When you think about how rap music had its origins in block parties in the South Bronx of an economically deprived era of New York City going through a major decline in the 1970s, it is truly incredible to see it turn so many people into millionaires and be embraced all over the planet as a voice for the voiceless – or for those ready to party.
There was a time when rap music was a lived-in, you-had-to-be-there experience before the music was even getting recorded in studios. Now the studio could be your bedroom, and your microphone might cost less than your favorite pair of sneakers. Times have changed, as those always do. Let’s take a look at five ways that rap music has evolved. Whether or not you find them to be a good thing or not is purely up to you.
Hip Hop Surpassed Rock Music
For the first time in history, rap music has actually become the dominant music genre, at least in the United States, as stated by Nielsen Music’s 2017 year-end report data. This has typically been a domain where rock music has reigned, in terms of record sales or streaming numbers that account for sales in this age of less physical copies of albums.
Rap experienced a 25% spike in 2016, making it the second-highest leap of any genre, only surpassed by Latin music, which has a huge come-up of 30% in overall volume. What made 2017 such a banner year of success for rappers? Drake was a serious force in the music industry, as he still is today. Drake, the Canadian rapper/singer from Toronto, led the way with 4.8 million album-equivalent units, which basically means a merging of actual physical sales and download purchases, along with streaming numbers. Kendrick Lamar was pretty impressive in this department as well, hitting the 3.7 million mark.
Many more rap artists in that top tier were massively successful as well, such as Cardi B, Future, Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert, and Migos. Let’s not forget if it is one of those years where Eminem, Kanye West, or J. Cole come out with music, the streaming numbers and purchases will be through the roof.
Middle Class Rappers
If you were around rap music in its infancy in the 1970s, watched I grow legs and stretch out higher in the 1980s, or maybe you loved the Golden Age of hip hop music that was permeating daily with so much originality in the 1990s. One thing you may be surprised about is how the struggle of underprivileged black and brown people isn’t as front and center in rap music like it used to be.
In fact, there seems to be hardly any difference in the eyes of the young when it comes to what kind of socioeconomic background their favorite rapper has come from. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince seemed like a warm and fuzzy middle-class duo compared to the harsh, stark realities rapped about by N.W.A., KRS-ONE, and Geto Boys.
Back on September 11, 2007, the Was it the hardcore alpha male rapper 50 Cent dropped his album, Curtis, on the same day as the more economically situated Kanye West released his album called Graduation. They were facing offing to see which brand of hip hop would win – 50’s hard raps or Kanye’s more vulnerable approach. Kanye West actually outsold 50 Cent, to 50’s shock. These were signs that the hip hop narrative was being told by many who didn’t have many hard times to rap about.
When we look at the rappers with a less aggressive approach that followed, it can be argued that ‘Ye’s success made life easier for Kid Cudi, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Tyler the Creator, and Childish Gambino. Kanye West showed that he could tell his story in hip hop without having the same economic struggles of rappers like Meek Mill to claim.
More Singing Involved
Speaking of Kanye West, he seemed to be making a lot of rappers and audience members confused when he went from rapping or singing on his album 808s & Heartbreak with the assistance of Autotune technology. We were already seeing the sing-song vibes of the gritty Queens, New York rapper Ja-Rule soften up the airwaves with catchy songs that women could get into. Years prior, the mixing of R&B in hip hop was frowned up, and when these two worlds would merge in the 1990s, it was typically with an R&B singer popping up to sing a chorus, which Mary J. Blige would do on tracks by respected lyricists like Method Man, Jay-Z, and Nas, or even trading rhymes with Grand Puba.
The year in the past was that hip hop’s street edge was becoming a way too commercialized and losing its voice as the culture of the underrepresented and the oppressed. The fear was that R & B music was appropriating hip hop’s drum-driven production and rapping, to help their artists last longer as hip hop became the hottest influence in mainstream culture.
In the 2010s, rappers that try their hand at singing is so much the norm that the melodic crooning of Drake, Post Malone, Young Thug, and Lil Uzi Vert seems to hypnotize listeners to instantly get pulled into the way that their words flow out of their mouths more than the actual words themselves. In fact, there was a whole period of time when “mumble rap” was running rampant, which essentially was rappers somewhat humming their words, less occupied with the actual lyrics, concentrating on the melodic flourishes. This caused many skilled rappers like Eminem and J. Cole to challenge this status quo with quotable wordplay.
Rappers as Entrepreneurs
Sure, there have been rappers in the 1990s that had their own record labels, such as Jay-Z, Eazy-E, RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Masta P, and Ice Cube. But in the 2000s, we saw this level of business-mindedness become the norm. Eminem had Shady Records, Cam’Ron with Diplomat Records, 50-Cent with G-Unit Records, Nas with Mass Appeal, Lil Wayne with Young Money Entertainment, The Neptunes with Star Trak Entertainment, Kanye West with G.O.O.D. Music, Rick Ross with Maybach Music Group, T.I. with Grand Hustle, and Drake with OVO Sound.
There was also a trend of rappers starting their own clothing lines that often were merchandise extensions of their name or crew name – such as 50-Cent’s G-Unit Clothing. But now you are seeing rappers like Westside Gunn from Buffalo, New York, whose Fashion Rebels clothing releases are selling out instantly online and are being resold on eBay for much higher markup values. In fact, Westside insists that he was influenced to put out clothing before putting out music.
Hip Hop is More Global
Not only is hip hop being listened to on every continent, but the barriers to entry are getting knocked down, and rappers who were once quietly regional are now being heard on a massive scale. Part of the way that this is happening is because YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are social media platforms, at least if you live in countries that have access, and are allowing rappers to build massive followings, even in countries where they have never set foot on it.
Also, streaming on platforms like Spotify, SoundCloud, and Apple Music is making it possible for artists to reach an international audience. Even the large mainstream rappers are tapping into bigger numbers thanks to streaming. In 2017 alone, there were a total of 19 individual songs that managed to fly past the 500 million streams mark, and guess how many of those were hip hop/R&B songs? The answer is 17 tracks.
It is not unheard of for rappers to travel to Japan, Germany, London, Paris, Poland, Australia, South Africa, and Amsterdam to perform massive concerts, even in countries where many people don’t even speak English.
In many cases, we have seen rappers like A$AP Rocky for instance, how is from Harlem but rapped using some of the Houston swagger and slang like “trill” that means someone or something that is “too real,” when he first arrived on the scene with songs like “Purple Swag” and “Peso.” By blurring the regional borders musically, it became harder to know what part of the map a rapper’s story originates from. Plus, with the internet becoming a primary place to build an audience, people could pick and choose the elements of style that they like and incorporate it into their own.
All and all, we have seen rap music evolve into a more international presence, such as Drake, a Canadian rapper making music with artists from Jamaica and London. Rappers are controlling their career destinies, no longer settling for the record label contracts of the past where they lose ownership of their publishing rights to earn royalties to their music.
Look no further for an example of independence than Chance the Rapper refusing to even sign a record deal. With hip hop currently being the most lucrative genre of music on the planet, which direction will it evolve into next?