When a few friends and I got together for a few beers, idle conversation soon drifted over to mumble rap, the latest punching bag of hip-hop. The air in the room quickly got tense. I found myself alone in a hot take: most folks don’t really mean what they say when they unfairly slap that label on the likes of Migos and Lil Yachty (who some folks claim to not understand yet still seem capable of rapping along to in the club). I questioned if Future, Desiigner and Lil Uzi Vert are really “mumbling” as it’s claimed, or do they just lack the lyrical prowess that would ordinarily make them “Top Five” contenders? As I continued to challenge my peers, the voices in the room softened. To me, it became evident that not everyone was so clear about who actually qualifies as a mumble rapper. Up until then, it just seemed like the convenient (and popular) way for them to express, “these new rappers suck.”
Mumble rap is undoubtedly the proverbial thorn in the side of hip-hop purists. On one end, you have young cats like Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti who happily embrace being part of this oft hated category (was their VFILEs interview sarcasm or self-awareness? Gotta love it either way). On the other, you have advocates like Ugly God who believe these rappers are being exploited as clickable interview fodder by those who trash them on camera but secretly turn up to their tunes. Then you have folks like The Lox, who have been around long enough to recognize this trend as part of the natural ebb and flow of the culture. “Hip-hop is a big ferris wheel. It’s about being able to stay on the wheel,” Jadakiss explained on stage during a discussion with Rap Radar Live. “It’s gonna go through whining rap, it’s gonna go through crazy clothes, crazy haircuts, crazy sounds. But it’s always gonna come back to the foundation.”
There are several theories floating around about who actually created mumble rap. Some think the era’s Godfather is Gucci Mane, while others have even thrown Chief Keef’s name into the mix. But the mumble rap conversation seems to always come back to Future and one song in particular: his 2011 trap banger “Tony Montana,” produced by Will-A-Fool. In a conversation with Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg for Complex, the Atlanta rapper recalls the night he made the track… sort of. “I remember being so f**kin’ high on this song, I couldn’t even open my mouth. When I listened back to it the next day, I was like man, what the f**k is this? But I loved it. Like, that sh*t sound raw, though.”
When you piece it all together, it seems everyone has drawn a hard line on what qualifies as mumble rap. But here’s an unpopular opinion: Just because a rapper isn’t as lyrical as you’d want them to be doesn’t mean they’re mumbling. And just because a rapper is a lyrical beast or super conscious doesn’t mean they don’t, at times, mumble (Busta Rhymes and Eminem, anyone?). Let’s really delve into this mumble rap phenomenon and consider what’s at the core of rap’s most hated, yet undeniable, subgenre.
Is Mumble Rap Really A New Phenomenon? History Would Suggest Not
Ironically, mumble rap’s earliest origins can be traced back to hip-hop’s golden age of the 90s. Ask real hip-hop heads about the rhymes of Fu-Schnickens and Das Efx. The boom-bap instrumentals they used are worlds apart from the synthesized and irresistibly catchy trap beats of today, but it cannot be denied that those cats were literally mumbling on their songs. Take the former’s popular breakout single, “True Fushnick.” They actually dedicated whole bars to lines like, “The super the cola the fraja the listic expialadope Chip/When the mic is gripped in ridobidobip bip da be bong de dang, bo!” Still not convinced? Take a closer look at their otherworldly lyrics on Genius. Very few of these lyrics are recognizable in the English lexicon, yet it worked. Make no mistake, rapping at this speed while staying in the pocket is no easy feat. But either way, it points to the old adage that there’s nothing new under the sun. So all these new age mumble rappers are doing, whether they know it or not, is borrowing from their hip-hop forefathers.
And honestly, can we really blame mumble rappers if the previous generation gave them the blueprint? Future has his cousin Rico Wade to thank for the fact that you even know his name. If you’re not familiar with Rico by name, you’ll definitely recognize his crew: The Dungeon Family. The Atlanta-based collective cultivated the young autotune-loving protegee from the same studio that produced Outkast, Goodie Mob and Organized Noize. That’s right, the same man partly responsible for Andre 3000’s success—a rapper who is widely considered a Top Five emcee—also had a hand in Future’s come up. Again, it’s all a ferris wheel.
