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The importance of autotune, and how it expanded hip-hop’s horizons

As rap becomes the new pop, the usage of autotune is finally being embraced.

Autotune has played a part in music for centuries now and has received acclaim for its use as a vocal enhancer. Pop legend Cher has been deemed ‘queen of autotune’ by the New York Post, Daft Punk’s “Around The World” was listed at 172 on Blender’s 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born list and artists like Peter Frampton were being praised for their use of autotune in the 70s/80s, to the point where his live album Frampton Comes Alive sold over 11 million copies. Autotune is a fundamental part of music the same way beat production is; its purpose is to play a role in the bigger picture that is the quality of the song. However, the genre where autotune is most prevalent is the genre that denounces it the most, hip-hop.

Rap and R&B over the last decade are where autotune has existed in its most ambitious of ways, yet is often also where its use has been criticized the most. T-Pain was plagued with the “can’t sing” critique right up until his infamous NPR Tiny Desk performance 3 years ago, 808s & Heartbreak marked the first time in Kanye’s career the public had questioned his artistic vision, and Jay-Z tried to kill the trend of autotune all together with his Blueprint III single “D.O.A (Death of Autotune)”. It wasn’t until the last five years where autotune started to become more accepted as the experimental tool it is in hip-hop, with acts like Travis Scott, Future, Young Thug and a slew of others taking the technique to new heights. Autotune was once connected to the death of hip-hop, but now it’s the core of it.

So the question is, why did autotune receive so much kick back in the rap scene? Well, it’s not because of the way these artists were using it, it was a pairing of the connotations that were connected to it and the traditions of hip-hop before it. In pop music, autotune was used as both a stylistic choice to correct the pitch of vocals, and adapt to the somewhat futuristic sounds of pop at the time. Cher’s “Believe” used autotune as a sort of new wave revival tactic, bringing the nostalgic sounds of acts like Duran Duran into 1998’s version of the future, and Daft Punk’s use in “Around The World” was to match the astronomical aesthetic that they had created for themselves in dance music. While hip-hop in the mid-2000s had seen dynamic sub-movements such as horrorcore, crunk, snap and trap, it was still strung together by the art of rapping. So when Lil Wayne released “Lollipop” and Kanye released “Love Lockdown,” it wasn’t viewed as experimentation, it was seen as artists ‘cheating’ in a vocal sense, and running away from the traditions of hip-hop that made them so famous.

The criticism of autotune in hip-hop also came from the initial thought of it being a tool of conformity when rap had always been a genre of rebellion. In the mid-2000s, hip-hop was already topping charts, but on its own terms. It symbolized people who were outcast in society rising to the top of it, but in a way that was exclusive to them. So when acts like T-Pain started adapting to autotune, it was seen as someone in the hip-hop community chasing the white-washed trends of pop; even though it was just a tool used for diversifying sounds. As autotune became more popular, it showcased the sounds of pop acts and rap acts blending and began to blur the line between genres. While experimentation and sonic ambition is a huge part in hip-hop music now, it was once centered around bars and lyricism; something that Lil Wayne and Kanye drifted away from in their journey through autotune.

So, flash-forward to now; autotune can be heard in a majority of rap’s biggest hits of the last five years. What changed? When did it become well accepted? Well like every revolution, it takes time. It took acts like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and T-Pain to push the boundaries open for what is acceptable in hip-hop for autotune to receive the acclaim it deserves. 808s & Heartbreaks is no longer viewed as a weak point in Kanye’s discography, it’s seen as one of the most influential albums of the 2000s. T-Pain is no longer looked at as an R&B act who could only sing because of autotune, he’s looked at as the founding father of the alt-R&B scene that acts like The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor and Bryson Tiller thrive in today. The experimentation of those who were once criticized can be heard in acts like Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, Future, Drake and Kid Cudi today.

It’s also worth noting that in many ways hip-hop has become the new pop. Drake’s Scorpion marking the highest debut for an album in 2018 and Metro Boomin accumulating the most total sales for a producer 2017 are a couple of examples of how hip-hop became the number one genre in the world. These facts mean that there are more fans of rap music in the world than there ever has been, and that has resulted in sounds and styles of hip-hop becoming more diverse. You have metal-influenced rappers like Scarlxrd and Zillakami, grime rappers like Skepta and Stormzy and the dark, sad Soundcloud underground that acts like Bones and $uicideboys lead. In reality, within the world of hip-hop there are no taboos, it’s only inevitable that autotune would be welcomed with open arms in today’s climate.

So while autotune wasn’t always a part of hip-hop, and it may not be a part of hip-hop forever, it’s importance is stronger than ever. The vocal tool was once hated and has now become a way for kids around the world to push the boundaries of the genres they love. Hip-hop has become so big that bars, melodies and everything in between can co-exist and continue to expand the reach this music has. When you’re at the forefront of a genre that allows artists to experiment in the ways they want, why the hell would you not sing? Autotune is no longer just a vocal tool that will enable rappers to expand their horizons; it’s symbolism of how hip-hop become the most accepting and influential genre in the world.

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