Unlike many other genres, hip hop’s founding fathers are all mostly still living and breathing. A quick jog and you’ve covered its memory lane. That’s not to say that hip hop hasn’t achieved plenty in its infancy, but it still has plenty of room to grow.
We’ve had the extinction of plenty of pop-up styles, but have we come to another major turning point in the life cycle of hip hop? Numerous albums have influenced sounds, but are we now seeing a total revamp of the genre’s sound? We seem to be evaluating hip hop differently in 2017, are we going to look back to now and question where it all went wrong – or right?
While there have only been a handful of lyrically-refined rap chart hits since the music’s inception, it seems as though the lyrical abilities of MCs themselves have reached their peak, and that now we’re living in the age of hip hop producers, meaning if we’re to evaluate modern hip hop fairly, we must adjust our standards from classic, lyric-based ones, to more instrumentally-focused ones.
It’s not as if rappers talking about nonsensical topics is a new phenomena. Take for example, Special Ed, known for 1989 hit, ‘I Got it Made’. The track was never appreciated for its lyrical content, but more so the symbiotic relationship between Ed’s flow and the beat he’s riding. His simplistic rhymes, matched with a typical old school beat were a staple of late 80s/early 90s hip hop, which somewhat died out around the dawn of more insightful and explicit boom bap and gangsta styles.
Since then, plenty of rappers have been ranked against each other according to their lyrical mettle, with beats largely out of the equation. Those who could marry production with top of the range bars always stood out – Eminem and Dre, Havoc and Prodigy, Drake and E-40, and shaped the sound of rap as the years went by.
As the ‘top of the range’ rappers each waged lyrical war with each other, it’s fair to say to some degree that the South staged something of a productional revolution, using marketable figures like Young Thug, Migos and Gucci Mane to make a bass and 808-heavy trap sound, coupled with melodies and heavy autotune. This was initially laughed at and talked down by the elite rap connoisseurs, but is well and truly the leading sound within hip hop in 2017.
Take a look back to when Kendrick Lamar released his lyrically groundbreaking album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ in 2012; a breath-taking masterpiece where every line departs on a poignant note while still carrying street edge and soulful style, all carried along by wavy, biting west-coast instrumentals. Fast forward to his latest release ‘DAMN.’ and we have vintage Kendrick soul flavour infused with Southern intensity. Mike WiLL Made-It actually made it onto the credits of Kendrick album, something you didn’t think you’d hear when you first heard ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’.
Comparing any other rapper to K Dot is always a contentious task but using the cream of the crop as an example of how much hip hop has changed in five years is always a good place to start. Even though the likes of Chance and co. won’t be hopping on the hottest demos emerging from Atlanta, the sound is so widespread that it can be heard from Tyler, the Creator and Vince Staples, to 67 in the UK.
Even though it’s fair to say there are the ‘lyrical miracle’ rappers out there, still on top of the game with killer flows, is it time for us to stop looking out for top quality lyrical content and start evaluating hip hop for its total song quality, rather than just one half of its make up?
It’s totally understandable that there will be those who have grown up devoted to the wordsmiths of boom bap, but for the genre to further progress and develop even more, do we need to cut back on top quality lyrics, in order to promote more potent beats?
As much-maligned as the previously mentioned Southern artists have been, they must be celebrated for their contribution to the exposure of hip hop on a mainstream scale, within the last year alone. ‘Bad and Boujee’, ‘XO TOUR Llif3’ and ‘Mask Off’ have all consecutively captivated the ears of the world with simple hooks; ‘My bitch bad and boujee’, ‘All my friends are dead’, ‘Percocet, Molly, Percocet’ and outrageously good instrumentals via Metro Boomin’ and TM88. The aforementioned, including Mike WILL, Zaytoven, DJ Drama and London on da Track, possibly deserve more credit for their work in spreading the trap sound so much so that we hear it on Spin 103.8 on a daily basis.
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea that Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert are at the tip of every young one’s tongue when it comes to conversations about rap and hip hop, but with that being said, widespread exposure to such a raw sound emerging from the scene is always going to be positive because it’ll lead to further and further excursions down the hip hop rabbit hole from people that wouldn’t have dreamed of liking it five years ago.
We can’t expect everyone to latch onto bars upon bars and expect that trend to stand the test of time without evolving and taking on different shapes.