Since its inception in the 1970’s up until the turn of the century, hip-hop’s hallmark was its lyricism. Whether examining the profound social commentary of legendary rappers like Nas or the complex rhyme schemes and well-executed punch lines of Harlem’s finest, Big L, every hip-hop artist had a unique story to tell or simply a unique way of telling it. Though the beats and production quality of their songs were a bit lackluster compared to what we see today, they didn’t need to be great since the lyrics themselves were enough to captivate audiences. This is completely different from modern day hip-hop, where it seems like beats and catchy choruses are more important than lyricism and wordplay. This shift has — in my view — has caused a large drop off in quality.
This view is supported by studies that show that the average reading level of lyrics in modern hip-hop songs is lower than in any other genre of music. This discipline, which was once revered for its intricate wordsmiths and heralded as “modern poetry,” has somehow become one of the least complex forms of music from a lyrical perspective. What is the cause of this dramatic shift in the quality of rap music over just a few decades? I believe it is mainly due to increased popularity of the genre, as well as technological advancements which have made it easier than ever to create music.
The uptick in the popularity of rap music can be easily examined by looking at the positioning of rap albums on the Billboard 200 over the years. In 1994, Queens rapper Nas released his magnum opus, Illmatic — often regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. However, in the months following its release, none of his five singles gained much mainstream traction and the album peaked at number 12 on the Billboard 200. By contrast, in 2017 several rap albums hit number one on the Billboard 200. In fact, for the first time since its inception, rap was the most popular genre in the United States in 2017, surpassing numerous other American staples such as Country and Rock, proving that the genre has become much more widespread.
What naturally accompanies this increase in popularity though, is a decline in complexity, which is required to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible. This is supported by research from the Spanish National Research Council, which found that the popularity of Western music directly correlates with loudness and simplicity. What started out as a niche genre exclusive to inner city youth has ballooned into a multi-billion dollar industry, and this mainstream popularity has led to declining quality.
Technological advancement has also played a key role in this quality drop off. It’s no secret that music of all kinds is much easier to produce now than it has ever been. This is especially beneficial for talented small-time artists, as the advent of accessible assistive technologies vastly reduce the barriers to entry to becoming a music producer. However, a consequence of these advancements is that with vocal augmentation and advanced editing techniques, just about anyone can make professional sounding music. This phenomenon is exemplified by 14-year-old Florida native Danielle Bregoli, also known by her stage name Bhad Bhabie. She first garnered popularity because of her use of the phrase “cash me outside how bow dah,” while starring on an episode of Dr. Phil. Just a few months after those events, she released a rap single entitled “These Heaux”— which has since amassed nearly 60 million views on YouTube — and subsequently signed a contract with Atlantic Records. While in the past, rappers would need to spend years honing and marketing their craft, nowadays a teenager with no prior experience can rise to success with nothing but a good editor and a bit of autotuning. Because it is so much easier to become a hip-hop artist nowadays, it is no surprise that the overall quality has declined.
That being said, the future of rap is not entirely bleak. For every modern rapper like Iggy Azalea, Young Thug or Bhad Bhabie, there is a talented emcee like Kendrick Lamar, Logic or Oddisee, as well as a dozen underground stars. As technology makes it easier for those with less natural talent to create professional sounding music, and as popularity drives down the overall quality of the genre, it is important to remember what made hip-hop great in the first place — lyrics and heart.