Is "Lyrical Rap" Destined For A Triumphant Return In 2018?
When Black Thought dropped his now-legendary ten minute Funkmaster Flex freestyle, it felt as if a transitional phase was upon us. Despite being a longer watch than the average attention span tends to allow for, Black Thought’s unfiltered wisdom rapidly went viral. Fans and casuals alike marvelled at the sheer technical prowess, while those prone to deeper analysis appreciated the scope of his wit, the nuance of his vernacular. In short, the video revealed a genius at work.
Moreover, it showed that there was still an audience for so-called “lyrical” rap. True, Funkmaster Flex holding his phone out to Snapchat himself mouthing “bars” certainly does feel like a parody, more tinder for the dichotomous feud between old heads and mumble rap. Yet something resonated with people - something deeper than watching an aspiring emcee spit the alphabet backwards, attempt to break the record for fastest rhymes, or various other attempts at chasing YouTube rap immortality. To be fair, Black Thought has long had a reputation as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” and killing shit is nothing new for the prolific Roots emcee.
Still, the idea of a Black Thought freestyle going viral at the tail end of 2017 has been nagging at me. After all, it’s another day at the office for Thought, yet it somehow managed to captivate millions of people in a way that few radio freestyles ever have. Perhaps Black Thought is simply just that good; after all, he did seamlessly incorporate “ahem” into his bars. I mean, yes, Black Thought is that good, but the demand and awestruck responses led me to another conclusion: 2018 is about to herald a return to lyrical hip-hop. The age of “mumble rap” will fade, as a newfound appreciation for the art of lyricism will rekindle.
Let it be known - this is not an assault on “mumble-rap.” Some of the year’s most exciting new artists emerged as a result of the movement, and it managed to captivate younger audiences with a rebellious authority older heads could scarcely dream of. Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” became the anthem for those too busy scouring the internet for the coveted dank-ass-lit-meme to sit through a Black Thought Freestyle, while Lil Uzi Vert’s Gothic fairytale “XO Tour Life” became an anthem of sorts, capturing the malaise and watered-down nihilism of a generation adrift.
The songs themselves were both solid, landing commercial and critical success across the boards, yet they shared a commonality. Rather than focusing on lyricism, those singles relied on energy, melody, and production. There’s a reason many of these live concerts feature heavy backing track usage and a near berserker level of adrenaline - audiences attend them to capture a vibe, and that’s perfectly valid. The reality is, there’s nothing more off-putting than an old-head preaching from his pulpit, spewing fire-and-brimstone from an exceedingly high-horse. Yet on the other end, it’s equally off-putting to see a young fan disregard the art-form that birthed their idols, as if history means nothing; in that regard, hip-hop is one of the few musical genres where the legends are so openly second guessed by the young blood.
It can’t be denied. The impact of “mumble rap” was felt throughout the year, and it’s fair to say that it shaped both the cultural and musical climate of 2017. Consider the XXL Freshman Class as a microcosm, with many calling it the “worst” year yet. For the first time, the Cypher felt redundant, as if it were more of a joke than a respected tradition. That’s not to say that rappers like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie aren’t lyrically inclined, but it felt as if the artists were more concerned with upholding an aloof, devil-may-care image than actually engaging in their craft. To be fair, his album The Bigger Artistactually contained some excellent writing, though many ultimately lumped him into the “mumble rap” category without giving it a proper listen.
There’s an interesting balance going on right now. As stated, the cultural pulse spent the majority of the year fixed on the mumble, yet the commercial heavyweights tended to be more lyrical acts like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Eminem. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that many “mumble rappers” obtained clout on SoundCloud and YouTube, sites notorious for underpaying artists. Perhaps the fact that many young fans have probably never purchased an album in their lives played a role. With that on the table, you’d think that “lyrical rap” was in a great place.
