When the signature lighter flick sound was heard on the first song of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, most listeners were transported back to the late 2000’s and their minds quickly filled with memories from a time when I Kissed a Girl dominated the charts. Just weeks earlier, we woke up to Eminem’s Kamikaze, another nostalgic addition to a year soaked with rap wistfulness. While these releases always generate hype and awaken lyrical hip hop’s most fervent supporters, they directly contrast with today’s dominating rap trends. However, lyrical hip hop is not going anywhere- still considered as mainstream, it can peacefully coexist with defiant new-wave rap. But at a time when 6ix9ine rubs shoulders with Eminem atop the Billboard 100, both styles have never suffered such a strong collision.
However, lyrical hip hop is not going anywhere- still considered as mainstream, it can peacefully coexist with defiant new-wave rap.
Looking at today’s up-and-coming rappers, most rose to fame after encountering success by sharing their music online, earning themselves the label of “SoundCloud rappers,” often with a negative connotation. Their incomprehensible lyrics, basic delivery, and overuse of simple sounds has led to the characterization of this new wave’s members as “mumble rappers.” Whereas before, making a name for yourself often meant extricating from the underground rap scene, the widespread adoption of social media has allowed virtually anyone to become famous.
While the majority of these rappers’ musical abilities and sense of rhythm are undeniable, the simplicity of their writing is a far departure from the lyricism-focused era of the 90s and early-to-mid 00s. Just compare Biggie’s Juicy with 6ix9ine’s Gummo – the lyrical and generational gap has never been so blatant. The new wave is not a homogeneous mix of artists: some, such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, support old school traditions, while others have created their own style. However, mumble rap is without a doubt gaining traction and setting a clear view of where hip hop as a whole is heading. Whereas the genre used to stand out with originality and insolent independence at its core, rap has evolved into a more melodic and mainstream style, in order to catch ever-widening audiences. Today, rap’s well-thought out wordplay and sophisticated lyricism has been left for dead and replaced by catchy and repetitive choruses.
The new wave is not a homogeneous mix of artists: some, such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, support old school traditions, while others have created their own style.
The contrast between the two generations isn’t limited to the complexity of the lyrics though, as both waves also differ in the themes evoked through their respective songs. Mumble rappers, for the most part, centre their music around materialistic and accessible themes such as sex, money or drugs. Even though their themes can stretch to more complex topics, such as depression and suicide, the new wave is a far departure from the social criticism of Nas and Tupac. Old school rappers did discuss these topics, but to lesser degrees and as a means of conveying their arguments. Inherently, the egocentric and narcissistic themes so endearing to mumble rappers are just the logical continuation of a constant display of their don’t-give-a-damn attitude on social medias. Of course, Biggie was far from being a saint and the omnipresence of Facebook and Twitter is not helping these new wave rappers’ cases. However, in their perpetual quest for attention, most mumble rappers have ended up all roughly looking and sounding the same. If you had to randomly pick one of them, there is a very high chance that he or she would have face tattoos, a stage name including “Lil” and an overuse of autotune in his or her songs. While members of a musical subgenre will naturally have some similarities, mumble rap is pushing hip hop towards a uniform and unvaried style, far from its roots in competition and diversity.
In light of this musical renewal, some might consider mumble rap as slaughtering what made the gut and the essence of hip hop. This is true in many ways, but it does not mean that lyrical rap has gone out of style. Some of the rappers breaking Spotify records on a monthly basis, such as J.Cole or Logic, do rely on a more lyrical flow and in that sense, are humble successors of what is commonly referred to as the Golden Era of hip hop. As shown by the recent Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly beef, opposition exists and always will – the older generation and its supporters despise what differs from the traditions, while the uber-confident new wave is proud to rival with those they once venerated. The transition between both eras can be a hard pill to swallow, but has been the result of a constant and logical evolution over the recent years, as hip hop has regularly been shifting from its lyrical roots to a more accessible form over the past decade. It is not arguable which rap style is superior to the other from a purely musical standpoint, but no drastic choices have to be made – lyrical and mumble rap can co-exist side by side.
In addition to each wave not being musically exclusive to the other, both schools co-existing could be mutually beneficial. Indeed, difference styles can lead to unique musical associations – think about a collaboration like Rod Stewart and A$AP Rocky on Everyday. Two artists from two completely different music genres, but a coherent and singular result. In the same way that rock and hip hop can merge, the old and new school of rap can unite. For example, Lil Pump and Kanye West’s I Love It and Lil Wayne and XXXTentacion’s Don’t Cry are recent illustrations of what that could sound like. Such collaborations allow for each style to be complementary to the other and leaves place for a future where lyrical and mumble rap can each be successful in their own ways.
Such a departure from the genre’s traditions is a shame – but it’s not a setback. It’s a passing of the torch. Yes, the movement sounds like a complete teardown of the basic roots of the genre. However, the new rap school has its very own pool of talented and lyrical artists, such as Joey Bada$$ or Tyler the Creator. The new wave of hip hop is reinventing the true essence of the genre and it is with creation through destruction that unique musical results are obtained. Rap codes are not fixed – as our traditions evolve, so do our tastes and habits. Who knows, in twenty years, people might be celebrating Lil Pump’s songs as the messiah of classical rap.