Historically, most of my favorite emcees have been those that stood out sonically just as much as they did from a lyrical and technical standpoint. Take André 3000 or Lil Wayne, two of a countless number of emcees that changed my perception of the importance of vocal variance and its place in hip-hop.
While voice inflection has always been paramount to a captivating delivery, attention to exploring the entirety of one’s vocal range has, until now, been relegated to a few pioneering artists. Over the past several years, however, it seems that every third artist to bubble up has brought with them a new vocal style that is ready to push the envelope of what we've long considered "rap."
Smino, an artist who himself has an off-kilter delivery and dabbles in singing as often as rapping, recently explained his reasoning for this sudden upswing in vocal creativity during an interview with Noisey.
"In music, people aren't only looking for street rappers anymore. Now they wanna hear everything. People want to hear a version of rap that relates to them that might not be from the street. Migos are some of my favorite artists because they do everything with their voices. It's only so much you can do when you sing words so you gotta take your voice and use that bitch like it's a trumpet. Mainly, I think artists just want to keep having fun."
In just six sentences, Smino managed to perfectly encapsulate my feelings about hip-hop in 2017. Whether it's the use of purposefully off-key singing (Lil Yachty and Ugly God), harmonizing and ad-libbing across hypnotic trap beats (Migos), or creating a caricature of your natural speaking voice (Chance The Rapper), vocal experimentation is playing a significant role in the ushering in of hip-hop's next generation.
Currently, the mainstream—a realm historically dominated by a select few sounds—houses the nasally, sing-song raps of Lil Yachty, the Boosie-on-helium flow of Kodak Black, the constant sing-rap blur that is Drake and whatever you can call Future’s voice, simultaneously. Young Thug is the pinnacle of vocal experimentation within the mainstream, exploring every squeak and grunt his vocal chords are capable of, often all within the span of a single song. Ultimately, it's the exotic tones and inflections from these artists that allow them to stand apart from the masses and remain memorable to legions of listeners.
A quick dip into the underground reveals buzzing artists like J.I.D, another rapper who not only possesses a one-of-a-kind voice but is also further blurring the lines between rapper and singer. J.I.D's go-to style mirrors Kendrick Lamar, equal parts smooth and raspy, leaning heavily on his Atlanta drawl—think André 3000 meets frequent collaborators EarthGang. His recently released debut album The Never Story showcases a vast range of vocal styles across its 12 tracks, and mid-way through finds the newest Dreamville signee dabbling in R&B flavors on "Hereditary" and "All Bad."
Artists like Aminé and KYLE are currently bridging the gap between the "underground" and mainstream with Billboard Hot 100 placements, while Chance The Rapper has completely blown past the underground in the wake of his GRAMMY success. No matter where you turn, there’s a new vocal flavor to be enjoyed, or not enjoyed, depending on your tastes.
Ironically, I distinctly remember being initially turned off by Chance's nasally voice and constant use of nonsensical ad libs, but when coupled with his poetic lyrical insights and his infectiously optimistic persona, it quickly became difficult to not love Chano's cartoonish vocals. As Chance's career has progressed, he's also begun incorporating more singing into his music, which, like his rapping, displays a lovably earnest effort even if it's not Trey Songz quality.
Aminé's vocal style is similar in that it's an exaggerated version of his much deeper speaking voice, but it's the "Caroline" penman's intuitive use of vocal emphasis that lends a sort of ethereal polish to his music. I have to wonder if "Caroline" would be nearly as popular if it was performed in a straightforward manner more in line with the Portland native's daily speaking voice. My gut says no. Likewise, KYLE is also a master of inflection who, like Chance and Tyler, The Creator uses variations of his already unique speaking voice to convey humor, passion, and aggression that compliment his lyrics and helps to make his music stand out. This is most evident on "Wanne Be Cool," a record that finds KYLE side-by-side with Chance and Big Sean on The Social Experiment's Surf album.
Don’t get it twisted, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a more straightforward delivery—hey there Joey Bada$$ and Vince Staples—but living in the midst of this vocal experimentation explosion is undeniably exciting.