Diversity in rap music’s privileged circle has always been one of its healthiest indicators of growth, evolution and preparation for a new era.
Branching through an all-inclusive family tree, hip-hop’s music, sound, aesthetic, attitude, dance and business landscape rooted itself firmly in entertainment history by providing a limited blueprint of sorts for anyone who dare to climb into its enterprise. Rappers rapped, producers produced, managers managed — and it didn't get much more complicated than that. There sometimes was a little overlap in who grabbed the reigns, beginning with the A&R folks and trickling down to other industry executives like publicists and the like. But generally, hip-hop was stabilized in particular positions for particular people. Its sound was and still is recognizable on a global level and its way of doing business was structured and strategic.
Now, however, the collective game of hip-hop and rap music has traversed territory that it has never wandered into before. Record deals, vouching from rap counterparts, music label controls and commercial acceptance are all slowly but surely becoming necessities of rap’s past. With a new tide of young, hungry artists emerging on the scene, the fresh faces of hip-hop aren’t just getting their feet wet in rap’s murky waters — they’re diving in head first.
Providing our forecast of where hip-hop will take its next turn, here are eight hip-hop pupils shaping and shifting the inevitable destiny of rap music.
If it weren’t for his God Complex project, D.C. rapper Goldlink might be named the Musiq Soulchild of the millennial hip-hop generation. But beneath the premise of his 2014 industry debut mixtape, he’s of the elevated mindset that rejects imitation of any kind except that of God himself — and reasonably so. The 23-year-old has a delicate viciousness to his sound, mastering the dualism of rap and soul with a skillful, seasoned approach that manifests incredibly for such a young rapper. Coining the term “future bounce,” which he describes as the sound of tomorrow and “some hood s**t,” Goldlink doesn’t abandon explicit lyricism. Even in his studio debut, At What Cost, Goldlink’s fusion of funk, house and disco-esque R&B is wildly blunt and risqué. But he does figure out a way to tie his sound and messages together with tact, sporadically lifting definitive praise to God and the profoundness of youth through tracks you might not expect (take a listen to “Pray Everyday (Survivor’s Guilt)”). Even his 2015 XXL Freshman freestyle should be taken into consideration: a prophecy to generational and institutional oppression, Goldlink easily claims authority over a new era of hip-hop. And with the help of his production counterpart KAYTRANADA, he’s leading the pack for melodic rap to have its turn at domination in hip-hop yet again. As the sound of rap continues to tread unpredictable territory, the sonic temperance of Goldlink’s sound and unique arrival to the genre shows a promising and long lifespan in hip-hop.
West Coast gangsta rap has a new face and it belongs to Oakland-bred rap artist Kamaiyah. Sure, she can cosign a hook off a hit single, tour with YG and draw unlikely career inspiration from a young Lil Bow Wow. But despite her A Good Night in the Ghetto debut mixtape narrating the nuances of girlhood in the projects, by no means is she everyone’s homegirl. Kamaiyah raps to the beat of her own drum, rejecting YG’s “Why You Always Hatin’?” for placement on her first project for a simple enough reason: she didn’t like it. And while there’s much to be learned from her laid back bravado, she still lends part of her rap persona to the OG sound of the West Coast. Hit play on her YG-assisted “F**k It Up” and land at a classic Cali-style, bass line-twisting house party. Jump to her borrow from the East Coast flagbearer Biggie Smalls’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” and relive every top-down, block-cruising rideout on the sweltering streets of California that a 1960 Impala has to offer. Even if the 21-year-old femcee isn’t mentioned among the pool of leading mainstream rappers just yet, that’s not to worry — her and her bottle of Hennessy are only just beginning.
With business calculating at the head of his rap résumé, Joey BadA$$’s faith in entrepreneurship has renovated hip-hop’s business landscape as we know it. For a young, indie artist from the hustle-hard streets of Brooklyn, turning down a record deal from the Roc Nation ruler and one of the boroughs many faces of inspiration, Jay Z, may as well kill off a career before it even starts. But not for this 22-year-old. Instead, he declared, he wanted to be Jay Z. And though he didn’t align himself on Jay’s label roster, he was part of the readership for his Decoded book. Hov’s words from the literature seemed to come back on him, since Joey explained that his choice to turn down the deal paralleled Jay’s story in the book of rejecting a deal from Russell Simmons for the same entrepreneurial reason. Building the Pro Era collective up to esteemed hip-hop mention, Joey transformed the lifestyle movement into a fully-operative record label with a CEO crown fit perfectly for his dreadlocked head. His single “Waves,” which originally caught Jay’s ear, even gained the respects of Roc Nation prodigy J. Cole, who specifically asked for Joey’s blessing to use the single’s beat for his groundbreaking “False Prophets” freestyle. Giving true meaning to “age ain’t nothing but a number,” Joey is the poster child for the millennial rap generation proving its capability to nurture professional relationships, develop artistry, and balance its own creative and futuristic vision.
