Lyrical miracles and mumble rappers: hip-hop’s culture war

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Deputy Music Editor Aidan Riddell provides a rundown of the conflict between the rap of Kanye and Kid Cudi and the mumble rap movement.

The last decade saw hip-hop undergo an unprecedented stylistic shift. With artists such as Kanye West and Kid Cudi redefining the face of pop rap in the 00s, the genre had already grown and diversified considerably by the early 10s. However, the emergence of what came to be known as “mumble rap” from Soundcloud represented arguably the largest deviation from the genre’s roots yet. It drove a wedge into hip-hop discourse that remains to this day, with proponents embracing exploration of the genre outside of traditional conventions, and its detractors citing it as a sign of hip-hop losing its way and regressing into meaningless self-indulgence. With the advent of a new decade, it seems only fitting to review the advances made by this movement and revisit the culture war between mumble rappers and the reactionaries that emerged against them.

While its roots lay in the early mixtapes of rappers like Future and Chief Keef from 2011, mumble rap as a cultural movement didn’t take off until 2013 when artists such as Travis Scott and Young Thug began to explode in popularity. In fact, the term “mumble rap” wasn’t even in common usage until around 2014 when older people in the hip-hop sphere began to cast doubt on the creative legitimacy of younger MCs. With the emphasis shifted from wordplay and rapid-fire delivery to vocal riffing and repetition, many interpreted the rise of mumble rap as a crude simplification of existing styles as opposed to its own unique approach. However, it was ultimately this focus on simplicity, accessibility and catchiness which accelerated its rise to dominance within both the genre itself and mainstream music as a whole.

Vocal elements aside, the instrumental and production choices of these artists also represented a considerable departure from the norm. Out were the soul samples of yesteryear and the glossy production of the bling era, and in came the rattling hi-hats, ethereal synth progressions and lo-fi mastering of the Datpiff and Soundcloud generation. Where typical hip-hop instrumentation aimed to be hard-hitting and rhythmic, many popular producers of the 10s instead favoured moody melodic vignettes and 808 drum loops, which provided a compelling counterpoint to the whimsical and often improvised lyrics. This approach to production had been explored before in the Memphis rap scene of the 90s, with artists such as DJ Screw pioneering slower and more atmospheric instrumental-focussed pieces. However, it was producers like 808Mafia, Sonny Digital and Mike Will Made It who predicted this style’s potent compatibility with contemporary rappers. All of this comes together to present 2 schools of hip-hop governed by broadly different philosophies. One where lyricism, structure and perceived technical ability are paramount, and another where the focus is on melody, tone, and for want of a better word, vibe.

This dichotomy extended beyond the music itself, with mumble rappers maligned for their dyed hair, lavish tattoos and flamboyant dress sense. This distinctly feminine aesthetic constituted a bold inversion of the conservative hoodies, unpretentious tracksuits and other mundane streetwear typical of hip-hop’s old guard. While traditional masculinity in the genre had already been challenged by the likes of Andre 3000 and Lil Wayne, it was not until last decade that a rapper such as Young Thug would have been able to wear a woman’s dress on an album cover. However, this sudden transformation of the image of hip-hop did not go unopposed.

Prominent figures in the culture such as J Cole and Joe Budden voiced discontent, suggesting that the creative process of Soundcloud artists was lazy and their success was unearned. Others, such as genre legend Eminem, made attempts at launching a direct counter-revolution. This mostly consisted of collaborations with like-minded rappers such as Logic, Royce Da 5’9” and Joyner Lucas, in which traditionalism was touted as the next wave. However, it was not long until their criticism took aim at contemporary hip-hop’s more liberal attitudes. Eminem’s use of homophobic slurs in a diss against Tyler the Creator, one of the few openly gay rappers in the mainstream, caused confusion for several reasons. While charged language remains a staple of rap lyrics, especially Eminem’s, direct homophobia hasn’t been as common in the genre since the 00s. Furthermore, while Tyler is a progressive hip-hop artist, his music bares very few of the vocal and instrumental hallmarks of mumble rap, making him an unusual target. Though Eminem eventually apologised for his choice of language, many were left with the impression that anyone deemed unfitting of his narrow vision of hip-hop purity could be a target of his mumble rap police, regardless of their musical output. By insisting upon such a conservative definition of what constitutes “real hip-hop”, these lyricists had written themselves into a corner.

Ultimately, this wave of reactionary attitudes within hip-hop provided an interesting case study of what happens when counterculture becomes culture. Artists like Eminem made their name by punching up against the establishment, defying the old guard and shattering preconceptions of what could and couldn’t be said in popular music. However, once they themselves reached the top, they were left without an enemy to fight, and their only remaining option was to punch down. Younger artists, and new ideas within the genre by extension, became villainised so that older artists could have a cause. This underdog persona is incompatible with the Eminem who performed to a crowd of wealthy elites at the 92nd Academy Awards, a truer indication than any that he and his generation of rappers are now part of the furniture. That being said, as mumble rap enters its second decade, its own future as a countercultural entity is coming into question.

With trap artists growing more commercially successful year on year, veteran music critics warming to innovators such as Young Thug and Playboi Carti, and the likes of Travis Scott performing at high profile events such as the Superbowl, perhaps the movement’s days as the underdog are numbered. Southern rappers such as DaBaby and Youngboy NBA are already starting to find success in producing a revised form of street rap that acknowledges the instrumental developments made in the 10s, but is nevertheless more straightforward and vocally traditional than any strand of mumble rap. Furthermore, it seems inevitable that the loss of key figureheads of last decade’s online rap scene including XXXtentacion, Lil Peep and Juice WRLD will stunt the creative growth of the subgenre and shorten its shelf life. Regardless of what mainstream hip-hop’s next trend will be, it will be interesting to see whether the mumble rappers of the 10s will adapt, fade into irrelevance, or repeat the misguided resistance of their predecessors.

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