Exploring Alternative Rap

Hip-hop is easy to dismiss. Like country music, you’ll more often find people sitting on polar ends of the spectrum than floating in the middle.

There’s the anti-rap end (“Ugh, I hate rap. It’s all guys that can’t sing”) and the pro-rap end (“All other music sucks and Tupac was the Da Vinci of his generation”), and the two sides hardly see eye to eye.

What both sides ignore, however, is the sonic versatility of modern hip-hop. We live in an age when the genre is for everyone — not just Chicago south-siders, Bronx urbanites, white high school jocks, or the girl who knows every word to Ignition (Remix). It may stray into pop. It may dabble in jazz. It can scoop up elements of gospel, soul, rock, and industrial metal. It could even put them all together in a single track. For people coming from different genres, there are artists for you.

Jazz: Take a look at Anderson .Paak, one of XXL’s 2016 Freshmen of the Year. Paak’s Malibu was praised for its unconventional approach to debut albums; he plays the piano himself, sings, and raps about family ties and love. Songs like The Bird, The Season | Carry Me, and Heart Don’t Stand a Chance are smoother than the brim on one of Paak’s signature top hats. It’s a dreamy, relaxed album for the most part, and Paak’s vocals are terrifically pleasant.

Anderson Paak performs at FYF 2017 (Photo by Miranda McDonald)

Rock: Check out Lil Uzi Vert. If you somehow avoided hearing “XO Tour Llif3″ over the past calendar year, you’re missing out on a rap artist focusing on some traditional punk themes — a general apathy towards life, howling vocals, and high-energy beats fuse to create a high-tech and angsty project in the new Luv Is Rage 2. If Uzi is a little too rap-heavy for you, check out Post Malone’s Stoney. While it’s certainly still got rap bits, Post’s raw vocals and the dissonant chords on songs like “Broken Whiskey Glass” and “I Fall Apart” will bring out your angst in a way that you haven’t felt since your chain wallet phase.

Noise/Industrial: I remember the first time I heard an unorthodox noise sample. It was fifth grade, and my friend was showing me the Pink Floyd classic, Money. Leading into the song was a repeated cash register ding, clinking coins, and the tearing of register paper. It was awesome. I didn’t even care about the rest of the song. That’s the idea here. Experimental hip-hop group clipping would like to avoid being shuffled into a subfolder of rap, but the trio, spearheaded by Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, is starkly different from nearly anything else in the genre worth mentioning. Taking samples of everything from TV static to crumbling bricks, the highly mechanical sound of clipping’s midcity and CLPPNG projects, along with the still-industrial-but-now-polished outer space noise in their new concept album Splendor and Misery, is probably unlike anything you’ve heard before. While their lyrics may be hyper-aggressive, the creativity in production of Diggs & Co. is second to none. 

Art Pop/Indie: Maybe it’s wrong to categorize Frank Ocean as hip-hop, but enough of his songs have rap characteristics that it doesn’t feel entirely out of place to do so. His 2016 album Blonde is a beginning-to-end masterpiece, a wild roller coaster through the mind of a man dealing with a litany of personal struggles ranging from sexuality to love to overwhelming isolation. If you liked 22, A Million, then Blonde is for you. Songs like Solo and White Ferrari are lonely and soulful – perfect for the classic 2 AM college existential crisis. 

Frank Ocean performs hits from his 2016 album Blond at FYF.  (Photo by Roger Ho)

Classical: It may be somewhat silly to reference an album from five years ago as “current,” but Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy incorporates some of the best orchestral movements hip-hop has ever seen. MBDTF is commonly referred to as West’s magnum opus, and nothing is more grandiose than the strings and percussion in “Runaway,” or as elegant as Elton John’s piano playing in “All of the Lights (Interlude)”. While the lyrics may be remarkably crass in comparison to the symphony, the sound is remarkably classy.

There’s a good chance that even these genre-crossing artists won’t convert staunch anti-rap activists, but as the style continues to diversify, more people will be able to find something they like within the confines of hip-hop.

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