King of the Hill: Derivative rap
In the current rap arena, simplicity is key. Few people want to spend hours laboring over a heady underground release with a fine-tooth comb. The people want bangers, and they want them fast. The only way to keep up with the demand is to strip the songs down so only the essential elements remain. Those best equipped to dominate the current climate are those operating in the realm of “derivative rap.” That’s not to say they imitate other rappers in an effort to gain clout; these rappers are stripping rap songs to exactly what the people want, yet still keeping them fresh and exciting. They’re quite literally changing the rap game as we know it.
In a match of Derivative Rap King of the Hill, the contestants include stalwarts like Playboi Carti and Westside Gunn and newcomers like Lil Keed and 645AR. Carti and Gunn have been at it for years, with Carti starting in the mid 2010s and Gunn in the early 2000s (2004!). Keed, on the other hand, is just getting his start after sneaking his way into the arena around 2016 and gaining notoriety in 2019. Then there’s 645AR, the absolute newcomer in this battle for supremacy, who entered the arena in 2019. Who will win? Who will fail? Who will come in off the top rope and turn heads? Stay tuned to find out.
After a mere couple of years of toiling under the surface and releasing countless songs on SoundCloud, joining forces with Atlanta’s Awful Records crew and later joining A$AP Mob, Carti is now a bonafide rap star and has shown no signs of slowing. The notably reclusive Atlanta rapper drops infrequently and at a whim, but when he does drop, he takes the world by storm with some of the simplest songs ever recorded. With Carti, the line between chorus and verse is blurred. In fact, it’s nonexistent most of the time. His choruses are his verses, and his verses are his choruses. Every song he makes is catchy, and he doesn’t really have much to say, often rotating through a set of a few lines and ad-libbing constantly. Carti even uses his voice as an instrument, rapping in various versions of a high-pitched yap and his now signature “baby” voice. He strips Atlanta-style trap music down to its simplest elements. Listen to “Magnolia,” “wokeuplikethis*” and Young Nudy’s “Pissy Pamper.” They’re buoyant and playful, but most importantly, they’re infectious earworms that stick with everyone ranging from the casual listener to the diehard fan.
Playboi Carti is an absolute behemoth in the derivative rap game and will be difficult to take down.
Having recently signed a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records and a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Westside Gunn and his crew Griselda are poised for big things. The Buffalo, NY crew is known for making hardnose revivalist New York boom-bap and features two outstanding rappers in Conway the Machine and Benny the Butcher. However, Westside Gunn is the standout player. He takes the boom-bap sound where no rapper ever has. His song “The Cow” is a prime example of this. All the signifiers of boom-bap (gun talk, drug talk, slick talk and bizarre, esoteric references to things like professional wrestling and high fashion) are there, but that’s it. There is no fanfare to it. The music is barebones, and it’s capturing the attention of rap purists everywhere. On the surface, his songs sound like typical fare, but it becomes quickly apparent that they are anything but typical. The wordplay and lyricism is present, but it’s not as complex. He leans almost as heavily on ad-libs as Carti, but he’s tasteful about it, belting out a hearty “doot doot doot doot doot” every few lines. Gunn also doesn’t use typical song structure, depending more on his verses and flows than hooks.
Westside Gunn brings boom-bap music to its most primitive state. He’s an absolute wildcard, and that’s why he’s gaining notoriety across the scene.
Who would’ve thought that Young Thug would already be the most influential artist of his generation? Me, that’s who. In his brief career, Thug has influenced countless rappers, but none have ascended to the same heights as Lil Keed has. In this proposed derivative rap world, Keed is certainly the most derivative, but he leans into it and fully commits. He takes the yelpy exuberance of Young Thug and forms his entire career around it. And just like Thug, Keed isn’t very invested in making normal trap music. Instead, he wants to make trap music that sounds good, and he does just that on his recent release Long Live Mexico. He uses more typical structures, but nothing about his delivery and flows are typical. On his standout track “HBS,” Keed does everything he can to challenge what it means to actually rap. His flows are bouncy and simple. They are perfect extensions to his beats, only breaking free to occasionally let out an autotune-drenched shriek. Even when Keed pushes his delivery to a lower register, he still sounds triumphant and outright overjoyed.
Lil Keed is happy to be here, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aiming for something more. As his career develops, it’ll be interesting to witness how he uses his unconventionality to his advantage.
645AR has literally appeared out of nowhere, but it’s a good thing he did. No other rapper is challenging rap as we know it like he is. He’s a pretty standard trap rapper, but with a twist: he raps almost exclusively with his pitch shifted to the heavens. His voice is so high-pitched that it’s difficult to discern what he’s rapping about. His style has been referred to by Twitter users as “Mickey Mouse rap,” a hard descriptor to beat. Songs like “I Want the Money” and “One Way” are normal trap songs delivered through a helium-infused lense, but his most recent track, “4 Da Trap,” is where he really starts to shine. “4 Da Trap” is a sickly sweet trap tune about his roots and how he’s now created his own movement. As he raps, he pushes his voice to the limits of human hearing, and the internet is loving it.
645AR won’t be turning many heads now, but he’s just getting the Mickey Mouse trend started and could soon be a real force, or at the very least a critical influence for those to come.
Sadly, there is no way to tell who the real winner of Derivative Rap King of the Hill will be. It’s all based on personal preference, but in the current arena, personal preference is changing by the minute. Currently, Playboi Carti is still dominating, but that could change at any moment. Any one of either Westside Gunn, Lil Keed, or 645AR could easily take the attention away from Carti, but that’s the great thing about the current scene — prominence changes so quickly, each rapper could get their chance in the spotlight.
Regardless, each rapper is going to continue to tinker and augment their respective sounds. Playboi Carti is going to continue to capture the attention of the masses with his accessible-yet-challenging trap experimentations. Westside Gunn is going to continue to appeal to old heads and new fans alike with his boom-bap redux style. Lil Keed is going to continue to publicly question what it means to actually rap. 645AR is going to continue to do whatever it is that he’s doing, and people are somehow going to dig it. Each rapper has the ability to create genre-altering music and is already showcasing that ability, so it’s only a matter of time until each artist is their own king of the hill that is derivative rap music.