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Earlier this week a meme passed around Rap Twitter featuring a picture of four young rappers and a caption saying “No one over 30 can name all 4 of these niggas w/o Google.” The rappers were Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, and Playboi Carti, a few of whom have skyrocketed to nationwide renown in the young year. The cherry-dreaded Yachty’s debut mixtape Lil Boat is only two weeks old, but its fourteen songs already boast Soundcloud play counts averaging half a million. The turquoise-dreaded Uzi released LUV Is RAGE in December, and the Don Cannon produced “Top” has been played nearly three million times since. Some were offended by the assumption that rap fans wouldn't know all four by name. Others were proud they didn't. The notion that rap fans ought to be tied to (or feel removed from) music according to the era in which they were born is a bothersome fact of hip-hop fandom perennially tearing audiences apart that by all rights should get along swimmingly.
Last fall, critically acclaimed California rapper Vince Staples told Time Magazine that he finds the 90s overrated, incurring the immediate wrath of fans, artists, and writers alike, each appalled at the nerve of someone with his platform to speak ill of an era widely celebrated as one of hip-hop’s finest. Atlanta oddball Young Thug expressed similar logic in a 2015 GQ interview: “Jay Z has some of the sickest lyrics ever, but I would never buy his CD, just because of my age and because of his age.” More recently, Uzi stopped by New York rap staple Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning show and, asked to rap on the spot, began by refusing to do it over “one of them old beats.” Time and again, rap fans are incensed by the new generation’s lack of respect for elders. As a result, the recent history of hip-hop in the blog era has been, in a word, rocky.
Hip-hop’s inborn youth-mindedness means the mainstream rides on the whim of the new. As rap’s new normal is carried further out from the park jams where it began, squabbles for the control of its direction have heated up. They’re waged by fans who oppose the primal, body-centric thrust of trap and its progenitors’ penchant for lyricism that prizes directness and pained realism over metaphors and moralism. The heroes of the self-declared Golden Era who haven’t fallen by the wayside have had to choose between changing with the times and standing in noble, doomed opposition. For every wily, adaptive Jay Z, there’s a taskmaster like KRS-One, for every enduringly versatile Jadakiss, a stern, rigid Lord Jamar. Being a successful rapper, the logic goes, is a matter not only of mastery of craft but also of knowledge and reverence for the history of it. “Respect is something you’ve got to have no matter what type of success you got,” Jadakiss told us when asked about Vince’s flap.
It is often riveting when a rapper finds a balance between the old and the now: the last five years of Kendrick Lamar’s career are a master class in observing and subtly subverting West Coast hip-hop lore. But a lot of the decade’s most adroit attempts at carrying classic hip-hop’s torch have leaned troublingly close to tribute, offering homage oftentimes without innovation. Look no further than rap recidivism cases like Brooklyn rabble-rouser Troy Ave’s personal campaign to “restore the feeling” of New York rap dominance—and the frankly floundering creativity and commercial viability of the music it produced—to see what happens when rap prizes record collections over individuality. Though he’s since come into his own, Queens rapper Your Old Droog sounded so much like Nas on his 2014 self-titled EP that the New Yorker had to weigh in and dispel a web of rap nerd conspiracy theories surrounding his true identity.
It’s good to know your shit; a touch of musicality never hurt anyone making a living in a studio, and a sharp business acumen has kept a lot of marginally musical people afloat in the game much longer than raw talent could. But a too-sharp familiarity with the rules of rap often breeds blind adherence to them. Many of the happy accidents that pushed music and culture forward happened because of a wrong or irrational move. Juice Crew architect Marley Marl discovered drum sampling when he tried to grab a vocal off of an old record but pulled the snare instead. If he stuck to the rules, rap might still sound like Run-D.M.C. Artists like T-Pain taking liberties with pitch correcting software lead to a whole new avenue of expression for young writers equally gifted with words and melodies. As important as it is for young artists to know the proverbial ‘ledge, it’s just as crucial for them to feel comfortable ducking convention, to carve out a place in history for themselves.
A ridiculous quality all humans share across boundaries of race, age, and geography is that each and every one of us believes that the era that birthed us is the best time for anyone to ever have come into existence. Barring life-altering political or environmental catastrophe, we carry the art and culture of our formative years warmly through life as the exemplary Good Times, a prism by which all future times are viewed and assessed. There’s nothing wrong with being a cheerleader for your generation; it creates a comforting camaraderie for you and others like you that can serve as backbone for valued, lifelong connections, friendships, and even marriages. Shared experiences help us to sort through the seven billion other bodies crammed into the narrow window of existence we’re blessed to occupy. It keeps us close. It keeps our culture alive. But what unites can also divide.
Over time, as the molting mechanics of the physical world give way to new ones, our comfort in the world we used to know can become a shield that keeps us locked into a way of processing experiences, closing us off from newer, weirder forms of expression forged in a different set of art, politics, and technology from our own that strikes us, therefore, as fundamentally alien. This happens a lot in music. The sexual power of rock n roll was a riot to the more mannered big band generation. Punk ripped rock’s rubric to ribbons. Disco warped soul like bubblegum. Hip-hop diced the whole lot and made stir fry. Each innovation left someone behind as culture decamped for trickier grounds. The intrepid fan weathers the advances. Creatures of habit hold fort as the future leaves them stranded on islands of static comfort.
Ultimately, it is narcissism to lord the glory of your own heroes over youth who weren’t born into the circumstances that created the culture you champion, who are simply carrying out the principal business of every new generation of creators: to warp, bend, and break the canon, to make their own. It is also narcissism to think that you have nothing to learn from the past, that knowledge of the business and the craft of rap imparted from people who have been there before is not a barrier to sustained success in it. Everyone is guilty of youthful insolence; we all arrived at culture stumbling in the dark. It would behoove everyone to consider this arrogance in dealings across lines of age, to set aside our experiential convictions and try to see the world through one another’s eyes.
Craig is tired. Follow him on Twitter.