We Spoke to Apple Music's Hip-Hop Gatekeeper About the Future of Lyrical Rap

"Mumble rap just takes off faster...If you're a more lyrical artist, it’s going to take you a little bit more time."
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"Mumble rap just takes off faster...If you're a more lyrical artist, it’s going to take you a little bit more time."

“All the signs point to playlists being the dominant mode of discovery in the near future,” says Jay Frank, senior vice president of global streaming marketing for Universal Music Group, the largest of the major label conglomerates” - Inside The Playlist Factor

Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” has achieved a level of commercial conquest that’s completely uncharted territory for the Stone Mountain, Georgia born multi-faceted creative. Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, recently cited Spotify’s RapCaviar playlist as the launching pad that sent the single soaring. This is the power of a curated playlist with over seven million subscribers.

When East Atlanta’s 6LACK was at the genesis of his blossoming career, his hit single “PRBLMS” brought him millions of eyes and ears. He was new, fairly unknown, and still under the radar of radio—but he had Apple Music. The streaming service not only premiered the record but was able to spread “PRBLMS” across 10 different Apple Music playlists. Unlike Spotify, Apple Music doesn’t reveal how many of their millions of subscribers utilize playlists but it’s more than enough to jumpstart a promising music career. The blogs can’t claim him, radio wasn’t first; the old guard has become the tortoise in this ever-evolving era.

Curated playlists like Spotify’s RapCaviar and Apple Music’s The A-List: Hip-Hop have also become a leading source of music discovery, able to break songs, accelerate hits, and present new faces to their immense listener base.

For artists, getting placed on a prominent playlist has become nearly as important as radio play. "Labels obsess over that," says Ben Swanson, co-owner of indie label Secretly Group, which represents rockers like the War on Drugs. - How Spotify Playlist Create Hits

In July, it was reported that hip-hop is the most popular music genre for the first time in U.S. history, a feat accomplished thanks to on-demand services like Spotify and Apple Music where rap and R&B are dominating. What the statistics don’t show, however, is that while mainstream rap and artists with a mainstream-esque approach to rap are being given all the tools to succeed, underground traditionalists aren’t receiving the same convenience.

The next Drake has a promising path to an audience of millions if his melodies and singing appeals to ears accustomed to rapping and singing that coexist as a singular art form, but what about the next Jay Electronica? Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your music preference—trap rappers and hybrid rapper-singers have an advantage in rap’s current climate. The sounds of Gucci Mane and 6LACK have a wider appeal than Earl Sweatshirt and Oddisee, a reality that is reflected in some of rap’s biggest playlists.

milo’s “Sorcerer” doesn’t sonically complement Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” but both deserve the same awareness. Skyzoo’s “‘95 Bad Boy Logo” and J.I.D.’s “Hasta Luego” should be highlighted for their potent lyrical prowess but don't earn the same number of placements as Lil Pump's “Boss” or 21 Savage’s “Bank Account.” It's not a question of better or worse but rather a lack of balance. 

Where does the lyrical miracle lyricist or simply a more traditional rapper exist in the rise of algorithmic-developed streaming services and human-curated playlists? Do bars in the most traditional conception have a thriving home to spotlight those writing rhymes in the underground?

In order to get answers to these questions, I spoke with Carl Chery, the Head of Hip-Hop/R&B Programming at Apple Music. It was Chery who received an email from 6LACK's manager, Seam Famoso, which led to “PRBLMS” being championed by Apple Music.

Carl is a true industry OG. From working at XXL as a journalist to acquiring a post at Beats Music in 2012 (before the service became Apple Music), he knows music discovery and he knows hip-hop. It’s a bit comforting knowing the man who is behind all the Apple hip-hop playlists is someone deeply engrossed in the culture, but even the biggest hip-hop head understands we aren’t in the age of wizardry lyricism.

“Before everything went online there was a clear separation,” Chery explained. “You never had the biggest artists in music, or in hip-hop, on the same platform as emerging artists or artists no one ever heard about. That’s what the blogs did. You had Drake on NahRight.” Chery went on to reminisce about how blogs brought a balance between the emerging mainstream and underground darlings. It was a duality that didn’t exist when radio was the industry’s leading tyrant.