After all, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. remained the year’s most commercially successful album, and he’s as lyrical as they come. In fact, K. Dot’s writing is so dense, his verses often require multiple listens to really digest. And lest we forget, he’s among rap’s most bankable superstars. Like Eminem in his prime, Kendrick will sell regardless of what he drops, provided he continues his Midas-like run. More importantly however, is the fact that Kendrick Lamar will be headlining festivals, and amassing streams for well over the next decade. People have been mercilessly ravaging Eminem’s Revival, but you know damn well his Coachella performance will be among the festival’s most attended sets. As great as some of these emerging acts are, will they ultimately find themselves rewarded with the same longevity?
I previously joked with my colleagues that Lil Wayne’s Dedication 6 would be somewhat of a Groundhog Day-esque litmus test. If he were to return to form, it would herald a return to “lyrical rap” in 2018; if he were to slide through as “autotune Wayne,” more of the same. When the release date came around, Wayne immediately established that he wasn’t playing any games, and gave the fans what they have been clamoring for. Pair that with Black Thought’s freestyle, and doesn’t it feel like the winds of change?
Recently, a previously released J.I.D. mixtape called Para Tu was discovered by a user on Reddit’s r/hiphopheads, and we helped spread the word. It didn’t take long for J.I.D. to notice that his old work had surfaced, and he ultimately ended up giving it an official Soundcloud release. It was a nice moment for everyone, but the main takeaway was that J.I.D. spent a solid few hours as the most-visited artist on our site; seeing his name at the top of the traffic dashboard felt surreal. Optimistic. Granted, it wasn’t long before he was dethroned by Cardi B’s latest antics, but still.
Hip-hop has always been a malleable genre, evolving with every passing year. Nas proclaimed it dead back in 2006, while Jay-Z played undertaker to autotune in 2009. Kanye West has switched up his style with every album, the true Radiohead of rap; the man who made The College Dropout might shudder in fear upon hearing the depraved fantasies of “Freestyle 4.” It stands to reason that the genre as a whole will undergo drastic alterations, especially as the surrounding zeitgeist change. Fans on the come-up will continue to flock to those that resonate with them, favoring instant gratification, hedonism, and angst over the multifaceted authorship of “lyrical” rappers. Again, don’t get it twisted - this is not a judgment on mumble rap, nor a deification of “bars.” There are highlights on either end of the spectrum, just as there are low points; is “rappity-rap” shit really any different from that “ay” flow?
Yet I’m sticking to my guns here. People will start to gravitate toward lyrical hip-hop this year, at least to an extent. After all, if there’s one thing people love, it’s contrarianism. Eventually, people will tire of loving the same thing, and feel compelled to point out its flaws the next time a discussion ensues. Suddenly, there might be an increased expectation for Lil Pump to deliver some so-called “bars,” even if it’s subtle. He’s probably safer than some of his analogues, who might be phased out entirely if public interests wane. But who will bring upon a return to “lyrical hip-hop,” if several of the genre’s heavyweights already dropped last year?
This is all purely speculation, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see new projects from Nas, Drake, J Cole, Kanye West, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and/or Jay Rock, Mac Miller, Earl Sweatshirt, Mick Jenkins, EarthGang, Royce Da 5’9”, A$AP Rocky, T.I., J.I.D., Run The Jewels, MF Doom, Joyner Lucas, Denzel Curry, Danny Brown and more. Best case scenario, Andre 3000 decides it’s time to lay down the law and finally drops the long-awaited hip-hop classic we all know he’s capable of doing. In an even better scenario, Andre’s album is immediately followed up by a Black Thought solo album.
Now, in all honesty, the aforementioned artists may very well bank on their established fan bases, and fail to impact the overall cultural climate. However, there remains a chance that people will gravitate toward a more lyrical branch of hip-hop, if only to escape from the norm. It would certainly feel poetic if Lil Wayne’s Carter V somehow led the charge; it’s hard to imagine any other album topping the hype that a C5 leak would garner. Still, the year remains in its infancy, and it’s hard to gauge what we might be looking at. Either way, as long as we get some great music out of it, that’s all that matters.