“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.

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