Fortunately, we’ve somehow managed to reach the end of 2017. Unfortunately, this means that I’m once again taking it upon myself to do what I hate to see from other people, and give my unsolicited opinion about the rap music that has come out over the course of the past 12 months.
Overall I thought this year offered a great deal of good music. As expected, Redman and Ghostface Killah did not release their oft-delayed sequel albums that I have been looking forward to for the last 2 or 3 years (there’s always next year!). Some disappointing albums were released; Shabazz Palaces released two of the most tragically underwhelming albums this year, Eminem released a seriously flawed and scatterbrained effort made even more unfortunate because it had many of his best songs in a decade and a half, and the Wu-Tang Clan compilation was full of verses completely phoned in by everyone not named Method Man or Redman. However, there were at least 25-30 projects that I enjoyed. That is far more than what I can say about last year; when reflecting on 2016 about a year ago, I struggled to think of even 10 or 15 albums.
While I loved much of what came out this year, I do feel as though there were not as many that blew me away the way Run The Jewels 3, Atrocity Exhibition, or Honor Killed The Samurai did. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream might be the only one that did that for me, but again, there were a lot of great projects released.
Hip hop, to me, seems like it’s kind of in a state of limbo at the moment, and it’s sorting itself out a bit. It doesn’t seem like the genre really knows where it wants to go. Overall, the year felt a bit directionless, just kind of dragging its feet with a lot of the trends that have been present for the last few years. It feels like people are done with them and yet are also afraid to deviate from them as well. I can’t say I’m very thrilled about the whole Soundcloud rap thing – most of these kids sound to me like they’re really half-assing this cloudy trap vibe while glamorizing mental illness. It’s not a good look.
I’m really over the idea of trap-style drums being thrown into every other beat you hear these days. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy trap music. However, I’m not a fan of what’s been going on with it for a while now. Honestly, most of what is considered trap music really doesn’t seem like it should be considered trap music in the first place. Trap music has gone from actually detailing everyday life in the trap, to basically just rapping over cloudy, moody beats with fast hi-hats behind them. I feel like it’s lost its edge, and it’s becoming very safe and sanitary.
What’s going on with trap actually reminds me of what happened to New York hip hop in the late 90s. Back when Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders gained prominence, most of the grit, dust, and ultimate spirit of the music was lost, as keyboard producers came in with overly clean synths and snares that overtook sampling. Anything that resembled the sound of east coast hip hop before this transition ended up getting relegated to the underground, and it stopped being representative of the New York sound, until now where most people wouldn’t think New York even has a discernible sound at all. Like anything, as the trap sound and style got cleaner, it started losing most of what made it so alluring in the first place. For a long time it’s become progressively more and more watered down, and I feel like this year everything has just been a haze.
Odd as it may sound, 2 Chainz is quite possibly the first rapper to release an album that felt like a proper trap album in years. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t an album I was overly fond of, but the entire atmosphere and structure of it felt reminiscent to an early T.I. album. He experimented with the current sounds that rule trap music (and, well, hip hop and even pop as a whole) but actually performed on it in a way that stayed true to the subgenre. Aside from it having a couple of songs I did enjoy, I feel like I’ve got to respect it for that reason.
I hope that hip hop moves on from the current incarnation of trap soon. I spoke earlier this year about how hip hop is in a good place, but I think I need to rephrase. It is in a good place solely because it has proven time and time again that it is not a fad, and because experimentation has crept into it more than it has since the 80s when it first really exploded. However, as far as the prevailing trends go, I think they were necessary but the representative sound needs to move on to something else. Hip hop will lose steam quickly if the majority of what is being consumed continues to devolve. Or maybe the sound will deviate from its southern influence and something else will take its place, like with what happened to New York. All I know is that I’m really kind of tired of it. There’s only so much syrupy music you can hear before you start to feel sick.
Now with all this in mind, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I do think there’s a growing trend in underground east coast hip hop that I’m really excited about. It seems like this new chamber rap style has been really catching on, especially this year. This style is almost like a progression of the style that we saw with the first wave of the Wu-Tang Clan, where there was a lot of soulful and orchestral samples used in production as well as very descriptive, layered, and colorful lyrics. There are several rappers and producers who deserve credit for pushing the style further, but I think the first person who crafted music in this style that really made people take notice (and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) was none other than Roc Marciano.
In 2010, Roc Marciano released his solo debut album Marcberg. On that album, Marci painted laid vividly detailed verses delivered with a quiet and subdued yet overtly arrogant slow flow over a very soulful, stripped down backdrop. It was a style that was unlike anything that was coming out at the time; it was luxurious yet dusty, innovative yet familiar. It was very minimal, with drums oftentimes playing a less prominent role in the production. Two years later, he would refine the style he used on this album and put out what is possibly the most important underground New York rap album of the decade thus far: Reloaded.
Reloaded is the album that has given chamber rap its foothold in the genre. Since the release of that album, you can see underground rappers begin to draw influence from what Marci was doing on that album and push it forward. Around this time, The Alchemist began working with Marci, and from there you can notice a change in his production style, evident on his beats on Sean Price’s Mic Tyson or the Albert Einstein album he did with Prodigy. He started making beats that were more minimal compared to what he was doing beforehand, almost like he was adapting what he did early in his career for Mobb Deep and stripped the style down further.
The music that has been coming out of the Griselda camp since around 2014, when Daringer came into the fold, has also followed a similar tone. Daringer is another producer who creates very minimal beats, oftentimes not adding any drums to the samples and just working with what is there already. Westside Gunn and Conway are some of the more notable rappers who have pushed this style forward, as well. While Roc Marciano innovated it, there weren’t very many rappers toying with it until Westside Gunn’s mixtapes started to drop. It appears to me that the recent explosion of this subgenre really started after Flygod came out.
Since then, in 2016 and especially 2017, there has been music, primarily out of the east coast, that perpetuates this style, aside from Roc Marciano and Griselda. Hus Kingpin, being from Hempstead, Long Island like Roc Marciano, released Cocaine Beach with Big Ghost this year that was essentially a sunny take on Marci’s very cold, wintry tone. Meyhem Lauren and DJ Muggs released Gems From The Equinox, which sounded almost like it bridged the gap between vintage Wu-Tang and the current chamber rap style. VDon and Willie the Kid released a pair of excellent chamber rap EPs this year, both of which offered the subgenre the most innovation on the production side of things that it’s seen since Daringer first molded the Griselda sound. These are all artists who are taking the luxurious vibe of mafiaso rap from the early-to-mid ‘90s, and finally spawning something bigger and worthy, as opposed to the watering down of the style that Bad Boy among others ended up being responsible for.
We also can’t forget Ka. I didn’t include him alongside the rest of these guys because while they all have more of a Raekwon vibe, Ka is more like GZA. He has very stripped back production as well, however, he kind of sounds like he developed his style in a way that is very compatible with Roc Marciano, but definitely separate from it at the same time.
At the end of the day, no matter what, there’s gonna be great music everywhere no matter what the scene looks like from the outside looking in. My sentiments from last year, about wanting a more industrial influenced sound to become the representative sound of hip hop, still apply because I still feel like it could pose as a sensible point to go from where we are now. I get the sense that there will be a fairly dry period in mainstream hip hop in the next few years before the genre is replaced with another genre as the most popular genre before a new fire is lit under it. Or not. I’m not exactly good at predicting anything. Regardless, I am really excited to see how chamber rap continues to grow, and there’s plenty that I’m looking forward to in the year to come.