“Music is forever changing. Hip Hop is not going to be what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Everything changes. There are different sounds, different dances. But at the end of the day, to it’s all about the lyrics,” says Wu-Tang member GZA in an open letter to Hip Hop for Medium’s music site Cuepoint. Besides beating the dead horse about the lack of lyricism in modern mainstream Hip Hop, he continues to big up his own contemporaries as if nothing mostly matters past the Golden Era. Throughout the piece, the Brooklyn emcee also manages to pen conceptual lyrics and rhymes from his own set of classics including Liquid Swords. In GZA’s eyes, radio-friendly rap with more emphasis on lyricism is dead. Therefore, Hip Hop isn’t about the art anymore.
Does GZA have a point? Or, does he join the ranks of other emcees bitter about their status within Hip Hop? Has Hip Hop become watered down, or has it evolved into something more relatable to the next generation of artists? In the meantime, me, Senior Features Editor Ural Garrett and the esteemed DX Features Editor Andre Grant attempt to make sense of Hip Hop’s most redundant argument.
Ural: Does GZA have a point about the lack of lyricism in commercial Hip Hop or is he just jealous New York lacks the ability to be back on top?
Andre: Here we go with the New York slander. Look, Hip Hop is a young genre, and while New York dominated the culture for a good amount of it, I don’t think he’s lamenting the loss of New York hegemony in mainstream Hip Hop. In case you’ve forgotten, Nicki Minaj and Action Bronson are from NY, and there’s young upstarts in A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era crew, not to mention Ratking, Heems, etc. etc. What he’s lamenting is a lack of originality in the lyrical department, and he’s not the first. Not everything can be a change in the music. Hip Hop, in my opinion, for good or ill, has a lot of its power in the voice; about having something to say.
Ural: On the surface, the lack of originality in rap lyricism is debatable. You’re right, GZA’s open letter has nothing to do with New York not being on top. Beneath the surface, the Wu member comes off as an old uncle who has to remind the youngsters how many bitches he use to pull back in the day. I get it, Uncle John, I’ll never be able to match your hoe count because the reality of AIDS is real. But, I digress. Yes, music today isn’t as good as it was in years past from his and my point of view. That’s probably because the best moments of my younger years involved Wu-Tang Forever and Stankonia. However, if someone’s best moments of their childhood involves If Youre Reading This Its Too Late, To Pimp A Butterfly, Rich Nigga Timeline or Barter 6, so fucking be it. Hell, by the time those kids hit their mid-life crisis, they’ll probably feel the same way GZA does. Originality is alive and well for those willing to look for it. This is the age of the internet for heaven’s sake, anyone still depending on radio for anything remotely original in this day and age is fooling themselves. To be completely honest, thematically, the stuff GZA was rhyming about wasn’t different than most rappers of that time. Most successful emcees from Snoop Dogg and Jay to GZA really weren’t that different. I’ll mentioned drugs, violence, money, etc. It was the style, presentation, delivery and production that set a lot of these cats apart. The same could arguably be said for today.
Andre: Let’s be specific. GZA didn’t say that there is no originality anywhere in Hip Hop, he’s just saying that mainstream Hip Hop no longer embraces lyricism. He’s got a point. A casual look at Billboard’s Hot 100 will show you that Fetty Wap‘s “Trap Queen” and T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” are in the top ten. Those two aren’t necessarily known for being super-lyrical, and as good and as catchy as both those songs are they aren’t leaving your head spinning with the wordplay. So let’s talk about originality for a second, right? It turns out that a majority of people in the U.S. still listen to the radio according to Nielsen, so it’s important to have songs on a medium largely consumed by most of the U.S and abroad showing a wide breadth of what’s out there. Sure, you could easily dismiss it and say, “do a quick Google search.” But that’s assuming you’re plugged into the same “I’m looking for new music all the time” world that we are. Most people just aren’t.
And you’re claiming the subject matter was the same then as it is now by mentioning money, violence, and drugs, but aren’t you falling into the same stereotypical trap about rap music that you would easily admonish if someone told that to you? There is a variety in Hip Hop now that is probably unrivaled in its history, but most of what counts as lyrical is not mainstream. This is a fact. Trotting out Kendrick Lamar as the lone remarkable survivor of the post-lyrical era to be both lyrical and mainstream is anti-productive to what GZA’s talking about. It’s also debatable to say the change has only been cosmetic (style, presentation, delivery, and production), which are things that have nothing to do with what someone is actually saying. That’s demeaning to all the emcees (from LL to Scarface to DMX to Eminem) who spoke about what was important to them in clever, penetrating ways with a real emphasis on wordplay and wit and were wildly successful for it. So, no, the same cannot be said for today in my opinion. The subject matter has most assuredly changed. Which brings up another question, in today’s Hip Hop does lyricism not being on the radio have to be a bad thing?
Ural: That’s the problem, artists are making a plethora of money without the radio. Real lyricists can still make money in 2015. We live in an era where Jay Z can purchase a thousand copies of one specific mixtape from someone who I’d like to say is lyrical. Then there’s Run The Jewels, anything on Stones Throw and a whole bunch of other stuff. And yes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. “Trap Queen” is an East Coast take on Atlanta bounce that’s more R&B and “Nasty Freestyle” could be considered the same. Then again, that’s another conversation for another day. Contemporary pop music, in general, lacks much complexity. Considering how influential Hip Hop has become over the past decades, it makes sense that the buying majority prefers simplistic hooks, easy to understand verses and something to enjoy without much digestive complication.
