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Tyler, the Creator opens his newest album Cherry Bomb with the rebellious guitar-riffing track “DEATHCAMP,” in which he drops this telling line that sums up his entire ethos as an artist, “In Search Of did more for me than Illmatic/That’s when I realized we ain’t cut from the same fabric.” The “we” he’s referring to is a past generation of music fans, those who espouse the mid-90s as the “golden age” of hip-hop. But we’re a decade and a half into the 21st century, which means the newest generation of hip-hop artists and producers grew up listening to early-2000s hip-hop, not the canonized Golden Age hip-hop. The boom-bap golden age is long over, some would even argue that gangsta rap is over. We’re in a new era, and have been for some time, in which beats and the sound of the song (what many now term the “aesthetic”) are valued more than lyrics.
But before you retreat back to your carefully cultivated Gang Starr Pandora station out of fear that a generation of kids raised on artists whose names begin with Lil and Young are at the forefront of hip-hop, consider this: hip-hop has never been more popular and exciting. Kanye isn’t exaggerating when he talks about rappers as the new rock stars. It’s no accident that several hundred thousand people will see hip-hop headliners at music festivals this summer. In fact, this valuing of aesthetic over lyrical content is necessary for hip-hop. It’s pushing the genre into a more modern form and making it more exciting than ever to be a hip-hop fan.
I sympathize with the complaints about lyricism in hip-hop. Mainstream hip-hop right now is not in the best place lyrically, and a lot of casual listeners point to very sound-focused artists like Chief Keef, Gucci Mane, and Future as evidence that hip-hop is ignorant, low-class, and harmful. All of these artists have legitimate merit, and while there are some artists who blatantly rely on good production to make their music appealing, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This focus on sound and image in hip-hop is actually a beneficial trend for two reasons: producers are finally getting the credit they deserve; and hip-hop is being pushed into new and interesting areas because of pressure on artists to develop a unique sound.
For too long, hip-hop producers were relegated to the background, unless they also got behind a microphone (Kanye West, Pharrell, Lil Jon) or reached the upper echelons of the music industry (Swizz Beats, Mannie Fresh, Just Blaze, Timbaland). Now, production features on albums and mixtapes are just as valued as lyrical features. People seek out material produced by Clams Casino, Metro Boomin, Alchemist, and others because they’re attracted to their specific sound much in the same way they’re attracted to a rapper’s specific style of flow and lyrics. The people behind the beats are finally getting popular recognition in the mainstream. The BET hip-hop awards recognizing the “producer of the year” starting in 2007 is an early example of this. The result is the producers gaining more power, which allows them to experiment more with different sounds and styles they would not have in a lyrics-dominated industry. Samples are being flipped more creatively, and stranger, more obscure sounds are being incorporated into the genre. Kanye pulling from dancehall, Sad Boys taking from trance, Death Grips and others adapting flavors of punk all contribute to an interesting, complex sonic melting pot. We’re a long way off from ‘60s and ‘70s soul/R&B records being the backbone of hip-hop.
This is why the state of hip-hop right now is more exciting and interesting than it has been in a long time. For all the hate it has received, autotune is now used as an instrument, independent of its originally intended use. T-Pain wouldn’t be making a comeback if people still saw it as a crutch instead of something that can enhance the artistic merit of a song. And its prevalence in hip-hop is pushing the genre into new levels of emotional availability. The raw feeling in Future’s auto-tuned raspy moans on songs like “Turn On The Lights” or the apathetic sadness in Yung Lean’s robotically auto-tuned vocals on “Emails” can’t be conveyed with lyrics alone. The internet has broken down regional barriers allowing artists to combine sounds that were once limited by geography into exciting new hybrids. ASAP Rocky’s combination of regional sounds helped push cloud rap into the mainstream, drawing audiences to the dark southern hip-hop of Lil Ugly Mane and Raider Klan, who influenced people like Yung Lean and Bones. As the internet exposes the rising generation of artists to a diverse palette of sounds, hip-hop only gets more diverse and interesting. Complex lyrics to accompany these new sounds and themes will come with time, and in some ways they already have. Lil Ugly Mane’s masterpiece album Mista Thug Isolation is the perfect marriage of a heavily focused visual and aural aesthetic with lyrically complex themes that complement his sounds. But for now, hip-hop’s valuing of sound over lyrics is making for some incredibly fun and exciting music. We might as well enjoy the ride wherever it takes us instead of trying to hearken back to the past.