Rap’s been through quite a bit in its roughly 40 years. The genre went from a secluded movement among NY’s underprivileged youth to a cash cow in the 90’s. Things died down a bit for the ‘ol girl but the genre’s biggest acts make plenty of label heads rich. The music is more pop than its ever been and, with that observation in mind, it seems ripe for another re-invention. Transformation is happening in pieces but the hip-pop formula is rolling strong.
History tells us genres entrenched in certain traditions give way to novel trends which become momentary or carry on through the years. Rock N’ Roll fell out of favor for different branches of Rock in the 60’s and 70’s. R&B had strong ties to Blues traditions with more uptempo songs. For the longest time its largely just a title for pop music aimed at “urban audiences.” Jazz gave birth to various offshoots throughout the 20th century even though modern jazz often hearkens back to the genre’s greats. It should be evident things don’t stay the same for long.
The aforementioned styles of music changed and matured at varying degrees. Rap’s not excluded from this phenomenon as everyman, afrocentric, gangsta, hardcore, jiggy and club/pop rap set trends and got spins at various points to name a few. However it seems we’ve been stuck on pop rap for quite some time. Think about it. Jiggy, southern party tracks and club rap, all “pop” in the sense they reach the largest audience, have had the industry in a stranglehold for well over a decade. What gives?
Well the fallout of physical sales and labels unwillingness to stick with what works yielded a bunch of freeze-frame rappers following the same formula more or less. A few atypical talents appeared during the deluge of “me-too” rhymers but some of them were influenced by the pop wave in one way or another to mixed results.
For instance, Lupe Fiasco never shied away from rapping on poppy or progressive beats. Parts of Food and Liquor as well as The Cool in totality provide shining examples of his rhyming over instrumentals with leanings outside of traditional rap space. Lasers falls into this scheme as well even though it released to mixed reactions at best. Additionally, rappers like B.o.B, Wale and KiD CuDi always incorporated other genres into their records and their mainstream releases put those fledgling influences into overdrive since they built their fan bases off it as well as fall in line with what the consumer populace buys.
The internet often claims “shock rap” as next up but it remains to be seen if it has staying power. Listeners will always be fickle and, thanks to mostly to the internet, the constant demand of new entertainment has more turnover than ever. It also hasn’t proliferated to more widely viewed media outlets en masse just yet. That’s not to say it can’t as the likes of Odd Future and Lil B gained considerably larger followings in the past year. But it’s simply too early to certify its potential longevity.
Why does seeing the next wave matter so much? Well the map for making hits these days is pretty stale. Standard, bass filled, synth heavy tunes limited in subject matter makes money which justifies their prevalence. Major labels’ fixation on profits in a shrinking industry doesn’t leave much room for artist development and new sounds. Thus explaining why the genre’s commercial endeavors suffer from a creative rut.
Rap seems reluctant to change the guard as well as embrace different approaches towards making records. Danny Brown provided a thought-provoking counterpoint when he likened rap’s current state to the death of hair metal. I’d like to believe the genre is at a crossroads. But it often appears like record companies are putting new faces on familiar material.
Newer acts primarily assimilate their sound to what’s considered as “radio-friendly” rather than continuing to create songs that set them apart. A few artists break the mold every once in awhile. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if the next wave of talent will fall in line or break through with stable careers and defining records.