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BLACK MUSIC MONTH:
FUTURE SHOOK, PART FOUR

The Internet 2.0 Era: Blog Rap and Beyond

 If hip-hop was a street culture in its first three decades, it firmly transitioned to the interwebs during its fourth. By the late 2000s, interaction between artists and fans was being transformed. CD sales were nosediving, and music blogs like NahRight and 2DopeBoyz gradually became the gatekeepers and sources of discovery for new (or leaked) music. Half a decade after a 2001 injunction ordered Napster to immediately cease the sharing of copyrighted music via its platform, the Internet was still a wild west for piracy; the only difference was that files were shared via links from hosting sites like ZShare and Megaupload.

But that all changed in January 2007. Following the infamous raid of DJ Drama’s Atlanta headquarters—in which more than 80,000 CD mixtapes were seized—it was clear that the Feds sought to crack down on pirated music, particularly via the mixtape market. Thereafter, the shape and feel of these projects morphed: original beats replaced instrumentals jacked from pop hits, while skits and filler began to disappear, as did obnoxious DJ drops. They were already tools for promotion and building a street buzz—Drama’s Gangsta Grillz series was one of the best co-signs in all of hip-hop—but these projects became free promotional projects primarily released straight to the Internet.

These low-stakes drops, which were becoming increasingly easy and inexpensive due to advances in production and recording software, gave young artists a means to deliver their music directly to would-be fans without reliance on a label. As such, even more sounds from relatively obscure cities (at least in the traditional hip-hop sense) began to emerge.

Thus, music heads got the emo vibes of Kid Cudi via his 2008 debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi. The project, which featured #3 Pop hit “Day ’n’ Nite,” set off a new wave that Kanye West absorbed for his daring-yet-polarizing album 808s & Heartbreak that same year (Cleveland upstart Cudi quickly signed to Ye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint). Wiz Khalifa planted his flag for the similarly underrepresented Pittsburgh, cornering the market for stoner raps of the most potent quality. Pretty soon, his #1 smash “Black and Yellow” served as an anthem for the Pittsburgh Steelers leading up to an NFL championship in 2011’s Super Bowl XLV. From slick-talking coke rapper Freddie Gibbs out of Gary, Indiana, to everyman rapper/producer hybrid Big K.R.I.T. from Meridian, Mississippi, to the poetic justice of Wale repping Washington, D.C., the era affectionately known as blog rap kicked the door off the hinges. Every city on the U.S. map—and beyond—was fair game.

Drake wasn’t supposed to win. It’s not that his talent wasn’t instantly apparent. It’s just that hip-hop hadn’t seen anyone quite like Aubrey Drake Graham: a former child actor who played in the teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation and rapped and sang with equal finesse, covering love, lust, inner strife, ambitions, fears, desires. His words and thoughts were lucid, without much of the posturing that was still typical for hip-hop. He was revolutionary. From the moment Drake hopped on Lil Wayne’s tour bus in support of Tha Carter III, the wheels were in motion for one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time to claim his crown.

Drake’s anointing didn’t happen overnight, although it might feel that way. Years of toil on self-released underground music led to the 2009 breakthrough So Far Gone, a genre-blurring mixtape that instantly catapulted Drizzy into the stratosphere. He signed to Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, and within just a couple of years he was challenging his idols Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne for rap’s throne.

In a sense, Drake’s explosive arrival marked a reboot for hip-hop—and the start of a new class that came up squarely in the second Internet age. In 2009, Jay-Z signed J. Cole, who immediately revealed himself as a thinking man’s foil to the comparatively introverted Drake via his seminal third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Kanye scooped up Big Sean in 2007, but he really began making his mark around the turn of the decade, when his signature hashtag-rap flow had half of hip-hop spitting truncated punchlines. Wale and Philly street rapper Meek Mill found their spaceship via Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011.

Meanwhile, a parallel movement was taking place out West. The Los Angeles rap scene had largely been carried by The Game throughout the 2000s, but a new crop began to emerge toward the end of the decade, including the likes of Jay Rock, Nipsey Hussle and YG. While these artists by and large rapped about the gang culture that characterized their city’s hoods, others, like the Odd Future crew and Northern Cali’s Lil B, leaned into lo-fi aesthetics, untethered from the traditional vibe of their regions. Kendrick Lamar became the breakout, though, catching a spark with his 2011 debut album, Section.80, exploring the plight of ’80s babies raised through the crack epidemic and Reaganomics.

The project caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who signed the Compton rapper to his Aftermath Entertainment via Top Dawg Entertainment. The following year, Kendrick dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city, a classic conceptual LP that put his ease for storytelling and world-building on full display—and was quickly heralded as a new-age counterpart to Nas’ Illmatic. Kendrick built on that landmark project with increasingly ambitious works, dropping the angsty To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, and taking message music mainstream with 2017’s Pultizer-winning DAMN. Thanks to Disney/Marvel’s gigantic Black Panther soundtrack, which he curated with TDE boss Anthony “Top Dog” Tiffith, all residents of and visitors to Wakanda now grasped K.Dot’s superheroic importance.

