Syd & Solange: A Rap Purist’s Journey to Embracing Melody
Earlier this year, my friend Anik Khan sent me some of his new music, which showcased his particular mixture of Bollywood, hip-hop, and dancehall. He was surprised that I liked it, reminding me that a year ago I wouldn’t have because he knew that I pretty much strictly listened to rap.
Ever since, I've been thinking about how, like anyone, my tastes have morphed over the years. It wasn't until this year, though, in 2016, that I was able to fully open my mind more than ever before, listening to—and even loving—music that was more than just rapping. My preferences changed only within the purview of hip-hop, but even that's been enough to strike a seismic change in what I love hearing.
My entrypoint into rap was largely through Eminem; I grew up in St. Louis, and Detroit was in close proximity. I was fascinated with was his anger, his lyrical dexterity, and his alter ego Slim Shady. Who was Slim Shady and why was he so enraged all the damn time? Why was he always wearing a white undershirt and why was his hair so blonde? I acutely remember Em’s performance at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards; his rebellious nature was mystifying and alluring.
I was also listening to Jay Z at that point (Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life and Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter stayed on repeat; my cousin and I even got t-shirts made that said “Big Pimpin’”), and both Hov and Em swayed me to dig into years of lyrical East Coast rap. I soon became a purist, the brazenly conscious lyrics of Nas, Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Black Star feeding the burgeoning poet in me. Their music was lyrical fodder, and I hung onto every word of the most bitterly truthful shit I’d ever heard. Of course, there was also voyeurism: Theirs were lives I didn’t know at all. I was an Indian kid living in the suburbs of St. Louis; Nas’ descriptions of Queensbridge were stunning, as were Black Star’s exploration of their “blackness.”
But the purist in me grew tired, and as I entered high school, I abandoned most of my cerebral ways, expanding my affections to Southern and West Coast rap. Peripherally, I had been listening to OutKast for a while—particularly Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—but then I had to backtrack through their catalog. Next came Tupac, N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Gucci Mane, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, etc. All very diverse artists from different parts of the country, all tied together by my love of the art of rapping itself, and the words they were speaking. My high school years filled in the gaps for whoever I’d missed, on the East, West or third coasts, and that continued into college, the tail end of which I began immersing myself in indie rap, the place I’ve now lived for years.
Then, The Internet dropped their 2015 album Ego Death, and everything changed. My taste broadened again, and for the first time really went beyond the realm of hip-hop, and rapping. Ego Death was the springboard for my first real embracing of melody. It was the honesty in Syd’s voice that I latched onto—the way the band’s sound and her vocals seamlessly intertwined in a completely organic way.
Then, I felt the same way about Xavier Omär and Sango’s Hours Spent Loving You, particularly “The Motive Used to Be the Melody.” The emotion in that song is flawless; I could feel what he was feeling. By the time 2016 hit, I was growing weary of only listening to hip-hop. All my deep dives on SoundCloud helped to further that along; the platform was a sort-of new dimension within the music world, a place where independent and emerging artists could congregate. It was also the space where I truly discovered just how malleable genres were becoming, and just how much I was enjoying music as more than just a vessel for raps.
I became drawn to autonomous emcees, the ones who could rap and sing, as well as produce, play instruments and engineer. For me, an emcee’s ability to spit bars was now just as breathtaking as his or her ability to carry a tune or to harmonize. Eventually, I found singing more alluring than rapping—attracted to the R&B, alternative and soulful sounds that had been taking over.
Truth be told, I was also tired of listening to men rap. Sure, East Coast hip-hop and the early aughts had Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and Foxy Brown, but the men, unfortunately, far overshadowed them.
This year, it was mainstream singers like Rihanna and Solange that whisked me away to another world. While I did listen to Rihanna before—how could you ever escape “SOS,” “Umbrella” or “Rude Boy”?—I listened to Anti with a fervor, fully enamored by Rihanna’s zero-fucks attitude. I had never given Solange a chance before, but A Seat at the Table? It blew me away, and surprisingly, has continued to hold me down for the past three months.
Indeed, genres like R&B, soul, and funk are undercurrents in hip-hop, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I truly appreciated their melodic influence. R&B is the comeback kid, and this year, we saw how deeply R&B and its adjacent genres have impacted rap: Chance the Rapper further dismantled the confines of hip-hop with his gospel-inspired rap project Coloring Book, and Kendrick Lamar continued his funk and soul throughline on untitled unmastered.
The respective releases of artists like Jamila Woods, Frank Ocean, D.R.A.M. and Smino trumpeted the importance of R&B and soul within and around hip-hop. Hell, Frank Ocean's Blonde barely has any drums. And finally, some of my favorite emcees—Joey Purp, Saba, Young Thug, Cousin Stizz—proved, in their own ways, that even though the most unadulterated form of rap still exists, it's even better when peppered with each emcee's own brand of melody.
It’s curious how the genres that preceded the birth of hip-hop—R&B, soul, jazz, blues, funk—created hip-hop, and then how hip-hop became a jumping off point for the same genres to re-enter the mainstream. Now, more than ever, I understand that those genres are as much a sonic peg for rap, as rap is for them, and that’s absolutely how it should be.
I still love rap dearly, but these days I yearn for something more than just raps, and 2016 delivered in abundance.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credits: Tumblr