Lil Wayne

“Walk on Water,” Mumble Rap, & That Time I Went to a GZA Show

Aside from a handful of Labor Day weekends spent at Seattle’s yearly Bumbershoot music festival, the first rap concert I ever went to was GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan at a venue called Neumos on Capitol Hill. I was going with my friend Cole, and as 17-year-olds from different neighborhoods, neither of us were very familiar with our surroundings and neither of us owned a car. But we weren’t just going to let The Genius slip through our fingers, so we did what any rational person in 2008 would do: hop on a bus downtown and use our printed directions from MapQuest to find the venue on foot.

Being the naive teens we were and having never been to a non-festival rap show, we had no idea what “doors open at 7:00 PM” truly meant. By 6:45 PM, we had grabbed our tickets from will call, gotten patted down by security, and found our places in the crowd. We stood around waiting for the opener (a local act named Scribes, who I knew previously from having handed me numerous demos burned onto Memorex CDs at Bumbershoot, Folklife, and other Seattle music festivals) with the handful of people who got there as early as we did, many of whom had already crowded around the front of the stage hoping to reserve a front-row view.

On my way to the bathroom at one point, I noted a piece of paper that stated Scribes was not set to go on until 9:00, and GZA until 10. I disappointingly relayed this info to Cole, and we continued to wait and talk while the DJ spun about what you would expect from a GZA show: mostly 90s New York classics like Black Star, Biggie, Pharoahe Monch, Mobb Deep, and, of course, Wu-Tang Clan. Most people were standing around, bobbing their heads and rapping along, but there was one man who seemed to be really feeling the set. He danced nearly the entire time the DJ was spinning and was pouring with sweat an hour before even the opener was set to go on (later in my life I realized this man was probably on Molly, AKA The Artist Formerly Known as Ecstasy. GZA also seems like a strange choice of concert to roll at.).

Around 8:30 PM, the venue was starting to noticeably fill up with people–and blunt smoke. The DJ was still playing, and “Kick in the Door” faded out as the beat to the newly released “A Milli” dropped. For a quarter of a second, the room froze, and then boos from all angles of the venue quickly overtook the song. Clearly flustered, the DJ dropped the levels and stammered into the mic, “This is the KRS-One remix! You don’t think I’d play Lil Wayne for y’all would I?”

While I was, at this point in my life, more of a fan of 90s rap acts like members of the Native Tongues Posse and the Rawkus Records crew, I still liked a lot of the newer guys, most specifically Kanye West, The Cool Kids, and Weezy himself. Hyphy and other Bay Area rap artists like Mac Dre, E-40, and Andre Nickatina were also immensely popular at my high school, so I had also been introduced to that side of the hip-hop spectrum (looking back, I think I actually had a reasonably diverse taste in rap for a 17-year-old). I’d obviously heard people shit on some of the newer, non-traditionalist rappers before, but this was the first time in my life I had really encountered “real hip-hop” fans in the wild. Before that night, the notion that something is or isn’t “real rap” was foreign to me.

Fast forward to today: anyone who’s paying attention to hip-hop knows that Eminem recently released a collaboration with Beyoncé entitled “Walk on Water,” thought to the be the first single from his forthcoming album, Revival. It’s a sparse, somber, and stripped-down ballad about crippling self-doubt and self-mythologizing in hip-hop, conveying that Eminem feels discouraged about his creative process and that nothing he writes is good enough for his fans anymore. The song is actually fairly moving from a lyrical standpoint, but as a piece of music, it sounds more similar to a Macklemore-esque spoken word piece than the scathing, rapid-fire, celebrity-bashing single we’re normally used to from Eminem. In a lot of ways, it’s a sign of maturity, with Mathers choosing to vent his creative frustrations as a product of a different era of hip-hop rather than dissing the gaggle of new school rappers currently occupying the airwaves.

