Grading The Current Generation of Rappers
Like every other genre, rap has benefitted greatly from the advent of social networking. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube allow musicians to connect with fans and release material in ways that simply were not possible just ten years ago. Any guy with some skill and a basic knowledge of social networks can build up a pretty loyal following without a label, agent, or A&R to guide him.
Since the traditional format of the music business is all but dead, success is no longer measured by units sold or record label advances, but rather how well you can market yourself on the internet. This usually involves giving away the majority of your music for free, whether through mixtapes or blog promotions (it’s funny that mixtapes have ballooned in popularity despite the irrelevance of their roots - actual physical tapes).
This doesn’t mean that all rappers today don’t want a record deal, or don’t actively seek one, but in a lot of ways, it’s a waste of their time. Aside from national recognition and (maybe) better promotion, the average musician these days is probably better off without a label backing (or at least a famous one). I think that this is a good thing for music, and an even better thing for rap. It’s a genre with humble, collaborative roots, and I see social networks bringing that aspect back. In many ways, it already has. But as always, if you give everyone the chance to become famous, there will be differences in talent, and some will become big thanks to a gimmick that has little to do with music in the first place.
Let’s take a look at this “new” generation of rappers, many of whom wouldn’t be known today without Facebook or YouTube.
We’ll start with perhaps the most buzz-worthy rapper at the moment, A$AP Rocky. Born Rakim Mayers (with that first name, you’re destined to rap), the 23 year-old Rocky is a Harlem rapper whose debut mixtape, LiveLoveA$AP, has been praised by just about every music critic to hear it. Fueled by the singles “Peso” and “Purple Swag,” Rocky is a moderately clever rapper that uses drugs as his muse. Indeed, “Purple Swag” sounds “chopped & screwed,” a southern style of remixing songs influenced by the dissociative properties of cough syrup. Rocky also doesn’t rap like other New Yorkers, favoring a style similar to a lot of southern rappers. LiveLoveA$AP has beats from Clams Casino & DJ Burn One (another Southern influence), two of the bigger names in rap production these days. I think Rocky is going to be very successful, as long as he can evolve his music beyond drugs and boasting.
Best Song: “Palace“
Mr. Mothafuckin’ eXquire
I think that photo sums up Mr. eXquire pretty well. In my mind, eXquire’s the spiritual successor to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, except that he’s a lot better at rapping (from a technical standpoint, at least). He’s not the most talented rapper on this list, and his songs can be one-dimensional, but he might be the most fun guy to listen to. Take the hook from the song “Huzzah,” his first single: “Drunk drivin’ on a Wednesday/Wit’ three bitches in an MPV.” I don’t make the ODB comparison because of the alcohol, but because neither of them give a shit, and it shows in their music. eXquire’s flow is polished, and he sounds good while rapping, which in my mind is just as important as lyrical content. His last mixtape, Lost In Translation, was recieved very well by critics and fans alike. I suggest you download it. Also worth checking out is the remix to “Huzzah,” a “Flava in Ya Ear” tribute with Danny Brown, El-P, Das Racist, and Despot.
Speaking of Danny Brown, here’s the most polarizing rapper on this list. As you can see, Brown doesn’t really look like the average rapper. He’s got that weird-ass haircut, he dresses like a Dashboard Confessional fan, and he sounds like a rapping parrot. Unlike the other rappers on this list, Brown’s not exactly young (relatively speaking). Hailing from Detroit, the 30 year-old was once signed to 50 Cent’s G-Unit label, but was dropped and dealt with serious addiction issues. These demons are regularly exorcised in his music, which is part of what drives people away. Like Rocky, drugs are a central theme in Brown’s music. His mixtape XXX is loaded with drug anthems and drug references, but his strained and desperate voice rarely makes it sound glamourous or fun.
Best Song: “Pac Blood“
The Based God is probably the most successful rapper here, and at the very least, he’s the most prolific. He’s released several mixtapes since 2009, and finally released his first proper album, the DMX-baffling I’m Gay (I’m Happy) last summer. More than any other rapper here, Lil B uses social networking to build a following, so much so that there’s a damn internet meme based on his nickname. So what makes him special? Well, not that much actually. He’s a proficient rapper, he’s charming, and endearingly quirky (like when he leaked I’m Gay the day before it released and told fans on Twitter to get it for free), but most of his stuff is just kind of boring. Even when it’s not, like the Clams Casino produced “Unchain Me,” I have a hard time following his flow. But to each his own. Lil B has a large and very loyal following, so maybe I’m just missing the point. Also, he looks like Willie Green.
