The last year in hip-hop has been a glorious one. Long gone are the lukewarm mid-2000’s, and the spectral stagnation that plagued the industry half a decade ago is nowhere to be seen. More than anything, there has been an unprecedented growth in the genre itself, an expansion that has permeated the mainstream in ways that have astonished those who wouldn’t normally touch the Hot 100 with a ten-foot pole. For the first time in many years, hip-hop is evolving. And we should welcome it.
One of the clearest examples of this progression, however trite, is Kanye West’s abrasive, controversial Yeezus. Kanye comes in full force, spitting “Yeezy season approachin’” over Daft Punk’s violent, acid-drenched buzzsaw instrumental – almost a warning, or perhaps a welcome, for the times to come. The kind of instrumentals introduced to the masses on Yeezus are absolutely nothing like the pink polo-wearing, backpack-donning Kanye of the early 2000’s, and are a long shot from even his last grandiose masterpiece, the ostentatious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The influence from the late LA-based noise-punk-meets-rap trio Death Grips is undeniable – the industrial, animalistic beats and guttural ad-libs clearly pay homage to the aggressive dissonance of Death Grips frontman and vocalist MC Ride, producer Flatlander, and drummer Zach Hill. The difference is, however, Kanye processed these underground, cult sounds into something that the public can consume, without losing the originality of the sub-genre. Somehow, thanks to Kanye, the introduction of elements of dancehall didn’t seem out of place. This aspect of Yeezus is epitomic of recent hip-hop releases: the incorporation of more experimental, adventurous aspects of everything from ambient IDM to neo-jazz into modern rap music.
Mention Mac Miller’s name two years ago, and nearly everyone would probably think of the shaggy-dog, weak-sauce frat rap album Blue Slide Park and bubblegum, house-party singles like “Donald Trump” or even perhaps the dustier suburban anthem “Nikes on My Feet” (it’s so mediocre I don’t even want to link you to it). However, with the release of Watching Movies With the Sound Off, Mac charted new territory for himself and the industry as a whole. After BSP, Mac Miller made some new friends; mainly, producers like the left-field LA-based Flying Lotus and trillwave pioneer Clams Casino, as well the controversial skateboarding California rap and production collective Odd Future. Odd Future’s rappers Earl Sweatshirt (who goes by “randomblackdude” when producing) and Tyler, the Creator have both released incredible albums recently; Doris and Wolf, respectively. Flying Lotus and Odd Future, among others, helped advance Mac’s music far beyond anything he had ever done. His new album incorporated experimental electronic beats, which he produced with others under the moniker “Larry Fisherman”, and lyrical structure and content far more advanced than that of his earlier albums. Despite it being far more alternative than anything Mac Miller had created before, Watching Movies garnered considerable commercial appeal, effectively using Mac Miller’s already popular name to introduce many casual rap fans to Odd Future and other more alternative rappers and producers like the ex-gourmet chef rapper and storyteller Action Bronson, Top Dawg Entertainment stepchildren Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, or the enigmatic rap deity Jay Electronica. Miller pulled a bait-and-switch for the ages, and has continued in the same fashion with his incredible new mixtape, Faces.
Although Mac Miller’s LP catalyzed part of hip-hop’s recent transformation, it would be a crime to downplay other independent works like Chance the Rappers album-like mixtape Acid Rap and its acid-jazz influences, clipping.’s minimalistic, critically-acclaimed CLPPNG, or The Uncluded’s folk-rap LP Hokey Fright. The Uncluded is a collaboration between the incredibly prolific indie rap godfather and wordsmith Aesop Rock and the quirky folk musician Kimya Dawson (who wrote a large part the Juno soundtrack). These unlikely collaborations are cropping up more and more in rap, and they should be – they birth new, progressive sounds that advance the genre as a whole. These new projects create a domino effect, influencing other artists to explore a wider variety of music. Take Childish Gambino’s newest album, Because The Internet, for example. While Gambino’s debut Camp was well orchestrated and heartfelt, BTI made huge strides in rap by incorporating elements of jazz, noise, classical, electronica and trap that have been becoming popular in the industry because of advances made by earlier pioneers. Chance the Rapper was even featured on the heavily syncopated, eclectic “The Worst Guys”, a fan-favorite off of the album.
The artists and albums mentioned are just those breaching the surface of semi-popular hip-hop. There are still those like Hellfyre Club pushing from underneath; pushing the boundaries of sound, and completely obliterating rap’s gold chains, big guns and drugs stereotype. While the Rick Rosses of rap will probably be around for a bit longer, progressive hip-hip is growing at an incredibly fast rate only just evident in the recent years, and it shows no signs of stopping.