Still, Drake has remained hip-hop’s nucleus over the past decade. He featured Kendrick on his own masterpiece, Take Care, and guested on J. Cole’s sterling mixtape, Friday Night Lights. Drake jumped on records with Waka Flocka Flame, Meek Mill and Fetty Wap as they made their own names. When he appeared on Migos’ infectious 2013 hit “Versace,” the music world at large got hip to this idiosyncratic Atlanta trio (inked to Coach K and P’s Quality Control via Motown/Capitol Music Group) bringing a fresh spin to trap music. From their expensive designer threads to their triple-time flows, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset quickly became icons in their own right, especially after their hypnotic 2016 single, “Bad and Boujee” f/Lil Uzi Vert, soared to #1 on the pop chart.

Migos aside, trap music got a fresh bump in the 2010s thanks to Future, a descendant of the Atlanta cooperative Dungeon Family, who marked his arrival with high-powered bangers like “Tony Montana” while continuing to evolve into more emotive, trippy vibes throughout the decade. Young Thug similarly brought a fresh energy, his warbled, often indecipherable lyrics coloring trap in new shades. 

Back in 2010, New York was a mere shadow of the hip-hop hotspot it had once been. The stars were now largely legacy acts, and some of the newer artists of the day (including Mims) seemed hellbent on mimicking the sounds of the South. But in 2010, the city designated a new queen.

Nicki Minaj’s stronghold on hip-hop was unprecedented. With little competition from other female rappers and very few men who could keep up with her lyrically, the quirky Queens rapper put up nearly a decade of dominance. Just listen to the way her rhymes and one-of-a-kind persona outshine everyone—Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Kanye West—on “Monster.” Onika Maraj-Petty redefined megastardom for herself, making sung pop hits (“Super Bass,” “Starships”) just as core to her identity as gymnastic bar work (“Chun-Li”).

Nicki Minaj held down the pole position among women in rap, while others had moments. Harlem rapper Azealia Banks, more known these days for her social-media antics than her music, showed promise with her dizzying 2011 single “212,” a blend of hip-hop and house. Australian transplant Iggy Azalea nabbed a #1 Pop rap single with “Fancy” in 2014, although charges of cultural appropriation doused her flame. That same year, Dej Loaf broke out with the smooth but threatening “Try Me.” In 2016, Young M.A released “Ooouuu,” one of the hottest songs of that summer. But when the Love & Hip-Hop: New York reality star turned rap star Cardi B emerged with her breakout song “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, it seemed she’d be here to stay. Her persona—outspoken, silly, sex-positive, Bronx to the core—oozed through her music, helping the aforementioned track and the bilingual cut “I Like It” hit #1. Her 2018 debut album, Invasion of Privacy, was certified triple-platinum. In Cardi’s wake, female rappers like Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and City Girls gained popularity, making for one of the most abundant eras for women in hip-hop history.

Blending Southern rap with layered, psychedelic keys and guitar, Houston’s Travis Scott emerged in the mid-2010s as the next generation’s version of Kanye West. Scott’s fascinating brand merges rage, fashion and the hypnotic soundscapes associated with the festival-ready kids who grew up on Auto-Tune and emo. His 2018 masterpiece, ASTROWORLD, featuring smash Drake collab “Sicko Mode,” cemented Scott as a multifaceted hip-hop star and arena-sized brand; his record-breaking 2020 Fortnite concert was a new benchmark in the rap-tech interface.

Los Angeles-bred Tyler, The Creator carried the torch of Pharrell and Kanye West’s alternative-rap ethos into the 2010s. Tyler’s DIY spirit created Odd Future, a collective of young, black heroes consisting of future stars Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and Syd. The underground scene they championed eventually crossed over to fashion, television and pop culture, inspiring Gen-Z aesthetics and the sound of pop today. Like his predecessors Pharrell and West, Tyler produced his own material throughout his career, which culminated in his fifth LP, IGOR, winning Rap Album of the Year at the Grammys in 2020. Tyler’s sound has been hugely influential, resonating in work from modern superstars like Billie Eilish, Childish Gambino and Travis Scott.

Where does hip-hop go in the future? As always, that depends largely on technology: the tools artists use to create, the mediums fans use to enjoy the music and the means of star-fan interactions. The effect of social networking is already apparent on hip-hop, as evidenced by the power of memes on TikTok and Instagram to pump up the popularity of songs like Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” or Lil Nas X’s mega-streaming cowboy-rap phenomenon, “Old Town Road.” The same goes for SoundCloud, a platform that’s proved important enough to birth a subgenre: SoundCloud rap, as epitomized by Trippie Redd, the late Juice WRLD and the late XXXTentacion.

As this issue goes to press, three of the top four releases in activity year to date are hip-hop records—by Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert and Roddy Ricch—and DaBaby has the #1 streaming track. Meanwhile, a fresh wave of hip-hop stars continues to storm the charts, including Polo G, Lil Mosey and SAINt JHN, among many others.

Hip-hop will forever remain in a state of flux, but one thing is for sure: No glitch is gonna stop the get-down. 

Read Future Shook in its entirety here. 

John Kennedy is a writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering music, Hollywood and men’s lifestyle for print and online media. He’s penned cover stories on Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Drake, J. Cole and Ed Sheeran, and has written for publications like Genius, Vulture, Complex, Billboard and XXL. Queens made him, but he calls Brooklyn home. John currently serves as Senior Editor at LEVEL, a Medium-backed publication for black and brown men focused on race, culture, identity, sex and how to become the best version of oneself. Find him on all socials at @youngJFK.

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