An investigation into the ever-changing soundscape of rap music.
Rap music has always been an expressive subset of hip-hop culture, powered by raw energy that excites its listeners and gives strength to its creators. The disco-centric power of the late 1970s rap acts gave way to the fervent lyricism of the 80s and 90s, with emotional resonance being the driving factor powering the rapidly growing genre.
A generous list of artists unknowingly contributed to the startling growth of rap’s ever-changing face, still growing and changing today. Lyricism may have been the key that got Hip Hop’s engine started, but the genre has switched to a new fuel: energy.
To be fair, artists of the 1990s exhibited a delicate balance of being energetic and showcasing the lyricism they perfected for years. Jay Z‘s ‘Dead Presidents’ was an exercise in cut-throat delivery and velvety delivery. “Fuck ya’ll mean, handling since a teen,” cuts through the middle of the first verse, establishing the breakneck pace at which the smooth, classic cut flows. The tenacity in HOV’s voice betrayed the anxiousness and bravado that he had accumulated.
Similarly, Big L‘s ‘Put It On’ was one of the most intense songs on the surface, and beneath the heavy-handed lyricism lied a beat almost as sweet as something Taylor Swift would release in 2017. His delivery made it frenetic enough to encapsulate everything we knew about one of rap’s elite in one song only.
As the slide slowly tilted towards energy powering rap’s hot air balloon, things began getting odder and creepier – by traditional standards at least. Eminem stepped into the spotlight with a boyish delivery tout with vigor. Ludacris utilized weirdness in a way that combined the street, becoming a comedic rapper with a powerful delivery. From there, the early 2000s artists like Ja Rule and DMX created powerful rap music through tapping into exuberance to become mainstream superstars.
The ringtone era of rap music, filled with vivaceous contributions from artists like Bow Wow, Hurricane Chris, and T-Pain, all made use of a much more animated delivery of lyrics with less of a focus on their complexity, which in turn translated to mainstream success.
By the end of 2009, energy became the face of rap music’s current freshman class. The emergence of the “jerking” fad brought light to the new focus, promoting music that focused on the kinetic response it created without a semblance of traditional lyricism. The turn of the decade brought about the return of lyricism with a more streamlined, energetic delivery. Kendrick Lamar and Tyler The Creator are two purveyors of the new sound, using their cadence and lyrical content as the spark that powers their larger-than-life personas.
Artists like A$AP Rocky, SpaceGhostPurrp, Chief Keef, and Waka Flocka represent the forefathers of vivacity for the modern class of rappers expending tremendous amounts of energy recording each song. The slap of Flocka‘s dreads against his nape can practically be heard on any song that he releases. Rocky makes sure to reinforce the ebullience in his delivery with each bar, often emphasizing select phrases for dramatic effect. Both Keef and Purrp offer a similar morbid, ethereal style of rap that can be disheartening, yet powerfully told through shouts and animalistic howls.
The number of artists who promote lyricism as their calling card continuously dwindles while the number of rappers who use rely on emotion to craft the vibrancy that makes their music a wholly original product skyrockets. Famous Dex – known for his incessant yelling and wearing a devilish grin whilst doing it – is a textbook case of using emotional fuel as energy. Well received by industry professionals and casual music listeners alike, Dex has become one of the premier faces of the new generation.
Simarily, Playboi Carti embodies an indistinguishable face – minus the cartoonish personality and appearance. He trades in throaty bellows for randomized ad-libs, a frequent bite of his lower lip, and many a “whats” that serve as fillers between notable lines. His most notable release “Magnolia” and the accompanying video feature all three of these traits and has become a cultural phenomenon.
One of the biggest indicators of energy’s impact on rap comes from 6ix9ine‘s ‘GUMMO.’ Through incessant screeches and nonsensical lyricism that borders on comical, 6ix9ine‘s track has become one of the most notable viral releases of the year. The illogical chorus would be considered a travesty by hip-hop purists, but works under the guise of feeling the energy versus analyzing the lyrical content. It currently sits at 22 million views on YouTube and 2.48 million streams on Soundcloud. Clearly, it resonates with the majority.
When older rappers and fans try to chastise new school rap music for the lack of lyrical content, they show a lack of understanding of Hip Hop culture and how it evolves. They typically choose to remember the traditional lyricists of the 90s – widely considered to be Hip Hop’s Golden Era – but choose to forget about the scope of changes that have caused the game to evolve in exciting ways. They often look for ways to diagnose rap’s problem and try to pinpoint when and where it became something that they no longer identify with.
Artists of yesterday used “bars” to measure other rappers’ staying power and relevance. This convention was shattered in the mid-2000s with the advent of “snap” music with many of these people coming to the realization that all music isn’t to be measured by the same standard. By opening the gate for a different kind of Hip Hop being considered acceptable, they unknowingly created the conditions for rap now to thrive.
Rap that exists today is a culmination of the styles that have grown over the years and will continue to grow. Whether the shift from lyricality to energy will be a permanent one remains to be seen. But one thing is certain; rap music now is more creative, enjoyable, and powerful than it has ever been before.