The reason why hyper lyricism in Hip Hop isn’t at the commercial forefront anymore is the same reason why Hollywood overly relies on sequels and remakes and why Activision makes Call Of Duty sequels every year. What matters the most to the powers at be is what’s selling. Sadly enough, I wouldn’t blame a young 20-something rapper from the hood with dreams of leaving their environment who decides to make ass clapping radio tracks in oppose to something deep because the buying public doesn’t care. The same could be said about HipHopDX. Writing a story on Fetty Wap or O.T. Genasis and the likes get a lot more pageviews than anything on The Roots, Fashawn and even Ghostface Killah himself. Instead of blaming the non-lyrical winning, blame the people who are contributing their money into their success. A year to this day, my little DX check didn’t go to Fetty Wap, Iggy Azalea, Bobby Shmurda or T-Wayne. My money went into the pockets of Rapsody, Fashawn, Run The Jewels and Kendricks of the world. Then again, I’m mature enough to enjoy a little Nicki, Migos, Boosie, Chedda Da Connect and Young Thug from time to time as well. I remember seeing a Tweet from 9th Wonder where he pretty much said to stop complaining about the people who are winning and put your money where your mouth is. Here’s a question for you: What would be your perfect top five charting singles right now?
Andre: That’s a fascinating juxtaposition you make there. There’s no doubt that radio plays what is popular, and what’s popular right now is sing-songy R&B like takes on rap. I mean, there’s even a slightly derogatory term we use when something sounds too dedicated to spoken word. It’s called “rappity-rap.” But I don’t think that lyricism should be relegated to a sub-genre of Hip Hop, and that is where we are heading. And to make the claim that people simply don’t care about lyrics anymore? That’s more interesting than anything else. For all of the folks who moan about lyricism taking a backseat, there seems to be tangible evidence that they are not contributing to what’s on the charts. If they were, one would posit, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation to begin with. But there’s another factor at play here: The Internet has created a sprawl within music — Hip Hop especially — that cannot be discounted. So much of what is “cool” now has been democratized. No longer are we waiting for XXL, Spin, Vibe, Hot 97 or Power 106 or any other “authority” to tell us what we should listen to and what we should not. For many, there was an idea that this would manifest itself into a situation where there was more love to go around.
But that’s not the way humans work. Instead, a mob mentality has developed. This is not a bad thing. This is just a thing. But it means that the loudest voices win, not the most interesting or the most refined. So it goes. I don’t blame the charts for looking how they do. But I certainly don’t blame GZA for lamenting, essentially, the idea that things had to be vetted before they hit the airwaves during the height of the Golden Era. So as rap moves toward pure hedonism in one aspect and pure experimentation on the other, I’m just happy to be here and be alive. It is a very interesting time. In my opinion, GZA is both correct and incorrect. Yes, lyrics have for the most part taken a back seat in mainstream Hip Hop. No, that is not necessarily a bad thing. And, to be quite frank, simply rapping about emceeing is something I think was bound to be drowned out over time, anyway. So you want my top five on the charts? If I woke up and it was Kendrick, Pusha T, Chance The Rapper, Drake and Nicki I wouldn’t be mad.
Ural: Even your list of top five charting songs(no love for the south?) is subjective because as one DX commenter said, “If Kendrick Lamar is seen as lyrical, Hip Hop has been long dead.” Yes, there are a sect of people within Hip Hop who doesn’t see K. Dot as lyrical. We all know how rap heads feel about Drake and Nicki. The Clipse weren’t very successful as a duo and they created Hell Hath No Fury so the reasons are quite obvious why he isn’t selling. Chance The Rapper actually has to stop giving out free albums before he charts. Then again, are the masses ready to buy an album from the Chicagoan regardless of how dope he is? The interesting thing about all five artists is they all represent different takes on what is actual concerned Hip Hop. Maybe “rappity-rap” and the R&B hybrid are both descendants of Hip Hop’s origins which technically had traces of a whole slew of different genres.
Whodini’s “Friends” had a sing-song R&B slant and the original “Rapper’s Delight” was never seen as a lyrical masterpiece but sampled Chic’s disco classic “Good Times.” Both existed before rap relied on hyper lyrical bars. During that times, Rock and R&B critics treated rap as something not even artistically relevant anyway. Hip Hop took some time to even evolve into something which gave the world classics like Liquid Swords. Now, the culture is transitioning into a new era. The problem is, everyone just doesn’t know what that is yet. Some already ingrained within the culture are going along with the flow with varying levels of success while some are fighting back with every bone in their body to reclaim a moment never coming back. In the meantime, the newer, younger crops of artists are taking bits and pieces from their creative environment. And just what is the end result? Only time will tell what comes out of it. Right now, there’s a little something for everyone in both mainstream and commercial sectors of Hip Hop. Support the things one sees as worthy and forget about being a part of the cool kids table a.k.a. “The Billboard Top 100.” Just like high school, that table is constantly revolving around the same two or three that everyone hates but secretly wants to be.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is a Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @UralG.