What will hip-hop's next-generation sound like? We unpack some of hip-hop's evolution to better understand where it's headed.
If you study hip-hop closely, it’s easy enough to discern that one generation influences the next. Hip-hop heads from the 80s still reminisce about the Bridge Wars and the creation of Run-DMC. Fast forward ten more years, and 90s babies will tell you that rappers like Tupac, Biggie, DMX, Nas, Wu-Tang, Outkast, and Jay-Z were the leaders of the culture. Jump ahead another ten years, and the seeds of the early 2000s point to a slew of Lil Wayne mixtapes and the dominance of Atlanta as the defining hip-hop moment. Each generation of hip-hop not only paves the way for what will follow, but plants seeds for it. Looking at where hip-hop culture is now, the next generation will be the most diverse group of artists ever. Hip-hop continues to grow as a culture-- in fact, it continues to take over the culture, and by the culture, we mean pop culture -- with new stories and sounds being accepted and disseminated to markets that may have been overlooked in the past. So, what will the next generation hold? It's all about niche markets.
First, let's rewind. Drug dealers were the hip-hop emperors in the 90s and early 2000s. I looked up to Christopher Wallace, draped in a crisp white tux, bowler hat cautiously tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. He was a Don, a Kingpin, the embodiment of hip-hop success. The drug dealer persona was not originated by Biggie Smalls, but he made it his own, and his style influenced the rap game for over a decade. Growing up on the east coast meant that The Lox, DMX, Nas, Jay-Z, Dipset, and Fabulous were mainstays on the radio. Each of those artists spun intricate tales of the ghetto, and gave the world a glimpse of the drug game. On “N.Y. State of Mind” Nas rhymed, “I know this crackhead, who said she got to smoke nice rock/ and if it’s good, she’ll bring your customers in measuring plots.” On “We Gonna Make It,” Jadakiss spits, “ ‘cause when my coke come in, They gotta use the scale that they weigh the whales with.” The imagery was super vivid, and the message was clear: Drugs are powerful. You are either a boss or a fiend.
A decade after Biggie passed away, Lil Wayne went on an unprecedented mixtape run in the mid 2000s. The Drought series, and the Dedication series, are legendary. Wayne assassinated beat after beat, with his signature croaky drawl and assertive confidence. A self-declared “pill poppin’ animal,” Wayne was infamous for his drug use, and incidentally, vocal about it. Lean (a concoction made from cough syrup, pain relievers, candy, and soda) was commercialized world-wide by Lil Wayne. I recall kids my age wanting to concoct home-made lean, and pop pills, because they heard it on a mixtape Weezy track. Many of those kids grew up to become the drug-obsessed rappers of the last five years. Wayne's addictive music helped usher in a shift from hip-hop culture exalting drug dealers, to yearning to experiment with drugs heavily. Not to mention that Wayne essentially commercialized face tattoos in hip-hop as well, a trend that has taken over the culture.
Looking at the current state of hip-hop from another perspective, the latest generation of rappers were also heavily influenced by the city that was the de facto hip-hop mecca from 2000-2010, Atlanta. Atlanta’s entire sound and aesthetic from the 00s has been stripped down and rebuilt by today’s youth. Today, rappers want to “turn up,” which is a direct evolution of the “crunk” movement that set the nation on fire. Rappers like Migos and Lil Uzi Vert are well known for their simple but energetic ad-libs, but Lil Jon was yelling the most addictive ad-libs ever a decade ago. Even the snap and dance scene from Atlanta influenced the trending dance crazes of this generation. King of the South T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane pioneered modern day trap music, which in turn influenced every corner of hip-hop culture. The few genuine gangsta rappers of this generation would be lying if they said one of those trap gods didn't influence their sound.
Then, there are the kids of Kanye West. Kanye’s influence over hip-hop in the 00s birthed some of the greatest artists of this generation. Drake, Big Sean, and Chance the Rapper are just a few examples of the seeds that ‘Ye planted with albums like College Dropout and 808 & Heartbreaks. The marriage of electronic music and hip-hop in America can be attributed to Kanye as well. Prior to “Stronger,” hearing electronic music on hip-hop radio was rare. A decade later, electronic music and rap music have become adopted cousins. Yeezy (and Pharrell) effectively made electronic music marketable in urban culture.
The current generation of rappers were heavily influenced by these three factors: Lil Wayne, Atlanta, and Kanye West. Of course, this is just scratching the surface, several other factors played a role in the blossoming of hip-hop culture, but if we look at the new-school entertainers that are on the top of the charts, it’s hard to argue that those three factors weren’t essential in the creation and culmination of their success. With the way the hip-hop is currently heading, the next generation looks like they will be the most eclectic group ever. The next generation of rappers will look up to the current icons and use them as guidance. The way we worshipped Jay or Nas, today’s youth will worship Drake and Kendrick. Drizzy opened the lane for singers to rap, and Kendrick rekindled the world’s interest in lyrically-astounding singles. Groups like Migos, A$AP Mob and even Brockhampton, are this generations’ Goodie Mob and Wu-Tang Clan. Squads that brought worldwide attention and respect to their cities. Then, there are the drug-fueled rappers like Future who make music for the turn-up moments, strictly. His auto-tuned laced croons are not much different from the T-Pain bangers of the mid 2000s.
In the next ten years, hip-hop will evolve into a multi-genre platform much like Rock ‘n Roll. Soft rock, heavy metal, punk, southern rock, classic rock, etc., there are a plethora of subgenres in Rock 'n Roll because of the diversity of the culture. That diversity comes with maturity. Rap has aged very well, and the maturity of the genre is beginning to open new paths for new voices. There is a lane for everybody in hip-hop culture. Some people claim that hip-hop has changed, and that they miss the music of their generations. If you listen closely though, you can hear that this generation is a direct byproduct of the last. Look at the state of hip-hop culture right now, and it’s easy to see that rap will continue to branch out into more obscure and niche markets as the years pass by. Artists like Young Thug or Childish Gambino will influence the creation of new subgenres that cannot currently be speculated upon.
The future of hip-hop will be diverse, unique, and wide-spread. Hip-hop will never die.