Rap music is more popular than it has ever been. For the first time it has become the dominant genre in the US with a 25.1% responsibility of music consumption, surpassing rock music. That’s crazy to think if you remember how blacklisted the genre used to be outside of the obvious mainstream superstars.
This shift is evident in the charts as well; already halfway though the year, 4 of the 8 number 1s in America have been rap songs (“Black Beatles”, “Bad and Boujee”, “Humble”, “I’m the One”). That’s already as many as the number of rap no. 1s in the last three years combined.
But fuck all that, that’s just a small introduction to the overall domination of hip hop on a mainstream level. Under that same umbrella there’s another internal domination within the genre.
Every musical genre goes through stages of progression, but hip hop has been the one to evolve the most over the past 40 years. From boom-bap to gangsta rap to Auto-Tune rap, it’s been through it all. Yet as it has aged the key element to its formula has always remained by its side: lyrics. In recent years a new subgenre has emerged that has, for the most part, disregarded that element. What’s that subgenre referred to as?
For the first time in the genre’s history, its fundamental ingredient has become its least priority for the successful hip hop artists that have been emerging in the past two years.
What’s It Even Called?
Despite the name having caught on, I don’t approve of it. “Mumble rap” sounds like a totally unprofessional label to give to a subgenre. Nor is it merely “trap” music, because rappers like Lil Uzi are using trap production, but they’re not rapping about the trap in the way like a Future or a 21 Savage is. Hip hop was founded upon borrowing sounds and it has evolved in the same way. So just like any subgenre, it needs its own appropriate name within the near future.
“We call it mumble rap. It ain’t no disrespect to the lil homies, they don’t want to rap. It’s cool for now; it’s going to evolve.”
—Wiz Khalifa, June 2016, Ebro in the Morning
Its origins probably dates back to ’08 when the likes of Soulja Boy and Lil B emerged. Back then it was known as “swag rap”. What was the general reception to them? They got grilled. Now looking back nearly ten years on, they are named as the main influential figures of the new age American rappers.
That late blooming of acceptance is normal, though. Nothing that’s ‘out the box’ is ever accepted at first. You can date that back as far as the 70s and 80s when punk music and culture emerged. It was for the youth created by the youth who wanted to represent something for themselves.
Mumble rap, for the most part, does represent this current generation. We’re mainly carefree, want to have a lot of fun, and be different. That’s why we gravitate so easily towards it.
On top of that, it’s a part of our time. Any generation attaches to something that’s a part of its time. That can apply to TV shows, movies and even language. Practically anything new that becomes trendy is created by the youth. Those that have grown up already have their own music, their own identity that was created during their own era.
So if mumble rap is merely a trend that will expire within 5 years, what’s going to replace it? And will the trend that replaces it ever bring back lyrics to the forefront? I highly doubt it, because while youth is replaced with another set of youth, the characteristics of the group rarely change. It’ll still consist of kids wanting to have fun, who will have Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi as their influencers instead of Soulja Boy and Lil B.
With this trend, it’s difficult to predict what will come next. Hip hop started off with nursery rhymes, eventually being developed into pure poetic lyricism by the early 90s and has since then been simplified and merged with melodic auto-tuned singing (thanks T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye). What will the next trend have to latch onto if all the tricks in the book have been used?
10% Lyrics, 90% Beat
One thing’s for sure: Bars will always be there, lyrical or not. And, evidently, so will the beat.
In previous rap generations, the beat and the rapper went hand-in-hand, sharing a 50-50 contribution to the whole track. For certain artists it would even be 60%-rapper and 40%-beat. But mumble is practically nothing without the beat.
Take a listen to Playboi Carti’s 2017 XXL freestyle:
Sounds quite whack in acapella doesn’t it? But with a beat …
It becomes a totally different animal.
Ask a casual listener what they like about a trap song. 9 out of 10 times the first observation they’ll make is “The beat slaps”. It’s what creates the whole vibe of the song. It’s what makes your head bop. The rapper merely serves as an accessory to what the beat is doing.
