When I was growing up, everyone wanted to be a rapper. I’m part of a generation that was raised on Jay Z and Lil Wayne, two emcees that never let you forget that their goal was to be the greatest rapper alive. Mumble rap wasn't a thing that dominated rap conversations, and a heavy emphasis was still placed on “bars,” rather than “vibes.” Somewhere along the line, however, a shift occurred, causing artists to desperately shed the label of “rapper.”
"What the fuck is a rapper? I dunno. A country singer, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. No one is a country singer unless he wants to get stuck in one single genre. Me, I sing, I rap, I do beats, I sometimes make videos. Labels piss me off."
These comments come fresh on the heels of Childish Gambino claiming the death of genres, making Travis the latest in a growing line of newer artists who are ditching the label of “rapper” or distancing themselves from "rap." Lil Yachty and Desiigner also come to mind as artists who have done their best to distance themselves from what they consider to be a tired and limit-imposing label.
While hip-hop purists are likely happy to hear that the aforementioned names don’t consider themselves rappers, it’s worth noting that even esteemed artists like Kendrick Lamar, who is highly respected for his lyricism (as long as it’s not about God), have also expressed not wanting to be labeled a rapper. I don't look at these artists as maliciously trying to kill hip-hop, I think it's much more simple than that. While they enjoy the culture and lifestyle of hip-hop, many artists just literally don't like the musical limitations implicit in the term "rapper."
Having witnessed the tail end of the “golden era” of hip-hop, I find myself torn on whether or not this is ultimately a good thing. One one hand, hip-hop was born from a fusion of funk, blues, and jazz, and has been questioning genre importance since day one. Some of the most exciting hip-hop made in the last decade has been a direct product of reaching outside the normal confines of the genre's influence and pulling in new sounds, ideas, and deliveries. That also includes incorporating new skills, like singing, crafting your own beats and even directing your own videos.
In that regard, I love that the lines are being blurred, and I truly believe the inclusion of more influences, styles and skill sets will continue to expand and evolve hip-hop as musical style and culture. If ditching a term we’ve used for 30-plus years is what brings the next evolution of hip-hop, I’m all for it.
There is, however, another side to this discussion that bugs me on a visceral level. There seems to be a growing attitude that hip-hop itself is boring or limiting, and that, I cannot fuck with. When I hear an artist say they’re bored with rapping, I say good riddance.
As Yoh wrote earlier this year in reference to comments made about Lil Uzi Vert (and a desire to place him in the realm of pop-punk, rather than rap):
I want to see respect come back to the term “rapper.” You can have all the melodies and a rock star attitude, but don’t forget that it’s thanks to rap and hip-hop you’re able to make money, tour the world, and build a fanbase. If rap fans didn’t care about Lil Uzi Vert, he would not be one of today’s most relevant artists. The pop-punk audience isn't who helped him reach this plateau. There’s power in words and representation, let's hope more artists honor being classified as a rapper.
If you feel like the scene is getting stale, mix it up, but don’t blame the entirety of a culture for your lack of inspiration or imagination. I was always taught that there’s no such thing as being bored, there are only boring people, and I can’t help but apply that generality to hip-hop as well.
So by all means, ditch the “rapper” label in pursuit of opening up the possibilities of the music and your own contributions, but at the end of the day, if you’re not genuinely in love with the culture and music of hip-hop, we don’t want or need you here anyway.