Hip Hop’s genesis was mostly predicated on protest music that adhered to stringent guidelines. Rappers and groups, like N.W.A. and Public Enemy, used this lyrical vehicle to channel their systematic frustrations into something they’d been deprived of: a public voice. Through a style that became formulaic, Hip Hop gave disenfranchised individuals a platform, a spotlight. It existed at society’s margins, but began infiltrating mainstream music through development and adaptation. With this rapid cultural engulfing, Hip Hop’s rigid boundaries have eased to incorporate stylistic diversity, creating genre-blending music.
Of course, Hip Hop’s early days weren’t exclusive to protesting. Artists like Biggie, Nas, Snoop, and others used it to depict their multi-faceted adolescences—tales of hustling to girls composed their autobiographical bindings. While the purposes might have varied, the structural composition never strayed too far from its nucleus: bars, rhymes, and a limited production catalogue—if you were from the east, typically your music was structured by a boom-bap sound; if you were from the west, typically you subscribed to wavy g-funk baselines. There was certainly room for outside musical presence, evidenced by Faith Evan’s Hip Hop residency, but the roles were strictly defined: you’re the rapper, you’re the singer, you’re the producer. It was a stubborn musical approach that was challenged by only a select few.
There’s evidence littered along Hip Hop’s path that foreshadowed its current musical encompassment. That evidence goes by the names of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, and Jarobi White—commonly known as A Tribe Called Quest. These four Queens-based musicians swam voraciously upstream by employing light, euphoric, jazz-infused content in a time when artistic magnitude was dictated by grit and brutality. They didn’t care that they were contradicting a winning formula; they knew that growth derives from discomfort. They were the seedling to Hip Hop’s stylistically coalesced landscape. Kanye West was the water.
Kanye’s sublime artistry has played a pivotal role in this revolution, thanks to his acute sampling ear that marries unconventional sounds with Hip Hop staples, like 808s, to create progressive, beautiful music. His living legend status has allowed him to shepherd this blended aesthetic, ushering in a new Hip Hop era.
Tribe and Kanye’s combined powers supplied a unique foundation that created the potential for cross-genre pollination. But that melding ended there—at the production. For the most part, artists still served a distinct vocal utility, designating them to specific roles: rappers rapped, singers sang. Hip Hop needed to look up north to help push through that final frontier.
He began his career wheeling the hallways of Degrassi High, and has since turned into arguably music’s most ubiquitous star. After exchanging his wheelchair for a microphone, Drake began shaping music according to his vision—a vision that takes pleasure in rapping, finds comfort in singing, and flourishes with their union. Microcosms of Drake’s binary rapping-singing style appear on his second mixtape, Comeback Season, with tracks like “City Is Mine” embodying the former, and “B!#ch Is Crazy” demonstrating the latter. He intrepidly decided to abandon conventional Hip Hop tropes in favor of his dynamic convictions. With each successive album release, Drake’s integrated musical playground navigation continues, finding him constantly innovating, experimenting, growing. Lil Wayne’s protege illuminated the glaringly missed niche that would eventually materialize as the once pigeonholed genre’s direction. As Tribe discovered, and Drake can attest to, growth derives from discomfort.
Now in 2017, the floodgates have opened, and Hip Hop is at its most malleable. There are no limitations, just possibilities. Thanks to the aforementioned visionaries, artistic encumbrance is lowered, allowing musicians to continue expanding Hip Hop’s definitions. Hip Hop is still Hip Hop, though—there’s still a premium placed upon dexterous bars conveying personal stories that pour over rhythmic production. But the room for experimentation has increased, and the parameters have widened. Artists’ decreased worries of infusing external musical elements has lead to Hip Hop’s most inclusive period, and its most interesting. With this fusion emergence, we’ve been introduced to talented individuals who continue embarking towards creativity and musical enlightenment.
As we’ve already learned, this genre expansion exists both at a vocal and production level. Vocally, artists are now able to fearlessly unite rapping and singing to create a dualistic sonic attack. Pioneered by Drake, this strategy is perpetuated by the likes of Bryson Tiller, 6LACK, and even Frank Ocean. Tiller introduced Hip Hop to his mesmerizing “trap soul” music in 2015, blending R&B, conventional rapping, and enveloping trap instrumentals. It was almost an auditory shock—a melting pot of sounds that we hadn’t been exposed to, but welcomed their arrival. That arrival tugged on the thread of musical curiosity’s sweater. Atlanta’s 6LACK exploded onto the scene in 2016 with his debut album, FREE 6LACK, which continued Bryson’s trap soul in a grittier fashion, while adding a more experimental touch. Each artist’s successive presence acts as musical building blocks, adding paint strokes to this growing canvas. This uniqueness is no longer resisted; it’s accepted, and becoming expected.
Confidently standing in the middle of these blurred lines are members of Hip Hop’s divisive generation. While they differ from each other, artists like Smino, GoldLink, and Lil Peep share a commonality of cultivating loyal followings through eclectic stylings. Fans seem to respond well to being different, to artists being themselves.
Known for the radical personality that puppeteers his ear-bleeding music, XXXtentacion is one of today’s most musically inclusive artists. Categorizing him strictly as Hip Hop is unfair to his brand and sound. X deeply resonates with his cult fanbase through honest content and poly-genre synthesis: some tracks are screamo; some are alternative rock; several are trap; all have a Hip Hop underbelly. He harmonizes horrorcore rap with smooth melodics to formulate an intriguing, eccentric identity. X is the personification of a 20-sided dice: his multiple artistic offerings are disparate, yet they orbit a Hip Hop heart—a heart that proudly beats today.
It’s unquestionable that we’re undergoing a musical revolution. This fascinating trial and error period has welcomed a wide-spectrum of characters that are transcending a once singular genre. It’s been a pleasure to experience. But conventional Hip Hop is still very much alive, peacefully co-existing with its progressive counterpart.
West Coast ambassadors, from TDE rappers to YG, and East Coast representatives, like Joey Bada$$ and Dave East, conform to rap’s lyrical roots, operating within its traditional definition.
These modern day wordsmiths demonstrate that despite Hip Hop’s current renaissance, homage is still being paid to its origins, preserving its integrity. The history isn’t forgotten, it’s celebrated. Now, with outside genre influences weaving into its musical fibers, Hip Hop no longer exists at the margin—it thrives globally.