Hip-hop is in a bit of a midlife crisis. But that may be a good thing.
On one hand, there is a generation of purists who believe dope beats, dope lyrics and compelling storytelling is the quintessential trifecta of what makes the genre great.
Meanwhile, new-age rap fans see things a little differently. In their world, the melody is the driving point while lyrics may take a backseat. For some of these artists, their subject matter may delve into topics like suicide, depression and pill-popping habits and also incorporate elements from other genres like rock and electronic music.
The divide is apparent and constant debates from both sides of the culture happen often. But one thing is for sure: new lanes are being created every day.
Here in Philly, a new wave of artists are following suit with the genre’s evolution.
In 2017, native Lil Uzi Vert saw his rise to prominence. His debut studio album Luv is Rage 2 was released in August and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart.
The 23-year-old rapper, whose real name is Symere Woods, is often credited as one of the leaders of the emo rap movement, a combination of hip hop and emo music. His song “XO Tour Llif3,” the most successful single from his debut, delves into themes of drug use and heartbreak.
Other rappers from the city like PnB Rock and Ant Beale have garnered attention with their melody-driven flows. Meanwhile, Tierra Whack is amassing a buzz with her unique style.
The 22-year-old’s peculiar, off-beat music has received comparisons to Missy Elliott. Her song “Mumbo Jumbo” is a fan favorite for its unique video and Whack’s unintelligible mumble rap flow. But don’t get it twisted, Whack can spit with the best of them. Just listen to her song “Toe Jam” for reference.
Mina “SayWhat” Llona, entertainment contributor for Fox 29 Philadelphia and former host of “The Rise and Grind Morning Show” on WUSL’s Power 99 (98.9-FM) told Philly Weekly that she thinks the new wave of Philly hip hop is “great” and explained that people don’t need to follow a mold when it comes to making music.
“Philly has always been a city filled with people who are unapologetic about who they are,” she said. “The music should reflect that. As long as the music they are making feels right and their fans are responding to it, then they should keep doing their thing. Plus, times are changing. You can't put artists in a box these days.”
Rock and emo aren’t the only genres that artists are experimenting with. Rapper Yikes the Zero’s music has been deemed “trip-hop” for its incorporation of experimental, jazz and psychedelic themes. Last year, he released his album Doctor Molotov’s Gallery of Portals which he also self-produced.
“I don't think it’s even accurate to call a lot of the music we are hearing rap,” Mina said. There are so many different musical elements that are being incorporated into some of the songs. Sometimes more singing than rapping…Melodic music. These guys are young. They are the new wave. Their music is not a trend with no staying power because music lives forever.”
Kevin “Mack” Woods, founder of the Philly hip hop blogsite AllFlamerz.com, echoed Mina’s sentiments.
“I believe it’s all part of the evolution of the genre, he said. “Rap has been changing since it's inception. There have been so many different styles and sounds that have been borrowed from that add to the sounds and styles we hear and see today. Also, I’d like to add that as society changes and becomes more accepting of people's individualities, that directly affects how open the artists are with their artistry. So instead of following a script they are creating their own.”
The formula for blowing up has also changed. Back in the day, underground scenes were the places where an artist’s fan base was born and bred. Now, social media is the place where rappers first become famous. Their music is posted on Soundcloud. Additionally, fans get to peek into their favorite rappers’ lifestyles via Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Thus, connecting them with listeners not only in their city, but also across the globe.
Groups like REC Philly also help local artists make it big in the music industry. Since 2016, the organization has participated in an initiative called Amplify Philly, which travels to Austin, Texas, to showcase Philly’s local startups and musicians at the South by Southwest conference.
Looking ahead, will the generational gap between rap’s old heads and new school artists continue to grow or, will it come together? It’s unclear, but showing respect for each generation’s art seems to be a step in the right direction.
According to Woods, older generations shouldn’t talk down on new age alternative rappers.
“I feel as though [modern day rappers] should be respectful whenever speaking on one of the greats from this city but they don’t owe anyone anything,” he said. Being paid homage is a bonus.”
On the flipside, Mina said knowing your “hip hop history” is key.
“You have to respect the people that paved the way, even if you don't understand or like the music,” she said. “Just because you don't understand or like the music made by old school artists doesn't mean you can fix your mouth to talk recklessly about it. Music is subjective. Different people like different things. Don't talk down to anything anyone else likes. Show some respect.”