Digital Dashing into the Diamond Age of Hip Hop
Here at Cypher Magazine, we’re proud to bring you three distinct takes on What A Time To Be Alive which evaluate the project both as an album and as a statement on the current state of hip hop culture. Scope the other two here.
The 2010s are an interesting time for hip hop. The internet and the ever-widening selection of tools available in studios worldwide have diversified the sonic palette available to amateurs and professionals alike. Consequently, the hip hop we’ve come to know and love has inevitably changed for the better. Hip hop has always been a progressive and inclusive genre since its birth in 1978, and with the internet, it has finally become the melting pot it has always sought to be. In today’s age, anyone can be a rapper, or a producer, or both, and with more people exploring their creativity, there are so many places hip hop can go as an art form.
I’d like to propose that we are in the midst of a new Golden Age in the history of hip hop—let’s call it the Diamond Age of hip hop. In the past two years, fans of the genre have been treated to an influx of records that experiment wildly. Rappers today are concentrating less on lyrical dexterity, and more on expressing complex sets of emotions. We can look to Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak as the album that dawned the beginning of this movement. His autotuned croons about heartbreak, loneliness, and anger charted new sonic territory in rap and spawned the rise of artists like Drake and Future, whose records Take Care and DS2, respectively, can be argued to be classics of their time. On these albums, Drake’s emotional raps and Future’s drugged out confessions portray a fundamental vulnerability, and do not depend on lyrics alone to communicate their points. Take Care utilizes singing and beats inspired by Quiet Storm R&B to express feelings of forlornness and loneliness, while DS2 uses autotune to showcase how harrowing life can get when you depend on getting high to feel fulfilled. Both of these moves are borrowed from the 808s playbook. The 808s aesthetic is also directly responsible for Drake and Future’s new collaborative mixtape, What a Time to be Alive.
Without the autotuned sing-rapping that has come to dominate the hip hop charts over the last few years, WATTBA would almost certainly not have been a possibility for Drake and Future. The album is a testament to the advances made by contemporaries such as Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, PARTYNEXTDOOR, OG Maco, The Weeknd (who is decidedly a singer, not a rapper), Travis Scott, Chief Keef, Dej Loaf—as well as Drake and Future themselves—in creating aggressively ephemeral music. The strength of this approach to music has led to an increase in its demand—Drake, Future, Thugga, Rich Homie Quan, and others have released multiple projects this year. The last time we saw such a torrential pace of experimentation, collaboration, and innovation in hip hop was in the early to mid 1990s, widely regarded as hip hop’s Golden Age. As a project made by two of this movement’s leading figures, WATTBA is already a consequential album in the hip hop canon, and it will influence the sonic landscape of hip hop and mainstream music’s immediate future. We’ve seen it already in the slew of singles off DS2 and in Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” both of which came out not too long before the release of this record. Right now, everyone from Erykah Badu to Carlos Santana’s daughter is rushing to cover “Hotline Bling,” and DS2’s influence is readily apparent when roaming around the trenches of the internet.
Unfortunately though, WATTBA is, at bottom, evidence that most superstar collaborations are only great on paper—seriously, imagine how a Tom Waits/Jimi Hendrix (a little anachronistic, I know) record will sound?! Terrible! The Drake/Future mixtape itself is uneven at times, with Future taking the lion’s share of the vocals on most tracks, and as a whole the record leaves something to be desired. Its flaws mostly arise from the subdued, self-inhibited quality that both artists exhibit throughout the majority of the record (seriously, “Big Rings” is a godawful song—Drake just sounds uncomfortable shouting that basic ass hook).
But while imperfectly executed, WATTBA is a forward-thinking record that strives to explore new ground. There are a few songs here (“Diamonds Dancing,” “Scholarship,” “Plastic Bag,” and “Jumpman”) that just fucking bang. These songs work together because the rappers tag team effectively throughout the length of these tracks, a kind of stride that was difficult for even groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to sustain for prolonged periods of time, and probably even more difficult to achieve from scratch in six days.
When Future croons (seemingly) incomprehensibly on a song like “Diamonds Dancing,” we hear a sense of fear and foreboding in his heavily processed voice. The autotune in that song creates a pathos of a need for substance-induced escapism—something which many of us can identify with. This pathos is particularly biting when he sings, “Sippin’ on Dom Perignon for no reason,” and “I got so many bad bitches that I barely wanna/I’m barely paying attention, baby I need substance.” Drake finishes off the track by singing lines like, “You’re doing me dirty” and “How can you live with yourself,” evidence that even the most turnt up of lituations cannot fully release its participants from their inner darkness. The deep bass and atmospheric synthesizers surrounding the sad, robotic vocals on this track create an atmosphere akin to feeling alone in a crowded party. “Diamonds Dancing,” like many songs of our decade, is a collaborative process in which the producers and performers work together to integrate a number of moving pieces into one emotionally busy picture. This album may be nothing but diamonds on its surface, but the majority of Future and Drake’s lyrics on it actually deal with loneliness and a lack of inner fulfillment. These feelings are exacerbated much further by the effective manipulation of the vocals by Metro Boomin, Southside, and 40. It is as if Drake, Future, and the producers on this mixtape are a band all coming up with ideas together for projecting a sonically enticing picture of the new age of decadence in hip hop, in which we find ourselves in today.
This is quite unlike the hip hop we’ve come to know in the past, which was a more straightforward combination of beats plus rhymes, where the beat just provided the soap box on which the lyrics could stand and be heard. I don’t mean to devalue lyrics by pushing this view. Music, like all forms of art, is a means of communicating with others, and lyrics provide a vehicle for sending a message that cannot be expressed in mere conversation or standalone prose. However, just as the changing nature of the NBA has ushered in a drought for true centers, we live in a time where lyrics are not the primary means of expressing feelings in hip hop. Lyrics are only part of a much larger machine, thanks to the proliferation of new and easily accessible production techniques and software. Emotions can be expressed just as powerfully with auto-tune, reverb, and texture-based plugins as they can with a line like, “Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay.” Just because the lyrics we hear today aren’t as intellectually fulfilling as lyrics of the past, that doesn’t mean that they are completely devoid of all meaning. If we eschew a holistic approach to listening, we may be missing what’s really at work in the music.
The “real hip hop” enthusiast would probably disagree with everything I’ve said here. It’s true: the new material is not lyrical, does not strive to be intellectually nourishing, and does not seem to have any socially constructive purpose. But I argue that the Diamond Age we are currently experiencing is far different from its Golden Age precursor. That of the 90s advanced methods of working lyrics into music and gave us new techniques for music production, mostly revolving around the appropriation of old songs via sampling; it provided the groundwork on which street wisdom via lyricism could shine. The current Diamond Age is far more emotionally inclined. It is more interested in finding the right feeling, the right vibe, taking full advantage of technology’s potential for finding it. And as for a social purpose, isn’t being (or at least attempting to be) in touch with one’s feelings not a sign of maturation?