The soundscape of hip-hop is constantly in motion.
Perusing through DJBooth’s recent catalog of spectacular editorials, I came across one of the more interesting things that I’ve seen in awhile. Legendary vocalist Black Thought revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone that he believed millennial rappers to have given up using words in the formation of their music. He actually said “Abandoned words,” but he wasn’t throwing shade at the new generation. He revealed that he invented what’s commonly known as “mumble rap” back in 2004 with his one-of-a-kind release “Don’t Say Nothin”; on it, he whispered inaudibly on the chorus, setting a blueprint for today’s rap landscape.
On The Toure Show, Thought elaborated on his belief. “One thing that the millennial rapper is doing, and this isn’t across the board — every millennial rapper doesn’t do this — but lots of them, have abandoned words,” he started. “Like, they don’t use words… literally, there are people who are vocalists who go into the booth who don’t use any words. No audible words. It’s just mumbling.”
While Thought later admitted to not fully understanding the creative process, the changing paradigm of the game is more natural than ever. This isn’t a game of lyricism anymore, it’s one of emotion and unspeakable feelings. It’s more visceral than ever before, being a product of our experiences and our surroundings. He’s right, words have left the building, in its place is raw empathy.
Paying attention to the landscape of music over the last forty years can give anyone a headache — especially in rap music. Every ten years or so, the culture shifts drastically. First, it was raunchy disco that was replaced by the ethereal, spacey aesthetic of the 1980s. This would mellow out into the grunge, politics-heavy approach of hip-hop in the 1980s. Lyricism would stretch like elastic into the 2000s where it would be buried deep underground but still prevalent; dance music reared its head. From there, shock rap and the resurgence of conscious music manifested itself in the early 2010s, with the addition of trap music creating a three-pronged approach towards understanding rap for the older generations.
One thing that has been at the forefront of each of these changes in rap music is technology. Advancements in cell phones and computers can be tracked in the late 90s and early 2000s videos where these items weren’t yet common household items — they were luxuries only affordable by the idols of mainstream America. Social media arose in the mid 2000s with the intense fascination with MySpace that would turn into Facebook, then Twitter. This technology would ultimately be deterimental to conversation skills in millenials; being digitally-savvy and relying on it for growth and evolution, the verbal communication skills developed by past generations through face to face contact weren’t able to properly manifest in the new generation.
Maybe that’s the reason why our new generation chooses to channel emotion and energy through music instead of complex similes and metaphors. We’re more visual than our forebears; we also rely on our minds to do the talking for us. That often manifests itself in the form of stream-of-consciousness raps and broken English. But then again, when has rap music ever relied on grammatically correct language?
Artists always connect the decline in lyricism to a perceived decline in music quality. But lyricism has never been a measurable standard to judge rap music. Emotion has always had a place in the genre; lyricism just overshadowed it in importance. Case in point? Look at the visceral, acrimonious emotion exhibited in “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. People partially identified with the hard-hitting grotesque lyrics about weapons and violence. What drove the group’s point home was the furious delivery, led by Ice Cube’s gripping verse. The group was hungry, but there was veracity in their verses. They’d seen so much, been a part of many unholy deeds — either of their doing, or against them. By the time they created the song, it was akin to screaming in solitary confinement, repeatedly striking the concrete walls until the fists were bloody. The success of the song showed that millions identified with that same emotion and energy that they exhibited.
While calm lyricism may have been the currency of 90s and early 2000s rap, dance and snap music showed glimpses of emotion in the mid to late 2000s. Lyrcism caused too many migraines; it was time to party like the roaring 20s. For that, good vibes needed to be created. New dances like the “Crank Dat Batman” and “Spongebob” capitalized on these needs. Ringtone and album sales confirmed that the ability to create emotions was rising drastically.
Today, emotions ride high in the Donald Trump presidency. We aren’t looking for think pieces in our music about modern society; we see everything through our own eyes and through social media which magnifies our issues. We want to separate ourselves from our sometimes miserable existences; listening to someone magnify or manifest their own emotions through songs helps us to cope with the monotony of everyday life.
It isn’t that artists simply aren’t relying on lyricism anymore, we just look in between words. Artists like Playboi Carti and Chief Keef, while considered less-than-capable by hip-hop purist standards, are leading the charge of emotional rap. Through grunts and simple ad-libs they convey unspeakable truths that resonate with modern day fans. If you go into this type of music looking to be lyrically liberated, of course you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re unpacking the day’s stresses through music that doesn’t require a mental investment — only the heart — you’ll not only be satisfied, you’ll be happier.
At the end of the day, we’re all coping through some kind of medicine. Whether it’s prescribed or not, music is something that we can’t overdose on if its created to supplement our chaotic lifestyles. Emotional music doesn’t overload the brain; lyricism can. We want to feel what artists are saying more so than understand it. When artists like 6ix9ine and Trippie Redd continue to grow in prominence, this fact will become more apparent. But, as for until then, emotions will continue to eclipse lyricism in ways that will continue to shape the changing scope of the genre.