Odd futures: how hip-hop shook off its macho image and got weird


From ecstasy-guzzling language-mangler Young Thug, to the many alter egos of Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamars experimental jazz affiliations, these days it pays to be strange

You used to know where you were with rappers. Sure, there were unique and interesting characters among them, but there were definite and powerful strands of convention: competitiveness, combativeness, a certain cocksure sense of self, insistence on realness and a relatively limited area of subject matter as standard. Yet here we are in 2016, and from top to bottom the rap world is populated by, essentially, weirdos.

Among the very biggest names theres Drake, an Anglophile Canadian nebbish whos more Ross from Friends than Rick Ross; theres Nicki Minaj, with her cavalcade of high- and low-camp alter egos; the minidress wearing, ecstasy-guzzling language-mangler Young Thug; Kendrick Lamar filling hit albums with laid-bare personal pain, Black Lives Matter protest politics and experimental jazz musicians; Kevin Gates, with his prison-earned psychology masters degree, whose stream of consciousness can veer from social uplift to bestiality and back in seconds.

Nicki Minaj attends the 28th Annual MTV Video Music Awards, 2011 Photograph: Steve Granitz/WireImage

Theres Future, whose sole subject matter is bitter heartbreak and addiction; and, of course, Kanye West, building his palace of folly ever bigger, continually testing the limits of egotism, yet in a constant state of fragmentation and doubt too. And there are plenty more away from the premier league: from Earl Sweatshirt, the poster-boy for depression (album title: I Dont Like Shit, I Dont Go Outside), to the preposterously demonic Gunplay, who has modelled his personae variously on Ben Kingsleys gangster character Don Logan from Sexy Beast and Adolf Hitler or Adolf Sniffler, as he puts it.

In this context, a straightforward macho gangsta-acquisitive archetype like 50 Cent looks distinctly pass, and even the patriarch of hip-hop, Jay-Z, seems like a throwback to simpler times. Whereas the well-worn classic rapper archetype has historically followed some startlingly conservative notions of blackness and masculinity, the rap music mainstream has had a rapid coming of age, says Anthony Kwame Harrison, the professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech university in the US, who has written extensively about the rise of the hip-hop underground. There is no roadmap here: artifice is laid bare and theatricality is all. Realness is often about as relevant as it is in wrestling, righteous and altogether less savoury politics blur together, and even the boundaries of gender and sexuality are distinctly wobbly.

Kendrick Lamar and fiancee Whitney Alford celebrate Halloween in 2014. Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

BBC 1Xtra DJ Sian Anderson is suspicious as to how deep this trend goes: American rap follows patterns and trends and styles, she says. And right now everyones conscious and woke. To stand out among the other lyricists youve had to bring more to the table in recent years than just being good. Were in a day and age where people are fighting daily to be accepted, and if a rapper is painting his nails, wearing skinnier jeans, dying his hair, piercing his face and doing things that historically werent OK in hip-hop and rap music, and people are talking about them, theyre calling it creative.

Nonetheless shes broadly positive: Artists in general like to experiment, they like to showcase their art in different ways, they like to be able to bring something unique to the table. People are going back to the blueprint of doing what the fuck they like, like Tupac did. Pacs creativity was often things outside of his lyrics, like wearing a nose piercing, like me and my female friends do, but still being macho and I think rappers now are expressing creativity in the way they present themselves too.

But is the shift in lyrical focus significant? Paul Rekret, who has written extensively about hip-hop, as well as being associate professor of politics at Richmond University in Greater London, says it is. I think there is definitely an attempt to negotiate away from the first-person, merely descriptive, story raps that historically emerge with NWA, he says, citing Kendrick Lamars Alright as an anthem that veers from story-rap verses to a collective chant. This archetype of a hooded young man on the street corner who just talks about one or two things gets transformed into something much broader. The demand for authenticity is still there, as it is in all genres, but the definition of what that authenticity is is whats shifting.

This lyrical shift is not only about direct political statements, though, says Jason King, cultural critic and professor of global studies at New York University: I think as the culture confronted cosmic disillusionment in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, to say nothing of the exhausting obstructionism and gridlock thats defined organised resistance to the Obama presidency, you saw a complementary turning inward, souring and confessionalism rise in the music of artists like Kanye, Frank Ocean, Drake and later Nicki Minaj, who were also influenced by the increasing impact of indie and alternative rock and electronic music. Their music got darker, weirder, and became about a willingness to confront demons and inner feelings in a way that we hadnt quite seen before.

We are living in a period when most Americans have an astounding array of self-making building blocks to select from, which presents people with difficult choices, says Harrison. This is particularly pronounced for black Americans because of the degree to which they have been defined by their blackness. I am no psychologist but I also think that some of our public issues with mental health connect to the unprecedented freedoms we have to construct our own identities. I have a hard enough time choosing a brand of ketchup let alone choosing what dimensions of my identity are most salient for the things I will be engaging in today, this week, or this month. This is at the very least curious, and potentially disturbing but I appreciate the fact that todays rappers seem more comfortable with ambiguity.

Young Thug performs in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

Of course, theres nothing new under the sun, and rap has always been a broad church, with its Biz Markies, Kool Keiths, Roxanne Shants and Flavor Flavs flying their freak flags high. Harrison cites the bohemian vibe of De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, and Californian successors such as the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship as showcasing the diversity of black identities that reside within what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls the cosmopolitan canopy. Its notable that one of the most radical eccentrics of modern rap Lil B, who raps over ambient music, tours as a positive-thinking guru, and along with Soulja Boy pioneered the kind of nonsensical persona that set the stage for the likes of Young Thug emerged from a Californian skater-boho milieu.

Harrison, Rekret and King all see the rise of the southern US states particularly Georgia and Virginia in hip-hop as vital. The music of Outkast, Missy Elliot, Timbaland and Lil Wayne, in Kings words, prided itself on left curves and avant-garde whimsy in terms of themes, sound, production and image, and I think the impact of that music on the entirety of 21st-century pop has been mammoth. Yet, for all their success, these figures remained outliers: it has only been in the past few years that this kind of outr style has become the new normal. But then maybe thats less to do with hip-hop itself than with us, the audience.

As Rekret puts it: This is about what an audience is prepared to buy, not what an artist is doing there are always plenty of interesting political rappers, and the question is not what black artists are doing but what are people prepared to consume from a black artist. Anderson agrees. Rappers have been out here talking about and admitting to mental health issues from day one, she says, but the audience back then wanted to sweep it under the carpet. Nowadays, rap is socially accepted by people who dont find that conversation awkward and who do have solutions. In fact they want to have more of those conversations so they like to use rappers as examples.

Maybe this trend is all just about hyper-capitalist hunger for novelty and consumers beady eyes falling on the more colourful characters as a source of frisson. Maybe its about hip-hop shedding its self-imposed clichs and placing itself within older black entertainment traditions like the radical soul and funk of the 60s and 70s. Or even, as Harrison suggests, indulging in identity plays [which] for me harken back to the African diasporic trickster traditions which preceded hip-hop. Maybe its yet another manifestation of a mad world in which old certainties are crumbling fast and Donald Trump can be a viable politician. Whatever the causes, though, hip-hop has never felt so unpredictable nor so baffling in its kaleidoscope of characters. Its a golden age of weirdo rap.

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