This is a whole different topic so I’ll keep it brief, but the producer is the most important figure of mumble rap; Southside, P’ierre Bourne (“Magnolia”), Metro Boomin (“Mask Off”), TM88 (“XO Tour Life”), Maalay Raw (“Money Longer”), and plenty more. Their beats carries the subgenre to the clubs and the charts.
Point is, the beat has reached its peak in terms of importance in hip hop. But it won’t solely be able to carry mumble rap to permanent relevance.
Then what’s in those 10% of lyrics? Drugs, jewellery-flexing, designer clothing references, and fucking your bitch, are the usual topics. Split that 10% even further and you’re left with ad-libs (“ay, yea, what”). They’re normally used as filler words for a bar or two, or tossed in at the end of lines to complete the bar.
Hold on, aren’t those topics always been in hip hop? (Let’s not forget the “bling bling” era.) It’s been there, but the bars were more structured and complete. The structure has now been replaced with melodic elements across not only the hooks but the verses too.
Is the content lazy? Yeah. Does listening to it make you feel like you’re losing a few IQ points? Yeah. But is it trying to impress you from a content perspective? Course not. Personally, when I listen to it I find it humorous. That’s how I don’t fall for the gimmick. If you don’t take it seriously and are consciously aware that it’s not amazing music, then you’re safe from its infection.
Is It Art?
So if the lyrics are whack, and it’s all about the beat, is there even a sense of genuine artistry involved in mumble rap? Well, it depends what mumble rapper you’re listening to.
Future and Young Thug are the ones who have pioneered mumble trap to earn some sort of artistic credit. Anything that’s original deserves some sort of credibility, whether you like what’s being served or not. Future came out with his whoozy delivery that seemed like it accurately mimicked how one would sound under a drugged state, while Young Thug has shown the most versatility in the trap lane by successfully experimenting with pop music, acoustic and even R&B, as has Future to a lesser extent.
Originality is not easy to come by. It takes a certain level of skill to come up with an idea and successfully pull it off. Come 2017, it’s not as artistic as a whole, but its fundamental figures have earned it a bit of credibility.
The main problem that past listeners of hip hop have with the new wave of rap is its lack of care for lyricism. And that’s fair enough to understand, because although there are prominent lyricists in the game right now, it feels like they’re the minority and that there’s an over-saturation with the ‘mumble rappers’. They just keep emerging and emerging, mainly because it’s quick and easy to make that sort of music and blow up off it.
But rap’s always had a stylistic parallel to dumbed-down rap. Club rap in the mid-2000s was extremely popular; 50 Cent pioneered and dominated that lane. Difference with that and today, though, is that 50 could actually rap, despite his lack of substance in his bars. When I say rap, I mean rap, ability-wise. In 2017, the mumble rappers dumbed it down to the lowest possible level, opting for ad-libbing for 3 minutes over three simplistic 16-bar verses.
This means the real problem – and my main point in this mumble rap debate – is the lack of balance between lyrical hip hop and diluted hip hop.
Young M.A. mentioned this in a recent interview. Like she says, the diluted hip hop is on the top and has been there for a few years. As a result it generates a different zone and feeling to what other styles of hip hop manages to do.
Course you got the Kendrick Lamars, the J. Coles, the Jay-Zs, who receive their own grand level of success whenever they drop an album. But they’re anomalies in a pool that’s crowded with club-orientated, viral-based rappers. As of right now there’s not a crop of emerging talented MCs on the verge of mainstream success. Any notable rapper on the come up right now has picked the trendy trap sound and the diluted lyrical approach.
Can You Like Both?
This lack of balance becomes annoying, because there’s a time and a place for both styles. Typically you get the “old-heads” vs. “new-heads” clashing, but for me, I’m a fan of trap rap, and I’m a big fan of lyrical rap. If I had to choose between the two, of course I’d opt for lyrical rap. I’d prefer a Kendrick Lamar album over a Future mixtape. That doesn’t mean I’ll always wanna listen to content-heavy hip hop.