Best Song: “I Hate Myself“
Action Bronson, aka Bronsolino, is a Queens rapper/chef that is probably most famous for being the world’s only rapper/chef. He gets a lot of comparisons to Ghostface Killah, mostly because they kind of sound alike and rap about food a lot. In reality, the two couldn’t be more different. Bronson’s songs are mostly boastful, punchline-filled odes to nothing in particular: food, women, weed, more food, more women, etc. He does it so well that it doesn’t really matter. Bronson’s done the mixtape thing, but his first full-length, Dr. Lecter, was one of 2011′s most entertaining listens. Bronson isn’t afraid to talk about his weight or his love of food, but sometimes he forces it into his music. When he’s at his best, he’s the funniest and most-entertaining rapper on this list.
Best Song: “Ronnie Coleman“
Tyler, The Creator & OFWGKTA
There’s not much I can say about Tyler and his merry band of miscreants that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll keep this short. Tyler blew up when his first album, Bastard was released at the end of 2009. He used his success to introduce the world to Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, his collective/posse of L.A. rappers and artists that have tried, and mostly failed, to replicate his success. Tyler’s gimmick, nihilistic, offensive, and emotionally charged rap music shocked a lot of critics, who probably weren’t sure if it was good or bad. Tyler’s caught a lot of flak recently for being homophobic, misogynistic, and generally disgusting, most of which is true. But people have been saying the same stuff about rappers since the Tipper Gore days, so perhaps he’s just keeping it real. I think Tyler is immensely overrated, but he does market himself very well. And I know it was supposed to be a joke, but the song “Bitch Suck Dick” and its accompanying video set rap back about ten years.
Best Song: “Tron Cat“
I wrote about Mac Miller a few months ago while bashing frat-rap, and I’m going to do it again. Miller is part of the post-Asher Roth white rapper world, one of those guys that raps about partying and smoking at college. That kind of music has a place, and wherever that is, I hope I’m at least fifty miles away from it at all times. Miller’s debut, Blue Slide Park, was basically the same song repeated ad nauseam, and since the kid can’t rap very well, the formula wears thin pretty quickly. I’ll quote the always brilliant Max from Hip Hop Isn’t Dead: “Mac Miller seems genial enough, and I’m sure he’s a cool guy in real life, but as a rapper, his ability to string together bars in a rhyming fashion shouldn’t be mistaken for anything resembling actual skill.”
Has-Lo is from Philadelphia, so I’m kind of biased, but I think a quick listen will prove that I’m not just a stan. I called Has-Lo’s In Case I Don’t Make It one of the best albums of 2011, and with good reason. I think it was the best rap album released last year, especially if you count the remix album Conversation B as part of it. Has-Lo is both a producer and a rapper, which really makes his album sound like an album, and not a glorified mixtape. It’s not a strict concept album, but it’s mostly a deep look at his psyche, something you don’t find all that often in rap. His mixtapes are also great.
Best Song: “Light Years (J-Zone Mix)“
Gangsta Gibbs, the pride of Gary, Indiana, is probably the scariest dude on this list. He’s also the best all-around rapper. Like Danny Brown, Gibbs isn’t exactly young when compared to many rappers today, but he can rhyme circles around most of them. He’s yet to find a beat he doesn’t like, appearing on hundreds of songs last year alone. His collaboration with super-producer Madlib was one of 2011′s most exciting moments, and resulted in what I think is his best work to date. Unlike many of his peers, Gibbs has no gimmick. He’s just a pure rapper. Some people knock him for only rapping about being a gangster, but that’s nonsense. If anything, he’s shown that he has a lot of range, it’s just going to waste if he’s not rapping about choppers in his school locker.
Best Song: “How We Do (93 ‘Til Freestyle)“
Rittz, signed to Yelawolf’s Slumerican label, is the second heavyset redheaded gentleman to grace this list. He’s a southern rapper, one who specializes in “fast-rap,” which is exactly what it sounds like. His first real mixtape, White Jesus is one of 2011′s best releases, if only because it’s so damn fun to play at a high volume. I’m expecting big things for White Jesus in 2012, but he’ll need to distance himself from Yelawolf if he wants to do it proper.
Best Song: “Rattle Back“
Honorable Mentions: J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Blu. I’ll talk about these guys later.