Give it time and Lil Yachty will be the good ol’ days.
7 of the 10 top selling artists in 2018 are rappers. And I think it’s time to talk about how Hip Hop not only dominates as a music business but as an artform doing what art is supposed to do: shake up culture on a mass scale. I was inspired to write this piece after chatting with a 40-something about the state of Hip Hop. The genre hasn’t been around for long so in 2018 certain dynamics are cropping up that we are brand new to. An entire generation was chastised by their parents for youthful rebellion expressed over sample chops and now that generation are the parents doing the chastising. Growing up on 90’s Hip Hop is a blessing this 40-something and everyone like him was cursed with. He had nothing but complaints about this year and knowing I’m an avid appreciator of what Hip Hop was, a lot of folks assume that translates to not being a fan of what Hip Hop is. On the contrary, I think this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in its evolution. And I think we need to understand it’s a phase like any other passing moment in time.
The genre is bigger than any one individual or moment and our perception of it needs to reflect that.
Give it time and Trippie Redd will be a the good ol’ days, is what I’m saying. To wish for the feeling an artist or piece of music gave us, we would also have to ask for the moment in time it took place and all of the conditions that time entailed. If you want ‘94 Illmatic back, you’d need ‘94 crack-era Queensbridge back. We are simply on a different chapter than those previous and I don’t know anyone who would opt to stay on the same page and not continue to see how the story unfolds. In fact, it is the very idea that rap moved on and escaped the grip of a generation that is the mark of its brilliance. Rock & Roll isn’t dangerous to the status quo anymore; Hip Hop is. All genres once considered a nuisance stayed frozen in time at their peak and, if anything, the nostalgia of those time periods became consumerized and thus neutered like any other revolution in this country. America tends to squash its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. Hip Hop, however, manages to stay potent and still piss people off.
It is Kendrick Lamar rapping on top of a demolished cop car. It is Kanye West jumping up on a Grammy stage to defend a Black woman’s art. It is Jay-Z dealing crack in the Reagan era only to set foot in the White House in the Obama era as a self-owned billionaire. It is Young Thug wearing a dress on his album cover. It is Nicki Minaj taking advantage of America’s conflicted obsession with the sexualized female body and extracting millions from it. It is Drake broadening the scope of what does or doesn’t constitute Hip Hop, who is or isn’t allowed to contribute, and why. It is a 16 year old Chief Keef and his people embodying the alarming yet inherent violence of America in a YouTube video. And more than any other bullet point, Hip Hop manages to remain in the moment, question itself, and take the shape of the times as they are right now.
Playboi Carti will be the good ol’ days too. Angela Davis once said “we definitely love Martin and Malcolm and deeply appreciate their historical contributions, but we need not replicate the past.” There are no infallible deceased minds, only mortal men and women not unlike you or I who introduced valuable ideas to the conversation and then exited it. The conversation is on-going and ever-evolving based on the one step their contributions built; leading only to another, higher step for those of us living to further architect. At times the worst attribute of America and American media is its nostalgia. It leaves one constantly locked into the good ol’ days, believing the past to be a long gone utopia and the present infinitely worse and without a doubt headed toward the end of days.
