In Defense of Mumble Rap
By Noah Franklin
In February of 2016, Lil Uzi Vert is invited onto Hot 97, a New York radio station that often puts both up-and-coming and seasoned MC’s to the test. Ebro tries to get Uzi to rap over a DJ Premier beat. Uzi flat-out refuses. “You know how I rap,” he says. Ebro bellows back, “I do that to y’all young cats to see what y’all really built on.” It’s ridiculous, and Ebro genuinely doesn’t get it. Uzi is right. If Ebro had listened to a few of Lil Uzi Vert’s songs — which he surely did in preparation for the interview — he shouldn’t have tried to squeeze Uzi into a beat from the ‘golden age’ of hip-hop. It just isn’t the type of music that Uzi makes, and it isn’t fair for that to be his trial. Not to mention: it’s not even fair to ask every rapper to freestyle, which is surely an independent skill from recording or performing music.
Lil Uzi Vert is just one example of a rapper who has gotten tons of flack as of late for…well, for being inarticulate. People label him and a slew of others “mumble rappers,” because sometimes their lyrics are hard to understand. So many have bemoaned lost lyricism in the past couple years, ignoring literally everything else about the music. Because they mumble, they are not true rappers, and because they are not true rappers, all of their music gets discredited. Most fans don’t care about these invented rules of the game, though. These rappers are already successful, and will continue to be. Some critics have thankfully already started to take them seriously. But this odd recoil to change still runs amuck. And much of it stems from cultural institutions.
Hot 97 is just one institution that holds immense sway for the hip-hop zeitgeist. Other radio programs like Sway in the Morning and the Breakfast Club consistently bring rappers on to chat and freestyle, and be judged. An eclectic range of musical artists are all funneled and forced to perform the same talent. Then there is the XXL Freshman list, an annual round-up of rappers who are ‘next-up,’ which is often an accurate benchmark, and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this too corrals and projects in a destructive manner. The issue with these traditions is that they attempt to tether every artist in the orbit of hip-hop to a single narrative — that of the hungry upstart spitting clever yet political rhymes over sampled breakbeats so as to escape the trappings of gangs and selling drugs.
Admittedly, that was and still is a story worth telling. Much hip-hop has been born in strife. This may seem like an unnecessary reference, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton does not tell its story through rap by chance. In “Hurricane,” Hamilton sings “I wrote my way out,” because Miranda rightfully saw in him the story of hip-hop. For most of its history, one of the most compelling aspects of the musical genre is that it became the ropes by which the underprivileged hoisted themselves off of the streets. Nas wrote his way out. Tupac wrote his way out. Jay Z wrote his way out. Their stories and dreams resonated with their peers, and so they were lifted and encouraged to preach with a mic. And some contemporary artists (say, J Cole or Joey Bada$$) are applauded for sticking to that winning template. Yet hip-hop music, whatever that means anymore, is not homogeneous, nor should it be.
It isn’t startling when Drake releases a crooning hip-hop ballad, or even when 21 Pilots pump out rap packaged in pop-rock. So why did everyone freak out over “mumble rap?” Perhaps the issue is in holding onto the genre itself. It’s clear that with the modern ease in recording and distributing music, genre lines are blurring. There are no longer a handful of record companies with individual, polished aesthetics releasing a fiercely coordinated stream of hits. Anybody can release whatever they want, and sometimes eschewing genre leads to the most incredible music. But old heads of hip hop cannot let go, and the market plays along because it’s lucrative to have a stranglehold on a burgeoning genre. Does it really make sense that rising star XXXTentacion is almost exclusively referred to as a hip-hop artist when he makes tracks ranging from R&B to metal? Even Uzi’s latest hit “XO Tour Lif3” was labeled as “Alternative Rock” on soundcloud before streaming services reigned it back in and put it under “Hip-Hop/Rap.” Here: take a look at the 2016 XXL Freshman Class as a case-study, with a couple adjustments to how XXL split up the rappers into their freestyle videos.
In one corner, there was G Herbo, Dave East, and Denzel Curry, who failed to really make it big last year, but were the most traditional MC’s on the list. They sound like what all rap used to sound like. In another corner, there were the oddballs of Lil Dicky and Anderson .Paak. Lil Dicky makes comedy music that almost seems silly to label hip-hop, though he admittedly seems to like the association himself, and is a polished, technical rapper. Anderson .Paak makes music on the periphery of hip-hop, but it is really sun-bathed LA R&B. Then there were the “mumble rappers:” Desiigner, Kodak Black, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert. Even these guys, though, make wildly different music from each other. 21 Savage talks slowly about selling crack over ghostly Metro Boomin beats; Lil Yachty gleefully sings through auto-tune about teenage emotions.
XXL stuck all of these musical artists on the front cover of their magazine as if they were all competing in the same arena — as if they were all the same thing. They aren’t, and they aren’t. Of course, there is a reason people call it the “rap game.” The hip-hop world is structured just like one. In no other genre are there as much winners and losers as there are in rap. This probably stems from the aforementioned narrative. But these artists are no longer even playing the same sport as each other. And trying to claim that they do leads to toxic shaming of revolutionary music. When will people learn that when young people embrace change, they are almost always on the right side of history? This is especially true in music. And all rap these days isn’t unintelligible, if that point still begs to be argued. Artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Aesop Rock, Chance, and Kendrick continue to innovate in the realm of lyricism. It’s just that this type of sonic experimentation is new and riveting. In other words, deft MC’s will always be in high demand for their artistry, but there happens to be other exciting stuff happening right now, which is wonderful in its own right.
Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreak invited rappers to sing, and his whole discography encouraged artists to utilize their voice in inventive ways. Not every song is intended to flex wordplay or rhyme; some showcase timbre and vibe. Future and Young Thug might mumble, and one can choose to see that in stark contrast to technical rapping ability. Or one can see it for what it actually is: artists using their voices as musical instruments, and creating moods far more human than any synthesizer can. The only way in which “mumble rappers” are of the same ilk is in their willingness to trade clarity of lyrics for clarity of vision. It’s not so crazy that one could fully understand the narcotic trance of “Mask Off” or the playful braggadocio of “Panda” while only catching a handful of words. If you think about it, music has long been a way of communicating emotion and meaning through the human voice with more tools than just language. So this trend shouldn’t be taking so long to get used to — it’s hip-hop that’s holding them back.
In that same Hot 97 interview, Uzi said “It’s gonna be a lot of young guys coming up in here, and they not gonna wanna rap on that [old beat]. I’m trying to tell you, bruh. It’s changing.” It’s such a simple statement. It seems so obvious. Let this new generation display their talent how they want to, not under some imagined criteria. Lil Yachty sparked an internet storm for casually saying he couldn’t name tracks by Biggie or Tupac. Last week he had a tense, combative conversation with Joe Budden on Complex’s “Everyday Struggle” about how he fits into the world of hip-hop. He keeps saying it’s bigger than that; he’s a brand that promotes self-love. Joe Budden yells at him for not ranking his contemporaries. The friction is inevitable when trying to stuff someone in a box they don’t fit in. Because Yachty also went on Hot 97 last June, and Ebro asks him then and there if he considers himself a rapper. He says “No.” “What are you?” Ebro asks. “I don’t know…I’m just here,” answers Yachty. Nobody listened to that.