Trend watching is a core component of success in the music business. From keeping up with the latest SoundCloud up-and-comers to mining local scenes for burgeoning talent, the industry depends on such active monitoring and engagement in order to thrive. Today’s star can easily be tomorrow’s has-been, struggling to reach new heights or even find a place for themselves as tastes shift and fans migrate in pursuit of something fresh.
In hip-hop, now the largest genre grouping by consumption thanks in no small part to the streaming revolution, the challenges increase and compound regularly. A viral hit could signal the onset of a promising career, as seems the case for Lil Pump, or a false start with little room to recover, as Stitches no doubt knows in the years since “Brick In Yo Face.” Even artists that achieve tremendous prosperity in short order may find themselves very much out of vogue without warning, as evidenced by the almost inexplicable fall of once vibrant rap romantic, Fetty Wap. With an abundance of new music dropping each week, few second chances are granted and, as O.T. Genasis can attest after “Coco” and “Cut It,” third ones can prove maddeningly slippery.
While established hitmakers overwhelmingly occupy our ears, as patrons we often take a passive approach to hearing new music, letting the platforms we listen on and social media influencers we listen to drive our consumption. Getting a placement on one of Spotify’s branded playlists or a shout out from a prominent Instagrammer can have a significant impact on a single’s lifespan and an artist’s prospects. With discovery a less individual practice than the Internet age posited, hip-hop remains a game to be gamed by those with the power and savvy to do so, making it vital for insiders to stay on top of what’s happening.
Still, amid all the fads and frauds coming at us almost daily, hip-hop is a living thing, one that grows, adapts, and, ultimately, changes to suit its times. Through the genre’s 45-year history, seismic shifts have disrupted the status quo time and time again, with heavy hitters nudged or shoved aside for the next defining wave. And while day-to-day it may not be apparent, we are once again in the midst of such a transference.
The summer of 2018 rages on, and so too does the veritable donnybrook of rappers dropping new albums to beat the heat. Already in the mix are full-lengths by known quantities Drake, Future, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and the unexpected tag team of Beyonce and JAY-Z as the imaginatively named duo The Carters. Travis Scott stunned his haters with the massive first week performance of Astroworld, which officially went RIAA gold in that opening frame, while tabloid target Mac Miller returned with a soul searching outing for his fans in Swimming. Imminent entries from Young Thug and the aforementioned Lil Pump promise to shake things up, with plenty of blazing hot weeks ahead for other contenders to join in.
While it seems premature to suggest Canada’s biggest export will fall off anytime soon, especially with the strong performance of his latest double album Scorpion, reactions to that record were mixed. So too, it appears, is the case with Queen, a rap-centric release that even has some of the Minajerie’s faithful Barbz questioning their stan status. Even the comparatively shorter Beast Mode 2, the existence of which delighted fans of the Zaytoven-helmed first installment, failed to produce a single close to the Atlanta rapper’s Metro Boomin hits. And the less said about Ye, that hastily assembled rap miniature, the better.
“Our longstanding faves are putting out underwhelming albums now because that’s generally what happens.”
This, assuredly, is the natural order: the inevitable slide of big names from the last decade or so into the legacy artist category. Whether we like it or not, our longstanding faves are putting out underwhelming albums now because that’s generally what happens. We witnessed it 11 years ago when Kanye’s Graduation bested 50 Cent’s Curtis, the initial sales disparity signaling the demise of G-Unit’s days of dominance, which in turn had its ascendance at the expense of the once formidable Roc-A-Fella. There was a time when Cold Chillin’ was the name in hip-hop, summarily replaced by gangsta and hardcore rap on both coasts courtesy of N.W.A., then Wu-Tang, then 2Pac and Biggie and so on.
The possibility of Drake or Nicki or Kanye ever putting out great and groundbreaking albums again remains open. Survivors of the 1990s and early 2000s, JAY-Z and Nas dropped their summertime projects to much fuss and little else, the former obviously benefitting from the superstar standing of his wife. And seeing how well younger acts like Travis Scott are doing, it’s safe to say we’ve transitioned away from the aging powerhouses controlling the musical conversation.
Indeed, hip-hop is driven by the youth, and in just the last two years we’ve seen a rising generation of listeners with a corresponding collection of new artists generally ranging in age from teens to mid-20s. One example, Lil Uzi Vert took the momentum from 2016’s breakthrough “Money Longer” and ended up making even bigger waves with 2017’s “XO Tour Life” and Migos’ “Bad And Boujee.” His erstwhile collaborator Playboi Carti appears to be on the same path, leveraging “Magnolia” into this past May’s debut album Die Lit. Barely legal, Lil Pump captivated audiences with the repetitive “Gucci Gang” and continues with his Harvard Dropout tracks.
Thanks to support from these young audiences, Cardi B and Post Malone went from presumed one hit wonders to international festival headliners. And the pool of prospects keeps expanding, with new entrants like Juice Wrld and Lil Baby making it onto Billboard’s Hot 100 this year. Latinx artists like Bad Bunny and Ozuna are challenging the norms, with Spanish language hip-hop approaches making for major chart hits too. Admittedly, some of the figures coming up do so with considerable legal baggage and troubling behavioral characteristics, yet their music nonetheless connects with young consumers.
Looking at the landscape, we’re clearly in the middle of another generational shift in hip-hop. Today’s tweens and teens are removed from 31-year-old Drake by as much as two decades, and the idea that he will direct this segment’s tastes seems questionable given the way things have always gone. The kids will always be right, determining for themselves what’s cool and what isn’t.
Conversely, the choice now for maturing listeners who’ve grown accustomed to being on top is to decide whether or not to keep overlooking the new and young talents in hip-hop in favor of aging ones. In truth, we’re probably about two years away from an undeniable turnover. Those who opt to stick primarily to what they know stand to officially become the new oldheads. Choose wisely.