Culture | The juggernaut in your jugular

Shifting trends in the rap game

“Things done changed on this side.

Remember they used to thump, but now they blast, right?”

– Dr. Dre, “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”


Hip hop is about change – staying fresh, if you will – producing and reflecting the changes in society. Rap, hip hop’s most celebrated outlet, has evolved from poets in the park to multimillion dollar deals and global recognition. (For more information, listen to “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common.) Rap has exploded into the commercial spheres of entertainment and in 2013, just about four decades since the “birth of hip hop,” rap’s consumer base has undergone a similar evolution. Listeners have always demanded a wide spectrum of style and content from rappers, but as in any genre, tastes change. Today, for example, the long shadow of 1990s gangsta rap that once dominated the charts has dissipated. Instead, mainstream listeners have come to prefer either emotionally vulnerable lyrics or energizing club-beats.

One Monday night this summer, my Twitter newsfeed exploded after Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse reached the internet. In this verse, Lamar mentions the few artists whom he believes to be at the forefront of rap in 2013: J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler, the Creator, and Mac Miller.

Lamarís list mirrors societyís musical preferences. After all, how is relevancy measured but by popular opinion? These artists together are the face of rap today. They are undeniably talented (though a case can be made against Meek Mill), and their music can be separated into two groups: heartfelt and catchy in a smooth way, or upbeat, with production designed for clubs.

This listing, as well as the verse itself, caused an incredible amount of controversy in the hip hop community and provoked numerous responses from other rappers.

One of the first artists to respond was Joell Ortiz, a member of the group Slaughterhouse. Ortiz was offended that Lamar did not acknowledge his group as an important force in rap. All four members of Slaughterhouse exemplify the more aggressive, hard-hitting styles that are losing favour.

The ability to adapt and remain relevant despite rap’s constantly shifting trends is part of what makes a rapper great. For example, Eminem, Nas, and Jay Z – arguably the three greatest living rappers – have all consistently developed their craft from album to album to keep up with the times.

Two other artists, Tech N9ne and Joe Budden, have also displayed significant growth throughout their careers, but they have not been as well-received by the public. Tech N9ne and Joe Budden, though different in almost every way, are similar in that they go hard. (Budden is a member of the aforementioned Slaughterhouse, and Tech N9ne is one of the most complex, animated lyricists in rap history.) Tech and Budden have both released catchy, party-appropriate music (e.g., “N.B.A. Ft. Wiz Khalifa and French Montana” and “Pump It Up” by Joe Budden and “Caribou Lou” and “Fuck Food Ft. Lil Wayne, T-Pain, and Krizz Kaliko” by Tech N9ne); however, their styles are built upon a hardcore base that not as many of today’s listeners are interested in.

Ten years ago, 50 Cent had just debuted with Get Rich or Die Tryin’. His album was riddled with the sounds of gunshots and “gangster” lyrics. Snoop was still Dogg, not Lion; in other words, he had not yet become a self-proclaimed reincarnation, distanced from the gangster life. Jay Z (we all believed) was peaking and ready to retire, but still managed to include disses toward fellow rappers on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. This year’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards winner for “best male hip hop artist,” Kendrick Lamar, did speak on issues surrounding “gangster” lifestyles on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but he did so as a storyteller rather than a shooter, and aimed to expose the negative sides of such lifestyles rather than to claim them as his own.

This year’s BET nominees for “best male hip hop artist” were Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, Drake, and Future. Ten years ago the nominees were 50 Cent, Baby, Eminem, Jay Z, Nelly, and Snoop Dogg (with 50 Cent winning the award). Although there are the outliers – Nelly has a very distinct style and is therefore difficult to compare with others, and Baby’s nomination was a precursor for the rise of the Young Money/Cash Money Records label – the changes within this decade are evidence that rap listeners are turning away from harder styles of rap.

Shifting trends in rap can focus the public eye on artists whose talents deserve recognition. That often means taking the spotlight away from an equally gifted rapper with less-of-the-moment style to make room. This is not to say that one type of rap is better than another. But things done changed on this side, and they will keep changing. Perhaps producers will veer away from today’s electronic-heavy composition and return to soul samples. Perhaps radio stations will begin playing Wu-Tang Clan again. Perhaps Dr. Dre will finally release Detox and leave another mark on the sounds of hip hop.