However, in the inaugural episode of Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Broken Record, Rubin states that Eminem is “frustrated” with “mumble rap.” And, well, of course he is: it’s only natural that an artist known for his lyrics would feel out-of-place in an era where style, vibe, and flow are king. Though 2017 isn’t without its dozens of capable lyricists, in some of today’s music, the emphasis seems to be placed less on what you say and more on how you say it. Even so, publications and fans alike have been quick to run with this notion that Eminem being frustrated creatively with this new era of rap is the same thing as hating it, with many traditionalists using it as some sort of validation of their rejection of a post-808s & Heartbreak world of rap music. But even listening to a secondhand account from Rubin, it seems clear that Eminem isn’t frustrated because these artists are successful, he’s frustrated because the way he raps isn’t necessarily en-vogue anymore.

The notion that only a certain style of rap is “real hip-hop” has been around since the conception of the genre itself—for many of its earliest pioneers, even recording raps in the first place was sacrilege, as it was meant to be performed in real time with a DJ. Going back to “A Milli,” though Lil Wayne is generally touted as one of the greatest of all time today, in the mid-2000s, he was not only an extremely divisive rapper, but an extremely divisive rapper who was also completely unavoidable. It’s no exaggeration that a new Weezy song dropped or leaked on an almost daily basis—from 2007-2009, he appeared on over 100 songs each year. While Wayne was massively popular, there was still a large portion of rap fans completely discrediting his merits as an artist. They threw everything at the wall, from Wayne’s supposed “poor lyricism” (meaning his more abstract lyrical style didn’t fit in the traditionalist box they’d cornered themselves into) to his southern dialect, hoping some sort of critique would stick and knock him down a peg or two. Southern rappers have always caught the brunt of such “real rap” criticism: even Outkast, one of the most universally acclaimed musical acts (let alone rappers) of all time, was once booed at the Source Awards. Nowadays, though southern trap music has made its way into pop as by far the most popular contemporary subgenre, it’s still referred to by many as “mumble rap.”

Using the term “mumble rap” is akin to calling electronic music “bleep bloop robot music.” It reduces a diverse group of artists into one negative generalization, and it shows a distinct lack of understanding of the genre. It’s a disparaging notion that, quite frankly, was probably somewhat rooted in racism in its initial use (even if most people who use it mean nothing by it at this point due to its more widespread use), as it’s a term that tends to be used to refer to southern black artists with thicker accents who use copious amounts of regional slang. There’s no denying that it sometimes takes a few listens to be able to fully understand the lyrics of certain rappers if you’re a new listener (Young Thug, Future, and Kodak Black, for instance). But more often than not, good Capital-A Art is art that rewards the audience upon subsequent listens: each one begs you to uncover a new layer, a background vocal you didn’t notice before, a hidden meaning in seemingly innocuous lyrics. The first time I hear a Young Thug song, I’m usually too enamored with the melody and the elasticity of his voice to take in most of the lyrics, and only upon further listening do I begin unpack his more freeform lyrical style.

Are there a gaggle of Atlanta rappers who all sound the same? Of course there are, but for every innovator in music there are always going to be hundreds of cheap imitators and average wave-riders waiting to hop on coattails. Music is and always will be malleable, and we should strive to embrace innovation even if it sometimes results in failed experiments. People need to take note of rappers like Juicy J, who seems intent on evolving with the genre and letting it flourish, rather than anchoring it in the past and consequently splintering its sphere of influence.  

Maybe Eminem does think Playboi Carti sucks, and that’s fine, but I’m sure a considerable number of younger hip-hop fans feel the same way about the revered old head from 8 Mile. Everyone has their preferences and you don’t have to like everything—luckily, there’s always going to be a Conway and a Westside Gunn for every Young Thug and Future, even if they don’t currently have as much mainstream appeal. There’s great music to enjoy on both ends of the spectrum, and we should be celebrating the fact that hip-hop has become this diverse rather than trying to stifle creativity because not everyone wants to sound like Eminem anymore.

