Examining the "current state of hip-hop" and if we really need to "blame" anyone at all.
This past weekend was set ablaze with the release of J. Cole’s fifth studio album, KOD, also known as Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Demons. Still freshly released, in KOD, the North Carolina rapper offers listeners everything from food for thought to fire Instagram quotes by exploring several topics including drug abuse, depression and modern day relationships. Cole World fans know to expect only realness from the rapper, and so Mr. Dreamville chose to unapologetically chime in on the current state of today’s hip-hop. Via the song “1985,” rumoured to be aimed at young rapper Lil Pump, Cole acknowledges a sonic change in hip-hop. The rapper quotes that “everything’s commercial and its pop now, trap drums is the shit that’s hot now.” Cole goes on to describe how the new wave of hip-hop artists are spewing lyrics riddled with, or about, behaviours that are harmful to the black narrative, simply for the sake of (sometimes temporary) monetary gain.
Following Cole’s poignant and conversation-starting album release, an interview with Soundcloud darling and cult favorite Russ somehow resurfaced. Therein, the “What They Want” rapper blamed producers for the prominence of “wack music” in today’s Hip Hop. He put emphasis on producers’ failure to provide artists with both the distinctive and high quality production offered by super-producers of eras bygone, including Dr. Dre and Timbaland. According to the Atlanta-based artist, “pedantic, everything sounds the same, 140 BPM shit” is now rampant in today’s hip-hop and producers are to blame. "People blame the rappers for the state of hip-hop, but rappers are not making the music. You gotta blame the producers," he says in the interview.
Albeit a 2017 interview, it remains timely given the many conversations that are currently being had across the internet and in real life when it comes to the current state hip-hop-- a battle seemingly being waged between the “young” and the “old.” Russ’ comments, now fresh in minds across the industry, sparked reactions from several high-ranked producers who were not afraid to clap back. In a forthright picture and tweet, Metro responded by calling Russ “wack in spirit.”Grammy-award winning producer Frank Dukes (his name should sound familiar as a producer for The Weeknd, Rihanna, Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, Camila Cabello, Post Malone and more-- to show the breadth of his talent)-- voiced on twitter: “Lol Russ is a joke. What he said might actually be offensive if he didn't make rap for people who are scared of rap.” Even the producer behind Lil Pump’s budding summer record “Gucci Gang,” BigHead, contributed to the matter by blaming Russ for constantly sharing his “weak ass” opinion and holding a negative “know it all, I’m perfect but everyone else sucks and Hip Hop is ruined” attitude. Interestingly, producer Southside brought in race as an aggravating factor. “Don’t speak on black producers. And I’mma say this shit for the last time, cause’ you’re not black,” said the beatsmith matter-of-factly in an Instagram live stream. Southside also highlighted that a comparison could not be established with the likes of Dr. Dre because times have changed since, and so has music.
The following debacle leaves one question remaining for all hip-hop lovers: who is responsible for "the current state of hip-hop"? The question itself seems to leave a sour taste on the genre overall-- "the current state," as if to say, it needs a remedy. The question itself then, seems to lead with a bias-- let’s just keep that in mind, but we won't be tackling that particular question here.
To some, the sound of today’s hip-hop may prove to be melodically repetitive. Artists such as Future, Migos and Lil Uzi Vert are amongst the chart-toppers of today’s hip-hop. Briefly, all offer relatively familiar trap-based drums and a penchant for repetitive, simple, if not catchy as fuck, lyrics. On the other hand, the recent success of Kendrick Lamar in acquiring a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrically-charged project DAMN. also comes to mind. He is indeed a chart-topper and award-winner from today’s current crop of hip-hop. Instrumentally versatile, the album also includes Lamar’s second number one Billboard 100 single “Humble” which holds a BPM of 150, indubitably close to the “140 BPM” style Russ mentions. Yet, the lyrical content and method of delivery offered by Lamar remains complex, multifaceted and as such, uniquely him. Are the beats really responsible for “wack music”? Or is artistic individuality what makes the difference? And if that’s the case-- isn’t subjectivity what makes art? Who is to say what’s “wack”? Artistic individuality is just that. Individual. Art.
Statistically it seems music accompanied by instrumentals with kicks, snares, catchy string sections and heavy 808s prevail. Trap records like Rich The Kid’s “Plug Walk,” Migos’ “Walk It Talk It,” and XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” were quick to soar to the top of the charts altogether while accumulating mass plays on streaming services. In fact, each stated record currently ranks on the Billboard Hot 100 for weeks now. However, contrary to Russ’ statements, only one of those songs holds a close BPM of 146, while the others fall well below 100 BPM. To play devil’s advocate, the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 right now is Drake’s women-empowering “Nice For What” -- with a 93 BPM, and a classic hip-hop sample.
What about the type of music that may still recall the 90s boom-bap era where Nas, Mos Def and Rakim records were what’s hot and strong bars overcame any beat? Carriers of this style of hip hop, perhaps we could look to Royce Da 5’9 and Flatbush Zombies, do not seem to garner the same level of attention from mainstream media or evenfans of hip hop as a whole. Three singles were released by Royce Da 5’9 since the year began, namely “Stay Woke” (162 BPM), “Dumb” featuring Boogie (178 BPM) and “Boblo Boat” featuring J. Cole (158 BPM). Yet, none of these records have gotten as much clout and recognition. They are unseen on the charts and unheard on the radio. The same cannot be said of tracks like Lil Pump’s “Esskeetit.” A song which not only quickly snatched a seat on the Billboard charts shortly after its release and debuted at 2.2 million streams on Spotify, but also ironically carries exactlya 140 BPM. Furthermore, simply look at the monthly Spotify listeners for Royce -- 816,022, versus, let’s say, Migos -- 27,330,915, or even Lil Pump - 11,558,527. J. Cole currently hovers in between the latter two, with 15,218,314 monthly listeners. However, we know, J. Cole broke records on both Spotify and Apple music when it comes to first-day streaming: and so, what played the biggest role in that, the beat selection (he veered further into the 808s and trap drums than previous, as if to make a point), the lyrics/artistic content, or the listener?
Streaming rates, chart-positioning and related statistics ultimately reflect what appeals to the listeners, to the fans at large: these numbers will only multiply if someone is listening. Thus, maybe it is worth considering the role that the listeners play. Who chooses what dominates the radio? What trends? What track or artist is hot, worthy of replay, and here to stay, ultimately? The people.
Some may argue that the instrumental is what makes a song top the charts, regardless of lyrical content. Others may say a good set of bars will yield success despite the sound it’s tracked to. However, one thing can be sure and it is that music remains at the service of those who consume it. Whether you enjoy listening to “Ric Flair Drip” on Sundays while cleaning the house or prefer studying to J. Cole’s take on poverty and the black narrative in “Window Pain,” music remains a subjective pleasure, the listeners alone have the power to choose what will ultimately make up “the current state of hip-hop.”
Editor’s note: We have no issues with "the current state of hip-hop." We like it.