It’s hard to think a genre of music at once more prevalent and more hated than pop rap. While pop has gained a new critical acceptance as of late–defended by a legion of Britney and R. Kelly scholars who call themselves poptimists-– pop rap remains one of the lowest epithets in the music critic’s quiver. A pop rapper is assumed to be a sellout — someone who has compromised artistic principles in order to fit commercial expectations. Or worse, it’s someone who never had any artistic principles to begin with, who’s guilty of bastardizing rap’s social and political traditions just to make money.
In labeling the likes of Flo Rida and others pop rappers, we blur the distinction between a “pop rapper” and a rapper who is just really popular. Not every rapper who has a hit is automatically a sellout or deserving of the pop rap tag. It makes defining pop rap problematic, to say the least. But still, great rappers can end up in the pop rap spectrum, defined by their Billboard success as much as their lyricism.
In 1994, both Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Big Poppa” were big hits. Both featured plush, synthesizer-heavy production, catchy hooks and lyrics about partying. But the songs are not even close to being siblings. Coolio’s awkward verses are nearly void of internal rhyming or variation whatsoever. The imagery is tired, vague and familiar: “We’re going to a place where everybody kick it/ Kick it, kick it . . . yeah that’s the ticket.” Compare that with these vivid lines from Biggie: “So we can steam on the rhyming, interesting metaphors or lyrical variation/ The imagery is tired, vague and way to the telly, go fill my belly / A T-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch’s grape.” “Big Poppa” may have a poppy melody and beat, but it is still the work of a masterful lyricist and storyteller.
From that example, and many others, we can classify “pop rap” as the province of (a) serious rappers who have strayed accidentally or purposefully into popularity by virtue of a catchy hook and a danceable beat, and (b) bland emcees who are as immaterial to their song’s success as the anonymous musicians in Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Recently, though, a space has opened between these two extremes. The albums released over the past year by Drake, Nikki Minaj and Wiz Khalifa seem to aspire to pop rap, not apologize for it. These rappers work as hard on their hooks as they do on their verses. Their albums aren’t cobbled-together assortments of songs they wanted to make and songs they needed to make — they’re cohesive statements. The subject matter for the most part is pop’s traditional favorite—relationships– and in that respect the albums have plenty in common with releases by Usher or Fleetwood Mac. But these records are also as obsessed with intricate wordplay and trunk-rattling production as anything by Jay-Z or Lil Wayne.
Granted, the albums aren’t perfect. Drake’s Thank Me Later is the only one of the three that comes close to being a classic. Minaj’s Pink Friday was criticized for including too much singing and not enough rapping — but this quibble further validates how critics are prone to see singing and rapping as separate things, where Minaj is collapsing the distinction. As the weakest lyricist of the trio, Wiz relies the most on hooks, but in the case of Rolling Papers, the hooks mostly delivered, and the album did the same.
Crucially, Drake, Minaj, and Wiz seemed unashamed and unbothered by their pop audience — an audience that is largely white and largely female. The role of race, and racism, in the growth of hip-hop into a cultural industry is an endlessly tricky subject to tackle, and it would overwhelm this discussion were it fully entered. But I think it’s fair to say that of the two categories of pop rap mentioned above, the members of the latter group are often seen to be guilty of kowtowing to white, mainstream tastes, while the members of the second category often appear baffled by their success in the suburbs, sometimes baffled to the point where they would rather ignore it.
Drake, Minaj and Wiz are not post-racial — I hate that term, and I don’t think Americans have earned the right to it. But these rappers seem to fit into the multicultural pop landscape with more ease than past rappers. This could be a good or bad thing — depending on how much responsibility you think rappers have to represent the African-American experience.
Ironically, the weird truth about pop rap is that nobody listens to pop rap. People who listen to pop rap don’t call it pop rap — having never heard the term pop rap, they think they’re listening to rap. And of course, no rapper would admit to making pop rap. Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Wiz have certainly avoided uttering the term. And nothing’s to say that these rappers won’t stray from the pop format– Wiz already did, sort of, when he released a mixtape, Cabin Fever, with harder-edged production. But if these rappers haven’t yet rescued the genre from guaranteed-joke status, they’ve at least given us reason to consider pop rap with a little more respect.