Sometimes during the heady December days when I’m compiling my best-of lists, I wonder what someone from the past, stumbling out of a smoking Delorean or stretching uncomfortably after a long nap in a cryogenic chamber, would think about the year’s musical class. A hip hop fan from a decade ago, for example, would recognize plenty of names from this year’s charts and best-of lists: Jay-Z and Eminem are still on top, although Jay’s rapping with his producer now, and that Hot Boys hanger-on Lil Wayne is now a force in his own right.
To a 2001 native’s ears, hip hop might seem to have warped and contracted like a tape cassette tape left in the sun. Hip hop’s sonic landscapes have become dense and opaque, as if producers have eschewed ocean-front mansions in favor of mood-lit penthouses as their architectural inspirations. Rappers are less bombastic, less self-satisfied, less jubilant. Even the most successful of today’s emcees seem cagey, apologetic, paranoid. Where the capitalist of choice in the early aughts might have been the world-conquering CEO with a rainbow of revenue streams, recent rappers seem to have more in common with an over-leveraged hedge-fund manager, skittish from too little sleep and too many stimulants, waiting desperately for the one bet to come through and make things right again.
But a decade is a long time. What’s remarkable about 2011’s annual best-of exercise is to imagine how surprised a hip-hop fan of even two or three years ago would be at this year’s spread. Wayne, who recently seemed to be spewing brilliant verses like an uncorked fire hydrant, has mellowed into a billable, if disappointing, mediocrity. Next-best-thing Drake has found tremendous success, but he seems to relish the spotlight as much as a root canal. Rick Ross, not long ago the loser of a 50-Cent beef and object of ridicule, has grown into a near-dominant force with the power to transform perennial also-rans like Pill and Wale into marketable commodities. And certainly most surprising of all is the fact that many of the most talked-about, successful, and beloved rap artists of the year barely anyone two years ago had heard of: Odd Future, Lil B, Yelawolf, Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Shabazz Palaces.
So hip-hop thrives on competition, and nobody’s place at the top is comfortable for long. There’s always going to be someone coming up with more energy, more drive, more creativity to knock the winners off the pedestal. This is nothing new. But Brown, K.R.I.T. et. al could represent more than just the newest crop of talent. Their success ,along with the success of Rick Ross and Drake, could be indicative of larger trends within the genre that we’re only beginning to comprehend.
Nobody Cares Where You’re From
Since the days of the media-hyped East Coast vs West Coast rivalry and before, going back to the Bridge Wars between Queens and the Bronx, hip hop has been obsessed with geography: repping your neighborhood, your city, your state, your region. The regional rivalries didn’t emerge simply from an inclination for competition, but because the sound of hip hop in New York was different from the sound in Oakland, or in Houston or in Memphis, or in Atlanta. Young rappers were marinated in the particular flavor of their hometown before emerging onto the national scene, and they never forgot where they came from.
Hip hop for the past decade has been dominated mostly by the sound of one region: the south. But the south’s preeminence seems to be slipping. Not because southern rappers aren’t doing well -- Lil Wayne had the best-selling rap album of the year, after all. And it’s not because another region has come in to take the south’s place as the heart of hip hop energy. Rather, the importance of regionalism in general seems to be in decline. Drake reps Toronto, his hometown, but he also reps Memphis, where his dad was from, and Houston, where’s spent a lot of time. Miami sleekness still constitutes a big part of Rick Ross’s aesthetic, but he’s arguably become more connected to the gunshot-and-high-hat rumble of Virginia producer Lex Luger. Lil Wayne would never let anyone forget he’s from New Orleans, but lyrically and sonically his ties to his old stomping grounds have disappeared as he’s become a native to his own twisted planet.
The decline of regional identity becomes more pronounced when you turn to the new crop of underground rappers. Rappers like Danny Brown, ASAP Rocky, Odd Future, and Main Attrakionz could have come from anywhere. Their musical educations occurred not as much on the streets of their hometowns as on the Internet. Even Big K.R.I.T., who as a rapper saturated in southern signifiers might seem an exception to this trend, proves it in a way. K.R.I.T. admits that the music scene in Meridian, Mississippi, was basically non-existent -- he had to go to Atlanta to get heard. And when Big K.R.I.T. raps about the south, he evokes Meridian, but he also evokes the “south” he heard about in the albums by UGK, Three 6 Mafia, and OutKast. K.R.I.T.’s south is as much a place of the mind as it is a specific geographic region.
The Lil B-ing of Hip Hop
When considering the ways that the Internet has become its own area code, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Lil B. The Bay Area rapper and former member of the Pack has become one of the most controversial figures in the underground -- for some, his sprawling, improvised mixtapes constitute Dada-rap masterpieces, while for others his music is nothing more amateurish drivel. Lil B reached perhaps a pinnacle in acclaim and buzz with his release this year of I’m Gay (I’m Happy), which was as cohesive a statement of his stream-of-consciousness, controversy-courting style as we’ve seen yet. And say what you want about Lil B’s own music, but it’s hard to argue that he’s had an effect on many younger (and better) rappers. For one, the way he repeats common hip-hop gestures relating to sex and violence to the point that they become deconstructed and unhinged from all notions of reality has had an effect elsewhere. His disregard for standard rhyming and time-keeping is reflected in the powerfully unorthodox flow of Danny Brown. And his taste for ambient, chillwave-styled productions has been followed over the hip hop map.
Lil B was one of the early champions of the New Jersey-based Clams Casino, one of the most influential hip-hop producers of 2011. The washed-out, effects-laden productions of Clam Casino sample everyone from Imogen Heap to Adele and provide the cushion for both the traditional hood rap of Main Attrakionz as well as the party rap of Mac Miller. It’s been a while since underground hip hop produced an auteur like Clams Casino. He has the potential to energize the genre during the coming decade the way that J Dilla during the 1990s and early 2000s. The rapid ascendancy of Clams Casino also highlights a negative outcome that cold follow decline of regionalism -- that everyone will start sounding the same. ASAP Rocky’s LiveLoveASAP and Main Attrakionz’s 808s and Dark Grapes II are two of my favorite rap albums of the year, but it’s slightly discomforting how similar these records from two sides of the country (Harlem and Oakland) sound. If rappers continue to pile on, and Clams Casino doesn’t do to much to change his formula, the producer’s hazy bedroom beats could become as unpleasantly ubiquitous to underground rap as Lex Luger’s strident productions have become to mainstream rap.
Obviously, whether 2011 will come to be seen as the start of an exciting period of left-field underground rap, or the year a microtrend in lo-fi weirdos dominated and the south temporarily fell off, is up to historians of later generations. After all, the purpose of best-of lists and yearly reviews is to attempt short-term history, however impossible and contradictory that task might seem. As an art form that manages to be both back-breakingly respectful to history and eager to shrug it off, hip hop will surely find a way to thwart our expectations again in 2012.