Are rappers getting younger, or just their sounds?
Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Lil Skies, Lil Wop, Lil Yachty. So many musicians in the diminutive that J. Cole felt impelled to check that rising tide, deriding “the amateur eight-week rapper/ Lil whatever— just another short bus rapper.”
Cole is a traditionalist, and his diss was predictably reactionary; nonetheless, when you look past the vitriol it is hard to disagree with his underlying observation: rap seems saturated with musicians who, in name and age, are quite young.
There’s Rich Chigga (now Brian), a homeschooled Indonesian teen proving hip-hop’s global reach, Lil Peep who conveyed the claustrophobia of simply being, Lil Yachty oozing cartoon joy, and Lil Pump who might be a living cartoon. Add to their ranks YBN Nahmir, Tay K, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Jaden Smith, Ski Mask the Slump God and Trippie Redd. “Lil”s of every variety, whether or not it's taken literally.
This isn’t a confirmation bias. Just over 20 percent of the songs currently on Spotify’s RapCaviar, the site’s second most popular playlist, come from or feature rappers under the age of twenty-one. If criteria is loosened to include any of the Lil’s mentioned above, that value increases to 30 percent. And when measuring off of their Most Necessary playlist, composed of songs from rising rappers, dreams of stardom look bleak for anyone remotely near their mid-twenties. We also have to consider SoundCloud, a site with at least 35 million more visitors per months than Spotify— of their most popular songs site-wide, over 60 percent feature rappers who are twenty-one or younger. This is all to say that, yes, this moment is indeed populated by a lot of young voices.
The question that follows is why, where did they come from? One hypothesis focuses on demographic shifts. Rappers are getting younger, some decry (as though that is inherently bad). It’s the fans who are getting younger, others say, maybe the youth have been conquered by rap music, and maybe that mom sobbing over Vince Staples was right to be worried.
Because rap music long functioned under a shadow economy, an empirically-informed rebuttal is elusive. Samples weren’t given legal clearance, mixtapes were pressed and sold out of garages. Under these conditions, who was concerned with polling consumers and musicians? However, for those same reasons it is difficult to prove that rap was ever anything but a young person’s game. Rather than interpolating trends, this question invites that we engage with it largely (though not solely) through anecdote and example. Rap is a tradition of narrative and anecdote, so what does its own history say?
Rappers that are as young as YBN Nahmir and Lil Pump aren’t new. Remember, large parts of Illmatic were written when Nas was seventeen. Drake released his first mixtape, Room for Improvement, when he was nineteen. Kendrick’s first mixtape was released when he was sixteen. Odd Future was once comprised of a bunch of high-school kids. Lil B was just under twenty when “Vans” blew up. And Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, released at age twenty, remains one of the most downloaded mixtapes ever on DatPiff. Then there are all the people who never achieved fame, the young people making music alongside these big names. If you’re asking why rappers are young now, you’re asking the wrong question. We aren’t faced with a generation’s abrupt maturation into rap prodigies. These voices are, firstly, just being heard more, and getting attention that older generations might never enjoyed at such an early point in their careers-- more on that to come. Secondly, these voices are seemingly young by design. They're oozing youthfulness simply because of how playful and simplistic (or perhaps, fun) their music tends to be. Whereas we expected nitty-gritty, matured rhymes from Nas even if he was just 17, we don't expect as much from someone like Lil Pump. That's not his avenue, nor does it seem to be his desire, and many of his colleagues are similarly-minded.
Going beyond just the artist's own style and pursuits -- what is it about Yung Lean that has him doing better numbers on a throwaway than Jay-Z gets for “Hard Knock Life”? It sounds reductive, but it is a matter of technology.
To understand that, start by considering the SoundCloud business and community model. Unlike Apple Music, YouTube, or Spotify, which host label-owned music, SoundCloud tends to host new releases by undiscovered musicians. It’s your homie who raps on the weekends, or the DJ/ cashier at Walmart. SoundCloud is home to the unsigned casual artist, J. Cole’s “amateur eight-week rapper.” These musicians can easily upload their music without label or aggregator representatives, like they would need to for Spotify or Apple Music, and without the associated fees. For young, poor musicians just looking to build a fanbase, SoundCloud is the perfect platform. And when they are capable of monetizing their projects, labels are waiting with open arms.
