Hip Hop is no longer about lyrical prowess or unique song structure. And that’s okay.
Since its recent establishment in the South Bronx in 1970, Hip Hop music has often been curated by one core theme, authenticity. Participants of the culture regularly come from difficult backgrounds, highlighted by Jay-Z’s hustle from felon to business mogul or Biggie Small’s drug dealing career to international superstar. Core themes of the genre were initially focused around credible accounts of the hardships faced by those in living in underprivileged urban areas, however, as we entered the early 2000’s, artists such as Kanye West and Outkast broke down some of the traditional barriers and offered new approaches to the genre. In Kanye West’s first studio album, The College Dropout, he highlights how breaking into the industry was difficult, as most labels were only looking for artists whose appearance and sound embodied urban culture. West, the
son of a photojournalist and professor, didn’t fit the mold lain by the core Hip Hop artists at the time and was seen as a liability to any music label considering signing him. When West’s first album dropped, it was a commercial success. Along with other artists such as Outkast and Lupe Fiasco being a voice in alternative forms of Hip Hop, the genre experienced an influx of new and unique approaches.
Enter Lil Yachty, a 19 year old Atlantan teen who has become one of the most controversial topics in the last decade of Hip Hop. Since his quick rise to mainstream success, Yachty has experienced more in the industry than most artists will in a lifetime. Whether it’s his signature collection with Nautica, his advertising deal with Sprite and Target, or his streak of entertaining and somewhat hostile interviews, people seem to either hate or love the happy-go-lucky teen. Before Yachty’s music ever saw radio play, a handful of the artist’s songs were popular on sites such as YouTube and Soundcloud, which birthed a new argument over the genre. Opposers of the artist argued that as a culture, we cannot let Yachty become popular as his meme-worthy appearance, nursery rhyme flow, and colorful, video-game inspired instrumentals, did not fit into what their belief of what authentic Hip Hop embodied. With the artist himself stating that he’s not a hardcore Hip Hop fan and even going so far as saying he has never has listened to Notorious B.I.G. records, Yachty’s attempts at rectifying hostility has only seem to make him more despised by older fans of the music.
While Lil Yachty is often the figurehead when people mention Hip Hop’s authenticity deteriorating, many artists advocate similar values that promote the joy of music over clever wordplay. With over 43 million views, 2016’s XXL Freshmen cypher is a pertinent display of Hip Hop evolution. The cypher is composed of a handful of the newest popular artists all rapping over the same instrumental. Over the years, many breakout artists have done the cypher, such as Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, but the 2016 cypher featured nearly 20 times the viewcount of the previous year’s edition. By examining the lyrical content, assumptions can be made why this 2016’s list was drastically more popular than years prior.
Writin’ my wrongs Writin’ in the book of psalms
This is the word word to the holy Qur’an
Or whatever that’s foreign to ya
I find it funny that you are embracing a storm wait ring the alarm
or wake up wit a bomb thru ya
Its Baghdad kids with bad dads cops wit bad badges
Big bullets no my bads once the gun shoot ya –
– Kendrick Lamar, 2011 Freshman Cypher
Kendrick’s cultural knowledge and wordplay is on full display with this verse, relating both themes of religion and hardship to his difficult upbringing in Compton, CA. His style and content contains both depth and features authentic themes of Hip Hop, ranging from loss of loved ones and reflection one’s past life of crime. Below is Kodak Black, an up-and-coming Floridian rapper.
Who the fuck picked this lil sorry ass beat?
I’m from the ugly corner man, them lil sour ass streets
Damn homie, I’m the one who let your starving ass eat
And you was hungry, I ain’t have to let your sorry ass eat-
-Kodak Black, 2016 Freshmen Cypher
Kodak’s verse also promotes street knowledge, but a limited vocabulary, 3rd grade level wordplay, and overall apathy towards participating in the cypher reflected much of what was offered in 2016. While older fans of Hip Hop will probably shake their heads in disbelief at the lyrical content offered this previous year, I believe it’s not a bad thing. Many older fans of Hip Hop grew up when themes of competition were on full display with rivalries such as Jay-Z vs. Nas, Tupac vs. Biggie, and West Coast vs. East Coast. Rap beefs were more than Twitter beefs and featured displays of violence that were akin to the lyrics performers chanted. The comradery and less-than-serious attitudes of last year’s cypher reflected a scene of a bunch of friends joking around and having a good time than a hypercompetitive showcase of talent. I believe that’s the part that some people miss, with the 2016 showcase resembling a friends rhyming over a beat in a parked car versus a lyrical fight to the death. Moreover, performers Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert have often spoke of their music and attitude more towards having fun and being young, rather than promoting their songwriting skills.
Much of Hip Hop’s evolution can be compared the evolution of Rock music, as more and more sub genres were created over time. In rock music, an artist’s authenticity is rarely questioned and it’s more common to place an artist within a sub genre, such as Alternative, Punk, Indie, etc. For example grouping an act such as The Beatles into punk music would probably anger fans of punk music, however, by grouping the beatles into classic rock, fans can better differentiate which artists relate to each other and labels will be better off marketing their talent. Some may argue that Hip Hop has already split into genres, such as Classic Hip Hop or West Coast Hip Hop, however, hosting services such as iTunes or Spotify group Hip Hop under a singular genre. Something that is making a positive impact on Hip Hop is user-created playlists, where fans can explore music that their peers and tastemakers group together to create “niche genres”. Even though Hip Hop is often fragmented on music distribution services, growth of the art form shows hope for fans of all styles of the genre.
On the cusp of Lil Yachty’s first studio album, Teenage Emotions, Hip Hop extremists are at a very polarizing divide. Does sacrificing authenticity for catchy hooks and colorful instrumentals undermine the entire foundation that Hip Hop was built on? I don’t believe so, as any artform should be free to be manipulated, skewed, built-upon, perfected, and/or enjoyed. Older fans should not feel as Hip Hop is on its death bed, but should respect the youth’s movement, even if they don’t understand it. With themes of credibility being traded in for themes of positivity, it’ll be interesting to see how the next generation of performers makes Hip Hop music their own and how Hip Hop can open up to accommodate a wider range of listeners.
- By Alex Velicki