“You’re Not Mumbling, You Just Suck.” —Ebro Darden, Hot 97
The self-proclaimed “old heads” of hip-hop like to point to the complex wordplay and introspective subject matter of Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick Lamar as the gold standard of excellence. Respected lyricists Pete Rock and Joe Budden have been vocal opponents of the new lazy style flow that has the clubs going crazy yet leaves much to be desired where “skill” is concerned. But music, like most of everything in life, is fluid which means clever wordplay isn’t required in order for a song to be dope—an opinion supported by VICELAND hosts and podcast sensations Desus & Mero. “Sonically if your sh*t is wack, why am I gonna listen to what you gotta say?” says Mero during an interview with Hot 97. “If I turn it on and the beat is kind of annoying, I’m not gonna sit through that just to hear you say ‘lyrical, metaphysical, giftical…’ I don’t want to do all that.”
His partner Desus agrees that if you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can find a place in your playlist for both conscious and turnt styles of rap. “There’s a time and place for everything,” he said. “I don’t wanna hear multiple cadence flows if I’m just smacked in the club. I’m not trying to hear the triple entendres. Then I’ll listen to some mumble rap. But then sometimes I’m not in the mood for Lil’ Yachty.”
Even well-respected emcees like Pharoahe Monch were not exempt from this kind of scrutiny, only it was for the exact opposite reason. When chatting with HipHopDX, Monch recalled, “As I was coming up, I remember we had cats yelling at Organized Konfusion, ‘You’re the reason sh*t is f**ked up now! Hip-hop used to be fun with the hippity hop and the ‘Ho! Wave your hands in the sky.’ Why y’all put so many words in the bars?”
Damn, can the new guys do anything right?
Just because a rapper isn’t as lyrical as you’d want them to be doesn’t mean they’re mumbling. Just because a rapper is a lyrical beast or super conscious doesn’t mean they don’t, at times, mumble.
In The Age Of Information, “I Just Can’t Understand Them” Is No Longer An Excuse
The answer to literally anything you’d want to know is just a Google away. From how many British pounds equal a U.S. dollar to what Tommy’s job was on Martin, it’s all there. A simple Genius search will decode your favorite rap song with one click, which makes arguments like, “I don’t really understand what these kids are saying” even more inexcusable. Ultimately, we can’t deny that made up gibberish does get thrown in for effect.
However, hip-hop isn’t alone in that regard. We can also look to other genres like jazz, where “scatting” gives vocalists the improvisational freedom through the use of wordless adlibs. Scatting is by no means easy, and I refuse to even remotely suggest that Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting number on “It Don’t Mean A Thing” required the same technical skill as Lil Uzi Vert repeating “Yah Yah” on his opening verse on “Bad and Boujee.” But the point is, music’s job is to evoke a feeling and that doesn’t always involve lyrics. So if it’s acceptable for a jazz singer to use their mouth as an instrument in order to take that record to a higher plane, why can’t the same be true for rap?
Lyricism Is Not Dead, And Can We Just Admit Desiigner’s “Timmy Turner” Actually Goes Hard?
Though some fear the survival of true hip-hop is at stake here, let’s all calm down and realize that lyricism is not dead. Kathy Iandoli hit the nail on the head calling BS on hip-hop’s generational divide. “Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard had ostensibly garbled lyrics, but his spot as hip-hop’s drunk uncle shielded him from any harsh ridicule,” she wrote for Billboard. “Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were a quintet of indescribability when it came to their lyrics, eliciting more cassette rewinds and scribbling words down on paper over shunning them.”
Hip-hop’s newcomers have certainly taken a beating over the past couple of years, suggesting that it’s in to hate this new genre. And with that, it pains some folks to actually admit that some of it is quite good. Social media got their laughs in when Desiigner released an impromptu version of his follow-up single “Timmy Turner,” pointing out the jumbled verses met with his signature high-octane energy. Fast forward a few months, and we see footage of the 19-year-old rapper performing an a capella version in front of fashion titan Anna Wintour. How ironic that even the industry elites have embraced that sometimes you can enjoy a good bop without taking life so seriously.
The trend of trap beats with garbled verses, multicolored hair and punk rock attire may quickly become a thing of the past, and that’s OK. But while we’re here, how about we quietly decide “this new wave just isn’t for me,” instead of making generic categories that even some of our faves are in jeopardy of being thrown into? Just remember, even when “mumble rap” fades away, there will be another unfamiliar, carefree group of misfits waiting their turn to hop on the rap ferris wheel.