By: Nes Aliu
In today’s realm of mainstream entertainment and the internet at large, hip-hop musicians may see seemingly almost overnight success due to the sheer growing volume of consumers now able to access content from anywhere in the world; but some are unable to withstand the ever-changing demand for fresh talent and ideas as they are locked into the ‘rap’ category. However, many individuals who once dominated the rap-verse, have broke through as artists in their own right, proving that they have the same variety and longevity in their portfolio as the legends before them– leaving the label of ‘The Rapper’ almost redundant for listeners and creators who desire to expand their musical palate farther than just beats and bars.
When I say ‘rapper-to-artist-pipeline’, you immediately think Kanye West, as he has made the mark over almost three decades demonstrating his range from bedroom visual artist to beat chopping Chaupin, from Jay-Z’s protegé to the high fashion power-tripper he is today; leaving him out of this list would be cruelly unjust. Not only is he gifted in several aspects aside from creating mania-raps and limited merch that has started multiple world wars, the man is a professional at inciting media frenzies. His Wikipedia page is a rabbit-hole in itself, and the narrative of his life goes deeper than the umpteen studio albums detailing the car crash from his youth up until his most recent divorce. I used to think another Kanye West breaking through in rap and making that big of an imprint on the world would merely be an anomaly; Kanye West was born to be famous, and he knew just what to do to make it happen.
Then 2019 happened, and the world was introduced to another college dropout who stumbled upon liquid gold in the form of a forty-dollar beat sampling an Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor guitar lick; later spinning the beat from Swedish producer YoungKio into one of the most catchy controversies in country music, Lil Nas X. Nineteen year-old Montero was what we would call unsuccessful: aimless stints at Taco Bell and crashing on his sister’s couch, though he fortunately had a small community of stan friends who knew him as Lil Nas X ‘the rapper’ with one EP out, some also sampling some more oldies, old Sonic the Hedgehog songs, and alt-rock joints. Literally making his songs from inside the closet, Montero adopted the name as homage to fellow artists Nicki Nasmaraj and Nas (who he would later collaborate with) and the letter X to represent Roman numeral ten: he had hoped to have made it within ten years, not knowing his big break was an earshot away.
When ‘Old Town Road’ made its way to Tiktok, the upwards trajectory for Lil Nas X was almost exponential. One morning, I was at a café when I heard the song in the background of a slightly cringy video of horse girls dancing on Twitter. That afternoon, my roommate asked if I could play the horse song she keeps seeing, and that evening I had already started hearing it play from other dorms and it had seemingly plagued the Tiktok universe overnight.
Within a month, Montero Hill was becoming a household name for young people, even if they didn’t know his real name, or that he was gay. I can confidently say that Lil Nas X has handled the amount of expectations and fame thrown at him with so much grace, even turning the hate he gets into making a point about who he is and what he stands for. Lil Nas X is the first rapper to gain followers after making witty jabs at the homophobes and God-heads who want to see him rot, he is the only rapper that I have seen to divide a community so much, and then bring them together when they realize he’s doing it all to stand up for kids like him.
Like Kanye, Lil Nas X is one of those humans who was born to be influential. At this point, I hate calling him a rapper: he plays trumpet and guitar and is quite the skilled wordsmith. Because of artists like him, I want to see a future where that label is rejected because of how many diverse artists there are who have more to bring to the table than rapping.
Of course, we can’t talk about multi talented rappers without paying homage to Tyler the Creator. He has been a staple in the online hip-hop community since the humble age of eighteen, drawing up album covers and tracklists before he learned to work a MIDI keyboard. Tyler, in his own right, is a catalyst for Gen-Z’ers who don’t care about fitting in and worry more about making something for the outsiders to find their people. He’s a trailblazer for people just starting to make music and designing clothes in their free time, and for young black kids who have grown up told to fit into the ‘urban’ box and stay in their lane; he’s a small glimmer of hope in a dark world that seeks to tear apart.
Tyler is most recently known for his speech at the Grammys, urging board members to stop using the term ‘urban’ to describe music created by Black people. To this day, fellow artists commend him for using his first big award to speak on injustice. As a result of his thoughtful anecdote, the Recording Academy has ceased use of the word ‘urban’ in their categories. We are now seeing more Black artists get nominated for awards in rock and country, without it having to be a controversy like it was years ago.
In 2009, kids were figuring out how to make music on their computers and how to get it out. One of those kids, Malcolm McCormick (Mac Miller), had already taken to crafting his rhymes and blasting them over beats, and soon found his way to music blogs as a seventeen-year-old rookie. It didn’t take too long for his career to take off and eventually send him on tour fresh out of highschool, but it was also at this time Mac started to seriously experiment with his sound, implementing more guitars and introspective loops that demonstrate the amount of growth he was able to make artistically all before he turned twenty-two.
