The only thing rap fans love more than spitting lines is drawing them in the sand. There’s always been this attitude of this over here is real hip-hop, and that over there ain’t. And in 2016, “mumble rap” has been one of the hottest debates.
With the recent rise of, shall we say, less lyrical artists like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Desiigner, young and old heads alike have been weighing in on this growing trend amongst the new generation of rap. Wiz Khalifa suggested these mumble rappers need to step their pen game up “if they want to stay around,” while Pete Rock straight up called Lil Yachty wack. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But “mumble rap” has been increasingly used as a catch-all term to describe any young rapper whose appeal lies in melody and mood rather than traditional lyricism—or just any young rapper someone doesn’t like. Sure, there are guys like Young Thug and Future who actually do mumble in their music. But the “mumble rapper” label has also been unfairly slapped on artists such as Kodak Black, 21 Savage, and Madeintyo, who offer a lot more—lyrically and musically—than just muttering unintelligibly over a hot beat.
The point is that it isn’t so cut-and-dry when it comes to who is or who isn’t a “mumble rapper”—or even what a “mumble rapper” really is. More importantly, a lot of so-called mumble rappers can actually rap (shocker!).
Earlier this week, a video of a young Lil Uzi Vert rapping his verse from DJ Diamond Kuts’ 2014 posse cut “Philly Zoo” made the rounds on Twitter. The song itself currently sits on less than 20,000 views on YouTube, but the reason it’s gaining so much traction right now is because Uzi, one of the game’s most notorious mumble rappers, is spitting flames over a sample of “Brooklyn Zoo” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who, ironically, was the original mumble rapper). For those who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a glimpse into an alternate universe in which Lil Uzi Vert took the Joey Bada$$ route.
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In similar fashion, a video of a young Desiigner showing off his raw rap skills popped up on WorldStarHipHop last month. The title read “Throwback Footage Of Desiigner Before He Rapped Like Future!” which is somewhat accurate. The Brooklyn teenager is seen rapping what would later become “Make It Out,” but there were no machine gun ad-libs, grating vocal inflections and—for obvious reasons—a deep, gravelly delivery that really does sound like Mr. Hendrix (don’t even try to deny it). Instead, Desiigner raps like you’d expect a New York kid to rap, and it’s actually pretty good.
You don’t always have to dig deep to dispel the mumble rapper myth, though. On “Mase In ‘97,” a collaboration with producer/DJ Carnage that’s amassed almost 1.5 million views on YouTube, Lil Yachty spazzes out for almost two straight minutes, flying through two verses at breakneck speed while barely catching his breath on the hook. In fact, he rapped so fast he “got that stupid hoe dizzy.” Did he mumble once? Nope. Even Yachty’s Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2 mixtapes are littered with non-mumble rapping tracks (like “Up Next 2” and “Up Next 3”), if you care to listen.
Clearly, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and Desiigner can all rap their ass off when they want to, so why don’t they do it more often?
Well, if you became popular off a song like “Money Longer,” “1 Night” or “Panda,” would you abandon that winning formula? Can you really criticize Uzi and Desiigner for switching up their rapping style and becoming successful because of it? Isn’t that what hip-hop is all about: innovation? Like Kanye West once said, “Keep this shit fresh and original…ain’t no fuckin’ rules to this shit and that’s what real hip-hop is to me.”
I’m not here to defend wack rappers who think they’re rock stars or anything. I’m just saying: don’t be so quick to label new music you’re not familiar with—whether that’s mumble rap, cloud rap or whatever new wave hits hip-hop’s shores next—because not everything needs to be put in a box. With all the rigid rules upheld by many older rap fans, good hip-hop and good music can sometimes be two different things. Take Lil Yachty’s “Never Switch Up,” for example. Does it check all the boxes for a good rap record? Not really. But is it a catchy song that captures a certain mood and emotion? That’s subjective, of course, but a lot of people would say yes. Calling it “mumble rap” is missing the point.
Whether it’s rap, rock or reggae, music is only as good as the mood it’s played in. No one wants to hear Robert Glasper in the club, just like no one wants to hear Rich Boy on a Smooth Sunday station. Sometimes you want to hear Lil Yachty rapping double-time, and other times you want to hear him Auto-Tuning his way to Heaven’s gate on a hook.
These “mumble rappers” aren’t as dumb as you might think.