At that time all we had was N.W.A, and everybody thought everything coming out of L.A. is gangsta rap… We don’t got to do that, you know? Let them do that, and let us do something else.
—Mtulazaji Davis (P.E.A.C.E.)
In English literature, there are three main movements and trends that serve as all-encompassing literary kingdoms for novels written from the 1860s onwards. The first was known as the Romantic movement, characterized by a fixation on the ideal and perfection. With its heavy usage of fantastic scenery, exaggerated emotions, and attempts to ascribe to a higher power beyond that of humans, the goal was to present the world as it should be. Following the Romantic movement was Modernism, an attempt to show the world as it was by stripping away all the illusions created by the romantics. This trend was borne out of WWI, specifically humanity’s innate desire and proclivity towards destruction.
By the ‘60s, Postmodernism began to take shape, in which the only rule is that there are no rules. The most relativistic and existential of the three, Postmodernism is all about the individual, or lack thereof, and that there are no external truths nor higher states of being to aspire to. What we are is what we have—and even that might not be real. This is how literature, and on a larger scale, society has evolved over the past 150 years. What many don’t realize is that hip-hop and rap music have evolved in an identical fashion to literature.
Hip-hop, and by extension rap music, began in the early ‘70s in New York City; for argument’s sake, we can coronate 1979 as being Year One for rap music. This was the year “Rapper’s Delight”, the song that popularized rap and hip-hop culture to mainstream America, was released to the public. From 1979-1987, hip-hop was in its Romantic period, typified by acts like the Sugarhill Gang, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. These were acts who would mostly rap about dancing and having fun, although sometimes there was a socially consciousness message involved like in “The Message”. Not only does this song illustrate the perils of living in the projects of New York City in the ‘80s, but the song’s message is to rise above it, and reach for something better than what they are surrounded by, namely drugs, violence and prostitution. Even when the lyrics do detail life in the ghettos, there’s a glimmer of optimism, and a message to strive to become better despite their upbringing, a trademark that would later completely disappear from hip-hop during its Modern and Postmodern phases.
Unlike the Romantic period of hip-hop which sought to either rap about the good times, or how to get out of a harmful environment, the Modern period of rap, which lasted from 1988-2008, is really synonymous with gangsta rap, and eventually thug rap. 1988 is the chosen beginning because it marked the release year of both Straight Outta Compton, considered to be the first gangsta rap album, and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s breakthrough album and, according to Rolling Stone, the greatest rap album of all time.
The Modern phase of hip-hop is also the (as of now) longest lasting of the three. For all intents and purposes, modern rap is synonymous with gangsta rap, as this was the dominate form of rap music for 20 years. Everyone from N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent, Ludacris, and all the other superfluous one hit wonders of the genre are all Modern rappers in that they adhere to a very stringent, and rigid protocol. They all rap about the world that they come from, one rife with drugs, violence, death, and other such illegalities. However, the way in which they rap about it changed from being merely a presentation of this cruel and violent world, to a glorification of this lifestyle.
By the new millennium, the rappers from the ‘90s had either become content being multi-millionaire media moguls (Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, or had died in senseless rap wars (Tupac, Biggie). Even though they were gangsta rappers, they were now rapping about how big they were and how they had it made; the only throwback to their gangsta roots was in comparing their new life to their old. The new breed of rappers who dominated the ‘00s didn’t affiliate with either coast, but now came from the rest of the country. The ‘00s saw the rise of the Dirty South, The D (Detroit) and St. Louis as the new hubs of hip-hop. Even though these new rappers weren’t the gangsta rappers of old, they were still rapping about the same things. “Bustin’ caps and poppin’ hos” was the slogan for all of these rappers who rose to prominence in the ‘00s.
DMX was the poster child of this new “hardcore” hip-hop, rapping about murders, drug use, and sex in a much more graphic and violent way than ever before. He also led the most emblematic lifestyle of all, being arrested for just about any illegal action. For these guys, street cred was the most important thing, and to bolster their cred with their gangs or fans, or whoever they were trying to impress, the lyrics had to become harsher and tougher. Instead of merely rapping about a gang, as N.W.A. had done before them, guys like DMX were rapping about their jail time and how it made them tougher; this was all done to bolster that “Don’t fuck with me” attitude that all these guys cultivated for themselves.
50 Cent was the most iconic of these rappers, but not for his music. When he first came on to the scene, all people cared about was that he was shot nine times. That aura of invincibility is something that DMX or Fat Joe wish they had, because it meant toughness and thugishness, which translated to record sales. Kids being kids, always want the cool new thing, and 50 Cent had the background, the Dr. Dre produced beats, and the unique style of rapping (as a result of getting shot in the mouth) to not only justify his own background of being a gangsta and a thug, but his status as the newest and toughest rapper out there. When I look back on ‘00s rap music, it seems like people cared more about the image than the music itself, one of the reasons why rap has now moved far away from that.
Even though rappers like DMX and 50 Cent were some of the best rappers of that time, the decade really belonged to Eminem, the Larry Bird of rapping. A white boy from Detroit, Eminem not only could hang with the black rappers, but he could perform even better than them. Probably the best mainstream rapper of the decade, Eminem is a guy who made that kind of thug rap accessible and almost friendly to Middle America. His comical music videos with his Tourette’s like pop cultural references in his lyrics masked the pain and toughness of his own life. Yes, “Without Me” and “My Name Is” are amusing and funny music videos, but for every one of those songs, there’s a dark counterpart in “Stan” and “Cleaning Out My Closet” that belays such pain and misery that it proves to be realer than anything anyone else was putting out at the time.