Mac Miller’s early catalog is something to behold, but there is nothing more amazing than listening to his albums and mixtapes in order and seeing the amount of skill that has flourished as he would spend hours smoking and producing in a sunroom in Hawaii. My only regret was not giving Mac Miller his due credit until the last couple of years of his life when I started to get into his music and realized that he was the person behind most of his art, which truly cemented my admiration for him.
When he was first busted into the scene, he had that obnoxious frat boy energy that anyone would overlook and downplay whatever talent he had, but because he was able to evolve with the industry and saw that it demands more than just a good rapper, he made it apparent that he was a legend in the making and didn’’t stop learning new things. I believe that Mac Miller saw that people saw potential in him, and did everything to give the art back to them exactly how he imagined it. May he have a peaceful rest and continue to inspire us.
If you were born around the same time as me, you probably grew up with a slew of the same names from the rap universe. A$AP Mob, Odd Future, Brockhampton, and, well… Drake. The difference between these artists is the driving force behind them. Are they former bedroom producers and Soundcloud rats trying to change the face of music for people who can’t just buy studio time and songwriters, or are they a former actor-gone-rapper manufactured voice used by the biggest ghostwriters in Hollywood to pump out a mixtape every quarter or so?
What about these artists sets them apart, and why are all examples still relevant if they are approaching the music industry with different techniques? When you look at short-lived careers such as those of Blueface and Dababy, can you say that they were artists or just rappers? Did they bring anything new aside from one hit and a few Cole Bennett-directed videos, could you say that they deserved the downfall if you don’t think they deserved the success?
Art in itself is subjective which is why I hate calling a specific artist bad, especially when they have the potential to do something unique that could change my mind later. I had faith in Dababy because he was venturing into more pop collabs and had an infectious personality, and I believe that the fact that many people got over his music so quickly was the catalyst to him almost being canceled, and if his music had its own legs to stand on, he would still have a good rapport as he did with people earlier in 2021. But when it comes to one-trick-ponies who have one type of sound, they simply cannot keep up with the high tides and demands of the billion-dollar industry that is rap. It is not the same as it was ten years ago when every Chris Brown copycat had its chance at airplay, you have to do something refreshing for people to keep wanting to listen to you.
When it comes to being an artist, you not only need the art that you are making to speak for you, but you also need to make something that will stand the test of time, something unique with authenticity, something that innovates, and you need that extra grit keeps public figures on their feet when the world wants to watch them fail. To put it simply, I made a diagram:
Looking at this, who comes to mind? Do you think about all the musicians in the rap world who have branched out into more different things, but still stay in their rap roots? Do we think about Frank Ocean, late 2000’s RnB songwriter and budding rapper, or do we think about Frank Ocean, the artist? An example of someone who doesn’t need to put out something every year to stay relevant, and has music that still resonates with people a decade later. Same is to be said about Swae Lee and Anderson.Paak, while they are primarily seen as rappers due to their associations with the genre, when really, they are more known for their creamy croons rather than delivering heat into the mic every second.
Even SZA and Chloe Bailey have been put into this box, even though both do showcase their brilliant singing more often, Chloe being a savvy producer who chops her vocals live. Juice WRLD broke out as a rapper when he was nineteen, but the more you analyze his songs, you begin to realize that his style is much more melodic than hip-hoppy, making it easy to draw comparisons to artists like XXXTentacion. Emo rappers like Denzel Curry or Zillakami are stuffed into the rap label, even though objectively you can say their genre is almost completely alt rock aside from their affiliation with the rap crowd.
Why are Black artists so quick to be thrown into a category, but when we are talking about artists and/or bands such as Linkin Park, the Kid Laroi or Post Malone, people often conclude that because they have guitars and live drums in their music, they span multiple genres, and aren’t necessarily alt or hip hop; why hasn’t it changed to be any different when we are talking about Black solo artists?
Injustices like this in music are nothing new, and while it may seem like a small straw on the camel’s back; microaggressions such as implying that all Black artists make the same music are only harmful to the people who enjoy the music and the forces of nature behind the art. If we don’t properly reward talented artists who strive to experiment with their sound and we continue to downplay what they create, we will no longer inspire future generations to innovate and change the way oldheads see new music. While it is unfortunate that some hip-hop artists often have to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously, I believe that, by throwing away the ‘rapper’ label for artists who don’t always fit into that box, it can only benefit those looking to venture off and lose themselves in their artistry to stop at nothing, no matter what the world might think of them.
In the end, most musicians create in order to find their community; while some of them do it for clout and instant gratification. The difference between these two is what makes someone a medium of simple expression and communication, and what makes them an artist. I urge you to be mindful of what comes up next time you’re listening to music and question: Does this stand the test of time? Does this person seek to innovate? Is this artist the most authentic version of themselves they can be, without putting up a facade? Is this artist here to prove something, or are they here to make art?