When I was in high school, it felt like a rite of passage to dunk a basketball. Practice, pregame warm-ups, long after the last pickup game had finished—there was never a minute when I wasn't dreaming of finding some sort of glory above the rim. Hours were spent perfecting step coordination, the perfect speed and palming of the ball, with just the right amount of people watching for the eventual stuff. It was a foolhardy search for something exclusive, something necessary, something cool.
For many basketball lovers, what dunking represents is something transcendent of the actual game; a stroke of genius and creativity only a select few possess the brush for, unattainable by most, that challenges the boundaries of athleticism we assume are possible. Our favorite dunks—and dunkers alike—are glorified because they manage to, in mere seconds, tap into an aesthetic vital to the game of basketball and the evolution of its brand. We love dunks not just because most of us know we can’t do it ourselves, but because we love the idea that their coolness can never be extinguished.
The problem with dunking is that it can be overused as a foundational skill rather than an added tool. It can also be a distraction on the court, especially if you have an overconfident teammate who chooses to brick a dunk off the back rim and into the stands instead of just laying it up. As much as the dunk can be an outlet for the most athletic players in the world to shine the brightest, it can be just as much a crutch for players without fully formed skills to depend on. The coolness inherent in dunking is built on the premise of its rarity, and any attempt to dilute that, well, becomes very uncool.
Like the game of basketball, hip-hop has its own dunking conundrum: MCs who rap really fast. While many of hip-hop’s most innovative minds have employed double-time flows, as hip-hop has evolved and continues to dominate the majority of pop culture, the misuse of fast-paced rapping and the tainting of its allure has felt more obvious than ever.
Is it still cool to rap fast, or is it becoming an increasingly problematic technique for rappers incapable of making more interesting music? It’s time we found out.
It’s not difficult to understand the attraction hip-hop fans have to artists who can rap really fast. In the same way that dunking elevates what we already thought was possible on a basketball court, double-timed rapping with a mic in hand feels like that same rare display of God-given talent. Irreplicable for most people who don’t have the natural ability to glide across pronunciation, and highly versatile in the way different MCs incorporate it into their music, there’s an innate coolness to fast rapping. From the more melodic approach of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to the more animated stylings of legendary names like Busta Rhymes and Big Boi, to the brute-force lyricism of the slickest-tongued like Twista, Tech N9ne, and Eminem, the key to the evolution of high-speed lyricism is versatility.
Despite all of the technical innovation, how do we determine what separates an impressive feat by a versatile artist and an aesthetic failsafe for a talent incapable of making compelling music?
I’m not here to argue the enjoyment we should all get hearing songs like Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More,” Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” or even Tech N9ne’s verse on the Carter IV track “Interlude.” Few things made me personally happier than imagining all of the career possibilities for someone like Cory Gunz after a show-stealing (and wrongfully removed) verse on Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.” It’s hard to even condemn every single murder-themed word salad from Eminem as boring, even if it’s a “sponsored by Call of Duty” type of enjoyment.
It is interesting, however, to think about how each of these rappers’ careers is perceived, and the various paths in which their penchants for rapping fast affected their trajectory. In cases like Twista’s and Tech N9ne’s, no matter their technical proficiency, and no matter the dedication of their most loyal fans, it's easy to become frustrated with how their music has aged once the allure of fast rapping begins to thin. Those like Cory Gunz feel like raw prospects, athletes who are known for their ability to jump out of a gym but without the proper organization around them to help develop a jumpshot. Even Eminem, arguably a pantheon MC, sounds overwhelmed at times with trying to outdo his own technical feats over and over again, all because “Rap God” seemed like a good idea.
The thrill of rapping fast feels even less assured the farther removed from all-time greats you get. If veterans like Tech N9ne and Twista—artists with longevity and enough good music in their catalog on their side—struggle to round out their game with this approach, then newer or far less notable MCs could have even bigger issues. For example, both Logic and Machine Gun Kelly have relative star power, formidable fan bases, and crossover hits, yet the more their music has become increasingly emptier, narratively, the frequency with which they employ double-time tactics to make up for great writing has increased.
In Logic’s case, tracks like “44 More” and “Everyday,” off Bobby Tarantino 2, twirl around in breakneck rhyme schemes only for you to realize nothing significant is actually happening. MGK, an MC whose name quite literally suggests he has fast-rapping skills, only feels less interesting and more cemented into middling pop territory the more his verses slow down. Although both have had significant mainstream success, their styles of fast rapping don’t feel inventive, but rather manufactured. Even with occasional light-speed wordplay, the moment feels as empty as a trampoline dunkathon performed by mascot at halftime; impressive for a few seconds, until you realize these dunks are all that they can do.
The fast rapper exists on every corner of the internet, from YouTube sensations like Mac Lethal and Watsky trying to outdo the other with impeccably fast freestyles, to a group like Karmin arising from rapping to covers of “No Flex Zone,” to inexplicable viral trends of white girls attempting to rap Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now” verse perfectly.
Even Token, a Massachusetts-based rapper piling views up on YouTube and Twitter through fast-paced freestyle covers, feels like an act created in a lab by the users of the HipHopHeads Reddit forum. On the internet, the ability to rap fast feels less like a resume builder and more like a fruitless spectacle; a dunk contest for online rappers with an exploitable skill and a less-than-promising career behind it.
It must be mentioned that there is also an unmistakable whiteness associated with the trend of fast rapping, especially as the internet’s influence on hip-hop grows. With that remains an earned skepticism, as with anything in hip-hop, that feels helmed predominately by its white audience in which rapping fast feels increasingly like a marketing ploy for other white people on the internet. Each of the rappers mentioned in the previous two paragraphs is white, and it doesn’t take much more than a Google search of “fast rapper” to see the top searches generate videos by Mac Lethal or Watsky or compilation videos helmed by white guys.
My "research" and findings certainly don't imply intentional deceit on the part of this strange section of the internet, but it is enough to question how cool fast rapping can be if it begins to feel less like an innovative part of hip-hop history and more like a gimmick for white fans of hip-hop to boost as “real rap.” It's an ironic conversation at the least, especially with trigger words like “mumble rap” constantly functioning as a way for certain fans to poke holes at hip-hop that isn’t “saying anything,” when the developing problem of fast rap, in certain areas, is exactly that. For it's greatest practitioners, the music now feels narrowed to viral clips meant to impress but rarely satisfying enough to produce more than a fleeting moment in Internet-browsing time.
The verdict on the coolness level of fast rapping is complicated, but with fairly simple guidelines. Rapping fast is cool, but it has to feel purposeful and natural in comparison to the rest of an artist’s material. It becomes uncool when it no longer feels like an evolution of lyrical ability, but rather the devolution of a more well-rounded artist. Like dunking, fast rapping can shift from cool to uncool the minute an MC forgets how precious of a skill it should actually be.