When asked about an artist who leans more toward traditional rhyming without the usage of melodic enhancement in their rap style, Chery mentioned Walterboro, South Carolina native Nick Grant with glowing praise. Earlier this year, he premiered Nick’s “Luxury Vintage Rap” on Zane Lowe’s popular Beats 1 radio show—the same show that premiered 6LACKs “PRBLMS” and helped place the song on multiple playlists. He calls the record, “Organized Noize production that sounds like Public Enemy and he’s rapping the whole time with a bunch of punchlines.”

Chery elaborated further on the path of a lyrical artist:

"There’s no melody, maybe one song off the mixtape that uses melody, but I’ve played Nick Grant before on some of the biggest playlists on the service. I’m a little bit more careful when I play that kind of artist just because that’s not exactly the current landscape. Mumble rap just takes off faster. It’s just what happens. If you're a more lyrical artist, it’s going to take you a little bit more time to get to a certain point. What’s the last lyrical rapper that became a star? Chance. Probably Chance. He didn’t get there overnight, it took him four projects to get there. When you look back on Kendrick, he did it step by step. Same with Cole. Any lyrical rapper that I can think of did it step by step." 

Chery understands that he’s seated in a powerful and influential chair. He understands the importance of championing lyricism and music with a message. “For me, it’s important to still give them a shot on the platform and the right playlist,” he said. For a lyricist, that "right playlist" could be Apple Music’s BARS. Originally titled Lyrics To Go—an homage to the A Tribe Called Quest track on Midnight Marauders—the playlist was developed after Chery had an epiphany that the current generation of youngsters seeking out the latest playlists predates the golden era of Tribe and they likely wouldn’t understand the reference. Once the name was changed, the numbers began to surge.

Buddy, J.I.D., Jalen Santoy, and Dreezy all have at least one record featured on the playlist alongside Kendrick, Lauryn Hill, Ghostface Killah, and De La Soul. BARS leans closer to more classic hip-hop records but seeing the newcomers alongside legends and legendary records is a positive step in a right direction. It's still a rather new playlist, one that Chery admits he hasn't yet had to time to dedicate to growing, but he has high hopes for what it could become. 

When asked if he foresees a future where popular playlists can be driven by new lyricists, Chery seemed hopeful:

"I think it can grow into that. If you look at Kendrick and the year he’s having. Kendrick is influential, but I think with him having such a commercially successful year, and him being around for so long now, you're going to start seeing the influence a little more now. Sometimes, you come in and people don’t realize how influential you are. It takes time. Sure there’s a lot of mumble rap, and to have a meteoric rise doesn’t really happen with lyricists, but the guys at the top can always rap. I don’t know if Drake is on BARS right now but he should be. You can say what you want about him, he can rap. J. Cole can rap. Chance can rap. We can go back to the beginning of hip-hop. The top guys in hip-hop could always rap. You might’ve had someone who had a good year—no offense—but like a Nelly because he had some pop hits. But at the end of the day the top guy can always rap."

Even as an acclaimed rapper, Kendrick Lamar earning the highest-selling album (so far) of 2017 is a rather impressive accomplishment. Unlike the jazzy foundation of To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. leans closer toward the soundscape of modern rap. A song like “LOYALTY” shows Kendrick is able to adapt, create a record for radio, but he's still able to bless rap fans with album cuts like “DNA,” "FEAR" and “DUCKWORTH.”

During our conversation, I mentioned Mir Fontane to Chery, the New Jersey rapper signed to 300 Entertainment who has a popular single (“Frank Ocean”) on Spotify. Mir isn't a "mumble rapper" but he’s able to make music fitting of mainstream rap’s current sound. On the flip side, Mir can also craft a record like “$horty $tory,” which showcases a natural storytelling prowess that would be admired in hip-hop’s yesteryears.

In a recent meeting with Trippie Redd, a young rockstar rapper in the same musical lineage as Lil Uzi Vert, Chery was blown away by the bar-filled “Can You Rap Like Me?” but to date, it's the least popular song from his A Love Letter to You mixtape. "It's literally the most intelligent song I have on my tape, with the least amount of views," Redd toldPigeons & Planes in a recent interview.

The new generation isn't as one dimensional as some would perceive. As Chery explained, it's mostly a matter of strategy.

