The State Of The MC In 2015: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Future
What does the act of “rapping” mean to hip-hop in 2015? Looking at the charts over the past 12 months, and comparing them to the most critically acclaimed rap albums over that same span, the answer is a bit murky. The year’s most successful rap song was Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen.” The year’s most critically acclaimed rap album was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. And the yawning chasm between the styles of those two works speaks volumes about the current state of hip-hop.
Best Of 2015:: The 15 Best LPs of the Year
In retrospect, 2015 could be considered the year when the definition of hip-hop “MC” was at its most fluid. Acts like Fetty Wap, Future, Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, Rich Homie Quan and Dej Loaf are bending, and in some instances breaking, the framework of “rapping” on a given song. But the half sing-song/half cipher warble these artists deploy, each featuring some small differences in cadence, tone and execution, has a number of forebears. For one, since the genre was birthed in the late ’70s, rappers have often sung their own choruses in various shapes or forms. The slightly toned chant of Melle Mel on “The Message,” Master P’s call to arms on “Make ‘Em Say Uhh,” 50 Cent’s marble-mouthed slide on “Wanksta” and A$AP Rocky‘s straight-up crooning on “Long Live A$AP” all illustrate the through-line of a longstanding hip-hop tradition.
Second, specifically in the ’90s, rappers began placing a premium on melodicism. There were the nearly indecipherable verses of Cleveland’s Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony as well as the soulful G-funk hooks of Nate Dogg, who couldn’t really be classified as wholly a singer or wholly a rapper. That soon morphed into such a strong preference for melody that often comprehensibility was sacrificed, leading to the Auto-Tuned weirdness of the aughts. So you got T-Pain’s top hat-wearing bombast, the depressively searing Kanye West cult classic 808s & Heartbreak, the codeine-soaked trap music of Gucci Mane, as well as a young Toronto “rapper” named Drake who happened to showcase his smoldering R&B vocals almost as much as he dropped bars, all contributing to melody becoming the go-to tool in the rapper’s kit.
That’s a small survey of some of the hip-hop artists and trends that have birthed what is basically the sing-rap revolution which established itself over the past few years as a dominant force in the modern pop landscape. The mutual exclusivity calculus of singing-vice-rapping and rapping-vice-singing has been shattered and melted, with the artists luxuriating in that gooey mesh point. On these songs, there’s less emphasis on what is being said than how it sounds when it’s being said. The melody and general sense of novelty are what’s most important, and also what resonates with the youngest set of hip-hop fans.
Sing-rap is no doubt a youth movement, and for a long period of time, for the first time in my music listening career, I felt like I couldn’t understand what “the kids” were into these days. My love of hip-hop was tied closely to the literary quality of my favorite MC’s verses, valuing technical virtuosity, wit, humor and passion as much as melody and flow. Sing-rap was all melody and flow, lean-infused party music that never seemed to offer a respite from the sputtering purple drip of illegible syllables and garbles. To rap purists out there, it can be a hard pill to swallow, and there are increasing calls from established tastemakers for newer artists to pay closer attention to the golden idols of hip-hop’s traditional rapping past. Young firebrand Vince Staples — who favors more straightforward rapping than his sing-rap contemporaries, but shares their age group — summed up this preconception thusly: “In 1999 I was 7 years old and toy story 2 had just dropped you niggas really think I was worried about hip hop?”
Even before Staples made Hot 97 heads clutch their pearls, I was slowly understanding that sing-rap constructs a completely different listening experience from traditional rap. In the old paradigm, rap verses were, for the most part, valued for their breath control and clarity. That is not what Rae Sremmurd are going for when they holler for you to unlock the swag, and that realization helped me unlock my purist hip-hop heart. I, for one, can only understand maybe every 10th word of a Future song, but count his mixtapes and joint release with Drake as some of my favorite albums of the year, because while I often don’t really know what he’s saying, I almost always know how he’s feeling in each moment.
Likewise, Young Thug has somehow turned what sounds like, on first pass, half-formed lines of gibberish into passages that are as surrealist as they are melodic, that are rich in meaning and that emerge with more sharpness on each listen, like a Magic Eye painting. His “Constantly Hating” is an instant classic. Fetty Wap, to paraphrase my review of his debut album, is basically a futurist lounge singer, focusing on composition and earworm hooks arguably more than any rapper of the past decade. And Drake broke the internet by pushing his mutated rap warble and R&B bonafides to an incredible conclusion with “Hotline Bling.” These artists’ singles (with the exception of Young Thug, but let’s throw in Silento, Travi$ Scott and Rae Sremmurd for good measure) are routinely at the top of Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B charts, and percolate amongst the pop elite of the Hot 100. In addition to “Trap Queen,” tracks like “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” “Antidote” and “No Type” are pillars of contemporary rap radio, the tracks that get the block hot.
But when you looked toward both the Billboard Hip-Hop albums chart and Metacritic’s composite critical ratings of 2015 rap LPs, traditional rapping is valued over the sing-rap revolution, with To Pimp A Butterfly the closest consensus among both metrics. On Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B album chart for 2015, rap releases that predominantly feature lyricist lounge fodder comprise six of the top 10 slots (Kendrick’s TPAB, J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive, Nicki Minaj‘s’ The Pinkprint, Meek Mill’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, Dr. Dre’s Compton and Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise), with only Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and his Future collab What A Time To Be Alive representing the sing-rap field. Metacritic has seven traditional rappity rap albums scoring above 80 (Kendrick, Dre and releases from Staples, Freddie Gibbs, Lizzo, Earl Sweatshirt and Lupe Fiasco). But the only bonafide sing-rap albums scoring above 75 are Future’s solo effort DS2 (80) and Young Thug’s dual Slime Season mixtapes (80 and 81).
So, according to the empirical data, it seems that the sing-rap style cannot sustain an album the way traditional rapping can, whether it’s in regards to complete album sales or critical opinion. But this doesn’t jibe with the hip-hop listening experience in 2015, where clubs, cars and computers are inundated with melty rap mewlers. Perhaps this points toward the next phase of the sing-rap revolution: Transitioning away from a steady barrage of singles and club bangers and into cohesive albums that can stand up to the tomes of the Kendricks and Earls of the world.
Drake has more or less reached those heights already, and Future and Young Thug are damn close, but what happens a couple years down the road, when Rae Sremmurd or Fetty Wap get into their third and fourth albums? 2016 could be the year that decides it. Sing-rap stars will either take their places among the hip-hop rank and file…or they will forge their own path, redefining for themselves and for fans like me what “rap” means in the 21st century.