It was this internal torment that made Eminem different than any other rapper in the ‘00s. His music wasn’t fueled by wanting to be famous and rich, but rather it was fueled to exorcise his own demons and make sense of his own fucked up life. There’s a sincerity to his songs that is absent from most other thug rappers, who seem to only rap to make money or to brag about their street cred. For this reason, above all others, we remember The Marshall Mathers LP and not Chicken-N-Beer.
By 2006, thug rap had reached a tipping point where it had grown too big for itself and was suffocating under its own mass. DMX was in prison and wasn’t recording music, The Longest Yard killed Nelly’s street cred, everyone stopped caring about Ludacris, we found out Lil’ Jon was little more than a hip-hop court jester, and Eminem had exiled himself shortly after 2004’s Encore to go to rehab. In the absence of the progenitors of this new thug rap, guys like Chingy, J-Kwon, and Chamillionaire somehow scored a record deal, and turned thug rap into pop music. They made it fun, and less scary, even though songs like “Ridin’ Dirty” and “Tipsy” are about drug dealing and killing some guy if he doesn’t let J-Kwon sleep with his girl, respectively. They didn’t seem as threatening and as in-your-face as a guy like DMX did, which allowed for hip-hop to become saturated within its own self-indulgence.
Once Bubba Sparxxx came out with “Ms. New Booty”, as a society, we knew that hip-hop had to change. Hip-hop could no longer function as an unintentional parody of itself. That was the wakeup call that alerted us all to how stupid thug rap had become. And so, by 2007, forces were put in motion that would thrust hip-hop into its current phase, Postmodernism.
The sales battle between 50 Cent’s Curtis and Kanye West’s Graduation serves as the final battle, the winner-take-all rumble between the present (thug rap) and the future (alternative rap) for rap supremacy. The fact that Graduation was both the bigger commercial and critical success was the death knell for thug rap, and correspondingly the Modernist movement of hip-hop. When it came down to it, an album with a track titled “I’ll Still Kill” couldn’t compete with a song sampling a French dance duo’s unknown hit. By choosing Kanye over 50 Cent in 2007, we were saying that we had gotten bored by gangsta rap and all of its cheap imitators; we were ready for something new, and Kanye thus became one of the pioneers of hip-hop’s postmodern movement.
In 2008, Odd Future, the patron saint of alternative rap, was established while Kanye West, the new king of hip-hop, dropped 808s and Heartbreak, which turned out to be the most neglected, big hip-hop album of its time. The album showed that hip-hop doesn’t have to be about rapping or trying to act tough and get into criminal activities. it showed that hip-hop was about doing what you wanted to with it, and that it was still a genre that was rife with potential for exploration, something that hadn’t been done since 1997. In short, 808s & Heartbreak showed that there were no longer any rules to hip-hop.
Where we are now in hip-hop is a direct result from the tail end of the previous decade, where absurdity reigns absolute. Back in 2003, did anyone think that Eminem would grow up, get clean and make an album about his sobriety? In 2001, the very idea of Jay-Z putting out a useless album (2013’s Holy Grail Magna Carta) was unfathomable. DMX is most likely in jail as I write this. Ludacris is on the very peripheral of the radar. 50 Cent has trademarked every form of colored water on the planet and doesn’t need to rap. OutKast, the only group out of all the Modern rap outfits with any potential to thrive in a Postmodern rap world, is dysfunctional, spending its hyped-up reunion touring the country playing their biggest hits to preprogrammed beats and backing vocals.
Kanye’s Yeezus is the mainstream version of this new and postmodern rap. It’s finely produced, almost to a schizophrenic degree, and draws its influence from ‘80s acid house and psycho-sludge pop music. Ten years ago, “Yonkers” never would have been played on MTV (or whatever channel plays music videos now), and it’s these very same guys who now claim P.E.A.C.E. and KRS-One to be their influences. Postmodern rap isn’t about rejecting modern rap, as there are still a ton of similarities in lyrical content; instead, it takes from modern rap without being chained to the same protocols and stylistic rigidities as gangsta rap was. There’s no longer an emphasis on street cred and criminal records as there once was, and there’s a much more universal and experimental approach to hip-hop than ever before because we’ve been released from the confining nature that had become the modern era of rap music.
Rappers got tired of having to rap about the same things over and over again, and realized how this commercialized homogenization was slowly killing the genre. Not wanting to play by these rules of success anymore, these rappers decided that there were no longer any rules to abide by. The boom-bap has returned, neon colors are in, and snapbacks are all the rage. Musicians don’t have to use auto-tune or hang out with no shirt on, smothered in chains, nor do you have to wear fitted hats with all the price tags still on just to show its authentic.
Rappers don’t have to do these things anymore because there is no image to abide by. Anyone can rap now; and, because there are no rules and stereotypes to hold us back, it allows for further diversity and experimentation to flourish within hip-hop music. People like Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, Nicki Minaj, and Iggy Azalea couldn’t have existed under the old rules, stipulating who could rap and who couldn’t rap. Kanye freed hip-hop from that nonsensical rule back in 2007, and now others have ran with this newfound sense of freedom, proving that hip-hop can still push musical boundaries.
The future is here, and it is odd, but I think I like it that way.