"Can I live? I told you in '96 that I came to take this s**t and I did." — Jay Z, "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)"
"Looking for revenge, all Summer Sixteen, all Summer Sixteen. Playing dirty, not clean." — Drake, "Summer Sixteen"
In retrospect, hip-hop in 1996 looked a lot like a road map to nowhere and everywhere at once. Jay's proclamation of world domination came with the June release of his debut album Reasonable Doubt. By 2001, he'd stake the claim that he "made it," when comparatively speaking (to now), he was arguably only a fraction of the way there. Still, the summer of 1996 was filled with hope. A hope that kids from the projects – who may or may not have sold drugs – could live like that other half lived solely through releasing music. Hope that rap music would no longer be relegated to gangsters and that instruments on the cut could seem cool. As visions of Biggie in finely tailored triple-XL designer suits danced in their heads, they knew success was within reach. So they threw balls to the wall to see what stuck. Everything did. That's what made 1996 so great. And as we flood the internet with 20th anniversary think pieces and album retrospectives, let's turn the lens onto the present. 1996 came to a head by the summer, setting the tone for hip-hop for the five years that followed. Can the summer of 2016 make that same magic?
Father Time and Mother Nature notwithstanding, the beginning of June 1996 kicked off hip-hop's summer. A concert series called HoodShock had its first run on June 6, led by acts including The Fugees, Queen Latifah, Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One and others. The series was developed in an effort to inspire and inform young voters for the upcoming election (which would conclude with the re-election of Bill Clinton). The inaugural concert in Harlem resulted in chaos when fireworks were mistaken for gunshots, leaving concertgoers trampled on and 20 people injured. The Fugees' safety was the focal point, despite the 15,000 in attendance. In February of that year, they dropped their sophomore album The Score. By May, "Killing Me Softly" was a single, leaving Lauryn Hill as everyone's musical darling. The Fugees made hip-hop less "scary" to the mainstream. They rapped, sure, but tempered with Lauryn Hill's magnanimous singing and chased with live instrumentation. It was a new frontier for hip-hop, despite The Roots' valiant attempts to fight that good fight two albums earlier.
Busta Rhymes's solo debut The Coming came that March, and by June his track "It's a Party" with Zhané would mellow out the summer party scene before skullf**king us all in November with "Woo Ha!! (Got You All in Check)." Heltah Skeltah dropped Nocturnal, sealing the fate that their earlier release with Fab 5, "Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka," would be an indie summertime hit. On the other side of the tracks, the aforementioned Jay Z brought Reasonable Doubt, Nas's follow-up It Was Written came in July, A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes and Life hit just before August started and Outkast's ATLiens would close out that month. Summer concerts like Smokin' Grooves and a then-teeny, tiny Hot 97 Summer Jam (consisting of only six acts) were redemption for HoodShock. The sobering conclusion to the summer would happen on Friday, September 13, when Tupac Shakur – who dropped his epic All Eyez on Me earlier that year – was killed. What a time to be alive; what a time to lose a life.
Yes, there was an East Coast versus West Coast war that left no survivors by the summer of 1997. Sure, there was musical chaos. But fans had options on what to listen to, and further, what to qualify as hip-hop. New artists were given a fair shot at legendary status, and most of them did achieve it. They were allowed to do so on their own terms with their own sound. And it still qualified as "hip-hop."
Inching into Summer 2016, hip-hop is in a similar space. Young voters are being urged by their favorite artists to take hold of our presidential election (which may very well result in another Clinton in the White House). Newbies like Desiigner have singles ("Panda") at the top of the Hot 100 charts. Burgeoning acts like Rae Sremmurd are getting their second wind with follow-up projects like June's upcoming Sremm Life 2. However, while new sounds and new acts are hitting the airwaves, some of those same legends of '96 are locked into place. Beyoncé still hasn't given us enough Lemonade. Jay Z is gearing for a response of his own, simultaneously coming up on his 13th album. A later legend, Kanye West is more than likely gearing up for his The Life of Pablo do-over project, as is Drake with a possible Views follow-up. Hot 97 is packed to the gills with Summer Jam acts, and Future + Drake = a new tour. Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz: all making successful music. Even A$AP Ferg is beyond his first rodeo. There's an incalculable differential between who qualifies as still "new" and who qualifies as "seasoned."
Is this all a rerun of 1996? Yes and no. Yes, because hip-hop sounds however the hell it wants. Yes, because the goal is still to dominate the world, despite the top rappers already sitting pretty in the 1%. Yes, because hit albums don't always translate to hit singles (and vice versa). And yes, because just when you think it's all peace and quiet, someone dies or goes to jail.
On the other hand, no, it's not a rerun, because the innocence of summers past is gone. Death is still disappointing, but it's no longer shocking like it was when 'Pac passed. No, because label politics aren't always the demise of hip-hop, and our favorite rappers can be marketing geniuses — putting some "Respek" on a radio interview that translates into a new single and a later two-album summer release for themselves (Birdman's upcoming June release Ms. Gladys) and their squad (Rich Gang's upcoming July release of Rich Gang 2). No, because beef is reserved for social media most of the time, making it hard to separate the real from the fake. No, because 1996's hip-hop matriarch Lauryn Hill has fallen from grace, replaced by our nouveau hip-hop matriarch Nicki Minaj. No, because while 1996 gave everyone a chance; 2016 has most artists locked into a five-year-plus position, leaving little room for new talent to break through and make that five-year stretch '96 did. Hell, Drake is predicating that Summer '16 will be his while he's had the past seven summers on lock already.
However, hip-hop in 2016 also looks like a road map to everywhere and nowhere at once. Those megastars are still charting, but an overwhelming disappointment in the music is leading to numerous "Wait, I wasn't finished!" announcements. Newer acts have the potential to see two-decade careers, as veteran acts have a ticking retirement clock looming overhead. Kings can be 18; Kings can be 45. Queens can be 30. Much like 1996, we have no idea where to go from here, as the opportunities (both good and bad) are endless. It's a true testament to the cyclical nature of hip-hop, and even music in general. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
(Photos from left: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella, Roger Kisby/Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)