, we’ve also seen the sudden rise of meme rap and a mix of punk rock and rap, ie. XXX’s screaming flow and Lil Uzi Vert’s rock star persona. Not to mention upbeat, “bubblegum trap” from the likes of Lil Yachty. Lyrics still have a home, but more so with established artists like Kendrick and Cole, for which Kendrick seems to be holding the flame for this generation’s lyricists. Chance the Rapper shot up in popularity with the release of last year’s Coloring Book. Like it or not, his departure from the sounds of Acid Rap in to Gospel influenced sounds helped land him not only mainstream spotlight, but a Grammy to flex. Rap isn’t just rap anymore. It’s often melody. It’s imagery. It’s a brand. It’s marketing.
I’m going to do my best to look at both sides of the coin. That is, from the perspective of a hip hop purist, that of the young cats, and someone trying to be natural. Let’s start with the purists. Good ol’ lyrical hip hop. What happened to it? On the 2016 Freshman Class a lot of purists would argue there was the least amount of lyricists. Denzel, Dave East, G Herbo, and Lil Dicky. I’d throw in Anderson.Paak as well, but speaking from a strictly hip hop standpoint he’s excluded as his roots are in R&B. This is 40% of the list, which isn’t bad at all. But if we look at relative popularity, there are a lot of purists who don’t even know about these guys since they mostly see the other cats’ names in articles online. It’s interesting to say the least, watching the decline of lyrics. Emerging artists have become afraid to label themselves as rappers, shying away from the title of a lyricist as well. For now if you got bars, there’s a chance you become the “lyrical miracle” guy. The underground is booming with lyricists. At the helm of the search for them is Team Backpack, still keeping the spirit alive. A lot of purists cite a lack of intelligence with consumers for the rise of cats like Yachty and Desiigner. They don’t find no talent with these artists as often they feel they aren’t really saying much on a beat, and when they are it’s tasteless, not in line with what hip hop is about. Let’s not get started with the perceived disrespect to the gatekeepers and legends (see Lil Yachty’s comments on B.I.G. and Pac).
On the other hand, the younger demographic, often aged between 14 and 18, can’t get enough of these new, odd characters making a name for themselves. They respond to the old heads that these new faces are just having fun. They’re not trying to fit in to the mould of the classic MC. They make music you can party to, jam in the car, and overall uplift your mood. The music they make isn’t about the lyrics, it’s about the feelings they give with the melody and vocal inflections. Hip hop is evolving and these new guys are taking it in to a creative and unique direction and each finding their own lane, something these lyrical rappers can’t do. I remember watching a video of Young MA spitting on Sway’s set during SXSW, and the comments were littered with youngsters calling her boring and doing nothing special. I personally thought she was doing her thing, emotion with real bars, and I’d hope to see her in this year’s Freshman Class as well. But before I inject too much of my opinion, let’s take it back to the “mumble rappers.” Ugly God came out in an interview and called the term disrespectful. To be fair, while some of these artists have mumbled in some of their tracks, I noticed as they grow they can drop a verse and make it understandable while flowing. One thing that is for sure is they are definitely a lot different than artists in prior years.
(To be continued..)