I mean it when I say this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in rap. The crack era fueled the genre’s beginnings, reflecting and documenting the violence, poverty, and various borders of morality that came out of it. We saw a community nationwide use every angle of creativity to tell its story from the 80’s well through the 90’s. The 2000’s more so introduced a level of success within the genre unparalleled to years prior and the music reflected that. By the end of it we even saw stories that critiqued those heights of celebrity and riches it obtained and the 2010’s are understandably more introspective in ways. But I say this is one of the greatest eras because it is a visible testament to how shapeless and of the times Hip Hop is. I don’t know another genre that embraced the concept of free music so early. Mixtapes evolved to a point that artists were putting out album-quality original works for free in a climate where the industry as we knew it was crumbling. Eventually that highlighted the fact that music is simply promotion for an entire brand and the industry actually took shape around this concept. As the industry evolved, music of all eras and all genres became accessible in ways not comparable to any other era by far. All of a sudden it wasn’t up to companies to provide us a set of curated choices, our choices are now up to us. So each iteration of the genre has a fair chance at success and distinctive categories of those iterations got blurred. What I mean is Kendrick and J. Cole are two of the top selling rappers in the genre if you appeal more to so-called conscious rap, Drake and Post Malone are two more if you appeal more to so-called Pop rap, Migos are a little more bouncy and hood, XXXTentation is a little more emo and suburban, and Eminem is more traditional and driven by lyricism. Most importantly, none of these labels we put on them hold up and all of these artists are liable to fall under whatever category at any moment. In the streaming era it benefits to fall under multiple boxes and the music reflects that. This era is marked by questions of identity and where one falls in a spectrum as opposed to a category and this genre reflects that. This era is marked by an opioid crisis wherein artists, like their fans, are susceptible to addiction by both illegal and legal means. This era is marked by questioning respectability politics and the notion that some people and expressions are more valuable than others by nature; the type of concept that breeds snobbishness and stagnation. This era is marked by over-information, misinformation, and confusion to the point where simplicity is valued. One day I guarantee fans will talk about the good ol’ days. And not unlike Illmatic in ‘94, we won’t be able to get ‘18 back because to get ‘18 back would mean we would need the ‘18 opioid crisis, questions of gender roles, issues of psychological predispositions of violence against bodies of color, a music industry driven by consumers and not companies, and all other factors that make this year what it is. Jay-Z was a crack dealer in the Reagan era. If he insisted on staying put he would have never grown to the point of setting foot in the Obama-era White House.
But what I love about this era is there are no rules. Only music that truly resonates prevails. Gaudy clothes and 808’s work like the Migos, or absolutely normal clothes and musicianship works like Brockhampton. Straight hood shit like Lil Baby works like suburban shit like Mac Miller. Old acts like Juicy J work like a newer Lil Uzi Vert. Experimental Hip Hop like Jay Electronica can make a splash like more bare Hip Hop like Lil Pump. A complex performance like Chance the Rapper’s can land the same way as a simplistic performance like 21 Savage’s. Something more flamboyant like an ASAP Mob work can hit like a more lowkey Vince Staples. Singy-rap like Anderson .Paak can get the job done like a bare-bones rap from Dave East. Truthfully, I couldn’t understand the 40-something I wound up talking to. I mean no insult if you’re reading this, man. I think about Kendrick, the rapper that all Hip Hop heads agree on, and how his style changed over the years. He started doing traditional raps comparable to a Prodigy, Tribe, or Big Pun and eventually evolved into different sounds, flows, curves, and pockets; all of which were inspired by some of the more melodic and less traditionally lyrical acts of today. Everyone is adding to the conversation from different angles and it benefits the whole. You want a 100-piece Crayola crayon set that is all yellow. You want to only draw yellow things because yellow is your favorite color. But 100 is a lot. What you’re preventing from happening is a red crayon being introduced to the conversation. And regardless of what you think of that red, it may help your yellow make more orange hues and you draw a better picture. It isn’t healthy to stay in the same place and if this genre were to continue to dominate I think we need to better understand the function of the old head and the young head. Because the old head has all of the value of the past and the young head has all of the value of the present without any bias. We should deeply appreciate the contributions of the old, but the new need not replicate the past.
America tends to kill its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. In 2018, images of such revolutionaries as MLK became commodified and simplified to the point that the very people he fought against are using his name in 2018 as a reason as to why we should stop fighting. The concept of his peaceful protests, on a surface level at least, became the “tagline” of his “brand” and is used to pacify justified rage that MLK himself spoke on, understood, and at times advocated for. And so went Rock & Roll. I only say that to say one of the monumental strengths of this genre is that it can’t be pinpointed. It can sound like anything, it can look like anything, it can feel like anything. It can absolutely annoy, enrage, and scare those in power.
And most impressively, it can also sell T-Shirts in the process.