Why We Need to Stop Labeling Hip-Hop Artists

When we place close-minded expectations on an artist, we inhibit them from creating art.
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When we place close-minded expectations on an artist, we inhibit them from creating art.

Mac Miller is a frat-boy party rapper. Logic is for white kids who want to earn hip-hop cred. Tyler, The Creator is for Supreme-toting skater boys and suburban renegades who hate their parents. Pusha T is the soundtrack for when you need to move a brick of cocaine, Kendrick Lamar’s politically conscious poetry is the battle-cry for your protest, and Drake will pluck your heart strings when you find yourself about to drunk-text your ex. Right?

Flatbush Zombies’ bearded lyricist Zombie Juice recently tweeted a lengthy rant about his music industry frustrations, which included how rappers get rich by lying about their lifestyles in meaningless songs, how new artists seek to join the game only for money, and, most notably, how the label of “drug rapper” is hampering his important lyrical messages from getting through.

While starting the rant by saying he “might as well kill [himself]” comes across as graceless, especially following Kid Cudi’s recent admission that he has entered rehab due to suicidal urges, his opinions about labeling artists ring true, and need to be discussed more often.

When Mac Miller’s “Donald Trump” began to gain real traction in 2011, the song’s success actually placed unfair and unreasonable expectations on the emcee. Immediately, Miller was put in a box: frat rap, the hip-hop subgenre for white bro-dudes who wear sunglasses indoors and take pre-workout formula with their Jägerbombs. (Asher Roth is credited with the birth of frat rap after releasing “I Love College,” while Lil Dicky is considered the new frat rap ambassador.) Unbelievably, four full-length studio albums later, Mac’s loose association with this somewhat regrettable wave was mentioned in everygoddamnreview of his artistically complex and mould-breaking project The Divine Feminine.

A similar narrative can be written about countless other pigeonholed artists. Sometimes, the labels aren’t wrong—I’m fairly confident Jay Z will always live up to his title as the King of Braggadocio. But when we limit our expectations of an artist’s music to the neatly organized boxes that we’ve pre-defined, we inhibit their ability to reach broader audiences, try out new sounds, or express new worldviews.

For example, if you listen to Flatbush Zombies’ 3001: A Laced Odyssey, you should expect to hear lyrics about drugs, as the album title warns. Based solely on the title of the group’s first mixtape D.R.U.G.S., you could comfortably anticipate another dive into narcotica. However, if your main takeaway from 3001 is drug rap, you’re missing a lot of important material.

Art can’t be forced. Artfulness is derived from honest expression, be it about emotions, politics, or even partying. Just because Kanye West was more relatable to you in The College Dropout-era doesn’t mean that The Life of Pablo is devoid of honest artistry—it just means that his lifestyle and perspective have changed considerably in 12 years and his art has changed correspondingly. It’s perfectly fine to call The College Dropout your favorite Kanye album, but it’s unfair to expect the Old Kanye on a new Kanye album.

The pressure an artist often feels to return to their old approach and sounds is a constant in the career trajectory of any breakout star. After Cherry Bomb broke the contiguous storyline from the Bastard/Goblin/Wolf trilogy, many fans were disappointed with Tyler, The Creator’s new direction. In a since-deleted post to OFWGKTA’s subreddit, a user complained that he couldn’t find Tyler relatable anymore, and he preferred when Tyler’s music was about being depressed and living with his grandmother.

Tyler responded:

ohhh, it was cool when i was raping girls and telling you how sad i was on records, but when shit changes and im feeling great and i fuck with myself you cant deal with it? cause you cant relate? [...] sorry im not sad, sorry i didnt have a story line to cover up my flaws of sound b, sorry the last album was 100 percent me and not from the perspective of a bunch of made up people

Tyler’s vexation was well-grounded: he created a different sound, befitting an honest expression of his different life, and subsequently was met with his lowest album sales to date.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest rap star in the world or a relatively underground artist. Drake fans often express their disappointment every time his next project isn’t titled Take Care 2, just like many Kevin Abstract fans want nothing more than another MTV1987. Expectations slapped on an artist by boxing them into one, comfortable soundscape limits their creativity, because on some level, any artist who respects their fans will aim to please them. To counteract this, we, the fans, have to learn to appreciate and be pleased with change, even if we prefer an artist’s older material more than their recent catalog additions.

When artists are unbridled from stylistic labels, like the enigmatic Pharrell or the limitless Chance The Rapper, we allow them to show us just how deep their well of creative genius goes. That not only means more versatile content for the listener, but it also guarantees a more enjoyable career for the artist. Remember: if you weren’t a fan of Coloring Book, you can still listen to Acid Rap whenever you want, but Chance doesn’t have the option of going back.

In the case of Flatbush Zombies, that means we have to stop limiting our expectations to drug-infused mindbenders, and start celebrating deeper cuts. Otherwise, we’ll have to live with ourselves when the Zombies grow and change and don’t have the ability to meet our retro-set expectations.

Hopefully, if we can successfully re-adjust our mindset, we can have a healthier relationship with every artist we love, not just a select few mould-breakers, and encourage them all to lead diverse careers. After all, the consumer-producer relationship is just that—a relationship—and relationships can’t be one-sided.


By Kareem, who is always tweeting in support of his favorite artists and thinks you should join.

Photo CreditCole Tesoriero-Shealey