It would take someone being out of the loop for the last decade or so for them to be able to say they honestly haven’t seen the shocking changes to Hip-Hop over the course of that time in regards to music, aesthetic, and culture. The primary boxes that have traditionally been checked in order for an artist’s work to be considered of Hip-Hop ilk still continued to be checked for the vast majority of artists (rhythmic vocal delivery, braggadocious attitudes, sampled, drum heavy production, etc.). And yet, the very face of the genre has begun to shift in interesting, yet not so unseen, ways. While Hip-Hop traditionalists (“old heads”) tend to look down on the new faces and representatives of rap and hip-hop (what exactly defines these faces will be touched upon later), they have still managed to find unparalleled success in today’s public sphere of entertainment. One could argue that that this change in style is a natural progression, just the next logical step up from the bling era that marked most of the early and mid 2000s, and possibly a reaction to the gritty, hardened bars of the nineties and yesteryear. While these are both perfectly reasonable theories, they don’t tell the whole picture.
While it would be naïve to not give hip-hop, and its respective culture, its own credit when it comes to its very own evolution, it would be more appropriate to say that the genre has not only begun to enter its own punk stage; but that this era is already in full swing.
But what exactly defines “punk”? Is it a sound, an idea, an ideological movement? Well, it’s-simultaneously all of those things and deviations from them. Punk, having evolved in several places (New York, London, etc.) during the 1970s and into the early eighties, was never and has never been defined by a single idea or sonic characteristic. There are many, many different strains and movements found within the endless encompassing “punk” umbrella, especially considering its age at this point. But common ideas of the subculture can be boiled down, for the purpose of this article, to a few key components: non-conformity, individualized freedom of expression, and the “punk” aesthetic (piercings, jewelry, leather, bright and uncommon color schemes, such as black clothing, boots, etc.). Anyone remotely familiar with today’s music zeitgeist can see these motifs to be ubiquitous across popular music and culture. Several examples can be found throughout the lineup of today’s rap stars.
Lil Uzi Vert could very well be the archetype for the punk movement in hip-hop today, never being seen without brightly colored hair (usually blue or red/pink), a face full of piercings, and fully clad in leather and tight, ripped jeans. Beyond this, his music could be described as anything as traditional hip-hop. Fully engrossing himself in his own unique, vibrant individuality, Uzi’s music can be identified by its high pitched, almost taunting vocal delivery and slick, glossy trap production, though common hip-hop themes do emerge (drug use, interest in women, constant “flexing”, etc.).
Darker examples can be found as well, with $uicideboy$, out of New Orleans, being a prime example of this. More so finding themselves enthralled with hardcore/metal aesthetics than punk, per se, they still fit this mold as their music is wholly unique in its darkness and focus on mental health (or lack thereof). The recently late Lil Peep, as well as XXXtentacion, controversies aside, seemed to be poised to be the ones to carry the mantle from those currently on top of the game, as well as other more underground artists like Bones and Ghostmane. With heavy focus on melodrama, drug consumption as opposed to drug dealing, and an absolute disregard for the social norms found traditionally in hip-hop, this new wave of artists was not only completely different than those who came before them, but could have influenced an entirely new generation of artists down the road, especially in the case of Lil Peep and XXXtentacion. Only time can tell if this trend will continue, or possibly shift due to the reactionary nature of many within the community since the death and emergence of controversies of these artists.
Not to be left out of the discussion, the artist(s) that seem readiest to ascend to transcendent heights, both in regards to quality of content and popularity, is the self described “best boy band since One Direction”, Brockhampton. More of a rap group than a boy band and composed of several members who met online through a Kanye West fan forum, Brockhampton not only exemplifies what it means to be a “complete artist”, composing all their own songs, videos, and merchandise in house, but also what it means to break barriers and defy boundaries. With songs containing such issues as sexual orientation, mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and modern day feminism, all complimented by top-notch, authentic production and groundbreaking visuals to compliment, there seems to be no way to stop this group from not only dominating the ‘punk’ subculture of modern music and hip-hop. And also climbing to the top of music in general.
These are just a few examples of artists that fit within this framework, and in the future many more will be touched on, including the aforementioned, in greater detail, delving into specific records and songs, as well as live performances, social media presence, presentation, and so on. But there seems to be one key “punk” characteristic that is missing, at least at the broadest level possible in this regard; political stance(s), anti-establishmentarianism, anti-“selling out”. A huge part of punk’s existence, at least in the traditional sense, was this sense of political awareness, and furthermore, political struggle, as well as a disdain for those that “sold out” and gave in to “the man” (the establishment). Acts like the Clash and the Sex Pistols defined this, and the spirit carried on long after both bands called it quits. Where is this spirit in modern hip-hop? While there may be some examples few and far between, most modern artists in the community seem more than ready to accept large record deals, sponsorships, and further exploits of the capitalistic society in which the genre (and all things) reside. Why is this? Even the previously mentioned Brockhampton, who’s early identity was partially characterized by their in-house, independent approach to everything they did, signed with record industry juggernaut RCA in early 2018. Well, simply put, hip-hop had already experienced this phase, and it came much earlier in its history than it did for rock (the dominating genre in which punk was originally a reaction to). This is because while rock and roll’s history has always been comfortably set within society’s expectations, even when it was taking over and shocking parents the world over in the 1960s and early 70s, and hip-hop has not. Hip-hop was born and grew out of the disenfranchised communities in the United States, and thus from the get-go had a bone to pick with the world and society at large, thus resulting in such anti-establishment acts as Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine (both rock and hip-hop), and Tupac Shakur emerging in rap’s “Golden Age”. While all these acts had lucrative record deals, their lyrics and persona was everything that defines the idea of “fighting the power,” and they continued to do this even after their fortunes had been made. Some may find issue with those earning a living off careers such as these, but others with a bit more insight into exactly how acts like these changed the very face of popular culture and society at the turn of the millennium would disagree.
While it certainly is not a perfect fit, hip-hop is indeed in its “punk” phase, and this explanation can be used to quell anxieties regarding the state and “seriousness” of the genre today. Genres and movements go through changes, evolution, and constant shifts that will always make it difficult to find an exact line of demarcation. But if we are to define a genre not only by its sound, but by its attitude, aesthetic, and effect on society as a whole, then there simply is no question is this regard. Now, charting where the genre will find itself in say, a decade, is something that nobody could accurately predict at this point. Considering hip-hop’s relevancy and non-traditional nature at this point, it should be an exciting, if not wild, journey.