The 21st-century hip-hop canon doesn’t get the respect it deserves

It’s time to rethink how we compare 21st-century rappers to their forebears. (David Milan for The Washington Post; AP; Getty Images)

Some astrophysicists believe that the universe existed before the big bang, but if you reject that hypothesis, go ahead and wish hip-hop a happy 50th birthday. (For those who choose to celebrate, my colleagues spoke to 50 hip-hop figures about their favorite songs here.)

It’s been a neat five decades since that fateful day — Aug. 11, 1973 — when DJ Kool Herc lugged two turntables into a Bronx apartment building rec room and began mixing the instrumental portions of two matching records into one looping, extended breakbeat. Does this sacred moment qualify as the genuine birth of hip-hop? Nah. Not to those Caribbean vocalists who had been toasting over reggae music for years. Not to the Black poets and comedians already cutting records filled with rhythm-minded mouth music. Not to Gil Scott-Heron, or the Last Poets, or DJ Hollywood. But as an organizing principle, Herc’s big bang has something going for it beyond its tidiness: It instantly posited hip-hop as an act of extension and continuity.

Since then, hip-hop’s foundational anxiety has flowed parallel to the anxiety of existence. How long is this thing gonna last? In his celebrated 2005 book, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” rap journalist and scholar Jeff Chang tried to wrestle that rhetorical question out of our heads: “So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop Generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over.”

But instead of being extinguished by that “next generation,” hip-hop has created generations within itself — generations that continue to battle for prestige on lopsided turf. How lopsided? If we draw a line between the centuries, it’s easy to feel that rappers of the past 23 years are rarely regarded as highly as their ’80s and ’90s forebears. Somehow, it still seems sacrilegious to propose that Future and Young Thug might be as important as 2Pac and Biggie, preposterous to compare Migos to Run-D.M.C., blasphemous to even mention Ice Spice in the same breath as Ice Cube. Yes, the old school created a transcendent Black art form and sent it to the top of the world. But what kind of credit do its successors deserve for keeping it there?

There’s no scientific way to measure this asymmetry, but music business institutions have been doing their part to reinforce it all year. Back in February, the Recording Academy celebrated hip-hop’s half-centennial during its annual Grammy telecast with a sprawling medley that included LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Scarface, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Nelly, Too Short, Lil Baby and more. But of the 24 songs touched on, only eight were from the 21st century, with only three from the past decade. A few days after the Grammys, Billboard published a list of the 50 greatest rappers of all time. How many of the names on this list made their respective mainstream splashes since the year 2000? Eleven.

These biases might be rooted in simple nostalgia, but overload undoubtedly plays a part. Rap music has become an exponentially unwieldy thing over the past few decades, especially during the streaming era, which has allowed rappers of countless different styles and strategies to circulate as much music as they please. The critic Kodwo Eshun prophesied all this back in his 1998 book “More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction” when he described hip-hop as “an omni-genre, a conceptual approach towards sonic organization rather than a particular sound in itself.”

Eshun’s idea was that rap producers have the ability to sample every sound that ever shook the air, making hip-hop an inherently vast and maximalist music made out of life itself. Plus, over those producers’ everything-beats, rappers have permission to say anything they want, however they want — and then they get to blast whatever they’re saying out to every corner of our digital planet. Eshun’s “omni-genre” remains one of the most dizzying and apt ways to think about today’s hip-hop and, like rap music itself, it clearly defies our reflexive cultural notions of canonization, consensus and ceremony. Can anyone truly get their ears around enough of this music to really know the best from the rest? Also, how do you throw a birthday party for everything?

Hero worship shouldn’t be a problem here. Kendrick Lamar is tradition-fluent virtuoso and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Drake is something of a pop cultural omnipresence. Kanye West, currently going by Ye, is an auteur. Nicki Minaj is a pathfinder whose popularity foreshadowed a recent proliferation of women’s voices in the rap mainstream — Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Ice Spice, Latto, GloRilla, so many more — that was decades overdue.

And in terms of reimagining the act of rapping itself, there’s Young Thug and Future, two Atlanta natives who began broadening rap’s collective sense of imagination more than a decade ago by artfully loosening their tongues. Together, they brought new timbral ideas to rap writ large, vividly sculpting their rhymes into hyper-expressive groans (Future) and chirps (Thug), instantly earning their respective places in any conversation about the greatest rappers of all time. Maybe it’s an oversimplification, but think of it this way: Originators get something going. Reinventors keep it going. Both are essential for any kind of larger musical tradition to continue to exist.

In a way, Future and Young Thug have each aspired to become their own omni-genres. Remember when Vibe magazine published that ranked list of the 77 best songs Lil Wayne had released in 2007? At the time, 77 felt like a dumbfounding number of tracks to unfurl within the space of 12 months, but today, that level of productivity has become standard practice for many. After Wayne’s history-making mixtape blitz in the mid-aughties, plenty of outlier stars (Gucci Mane, Future, Young Thug) and star outliers (Lil B, Chief Keef) began building their own individual silos of musical abundance, allowing listeners to sink deeper into this music than ever before.

The continued success of YoungBoy Never Broke Again makes those depths feel less fathomable than ever. In recent years, the 23-year-old Baton Rouge native has been transposing his interior thoughts about grief and vengeance into an overwhelming profusion of music that only seems to exist inside his head and on streaming platforms. He’s a massive star you’ll rarely encounter on the radio. “In an extreme and emblematic case of streaming-era stardom, YoungBoy is one of the most popular and prolific rappers on the planet,” Meaghan Garvey wrote in a rare profile of YoungBoy in Billboard magazine earlier this year. She described him as a world-beater with “practically zero mainstream presence.”

YoungBoy has carved out a strange, exciting new zone of rap fame, but for a habitual chart-topper, the only thing weird about the three albums he has dropped in 2023 is that none have gone No. 1. His absence from the summit of the Billboard albums chart seems to be part of a larger trend, though. Until Lil Uzi Vert’s “Pink Tape” finally hit No. 1 last month, the charts went 27 weeks without a rap album in the top slot — the longest calendar year dry spell since 1993.

That seems more like a fluke than a harbinger of decline, but rap fans appeared to be rattled by it either way. And why? Maybe for the same reason that today’s rap stars fear being unseen in their glory. Or for the same reason that legendary veteran rappers fear being forgotten and obsolesced. When we’re talking about hip-hop, we’re talking about a Black art form that is still largely mitigated by White power structures. Who controls the dollars that hip-hop generates? When it comes to royalties and distribution, it’s a network of record labels and streaming services predominantly owned and operated by White people. Who mediates much of hip-hop’s public narrative? When it comes to mainstream media outlets that still employ music critics, it’s too often White writers like me.

The late, great culture critic Greg Tate seemed rightfully anxious about this when reflecting on rap music’s 30th birthday in the Village Voice back in 2004. “Hip-hop may have begun as a folk culture,” Tate wrote, “defined by its isolation from mainstream society, but being that it was formed within the America that gave us the coon show, its folksiness was born to be bled once it began entertaining the same mainstream that had once excluded its originators.” After 50 years, that’s an issue that rap audiences — especially White audiences — still need to contend with, not just on hip-hop’s birthday, but every day.

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