About a year ago, I received a memorable email from an aspiring rapper who, for the purposes of not doxing, will remain nameless. As anyone who writes about music online will tell you, these sorts of correspondences are not an uncommon aspect of the profession, but I was nonetheless taken aback by the confusing nature of his very specific request. While most musicians simply send out mass email blasts hoping to garner blog coverage in any form they can attain it, this particular rapper was requesting that I write an in-depth profile on him simply because one of his songs had been posted on R.A. the Rugged Man’s Facebook page.
Kudos to him for gleaning validation from this endorsement, but I couldn’t understand why he thought I would stake my reputation as a freelance writer to pitch an elaborate profile about a rapper who no one has ever heard of being posted on the Facebook page of another rapper who—with all due respect to R.A. the Rugged Man—most people have never heard of. The subject line of his email might as well have read “I took a selfie with a D-list celebrity, please tell my story.”
In an effort to be courteous, I emailed him back, politely explaining why this pursuit would be an imprudent use of my time. Wishing to be constructive, though, I also offered him some unsolicited advice on his music—which I found to be unremarkable—and halfheartedly suggested that he could try writing his envisioned article from a first-person perspective and potentially pitch it to editors directly. Evidently not one to adhere to overt suggestions, he replied immediately with a hurriedly written paragraph, insisting that I edit it for him and use it as a quote in the fantastically fawning cover story he was still adamant I write.
Though this may seem like a trivial anecdote, I recount this story because I recently decided to look this rapper up to check in on the progress of his career. Possessed by an inexplicable bout of curiosity, I went on Spotify and SoundCloud to see that my former pen-pal has now released several songs that have amassed over 100,000 plays. Needless to say, I was shocked. A year ago, the nature of our email exchange had led me to conclude that he was the archetypal “struggle rapper” doomed to toil forever in obscurity, yet against all odds, he may just have a successful career ahead of him yet. Good for him, I guess.
My discovery of this rapper’s modest success has been on my mind a fair bit recently as I’ve begun to wonder whether struggle rappers still occupy the same space in hip-hop that they once did. This dismissive moniker is one that has been bandied about extensively throughout hip-hop’s history, carrying with it a wide variety of negative connotations. If you close your eyes and picture a struggle rapper, you’re almost guaranteed to conjure a nightmarish compilation reel of street corner mixtape hustlers, deadbeat dads who manipulate their babies’ moms into financing their studio time, and the always cringe-inducing expression “let’s build, fam.”
Zooming out beyond the most obnoxious examples, though, the term struggle rapper has often been used as a wholesale classification for two, sometimes overlapping types of aspiring rappers. The first of these two categories are those rappers who most closely match the description I outlined above. We mock this particular group of rappers incessantly because they don’t appear to possess the necessary self-awareness to realize that their ambitions far outweigh their talent. Their music may lack professional polish and sound like it was recorded by a phone operator in the middle of a manufacturing plant, but they’re still somehow convinced that spamming enough people with links to their SoundCloud will catapult them into stardom.
The second category of struggle rappers are those who are, for lack of a better word, quite literally struggling. They may very well make decent music, but the quality of their output is sadly irrelevant because the time and resources they sink into their craft simply never pays dividends in the form of listenership, recognition, or acclaim. If there was any shred of mercy in the cosmos, these rappers would be forced by external forces to give up on their dreams, but unfortunately, they continue to lay their dignity on the line, releasing one unsuccessful project after another, despite zero indications that their fortunes might change.
Intimate friends and family members of these rappers might delicately suggest to them that it’s time to hang up their microphones, but these gentle suggestions are only ever met with scorn, potentially serving as inspirational fodder for future ill-advised songs about “the haters.” In this respect, these rappers are a lot like the 33-year-old men who still sign up for public NBA G-League tryouts, swearing they have what it takes to hoop in the big leagues.
As previously stated, these two types of struggle rappers often overlap, with the most insufferable among them sharing some absurd cocktail of the worst traits of both groups. As a result of these people being the loudest voices in the room, the “struggle rapper” label is often used carte blanche as a direct synonym for the term “aspiring rapper,” coloring expectations of every young rapper’s music before potential fans ever have the chance to hit play. Much like the small minority of looters who cause the media to refer to peaceful demonstrations as “riots,” the most obnoxious ones ruin it for everyone.
If any of this sounds a bit unfair, it’s because it is. While it’s certainly true that young artists in every creative field have to contend with a healthy dose of skepticism from their friends and family, none of them have to deal with a stigma quite as large as the shadow of the “struggle rapper” that looms over every young person who writes rhymes in a notebook.
There was even a tonally confusing joke about struggle rappers in the middle of the movie Black Panther, where the CIA agent, Ross (played by a 46-year-old British man), pokes fun at the movie’s villain, Klaue (played by a 53-year-old British man), stating that he looks like he’s about to drop a mixtape. Both actors (Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, respectively) played prominent roles in the Lord of the Rings film franchise—and neither of them looks like they know what DatPiff is—yet the joke works because there is an implicit understanding among the audience that “dropping a mixtape” is something to be laughed at.
