Looking back to 2014, the year brought us Vince Staples’s Hell Can Wait. In the years following, 2015 gifted Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and 2016 brought, uh, 21 Savage’s Savage Mode? Yeah. And Kodak Black, D.R.A.M., Lil Yachty and the like.
Socially conscious rap seemed to have peaked in 2015. Lamar warned us of political divide in the form of “DemoCrips and ReBloodicans,” Lupe Fiasco talked of “watching Gazans and Ashkenazis ride roller coasters” and Vince Staples questioned “Black sellin’ crack for the white man.” For a genre arguably founded and bolstered early on by the moral implications of its content, such lyricism marked the final stages of a healthy evolution.
That being said, objectively “good” rap doesn’t need to be socially conscious. Listening gratification certainly comes from a nuanced perspective on a type of American life foreign to the majority of the audience, but it’s possible and likely more plausible to derive pleasure from purely enjoyable music.
Important rap, however, does need to have substance, and substantialism hasn’t exactly defined this year’s releases. For instance, “Black Beatles,” Rae Sremmurd’s hit, has gained more notoriety for its accompaniment of the viral “Mannequin Challenge” than for its actual musicality. Not even a Gucci feature can save the rest of the track’s underwhelming flow. It now seems like singles earn their mainstream badge based on meme-ability.
Put into more collegiately relevant terms, everything popular, everything “playable” from this year, would make for an unbelievable pregame playlist. You know, not the type of stuff you listen to for fulfillment (or enlightenment for that matter) but the boiled-down bangers, songs like Yo Gotti’s “Down in the DM” and Yachty’s “Minnesota.” Jump on a table, maybe throw some shit, do some funny dances. This mood necessitates a basic criterion: a vibey beat, an infectious hook and a chant to mouth along so as to not look stupid. 2016’s offerings pass that test, they just might not pass a more enduring one.
This may sound completely old, crotchety and pretentious. Hell, it pretty much is old, crotchety and pretentious. Not to mention, to function within a generalization, especially when it comes to music, is bad. It’s just that increasingly, “meaningful” music seems like an exception.
Indeed, rap as a whole seems comfortable on its current trajectory toward a singularly “bumpable” genre, and 2016 helped solidify that. While the virtuous persevere — A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Vic Mensa’s There’s Alot Going On, Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade and even Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, all releases from this year, expand upon Lamar-esque tensions — to an increasing extent, we’re listening for fun and not fulfillment.
To be sure, the visibility is what seems different. Last year, emotionally-charged anthems like “King Kunta” and “Alright” got airtime, whereas this year, nothing remotely related to the public affairs of this country has successfully crossed over into the mainstream. And it’s November. There’s a mix of guilt-free bangers and meaningful statements filling out the landscape of rap at this moment, but the imbalance in exposure is what defines its current climate.
Maybe that’s the point. Trap, drill, bounce, cloud, whatever — they’ve always coexisted. Variety gives the genre its most potent flavor. Ultimately, it’s our obligation to find our own happy medium.