What is the biggest cliché in music? An artist strikes fame with an individual sound, which then becomes progressively more accessible until it is almost impossible to recall the origins of their artistry. This is a product of two facts: musicians need to make a living and, obviously, the more popular you are, the more money you will earn. Following that, music has to evolve with the culture, which almost always necessitates a change in sound. In short, musicians need to survive in the industry, and renewing their sound is the best way to do that. Although this is generally associated with a specific artist, this may be the best way to understand the progression of Hip Hop from a lyrically focused outlet to a beat-heavy, fashionable sub-culture draped in reality figures. It is worth mentioning that I do not wish to put the point forward that there are not lyrically exceptional Hip Hop artists currently putting out music but rather that this is the general trend Hip Hop has followed.
There are three main aspects of popularising music that are evident in the new form of Hip Hop, which includes everything from R ‘n’ B to Trap. Firstly, the instrumental compositions are far more basic and easy to remember. What is meant by this is that tracks are now deliberately composed so as to be accessible and catchy, tailored to the listeners of all cultures. Whilst universal appeal has always been a consideration for Hip Hop artists, it has never been such a great aim as now. Secondly, an emphasis has been put on the marketing of music more than ever before. Records are released far more frequently, sometimes at the expense of quality, and the image of an artist takes centre stage, again sometimes affording the artist less time for the music they are putting out. Finally, and most relevantly, the lyrics have been depersonalised so that they can appeal to as many sub-cultures of people as possible. This is very similar to the first point of accessibility. It follows that modern Hip Hop tracks tend to be more concerned with materialism and celebrity lifestyle as opposed to protest and politics.
A major contributor to the three major changes to the sound of Hip Hop is social media. It has acted as a catalyst for human fascination in celebrities and their lifestyles. According to a study in May of last year, the average person has five social media accounts and spends 1 hour and 40 minutes perusing these sites per day. So, it is far easier to gain access to the personal lives of celebrities and in this case, Hip Hop artists. The genre’s natural reaction to this was to universalise the appeal of their music by toning down the specificity of their lyrics and raising artists based more so on image than ever before. For example, it would take you less than ten minutes scrolling through Facebook to find videos on ‘How to understand Desiigner’ (a prominent trap musician) or who Lil Yachty’s biggest inspirations were (that actually caused a lot of controversy). Both of these videos have very little to do with the music that both these artists are releasing.
The emphasis on marketing and universalisation has affected the lyricism of Hip Hop music not just by having to change the content, but also by demoting its importance. Whilst beats have always been a huge part of Hip Hop, demonstrated by the fact that DJ Afrika Bambaataa, who is considered one of the fathers of Hip Hop, cited DJ-ing as one of the four pillars of the genre, the emphasis on production has never been so important. This has further watered down the desire for good lyricists and has shifted the interest to the make-up and stimulation of a record.
All of Kanye’s rule-breaking work has paved the way for up and coming artists to have more free reign with their music.
Kanye West serves as a great example of this. He became famous as a producer for Roc-A-Fella records and then was consequently signed as a rapper later on. His albums are of no comparison, lyrically, to that of 2pac or A Tribe Called Quest, for example, but are exceptional because of the way that they have been put together. He stands to be one of the most influential rappers of his generation yet his lyrical content is not clever nor does it ever stray from a simple two-bar rhyming scheme. His fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of the most listened to Hip Hop records of the 21st century but if you were to read a review of it, there is little credit to his lyricism, other than to note his shocking statements. The Rolling Stones review said of the album that “There are hip-hop epics, R&B ballads, alien electronics, prog-rock samples, surprise guests from Bon Iver to Fergie to Chris Rock, even a freaking Elton John piano solo.” This goes to show that Hip Hop is becoming progressively more conceptual, inclusive and instrumentally-focused.
Further, his lyrics are centred around his lifestyle and luxuries. Whilst they are certainly bold, they are by no means intricate. A strong example of this is the two-part rap battle between Kanye and Mos Def, who is generally considered one of the best storytellers of the Hip Hop genre to date. Whilst Mos is notably more skilful, Kanye delivers lines like “Can you please donate sex to the poor?” that captivate the audience more so than his competitor. This embodies the new approach to Hip Hop, where lyrics are more about shock factor, name-dropping and celebrity lifestyle. Not to mention that Kanye West is possibly the most extravagant figure ever to grace the Hip Hop scene. His music is exceptional but it’s his absurd antics, e.g labelling himself the new Einstein, that have fascinated his followers for so long.
All of Kanye’s rule-breaking work has paved the way for up and coming artists to have more free reign with their music. He has made it commonplace for rappers to be less lyrically competent and more focused on delivering appealing and immediately shocking lyrics.
The final aspect of society that has contributed to the shift in Hip Hop from lyricism to beats, fashion and figures is equality and discrimination. The injustice of racism has been at the forefront of the Hip Hop scene since its beginnings. For example, N.W.A.released their first studio album in 1988, which had a core focus on police brutality, inequality and the harsh reality of Compton. Whilst racism is still very much evident in modern society, Kendrick Lamar serves as an artistic example of that there have been certain improvements, such as the abolition of de jure discrimination across the US, which has caused a lot of modern Hip Hop artists to disassociate themselves with this issue. Lil Wayne, for example, during an interview on SKIP & SHANON UNDISPUTED, argued that due to the fact that he has ‘never dealt with racists,’ he is ‘not into it enough to have an opinion,’ (speaking of Black Lives Matter). This is a stark contrast to Wayne’s forefathers.
Modern culture has become progressively more obsessed with the rich and famous due to the growing popularity of social media.
The effect that this has on lyrics, whilst hard to see immediately, can be monumental. The presence of political and intellectual content demands a certain standard of lyricism for it to be seriously considered. For example, the album Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, written by Mos and Kweli themselves, is centred around the teachings of Marcus Garvey and the lyrical content is not only academic but exceptionally written and delivered. Without said lyrical talent the album would not have been considered as remarkable as it was. The other side of the coin is that lyrical content devoted to more materialistic concepts demands a much less complicated lyrical pattern and rhyming scheme. This is not an absolute rule but rather a general trend.
When Future writes about a new Bugatti, the emphasis is not on complexion of lyrics but rather the delivery and accessibility of the record: ‘No matter if you’re rich or poor, when you hear New Bugatti, you’re gonna say you woke up in a new Bugatti.’ The focus of the record is all about reaching out to the listener and provoking hype. The hook of the song ‘Bugatti’ records Future simply repeating the line ‘I woke up in a new Bugatti’ five times over. Contrast this with Eric B. and Rakim’s track ‘Follow the Leader,’ which involves Rakim delivering three verses, without chorus, never once repeating a two-bar rhyming pattern. This ensures the cadence of each couplet is different. The content of the track is concentrated on the importance of lyricism and Rakim’s outstanding ability.
So, why exactly has the focus of Hip Hop changed from lyricism to beats, fashion and figures?
Essentially, it is to do with survival. The genre needed to change to fit the demands of the modernisation of society. This also explains the existence of a few gems, who are still putting out records demonstrating impeccable lyrical talent. Modern culture has become progressively more obsessed with the rich and famous due to the growing popularity of social media. Consequently, it makes sense for the focus of Hip Hop, which is a cultural phenomenon, to be altered with time. Whilst this may not be well received by the forefathers of the genre, namely GZA, who wrote an article entitled ‘The Lost Art of Lyricism,’ it is by no means a condemnable evolution. It is just a necessary one.