Luckily, as with all aspects of hip-hop culture that get co-opted by the mainstream, it seems like the term “struggle rapper” has finally begun to outlive its usefulness. Just as I had no way of foreseeing that the rapper who emailed me to request that I write his tell-all biography would carve out a modest audience for himself on streaming services, we are all now less equipped than ever to make these sorts of judgment calls. Indeed, there was a time when you could hear a rapper’s music for the first time, feel reasonably certain that it would never find success, and dismiss it immediately as “struggle rap,” but as the criteria for popularity in rap has changed so dramatically, it’s no longer possible to form such definitive conclusions about what might catch on.
If I’d opened my inbox in 2014 and an anonymous rapper had sent me OG Maco’s “U Guessed It,” I would have listened to 45 seconds of it before dismissing it as struggle rap. The lyrics aren’t particularly profound, the beat sounds like it could have been composed on a children’s Casio keyboard, and it doesn’t appear to have been mixed by professionals. Yet, in spite of all these criticisms, the song is undeniably infectious. If I’d chalked it up to struggle rap at that time, I would have been forced to eat my words because the song stumbled onto a winning formula. The same could be said of Lil’ Pump’s music, which we’ve all poked fun at for being unoriginal to the point of parody, while simultaneously chanting along to the chorus of “Gucci Gang.”
Even the last remaining vestige of a guaranteed struggle rapper—poor audio engineering—is no longer a clear indication that they will be unsuccessful. The rise of "SoundCloud rap" has turned poorly mixed songs into a desirable aesthetic, with many rappers now seeking to contrive this sound by adding artificial distortion to their mixes. If there’s one thing that must be true for someone to fit the bill of the prototypical struggle rapper, it’s that they can never find success. Find me someone who can predict this with absolute certainty in 2018, however, and I’ll bow down to the awesome power of their psychic abilities.
Much of this is attributable to the democratization of the music industry. With many more avenues available for artists to carve out organic followings than ever before, aspiring rappers are no longer as reliant on the endorsements of traditional gatekeepers. A song like “U Guessed It” may have never found its audience if it was lost in the deep recesses of music bloggers’ email inboxes, but luckily it found its way to listeners through Vine videos and memes. The awareness of this reality has gone a long way towards curbing the former epidemics of unsolicited SoundCloud links and the random requests to “follow back to DM.” Today’s class of rappers are much less panicked about garnering the attention of a select few people, so they’re significantly less likely to embody the obnoxious sensibilities that created the negative “struggle” reputation that has plagued aspiring rappers for years.
That being said, there’s something mildly hypocritical about asking young rappers to avoid this behavior entirely. As with any creative field, we encourage young rappers to grind hard and network shrewdly to get ahead, but there’s never any clear indication as to where the line is between being necessarily aggressive and being offputtingly aggressive. We poke fun at the so-called struggle rappers who fail to find success after years of grinding, but we chastise these same people for unintentionally rubbing people the wrong way in their attempts to do so. In doing this, we forget that many of the rappers we revere today were once in the same shoes as these up-and-comers, seeking to build a career without a roadmap, periodically crossing the tenuous line into “struggle” territory to do so.
Consider, for example, the famous story of Big Sean’s first encounter with Kanye. As the legend goes, Big Sean first met Kanye outside of a radio station in Detroit in 2005, and despite the fact that Kanye was running late, Sean ambushed him and asked if he could rap for him on the spot. Kanye graciously told him that he had 16 bars to impress him, but Big Sean rapped for 10 minutes straight, ultimately winning him over and signing to G.O.O.D. Music two years later. Every part of this story seems overly aggressive—from the ambush to the circumstances, to the liberties he took with Kanye’s time—and yet somehow it worked out in Sean’s favor. If it wasn’t for Sean’s struggle rapper instincts, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
J. Cole often tells a similar story about waiting outside of Roc-The-Mic studio to hand JAY-Z one of his beat CDs. The ending of this story is less satisfying than Sean's, as JAY-Z dismissively waved Cole off, but everything still worked out in Cole's favor eventually. Not to be discouraged, Cole kept working, sharpened his ability to rhyme over his own beats, and eventually signed to Roc Nation years later. It’d be easy to look at J. Cole’s behavior that day and interpret it as predatory and unprofessional (and it probably was) but it was a necessary learning experience on his path to global superstardom. Despite what many people believe, there was evidently nothing about embodying the sensibilities of a struggle rapper that prevented Cole from achieving his dreams.
These are just two stories in a series of hundreds about the unorthodox and often uncomfortable paths that today’s rappers have taken on their paths to popularity. For many of these rappers, their “struggle rapper” histories are well-documented on the internet, like Russ pestering former Pitchfork writer Craig Jenkins with links to his music. Years later, we feel silly looking back on these exchanges, wondering why we were so quick to write off certain rappers without giving them a shot. Sure, there’s the risk that their music might suck, but this is a risk we take 25 times a day when we click on literally any link on the internet. It’s a risk you took, quite frankly, when you clicked on this article.
I’m not saying that aspiring rappers should double-down on link-spamming, or that it’s your responsibility to support that one rapper from your high school who has just recently released another horrible EP, only that maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss aspiring creatives with reductive labels. To put my money where my mouth is, I’ll end this article with an open call to musicians: friends, I can’t do anything to propel your music careers, but I will pledge, at the very least, to listen to the songs you send me for at least 45 seconds.