Go ‘head Switch the Style Up: Graduation Turns 10

Back before the social media era, Kanye West and 50 Cent pulled off a viral album rollout that tangibly shifted the hip-hop landscape. 50 wagered that if West’s Graduation outsold his Curtis on their shared debut week, he would retire from rapping. The competition made sense: both Kanye and 50’s sophomore efforts were well-received and took a more maximalist approach at what respectively made their first albums go down as classics. People were curious to hear what each rapper’s third commercial effort would sound like. Though at the end of the day it was a mere marketing ploy by two artists represented by the same label, the cultural implications of this face-off have since been proven. People didn’t want “gangsta rap” anymore, they wanted whatever new sound Kanye West was ready to dish out. Though 50 didn’t formally retire from rap, the sales and reception of Graduation as compared to Curtis essentially dethroned him as one of rap’s kings while turning West into a pop star.

If you’re the sort of listener to dismiss Kanye’s more recent efforts, Graduation may actually be the amalgamation of all that you love about the passionate and hyper-focused artist that is Kanye West. However, despite it containing a handful of his biggest and best songs, many have argued it to be one of the lesser albums in his catalogue. Some of this can probably be attributed to a “middle child” syndrome of sorts: it’s not the classic debut (The College Dropout) or the triumphant comeback album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), nor is it the influential genre-bender (808s & Heartbreak) or the experimental critical darling (Yeezus).

The fact that a record with songs like “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights” is considered to be the worst album in his catalogue is a testament to the strength of his discography in and of itself (side note: I would hazard a guess that the average person can’t name a song from Curtis). Boasting a mix of soul samples and electropop, Gradation is a collection of futuristic stadium-ready anthems. Though Late Registration‘s orchestral live instrumentation was a natural step forward from The College Dropout‘s dusty chipmunk soul, Kanye’s work with the likes of Daft Punk and T-Pain was the first indication of more experimental turns to come. Even though West had the names of his education-themed albums picked out back during The College Dropout days, it’s hard to imagine an album such as this one existing under any other moniker.

Graduation exists as a transitionary period not only musically, but in terms of Kanye’s celebrity and personal life. It arrived two months before Donda West’s tragic death and a little over six before his breakup with then-fiancé Alexis Phifer. Within a year of “Stronger” propelling West beyond “famous rapper” to “legitimate superstar” (“Gold Digger” might have been a smash hit, but it didn’t inspire a generation of high schoolers to start wearing shutter shades), his larger-than-life persona had begun to crumble.

People often characterize 808s & Heartbreak as Kanye’s most influential contribution to hip-hop, and though you would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise, 808s would not exist without Graduation. While 808s & Heartbreak is Kanye’s most important album for rap, Graduation is Kanye’s most important album for Kanye. It marked a turn toward electronic music that would become widespread in both his music and hip-hop in general over the next decade. Before the personal turmoil that sparked his later experimentation, Kanye had already made it clear that he wasn’t an artist that would stay in his lane, and Graduation taught him that he could be both the hit-maker and the aggressive innovator. It showed him that he could follow up an album that featured “Clique” and “Mercy” with one that boasted “Blood on the Leaves” and “New Slaves.”

That Lil Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” contains the bars “I’m all about my Franklins, Lincolns and Reagans/Whenever they make them, I shall hayve them/Oops I mean have them” and is still considered some of his laziest work during his prolific mid-2000s run encapsulates Graduation as a whole. The album that saw “Gold Digger” transition to “Stronger” and where Kanye out-rapped Lil Wayne at the height of his career is somehow the redheaded stepchild of his discography.

People tend to characterize Graduation as “happy,” and while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it also paints a singular picture of an album that’s much more complex than that. Graduation isn’t the album you put on after a breakup, but it’s the one you listen to a few weeks later once the healing process begins. It’s a testament to the good and the bad, reminding you that the heights you previously sought to achieve are still within your grasp.

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