You really can’t understand the power of music until you work tirelessly at a job you hate, making just enough money to scrape by. I’m pretty sure my weekly rendition of “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” by Future, has distanced most of my co-workers and my common refrain around the office of “Fuck around and I might catch a body,” by Dej Loaf, hasn’t done much to get me invited to the daily Wawa run. It’s in these moments of musical absurdity where I find quiet refuge from the daily grind.
If there’s one force that has irrevocably shaped the man I am today, it’s hip-hop. The genre was there for me when I was relentlessly bullied in middle school. Hip-hop taught me how to stand up for myself when no one else would. The culture was there for me when I lost both of my parents and a massive feeling of loss flooded every portion my life. There are millions of stories like this and no matter how hackneyed it sounds, in the famous words of Lupe Fiasco, “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” and countless others.
In spite of this, my relationship with hip-hop has become fractured as of late. The bars aren’t as crisp as I remember them. The bass doesn’t hit like it used to. The cadences and sing-songy flows are all starting to sound the same. Don’t get me wrong, I love new music. However, when I listen to the “stars” of tomorrow, I get a heavy black pit in my stomach and an intense feeling of sadness.
Whether it be Young Thug, Chief Keef, Migos, Yung Lean, Trinidad James, Riff Raff, Lil Durk, Rich Homie Quan, Bobby Shmurda, iLoveMakonnen, Travi$ Scott or OG Maco, I feel some sort of sympathy and even enjoyment towards these artists.
However, after I’m done turning up to Migos’ “Handsome and Wealthy” or Young Thug’s “Givenchy,” a question plagues my inner music nerd; will any of these artists be around in a decade? Perhaps even more important, is the music industry still designed to make that type of artist?
All these artists have experienced a very specific moment, one where the complex music industry machine conspired to make them into stars. In the course of this process some have made good music, some horrible music, but very few have made sustainable music. The type of songs and albums that stand the test of time and create careers that last decades.
We live in an era where every rapper is special, which consequently means no rapper is special. Music has lost its worth as a commodity. Who cares about a great album, when a kid can largely become a star off a 6 second vine loop? It’s far more advantageous to sign an artist on the cusp of a monumental hit, try to squeeze one or two more singles out of them, release an album as a vehicle for those singles, all while there is a clause in their contract which allows the label to drop the artist if they don’t sell a certain number of units. Trinidad James and Chief Keef are the most recent victims of this practice. Both James and Keef were swept up after dropping street singles that were on the brink of widespread national attention. It’s only after they couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations of releasing a follow-up hit that an inevitable break from their respective record labels was imminent.
The industry taking advantage of emerging talent is nothing new. However, it seems like we’re seeing it happen more and more often. How many more rappers from low-income areas are going to be whisked away by record labels, pillaged for all their artistic capital, and then dumped once the public moves on? These rappers aren’t being cultivated and developed to make a career that has the potential to last over a lifetime. Above all else it takes time and money to make stars. However, it takes far less of each to promote a hit separate from the person who made it.
Hip-hop’s current generation is being robbed. From the war torn streets of Chicago's south and westside neighborhoods to the trap houses in Atlanta, hip-hop’s latest crop of stars are being defrauded by a culture that was meant to give them better lives. Hip-hop is experiencing its “Lost Generation.”
As Big K.R.I.T. and Lupe Fiasco so eloquently put it in their new song of the same name, off Cadillactica,
“Nigga, we aint lost/This the bitch I’m a boss generation (For the lost generation)/Nigga, we aint lost/This is xans got me nodding off generation (For the lost generation)/Nigga, we ain’t lost/This the puttin’ candy in my cough generation (For the lost generation)/Nigga, we ain’t lost/You can find me jumping off the porch generation (For the lost generation).”
Hip-hop is largely no longer doing what it was meant to do. It is no longer a force for change. That doesn’t mean the entire genre doesn’t produce great music, because some of hip-hop’s most exciting music has been made in just the past few years. However, it does mean that the rough edges of the culture have been sanded down and replaced with a marketable millenial sheen.
The term “lost generation” while used by K.R.I.T. and Lupe, was coined back in the '20s by Gertrude Stein. The prolific and classic author was referencing the growing ineptitude of 20-somethings who returned from World War I irrevocably changed. Her haunting words, “That is what you are. That’s what you all are...all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation,” now encompasses what it means to be a rapper in 2014.
Increasingly, in urban areas, scientists are finding evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that was generally only common in those that experienced war. In an article for CNN, Dr. Kerry Ressler stated “that they are seeing evidence of higher rates of PTSD in the urban population than in war veterans.” These high rates of PTSD are being found in Atlanta, L.A., Chicago and D.C. Is it any coincidence that all four of these cities have churned out hip-hop’s latest stars?
As humans we love the thought of danger. It gives us a connection to our humanity and reinforces the fact that we are alive. It is one of the reasons people flock to gangster films; we live vicariously through Tony Montana and Michael Corleone. This is at the heart of why we listen to drill or trap music. It provides all the thrill of hood, without any of the consequences. Hearing about selling crack or robbing one’s neighbor is thrilling as long the threat of it actually happening doesn't exist.
In a perfect world, I’d like to think that once the pageviews start decreasing and the click bait doesn’t resonate that major online publications won’t abandon those same drill artists they once predicted were "next." I’d like to think that the "Migos are better than The Beatles" debate isn’t one big joke, which becomes unfunny if the Atlanta trio doesn’t ship enough units of their debut album. Above all else, I want to believe that amidst countless songs about sipping lean and spending above one’s means that the fans will be there through the numerous rehab bouts and bankruptcies.
So how many rappers who have debuted in the last five years will be around for a decade? I think we’ll see Kendrick, Drake, J. Cole and perhaps Wale and K.R.I.T. However, there are many more names that will be lost to time, and that’s what scares me. And it should scare you, too.
[By Charles Holmes. He writes things. This is his Twitter.]