There’s a stereotype in hip hop that it’s garbage because rappers are profane or talk too much about drugs and sex. Many hip hop fans believe that a lot of newer rappers nowadays, such as the many trap artists these days, are reinforcing the stereotype by continuing to not be “lyrical.” Many find it obnoxious that so many rappers are carried on good beats and producers when they themselves don’t offer anything in their lyrics.
It isn’t necessarily wrong to say that lyrics aren’t as important right now. At least with mainstream hip hop, many trap artists such as Migos, 2 Chainz, and Chief Keef don’t exactly get “philosophical” with their lyrics. However, even the great lyricists of back then such as Notorious BIG, Tupac, Wu-Tang, and so on, did at least slightly depend on their producers. Rap has always been about the collaboration between a producer with their instrumentals and a rapper with lyrics and flow. Biggie’s song “Juicy” is a telling and thought provoking song about the Biggie’s story coming up. However if that song didn’t have a beat behind it and a catchy hook, it probably wouldn’t have become one of the most famous hip hop tracks to date. Their are rappers nowadays who are blatantly dependent on producers, there is at least one good thing about that.
For the first time, hip hop producers are finally getting the attention, recognition, and respect that they deserve for their talent. More so than ever before. Producers are more influential than they’ve ever been. More than ever before, you will hear people be hype for an album or song because Pharrell, Metro Boomin, SOPHIE, Madlib, BADBADNOTGOOD, or The Alchemist are producing it.
This trend has been growing since the early 2000’s when you saw a lot of talented producers break out into the mainstream. Kanye West was known for being a talented producer and now he’s considered one of the greatest rappers to ever do it. People still love his production and albums like The College Dropout are considered modern classics. He started out producing great tracks for Jay-Z and now he raps, producers, and has his hand in a slew of other ventures. Artists like Lil Jon and Swizz Beats brought new and cutting edge sounds in the 2000’s and made some of the most iconic singles of this time period. Not only did they make new sounds for the hip hop landscape, they became respected, or at the very least remembered, artists that we think about today. The 80’s and 90’s are eras that we’ve left in the dust, eras where the MC truly reigned supreme. Nowadays people go back to those old albums that iconic artists made and respect the hard work that artists like Dr. Dre did to make the beats, the foundation, of a lot of iconic hip hop tracks and classic albums.
Even when we aren’t consciously thinking about the producers, their work has a profound effect on audiences, chart topping potential, staying power, what artist and popular and what artist isn’t, and more. A lot of times when we talk about artists we talk about their “unique sound or style.” An important part of that sound or style that you really like is in part to the producer making that sound or style and the rapper working with that. Artists like Snoop Dogg have had albums like Tha Doggfather which weren’t as popular or successful because Snoop Dogg lost the Dr. Dre support after turbulence at Death Row Records. This Snoop Dogg album was not as well received in the long term partially due to this loss. Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life” is such an iconic song due to the fact that the instrumental was a cutesy musical number was turned into a hard beat. Jay Z spitting bars over that beat was incredibly important to his career and his long term success.
A great hip hop song always comes down to balance. Balance between the lyrics and the beats. There’s nothing more disappointing than a song with a fantastic instrumental that has a boring rapper or bad lyrics. Of course the opposite is true, a fantastic rapper with great bars that has a horrible or badly mixed instrumental can ruin a song. What makes a good rapper or a good beat is of course all subjective but that balance is still important. Even artists like Chief Keef close some kind of emotional gap for people that wouldn’t be done if it were the instrumental by itself. “I Don’t Like” by Chief Keef for example is a song that has a fantastic instrumental, but it wouldn’t be complete without Chief Keef’s energy on the track.
Some people really want a simple and straightforward song. Not every song has to be lyrical. Some songs can just be fun and that’s okay. And for the people out there who do want that lyrical quality, it’s not like those artists are completely nonexistent. While artists like Migos, Lil Pump, and Future are certainly mainstream and popular, you still have plenty of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Denzel Curry, and Chance the Rapper who are all lyricists in their own right. A lot of these artists also have good production to match. There are even artists like YG who can switch from fun club banger to a track where he talks about police brutality.
Even if you still hate artists like Chief Keef, it’s kind of hard to say that these artists are “ruining hip hop.” Hip hop as a genre at this point is old enough to stand up for itself. There have been enough talented lyrical artists in the past and the present that it’s hard for anyone to honestly argue that hip hop as a genre is garbage. For every person who says “hip hop is terrible” there will be dozens of people who bring up Notorious BIG, Outkast, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and so many other talented artists who have created incredible and thought provoking work in the genre. Hip hop has had enough success that it’s impossible for any one artist or group of artists to be making music so horrible that the whole genre could be considered awful.
It’s also important to note how money and audience factor into hip hop today. Music has always been driven by sound and style. Right now audiences are really gravitating to the trap sound, which isn’t necessarily the most requiring of lyricism. Since that’s what’s trendy, it makes sense that the artists from that genre continue to get success and continue to be mainstream. Because of this success, music journalism sites continue to talk about and write about these artists because that’s what gets them money and clicks just like the artists.
Lyrics of course are always important. However, there have always been artists that are super lyrical, philosophical, and introspective, and there have always been artists that are simple, fun, and playful. It might be true that nowadays the focus is on the more straightforward rappers with banging beats whereas in the past the focus was more on the MC, but that doesn’t mean the focus is always going to be on this. The focus might swing back later in the future we don’t know at this point. As long as there is an audience for lyricists, there will always be lyricists. The importance of producers getting recognition however is still good, so don’t let that focus swing back too much.