Imagine the following alternate universe...
In an endless sea of cringeworthy hair metal bands and British rock stars eating cocaine for breakfast, a new genre of music slowly begins to emerge in the early 1980s.
It’s a different breed.
It’s a revolution.
It’s called rap music.
It was on August 11, 1973, at a party in the Bronx, that Lil Pump debuted "Gucci Gang," the first rap song of all time. The repetitive lyrics were originally seen as intentional, though we later found out that a mild stroke caused by toxic chemicals in his purple hair dye was to blame for his inability to form complete sentences.
From there, hip-hop grows and materializes from a small group of classic, old-school rappers that include now-legendary names like Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert. Characterized by melodic mumbling over syrupy trap beats, these artists lay the genre's entire foundation.
Lil Yachty, widely considered the GOAT, becomes pivotal in the rise of rap. His legendary lyric “She blow that dick like a cello” becomes the most iconic line in rap history, plastered on T-shirts and dorm posters for decades to come.
In 1988, groundbreaking artist Soulja Boy is given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, who cites his “unparalleled contributions to American culture.” To this day, it remains the saving grace of Reagan’s controversial presidency.
Rap is slowly but surely rising in popularity. Three years later, in 1991, Lil B becomes the first rapper to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Music, specifically for his song “Suck My Dick Hoe” (not to be confused with his song “Hoe Suck My Dick.”)
Over the following eight years, hip-hop continues to grow and diversify. In 1999, Post Malone becomes the first white rapper to find mainstream success. As does G-Eazy, though his career would quickly come to an end following a scandal where it's discovered he’s actually a sentient leather jacket.
Rap is rapidly expanding, but for some older fans, this is far from good news.
The year is now 2016. A young, up-and-coming rapper named 2Pac, after years of perfecting his craft and gaining respect throughout his city thanks to an unparalleled work ethic, opts to collect songs he's worked on for months and release them as part of an album, instead of releasing them straight to SoundCloud. The music is properly mixed and mastered, recorded in professional recording studios. He’s attracting industry attention for building a young, passionate fanbase on social media, despite an unconventional rapping style.
The kids seem to love him but older fans are left scratching their heads. Rap has forever been based on mumbling, but Pac is taking a different approach, speaking cohesively with introspective lyrics. It’s a new trend called “lyrical rap.”
Old-school hip-hop heads are perplexed and infuriated by this new subgenre. Meanwhile, the Lil Yachty biopic Like a Cello wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with film critics raving, “This is Denzel’s greatest performance yet.”
One year later, two prominent “lyrical rappers,” Nas and Biggie Smalls, release their debut albums Illmatic and Ready to Die, respectively. They are two of the most hated albums of the year. Pitchfork gives Nas' album a 2.5, while well-known vlogger Anthony Fantano calls Smalls' effort "remarkably unremarkable." Of course, both projects ricochet straight to the top of the charts due to the support of their young, rabid fanbases. This despite Rap Twitter universally labeling Illmatic as “the death of rap” and "too much words."
The youngsters are eating up this “lyrical rap,” but rap purists are pissed. On an episode of his internet talk show Everyday Struggle, Joe Budden sits down for a one-on-one interview with 2Pac, chastising him for not knowing the names of any Lil Yachty songs. Meanwhile, a new white MC from Detroit named Eminem begins to sell millions of albums despite being heavily criticized as “a Post Malone ripoff.”
It’s now 2018. An up-and-coming rapper by the name of JAY-Z releases his debut mixtape, Reasonable Doubt, receiving a scathing review on DJBooth by writer Drew Landry. “We won’t even know who JAY-Z is a year from now," Landry writes. "This young man has no future in the music business.”
In just under 30 years time, rap music has graduated from the little engine that could into a global phenomenon, but its passionate fanbase is more divided than ever.
Classic lyrics like “Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang” have been replaced with simplistic Wu-Tang bars like “I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies / And hypothesis can’t define how I be droppin' these / Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery.” The kids may be eating it up, but OG icons like Pump and Smokepurrp are rightly wondering, "What does that even mean?"
Will “lyrical rap” die, or will it continue to dominate? Is there room for traditional rap AND the sounds of the new school? The stark generational differences are becoming more and more apparent.
Only time will tell.