Recently, I came across a year-in-review column on The Ringer that spoke about hip-hop in frank, almost frightening terms for anybody born in or before the 1980’s. The column essentially credits the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black and 21 Savage for being the stewards of the culture as we enter 2017. We’ve just witnessed the year of the brazen, the unapologetic, the millennial (for better or worse); 2016 was their year.
If you’re a product of hip-hop’s previous generation, chances are you exalt some combination of Tupac, Ice Cube, Nas, Outkast, Jay Z, Scarface, A Tribe Called Quest, Jadakiss and Common. The 93 million miles Ghostface Killah once rapped about on “Triumph” might as well be the distance between these artists and XXL’s list of the 50 best songs of 2016. For anyone over 30, the list reads like a who’s who of “Who??” Even more telling, some of those artist of yesteryear actually put out music within the last 12 months.
This sort of evolution for any genre is hardly atypical. The old names fade to black and give way to the younger, hungrier artists with a fresh approach who (most importantly) have the ear of the streets. That’s an important subplot— the streets change too. If any part of hip-hop is art imitating life, then we must take inventory of what the streets — be them literal or cyber — have become and what they desire. It seems incomprehensible to compare Vert to say Nas or Biggie Smalls, but the latter’s story telling and lyrical gymnastics were unlike anything we had heard in 1994, which can also be said about the former. The alternative to the Illmatic/Ready To Die evolution would be everybody rhyming like Kool Moe Dee for an extra 10 years. Yet you can be sure there was a certain segment of rap fans who came up on Sugar Hill Gang and KRS-One that weren’t as impressed as those who came of age in the early 90’s.
Of course, old heads have a tendency to (often unfairly) deride new music, a practice that is far from uncommon in and outside of hip-hop. If this column is coming off that way, it isn’t intentional. HHSR contributor Kenneth Hicks framed the old head hypocrisy best by posing this simple question years ago: How can the people who passionately loathed Soulja Boy and what he represented gleefully turn up every time “The Humpty Dance” drops? Okay, he most assuredly didn’t use the phrase “turn up”, but still. Shock G didn’t set himself up for a Reasonable Doubt feature with that record. For this reason (among others), my level of acceptance for today’s rap isn’t nearly as rigid as some others in my age group.
After vehemently rejecting Jeezy in 2005, the Snowman eventually won me over, despite his lyrical shortcomings (he’s improved over the last decade, for what it’s worth). I’ve rocked out to Gucci Mane and vibed to Future. On a recent podcast, I expressed my appreciation for Rae Sremmurd— they’re not exactly the new Black Star. For a guy who rarely finds himself in a club anymore, “Bad And Boujee” was a favorite club anthem of mine in 2016.
But here’s where it gets tricky. I usually shut it off before Vert’s verse… because it’s just that terrible.
Musical progression is one thing, but these artists fall sort of executing anything beyond the most basic of rhymes, or worse, completing full words. “Mumble rap?” Have we really reached the point of investing any effort whatsoever is so uncool, an entire sub-genre was created to justify this otherworldly level of laziness?
Did you happen to catch the clip of Uzi trying to freestyle for Ebro? The whole thing was an abomination.
Yachty’s visit with Ebro was somehow worse.
These new wave rappers were all ostensibly influenced by rappers like Gucci, and at worst appear to be blatantly biting Future. Jacking the next rapper’s steelo doesn’t seem to be nearly as egregious of an offense as it once was, a fact that has been discussed repeatedly on this site. Maybe when “Lemonade” and “Magic” were jamming on the radio and in the clubs, we didn’t properly calculate the depth of St. Brick & Hendrix’s reach. Micah Peters, the author of The Ringer piece, summarized this new crop of rapper’s position in the grander scheme:
“Kodak, Uzi, and (to a lesser extent) Yachty being ahistorical is fine, because they’re making music that doesn’t sound like anything but itself. Rap fans are a traditionally fickle bunch, however. Would I extend the same goodwill if I thought their music was bad? Probably not.”
We’re not here to judge this man on his taste in music, but he clearly implies that Yachty, Vert and Kodak are making “good” music. Reconciling this, a talented young writer on a prominent website affixing his seal of approval to this group of rappers (the voice of one Peters comically describes as sounding like he “shotgunned an entire jar of peanut butter”) feels strenuous.
What happens when you don’t wish to be the “Get off my lawn!” guy, but the game put a glock to your temple, leaving you no choice? What happens when your only alternative to being ridiculed as a stagnant, change averse, stick-in-the-mud is accepting a brand of music where using radical concepts like coherent words and sentences isn’t considered a necessity? Do I want to exist in a world where Yachty’s beyond-monotone delivery is “fire”? It’s rappers like these that cause J. Cole fans to tote around an elitist attitude, when Cole’s concepts and wordplay isn’t half as intricate as Lupe Fiasco’s.
Such is life for the hip-hop fan heading into 2017. You’re left questioning whether or not you want to be a part of this brave new world. The level of what’s considered “acceptable” is so minimal, it leaves you wondering how record execs are ever going break a new artist. Not that they need to these days— the clicks will dictate whom the labels should push. But how does one delineate between the bland and the talented when bland is what’s hot?
— Miss Petite Nigeria (@misspetitenaija) December 17, 2016
Sidebar: With Vert & Savage on the come up, hip-hop’s need for defined sub-genres looks to be as necessary as ever. How can they be classified as “MC’s”? Even they seem to reject the term.
In the interest of full disclosure, further research can still be conducted. When you grew up on AZ, swallowing a big bowl of “There He Go” is a tall task. But the lack of depth to the music can easily lead you to believe you don’t need to hear anymore. Aside from being largely incoherent, much of what I’ve heard from this group isn’t even particularly catchy to me; then again, maybe it’s not meant for me to understand. While aging out of the hottest hip-hop has to offer is a regular occurrence, it doesn’t mean it’s always nonchalantly accepted. It may be too hyperbolic to say hip-hop is at a crossroads, but if this year was any indication, many of us will be forced to make some tough decisions in 2017.
What’s all this hype about the game’s newest artists? Do you even care at all? And perhaps more importantly, should you even care at all?