This paradigm exists as part of broader takeover by streaming services. After Billboard modified their algorithms to account for streaming music, the strength of physical album sales as a determinant for chart placement has dramatically diminished. Cardi B’s hit “Bodak Yellow” was propelled into the number-one spot by streams on Apple Music, YouTube, and Spotify (due to certain regulations, only some artists have streams from SoundCloud count toward their chart placement). Cardi B’s story also brings us back to hip hop’s place in this brave new world of streaming. 2017 was the year of hip-hop. The genre accounted for 25.1 percent of music consumption across all mediums and 30.3 percent of all on-demand audio stream. Rock, the number-two genre only shared 18.1 percent of streams. Add to this the demographics of streaming sites. The last time either site released statistics, over 50 percent of Spotify and SoundCloud users were people age 25 or younger. With usage doubling across those platforms in the last two years, and that growth being driven by younger people, that share has likely ballooned. The data is finally showing what rap fans have known for years, that hip-hop is this generation's most ubiquitous and influential genre.
That doesn’t quite satisfy J. Cole though, and it doesn’t quite satisfy our line of inquiry. There’s still the Yung Lean versus Jay-Z question. The Lil Pump versus Bishop Nehru question. Trippie Redd versus Joey Bada$$. You can reframe the dichotomy a dozen ways. These cartoon rappers, these Lil Whatevers. Why are they popular now?
The answer might be two-pronged, a mixture of the deliberate style pursued by the artist as we discussed earlier, and the streaming phenomenon, converging into one happy place. The technological shift has changed our expectations of music. Videos, songs, news, and the Internet generation is conditioned to seek abbreviated content and information— something that is bright and sharp on the first go. Try scrolling through XXXTentacion’s SoundCloud page and you’ll see a list of tracks that load into infinity. It helps, then, when you can blast a track that runs under two minutes and quickly switches to the next. If there has been some major shift in rap consumption, it’s toward that, an aesthetic of instantaneity. You can see it in other aspects of these SoundCloud rappers’ music. Many of their music videos seem impromptu, shot and edited with effects that were selected flippantly— because they seemed cool. This isn’t a coincidence, they really are produced under these conditions. Cole Bennett, one of SoundCloud’s favorite music video directors, is notorious for rushing to any rapper’s shoot, equipment ready, on 30 minute’s notice. He’s churned out music videos in a single night, mastering a kind of guerrilla editing that plays with colorful effects and inelegant transitions that look ripped from PowerPoint. Then there’s Ronny J, SoundCloud’s producer du jour, who specializes in matching rapid-fire, two-verse lyrics to blasted-out bass and synths.
Lastly, streaming sites have gone from passive platforms to influencers in themselves with their greatest tool— the curated playlist. Tuma Basa, Spotify’s global programming head of hip-hop, isn’t shy about discussing his role in Lil Uzi Vert’s ascent. After identifying “XO Tour Llif3”, as a potential hit, he moved it to the RapCaviar playlist and helped boost the song to over 1 billion listens. Cardi B got a similar boost from Apple Music. After “Bodak Yellow” was put on Apple Music’s A-List Hip-Hop playlist, it saw a 124 percent increase in streams in the first week alone. And so there’s a feedback: music platforms identify songs that are perfect for our streaming-age taste, share it with a wider audience, and the popularity amplifies. You might find “Gucci Gang” nauseating, but everything about it is streaming gold. It’s just over 2 minutes long, has a simple hook, barely more than two verses, and can get slipped into a playlist without doing much harm to your afternoon listen.
If the idea of corporate forces influencing music is unsettling (especially if that music is Lil Pump’s), consider that another shift is on the way. Beginning this year, Billboard will modify their algorithms again to weight paid-only streaming services and the paid-tier of hybrid streaming platforms more than the non-paid options. As an example, music played on Apple Music or paid SoundCloud accounts will be weighted more than free SoundCloud and Spotify accounts when determining chart positions. Where will this skew the data? There might be another ‘apparent’ demographic shift away from young people. Since the teenagers that listen to Lil Pump on SoundCloud, YouTube, and Spotify tend not to have the money to pay for full subscriptions, their listens won’t count as much toward their favorite artist’s chart position. Then, all these young rappers might start disappearing. Especially if streaming services don’t want to boost up popular artists that aren’t popular on the charts, that aren’t making money. And if not, will the “Lil” phenomenon live on?
And, what about time itself? Will the teenaged fans “grow up” with this new music? That's a question we can save for another thinkpiece, or, the commenters.