Hip-Hop is Getting Back to its Roots
How content based hip-hop is poised for a comeback
I caught the end of the Tupac, Biggie, and Wu-Tang era, and thrived during the height of Eminem, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, and the like. In today’s world, it’s a little crazy to imagine there was once a program on MTV called The Lyricist Lounge Show that was dedicated to lyric-driven freestylers and rappers. Now, hip-hop artists are showcased on meme accounts on Instagram and instead of using their freestyle skills to show their talent, they are one-upping each other in viral content that is driven by shock value rather than talent.
I think J. Cole and Chance The Rapper start and finish the short list of lyricists having major success currently. I remember watching Atmosphere play the main stage of Lollapalooza in 2009 to at least 40,000 people, most of who knew the words to their songs. Chance The Rapper has headlined the same festival in recent years, rocking the same stage Atmosphere crushed a almost decade earlier. Atmosphere are, for me, the poster child for that era. Kids today probably aren’t even familiar with them, and even then, just looking at the two in a grocery store you’d be surprised by the touring and album sales success they’ve had. Back then, my group of friends and I were obsessed, and I think it was probably a Midwest thing, too. I’m from Chicago, and the aforementioned hip-hop legends I started this article with are considered some of the greatest rappers to ever live. Most of that is attributed to their lyrical content, but even though they had clever lyrics, they were also still considered gangster rappers by trade.
Eminem fits this description, and he is the most commercially successful lyricist of all time. He took it to new heights of success, selling hundreds of thousands of records over the years. His most recent album was not as well received by the younger generation of hip-hop fans and hip-hop writers gave it harsh reviews, yet it still sold prolifically and went number one in nearly every country in the world.
It wasn’t until Eminem and Atmosphere that lyrics could stand on their own, where the artists could look like total dweebs and still rock a crowd of 40,000 without radio tunes in a major market (gangster rappers aside, Biggie and Pac were obviously amazing lyricists). I believe music to be cyclical in almost every genre, so we must get back there eventually, right? I say this smack dab in the middle of the mumble rap era, or at least it feels that way, but Offset just took his Migos-bred triplet sound to new territory. He made an entire album of substance, and I will tell you, I didn’t see it coming. Yet with his real time, real life infidelity-infused Cardi B drama, the man clearly had a lot on his mind, and that’s where lyricist are born…through adversity. Slug from Atmosphere is clearly insecure, depressed, and has been through a lot in his life, but the lyrical talent must also be there. I can’t say that Offset showed the same prowess on his debut LP, but you could hear he tried. A far removal from the swag rap the Migos are famous for, Offset definitely poured his heart and soul into his album.
I think he got half the formula right; you need to have the lyrical prowess, but also be saying something substantive. In the same era that birthed Eminem and Atmosphere, you had tongue twisters like Aesop Rock, MF Doom, and Mr. Lif making a huge impact on the scene, but never getting as big. I think it’s because they had the lyrics, but not the substance (or at least the substance was too complex to be decoded for the masses).
Regardless of the argument of who was better or bigger, or even more influential in that era, we now have Offset on the most influential radio show in hip-hop, The Breakfast Club, saying:
“I felt like this album gotta be different because I’m grown. I’m doing real grown man things. I can’t keep talking about these diamonds and these cars, because I go through real life all the time. And then the people we got influence on… I know they’re getting tired of hearing something they don’t have. I was just trying to put mood music on there, that’s why I was pushing back and taking my time. I wanted to control the content, because I feel like content music is coming back around. All the swag and all that, that’s finna go out the door.” –Offset from Migos
J. Cole and Chance are the Atmosphere’s of today, and even taking this skill set to new commercial heights (I think this comparison is more appropriate than Biggie or Pac simply because they are not “gangster”). However, the strange thing is, there isn’t any representation in the second tier (like Aesop Rock and so on) flooding the scene. The mid-tier rappers almost always follow the Migos model, and the community may be getting tired of it—according to Offset.
Another case study of the culture being ready for this is Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize for his album, DAMN. In the ‘90s and early 2000, the Grammys even recognized lyricism with Digable Planets, Fugees, Jay-Z, and Eminem all taking home awards. This goes to say that there is a ton of room for it in the scene if the consumers will allow it.
It almost comes down to having that skill set though—that of a lyricist. We saw acts like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion, Trippie Redd, and Juice WRLD popularize emo rap, which is definitely working with the kids today, but I wouldn’t call them lyricists. However, I will say some of what they are saying goes beyond swag rap (although, they all do that as well…). Lil Skies just dropped an entire album dedicated to his mother titled Shelby. 2 Chainz’s new project, Rap Or Go to the League, is a departure from his old stuff and really paints a picture of his upbringing. Meek Mill has also shown some lyrical prowess, and his most recent LP, Championships, isn’t any different. Yet, out of all those albums, each artist could not get through their projects without mentioning jewelry, cars, etc.
I think Mac Miller was probably the only guy who could have really brought this genre back (and this is a direct decedent of Atmosphere in my opinion), but unfortunately we lost him too early. Black Thought is another candidate—he dropped a stellar four-track EP in 2018, but his output has been slow and he hasn’t achieved the commercial success of his band, The Roots, who also have been relatively inactive in recent years.
For every one of those, there are ten artists like Future, Tory Lanez, Gucci Mane, etc. After listening to Offset on The Breakfast Club, I do believe that “content-focused” hip-hop can be around the corner. We know that through artists like Chance and J. Cole that there is a shot for commercial success, but will it ever dominate the industry as it once did in the ‘90s and early 2000s? Only time will tell, and judging by the fact I can count on one hand how many “lyricists” there are succeeding in the community, one thing is abundantly clear: the style I am describing is extremely challenging. The song-a-day “hip-hoppers” of today might not be able to keep up, even if they tried.