This is why different styles and lyrical approaches exist in rap. You can easily like both without having to bash the other. Do I have my own criticisms of mumble rap? Yes. It gets extremely repetitive, the ad-libbing can get annoying and some mumble rappers have zero unique qualities about them. It also gets annoying how a mumble rapper is able to generate a fanbase just because people want to be the first to like something new before it becomes popular.
Yet with all the criticisms aside I like my fair share of mumble rap and I appreciate the place it has within hip hop. My main concern is how it has dominated to the point where it’s essentially become the poster sound for hip hop.
Appreciating the Whole Culture
If you like both styles, no problem. However hip hop is bigger than one trendy subgenre. The problem emerges when mumble rap fans ignore or criticise the rappers that have come before their favourites, rappers that carried hip hop to the point where mumble rap was able to emerge from in the first place. You ain’t gotta like content rap, that’s cool. But if you criticise it through ignorance or trolling, just leave the culture alone.
For someone that cares about hip hop from back to front (like old-heads), the ignorance towards the culture is what angers them.
In 2016, Lil Yachty called The Notorious B.I.G. overrated and said he couldn’t name five Tupac or Biggie songs. He got roasted by hip hop fans. They forgot that he’s 19 though. Biggie and Tupac were already dead by the time he was even born. It’s true that making such a comment stems from troll culture, but what else do you expect from a 19-year old who hasn’t grown up on that style of music? Everyone around him is probably bumping swag rap.
The only way to listen to Tupac and Biggie is to consciously make the decision to go check out their music on your favourite streaming service. Problem with that is that it’s just too long for casual listeners, a type of listener that makes up the majority of mumble rap’s audience.
Just like Lil Yachty, a large percentage of music listeners are casual listeners. They don’t pay that much attention to the music being played, it’s normally just in the background. Mumble rap doesn’t need much attention in the first place because there’s no substantial content that you have to be listening out for, nor will a casual listener take the effort to listen to or discover old music. They latch onto whatever’s new and relevant at the time.
Neither do casual listeners have the patience to let an album grow on them. Couple tracks in, if they don’t like what they’re hearing on first time, it’s getting turned off.
If a listener wants to appreciate hip hop as a whole, it’s not possible to ignore previous eras. Casual listeners are quick to put themselves in a box, subsequently refusing to branch out of their comfort zone. Mumble rap fans and troll culture only contributes to the ignorance towards substantial hip hop, and older rap fans are stubborn in accepting the unavoidable generation gap. Future and Young Thug are innovators of the genre in their own way, as are Tupac and Biggie.
Rakim addresses the balance and likability of certain rap quite perfectly, using Jay-Z’s content-heavy 4:44 album as a comparison. You have to satisfy every type of rap fan, of every age. Course the Jay album has its audience, but that doesn’t mean that a Jay album is solely for a 40-year old rap fan. You can be 19 and have it be one of your favourite albums of the year.
50 Cent also had something to say about Jay’s album in relation to the new style of rap. He called 4:44 “golf course music”, understandably, because content-wise it’s quite sophisticated. He himself knows it’s not for everyone, nor is his own style of rap music. But he doesn’t believe that the youth carrying the genre right now have to deliver any sort of ‘respect’ to elder hip hop.
“Hip hop culture’s youth culture. So the things that they’re doing, that’s trending, is just their thing. We did that early on on our own too. So now that you’ve become the more mature or the older portion of hip hop, you don’t got to take the shot at the young boys, that’s the future [of hip hop].”
Fair point, respect is a two-way street. We all have our critiques, but it’s the way the old-heads deliver their critiques. It’s the way the new-heads convey their ignorance. When feelings get involved, this line gets easily blurred.
Take whatever you want from this piece of commentary (if you’ve managed to reach this far), or take nothing at all. The choice is yours. The style of rap that you like will always exist and be accessible, as will the style of rap that you dislike. All I personally want to see is a bit of balance restored on the rap pendulum.
Is mumble rap killing hip hop? The lyrical aspect, yes. But will it be the dominant hip hop subgenre forever? No. It will always exist, but its trendiness will eventually be replaced by another trend in 5-8 years to come. It’s a shame that whatever’s popular leads the way for such a complex and layered culture, however hip hop and its subgenres will always exist and evolve as generations come and go.