When Brooklyn swept another hardcore freestyle star with a merciless flow into the rap game in the form of Young M.A, it was almost as if the idea of hip-hop being male-dominated never even existed. Dripping in gold chains, grills, tattoos and braids, we hadn’t quite seen a female rap artist like her. With the ability to fill her introductory single, “Ooouuu,” with such gritty infectiousness, she left you no choice but to overlook her gender. She’s brusque, she’s brutal and she’s just as loyal to her spot in hip-hop as her male counterparts. Remaining independent until landing on a record label she feels is in her court, she even turned down a role on Empire to stay dedicated to her tunnel vision target: rap. And just as she’s refused the gender binary, she refuses to let the LGBT label brand her a well-deserved spot in hip-hop. Her attitude is ambitiously tenacious and her lyrical delivery is severe. While she joins hip-hop’s handful of influential femcees, Young M.A restructures not only the idea of what a female hip-hop artist can look like for the future, but what she can sound like as well.
Hip-hop is fat with quintessential rags to riches stories. But just as they’re doing with the culture, Migos is remodeling rap’s prized narrative. After bursting through the industry’s glass ceiling with their sensationalized “Versace” single in 2013, the trio had carved out a comfortable position among the South’s elite trap music scene. There was definitely stiff competition, and being a rap clique among stellar solo acts made it even tougher. Let them gain two more years, however, and they’d have everyone (and we mean, everyone) shoving their faces into their arms with “Look at My Dab,” eliminating any chances of a one-hit wonder. Passing hip-hop’s difficult test of time with flying colors, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset continue to make waves on their upward spiral to icon status. Scoring their first platinum single with “Bad and Boujee,” the golden track of the critically-acclaimed Culture album, the trio has dominated radio play and Billboard charts alike with their avant-garde sound and hip-hop stamina. Despite their unique solo personas, the three of them still collectively have a long way to go. But if there’s any exemplar of how to make a legend out of a limelight, Migos is helping build the blueprint for whomever may be up next.
With a bold “Southside” tattoo stretched across the front of his neck and another on his stomach in the same fashion as Tupac’s “Thug Life,” it'd seem unlikely that you’d find Vic Mensa cosplaying Prince in a croptop shirt, curly wig and mascara just for the hell of it. But you will, and it’s that kind of versatility that has kept Roc Nation’s rap rarity mentioned among hip-hop’s high society. Mensa, who is 23 years young, owns his rap ambidexterity in a way that only a revolutionary voice straight out of the Southside of Chicago would — unapologetically. From his social and political activism face-off project, There’s a Lot Going On, to his founding member’s seat in the SaveMoney clique, Mensa is the millennial generation’s voice of the voiceless. Speaking out against the intersection of police brutality and Black citizens, Mensa has proved on a routine basis that he’s as savage as he is serene, as conscious as he is cool and as empowering as he is enigmatic. And with his creative vitality and headstrong rap flow emulating that of Kanye West, minus the ego, there’s no question as to how his sound landed in the earshot of Jay Z. As he helps traverse hip-hop’s new school, he’s also supplying young minds with the valuable lesson in individuality that one doesn’t need to be caged in by any one record label, image or creed to make waves.
As another face of Chicago’s emerging talent scene, the West Side’s very own Saba has surfaced with a sound and rap mastery that, quite frankly, the millennial rap generation has been deprived of. Even after teaming up with his Chi-Town industry neighbor Chance the Rapper for Acid Rap and making it to the stage of Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Saba still refuses to ride the coattail of anyone else’s wave but his own. And with a skill set as rare as Saba’s, he never really had to. The 22-year-old’s Bucket List Project is a digital exhibit for his power of storytelling with musical adventures from the album like “American Hypnosis” and “Westside Bound 3.” What’s most solid about Saba, however, is his lyrical craft that masters a talent and flow so expert that it would have both Biggie and Tupac happily spinning in their graves. And with tongue-twisting lyrical genius Twista, also a Chicago-native, flourishing beside Saba on “GPS” from the project, there’s no doubt that he can run in the company of hip-hop’s veterans, too. As a youthful artist with perceptions, musical intuitions and a lyrical facility well beyond his time, Saba is setting the precedent for a new tide of rap acumen.
Rae Sremmurd and all of their radio-happy, party-jumping, hyper-energized smash hits, has put the word “dynamic” back in rap duo. Debuting their rap career with the now-popularly remixed single “No Flex Zone,” we can understand how Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi presented themselves like two young rugrats on hip-hop’s less-austere end in 2014. They obviously knew what it took to draw attention and how to stimulate a fan base full of their own peers. But how long would it be before another youthful pair of teenagers hit hip-hop’s dicey scene and stole the thunder? With guidance from Atlanta’s leading soundsmith Mike WiLL-Made-It, a hit single triumphing to Billboard’s No. 1 seat while globally occupying top 10 picks and simultaneously handing trap music’s household name Gucci Mane his first No. 1 hit, the world may never know. It’s just not everyday that we’d take two brothers out of Mississippi whose first idea for a rap clique name was “Dem Outta St8 Boyz,” which then converted to “Ear Drummers” spelled backwards, seriously. But now that the “Black Beatles” rap stars have proved their industry endurance and established musical reverence far beyond their peers, we’d better.
(Photos from left: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Power 105.1, D Dipasupil/Getty Images for iHeart- Power 105.1, Roger Kisby/Getty Images)