Opinion: Rap's new freedom

2013 spawned a radical hip hop wave – from Young Thug, Ka and Migos to Earl and Kanye

Migos and Earl

Remember when it seemed like hip hop could be dead? Now, as we are collectively buried under virtual stacks of mixtapes downloaded from DatPiff, it seems funny to think about. But there was a time that major label rap as we knew it was choking out its last misguided breaths. Every artist was stuck in limbo, signed to deals they couldn't get out of unless they released an album, but their albums were being held because they weren't producing successful singles because rap was no longer the dominant popular music. It was a complex web of catch 22s and it was also a huge bummer.

Turns out that the thing that would later go on to save rap actually happened before anyone wanted to admit that things were pretty dire. In 2007, DJ Drama's Atlanta office was raided by the police in conjunction with the RIAA. Drama was – and still is – an essential figure in the rap world. As a long time mixtape host, he provided key support for artists that were languishing in the major label system (and some that were doing just fine too), sitting on mountains of songs that would otherwise never be heard by anyone ever. 

In the months before that freaky raid, which honestly felt like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, there were still a couple corners (physical street corners in New York, not like shadowy websites) where you could buy unofficial Dipset mixtapes or cobbled together collections of Wu-Tang b-sides and studio ciphers, but those were going too. One day the dude would be on the corner blasting Jadakiss classics, displaying racks of slim-line jewel cases, the next: nothing. Just a shuttered room the size of a closet with a rusty metal grate blocking outside light.

"While convenience and access has almost completely eroded regional specificity in rap, it's also opened plenty of new doors"

Then mixtapes started showing up online for free download. Labels weren't releasing rap albums, so there was nothing to buy, but they certainly couldn't stop guys from recording tapes explicitly designed for free release. It felt like a new world was created. It was the same as the old one, just more fun, more experimental, less caught up in the imaginary rules that had been put in place by decades of music industry control.

In 2013, rap ate itself. New artists paid homage to old styles: Chance the Rapper made psychedelic music about growing up that didn't feel especially dissimilar to the knowing humor of the Bay Area's legendary Souls of Mischief, A$AP Ferg based his entire aesthetic on Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's death obsessed black turtleneck rap, Troy Ave released an album of hard knuckle-to-nosebone tracks that would make Mobb Deep proud, Ka pushed grown man rap forward, telling dead-eyed nocturnal tales of violence in a chilling husky voice.

It was the year that Kanye made Yeezus. Migos cascaded words and sound effects together with style and aplomb, Young Thug, whose trebly yammer was the most captivating and bizarrely listenable of anyone's this year, made some of the most joyful music of any genre. Earl Sweatshirt's blunted introspection was dazzling. DJ Mustard's production output was legitimately mindboggling, this year including Ty Dolla $ign's "Paranoid", Young Jeezy's "R.I.P" and his own Ketchup mixtape. How could one person make that much music? The list could go on – but the point remains: hip hop was left unchecked and it flourished. Credit where credit's due: this probably wouldn't have happened without the instant distribution network of the internet. So while convenience and access has almost completely eroded regional specificity in rap, it has also opened plenty of new doors.

Actually, hip hop's relationship to the internet has always been knotty. Long shunted to message boards where dudes spent years of their lives arguing over what the third best Boot Camp Clik album was, the rap internet was formerly a place for traditionalists to congregate under the strictest of rules set forth by KRS One's Temple of Hip-Hop. But something changed, or maybe just expanded. Those forums still exist, but now there's a whole new set of kids enthusiastic about rap, willing to engage with it on the terms it put forth. These kids don't know their history, but they'll get there. How could they not? Today's new rappers are looking so reverently at the past, that it's only a matter of time before a 16-year-old that really loves A$AP Rocky discovers DJ Screw, and the 14-year-old that caught Danny Brown on the festival circuit finds out about Pharoahe Monch. What the new rap internet is great at is riding the wave.

"In 2013, every rap rule was finally discarded except the one that asks for constant innovation"

If you've been following the state of music writing this year, it's mostly been discussions – okay, fine, arguments – about how to navigate this new world we're in. Mostly those arguments boil down to the idea that pure music journalism is dead (not true) and that the state of music criticism is dire (it's not great, but it'll survive). This is a whole other essay in itself, but I'll boil it down as best as I can: if the act of music writing has effectively turned into the act of music discovery – tastemaking, not necessarily good writing is now the path to success – how do we ever get a chance to analyze anything? What's the solution? Is there one? Does their even need to be one? Maybe this is just how things are now.

Some of the best critical writing comes from reacting to the music that's already out there, not introducing it. Understanding how something fits in the grand scheme of things is essential to understanding how it works. And in 2013, rap forced us to consider the big picture. It moved so fast, with such force and such sheer quantity, that we couldn't do anything but react. Migos' excellent Young Rich Niggas was released and absorbed before anyone could "discover" it. By the time people were debating the lyrical merits of "Versace", their style had already been internalized and imitated. This is not bad. Rappers should keep rapping. Continue to innovate. Move faster than the culture requires. Pull influence from everywhere and then swallow those influences whole. The only way to succeed is to keep pushing forward. In 2013, every rap rule was finally discarded except the one that asks for constant innovation. Look away for even a second and rap will pass us by. All we can do is try to keep up.

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