How Our Standard for “Bad” Rappers Has Changed

I remember when I was a kid, I thought Lil Wayne was trash. Many traditionalists thought of him as the death of good rap. His commercial success was seen as a bastardization of the style that rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem created before him. His voice was annoying, his subject matter was crude, and he used the forbidden tool: autotune. But the youth is always on the right side of history, and they embraced the new wave he was creating. Now, he is one of the most successful artists of all time. He kickstarted the careers of Drake, Nicki Minaj, 2 Chainz, and more. His prolific work ethic has influenced rappers like Future, Young Thug, and Gucci Mane. His use of autotune has made it a staple in most commercial hip-hop we hear today. I will never call Lil Wayne one of the best rappers, but I will always defend him as being one of the most important. Today, if anyone says that Lil Wayne is wack, they just sound like a fool. Since his rise, there have been so many rappers so much worse than him that have received the same amount of hype and success that he did (although they might not have lasted as long). I don’t think that every generation of rap is getting worse, but I do think that each generation of consumers if lowering the standard of what it takes to be successful as a rapper. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe Lil Pump really is as legitimate as J. Cole. and even though nobody can argue that he is as good of a lyricist as Cole, most people don’t care. 

I think this phenomenon is most obvious when looking at the history of the XXL Magazine Freshman Class. Now, I don’t think anyone should expect XXL to choose the best rappers from each year. Instead, they choose the hottest rappers of the last year, and it’s pretty objective. When looking at all of the Freshman covers, there is a very gradual trend of “wacker” MCs being chosen each year. Of course, there are great and trash rappers each year, but the proportion of good to bad becomes more offset on each cover. I’m sure a lot of old heads in 2009 cringed when they saw Asher Roth on the same cover as Wale and Curren$y. People probably laughed in 2011 when Lil B was with Kendrick Lamar and Yelawolf. Same with Iggy Azalea, Chief Keef, and Fetty Wap in their respective years. Then 2016′s cover came out, and there was outrage. “Lil Yachty? Lil Uzi Vert? Desiigner? Kodak Black?? 21 Savage??? How the fuck are you going to put these dudes on the same page as Dave East?” I would imagine many people exclaimed as they slammed their canes on the ground and tore the grey beards off their face. Look, lyrically speaking, Lil B is pretty bad. But if you look back to his cypher, he is LIGHTYEARS ahead of most of the rappers on the 2016 list. But as per usual, XXL was right. All of the “bad” rappers from that year had proven to be the most successful rappers of the next year. I predict the same will be true for this year’s class, with rappers like  Playboi Carti, Ugly God, and MadeinTYO having the most impact this year. But if this is anyone’s fault, it is ours, not XXL’s.

Like Lil Wayne, a lot of people hated these “mumble rappers” at first. But artists like Future, Migos, Lil Yachty, and Young Thug are dominating the scene, and are giving way to more and more rappers who (for the most part) don’t really have anything meaningful to say. Even Iggy Azalea had a message (sometimes) and had a flow of a traditional rapper. Now we have lyrics like this, courtesy of Lil Pump:

100 on my wrist, 80 on my wrist (what?)
100 on my wrist, 80 on my wrist (brr)
100 on my wrist, 80 on my wrist (ooh)
100 on my wrist, 80 on my wrist

D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose
D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose
D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose
D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose”

Wow, what a chorus. Just looking at this, you would think this song is terrible, but it’s pretty lit. And THAT is what is becoming more and more important today. The younger generation does not seem to have as much interest in listening to songs about the struggles of life. They want feel-good, drug-induced party music, which is where these new artists thrive. To be totally fair, Most of these “bad” rappers of today are not making the radio like Lil Wayne and Iggy did. That is a platform still mostly-dominated by great lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and Big Sean. But more of them are making their way into the airways than usual. After reading this, you probably think I don’t like this change. But I really just find it interesting. I listened to Lil Yachty’s “Lil Boat” mixtape almost every day last summer. I knew he wasn’t a great lyricist, but he has had so much influence on me as an artist melodically and production-wise. I would say Eminem is my favorite rapper, but I listen to Yachty and Uzi way more. Why? Because it’s modern and more relatable to my generation. Part of the reason why Eminem was so successful at his time (besides simply being the best) was the amount he created around himself. But the same things about him that the older generation hated were the parts the kids related to the most. But the difference still remains: Eminem is a far superior lyricist to any of the “bad” rappers that I mentioned. I don’t really know why this change is happening, and I certainly don’t want to assume that kids simply don’t want to think that hard. But like the trash rappers before them, I predict they will prove to be on the right side of hip-hop history. 

My last note on this change is that most of these new mumble rappers are blowing up way earlier in their career than generations before them. While rappers like 50 cent had to put out a ton of mixtapes before he got famous, a lot of these rappers are going viral from a couple of songs at the age of 17. Perhaps the poor lyrical skill of these rappers is in part because they have not had any time to develop themselves. Maybe in 2023 Lil Pump will be the new Logic. Only time will tell. 

EDIT: Which brings me to the biggest question of all (thanks to my friend Tyler Goss for helping with this thought) and that is WILL THEY LAST? It’s safe to say that the old heads have pretty much given up on expecting these rappers to be able to freestyle (except XXL, but thats more for the sake of tradition) so there is no one really trying to weed them out. In addition, all these mumble rappers have highly dedicated fans, most of which are the same age as them. These artists make it extremely easy to stay this dedicated because they release music so often and are so involved on social media that it is hard to forget about them, a method taken from Drake. However, what will happen when these fans grow up? Like I said, these rappers may mature into deeper lyricism and a wider subject matter as time goes on, but what if they don’t? 30 year old rap fans (hopefully) are not going to have much interest  in “YEAH I got that ice on my wrist! YEAH I got your bitch on my dick!”. And the newer generation might still be into that, however at that point the artist will be too old for them to really relate to. I think that the best thing that these rappers can do is to grow up WITH their current fans. Trying to act younger than you are (*cough* Jamie Foxx) doesn’t really go well, but showing your fans that you are in the same place in life as them is what keeps them fucking with you. I have no idea if this is the answer, but I know that these rappers are at least living the dream right now.

Chris Jackson