"Maybe it is a thing where some of these guys want to be lyrical, [but] they come in and try to figure out a different entry point. What I said earlier about the top guys being lyrical, always, I don’t think everyone is having that conversation. I think the perception is that guy who I found out about in March by September has million of followers on Twitter and Instagram, a hit song, and he’s on Instagram talking on the money phone, he’s everywhere. It creates the perception that it’s the way to go, maybe that’s why people—I don’t want to call it microwave music—still gravitate towards that. There’s always going to be a window to that quick scheme. But Kendrick has been around for a couple years, he’s not going anywhere. All the guys that we’ve mentioned earlier—Drake's been around nine years, I know people will be mad about me mentioning him with the other guys but the guy got bars." 

It’s disheartening to think that every artist may have to adapt in order to showcase their wide-ranging, artistic palette, but this approach isn’t new. Joe Budden had to drop a classic dance record (“Pump It Up”) before he could release his deeply introspective Joe Budden debut on Def Jam. Visibility isn’t acquired just by being the nicest with the bars. One of the most interesting takeaways from my conversation with Carl is that, when it comes to bars, he believes lyricism is a bit deeper than complex rhyme schemes and clever punchlines. Not everyone will agree, but there’s something to his perspective and how the bar for bars can be up for discussion.

"The OGs will be mad at me for saying this but the meaning of bars have become different. A lyricist will always be a lyricist. All the guys that I named earlier in addition to a J.I.D., those guys are lyrical. We talking about imagery, wordplay, and being clever, but the thing is, there’s also a skill in making a song that’s fun to rap along to. Cardi B has the hottest song out right now, “Bodak Yellow.” She says, “Got a bag and fixed my teeth,” that’s a bar! It’s not lyrical but you have a reaction to it you’re like, 'Oh shit, that’s a dope line.' Or like Baka Not Nice, that guy from Drake’s camp, I been talking about that song for the last 48 hours and I keep quoting a different line. He said, 'Just remember, I’m a shooter first and rap is not my thing,' see, you laughed. He’s not lyrical but that’s a bar. There’s an art to saying certain things that connect to people. Me and my friend were talking about perfect verses. Years ago, I would’ve named you Mos Def on 'Two Words' or something that’s lyrical. But now, I feel like 21 Savage's first verse on 'X' is a perfect verse. He caught everything perfect, he has the references that make you say, 'WTF did he just say,' and it’s fun to rap along to. Just like Offset on 'Bad and Boujee' is a perfect verse."

What Carl is referring to is something DJBooth has been intrigued by since Young Guru introduced the idea of a “trick.” It’s a skill long utilized by JAY-Z, who quickly realized that in order to sell albums he had to stop rapping like Common Sense. Drake, Kanye, and even Kendrick are all masters of the trick. Without question, “HUMBLE” is an entire song built on the concept of tricks. It won’t be remembered as Kendrick’s most lyrical record, but sold-out arenas rapping every word will cement “HUMBLE” as Kendrick’s most impressive trick yet. Tricks aren’t easily executed, either. It's a skillset that some artists just don't possess.

Amidst lyrical rap's uncertain future, there are more questions than answers, but Carl is optimistic, going so far as to cite J.I.D, Nick Grant, Buddy, Smino, and IDK (formally known as Jay IDK) as the next crop of lyrical artists to take off. “There can’t be a certain type of artist where there’s no room for them,” said Chery when I asked him to give aspiring lyrics artists a piece of advice. “We’ll probably get to a point where I’m not the only one curating a playlist that caters to lyricism.”

There was a time where I put my trust into Shake and Meka, Eskay and Kevin Nottingham, DJBooth and OnSmash, and countless other blogs and bloggers. They were the gatekeepers who introduced me to everyone from The Cool Kids to Elzhi, and while I still look to them, the new era has new gatekeepers and they’re curating playlists for millions. Carl hasn’t forgotten about the wordplay wizards and Olympic lyricist, he’s aware, and that awareness could lead BARS to become the next big playlist that introduces the world to the successor of “Exhibit C.”

The age of change is upon us, may the lyricist live long, and may the underground see a glimmer of the spotlight. 

By Yoh, aka Yohcaviar, aka @Yoh31