Even those unfamiliar with the genre can recognize that rap and hip-hop are not what they used to be. A pre-2005 hip-hop or rap hit can be easily distinguished from a track released in the past decade, and artists who have gotten into the game within the last ten years bear little similarity to what was the norm for ‘90s-era rappers.

Earlier hip-hop music has a distinct tone with a relatively consistent theme of “hood politics,” a term referenced by Nas in his 2002 hit “One Mic.” Meanwhile, the artists themselves maintained strict “gangster” personas: most of the genre’s biggest names, such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, were known drug dealers and many were convicted criminals.

Just a decade later, some of the most successful rap hits relay messages formerly unheard of in the genre while the artists themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. Rappers such as Macklemore have hits about formerly taboo subjects like homosexuality, and artists such as Drake, a former Canadian child actor, prove that being a “thug” is no longer a pre-requisite to success. In fact, in an interview with ABC, Drake confessed that he was once described as “the furthest thing from hood.”

Indeed, everything from the definition of mainstream hip-hop to the function of record labels to the personas of the artists themselves has evolved over the past decade. While some aspects of this evolution are obvious, it is in the subtleties of these changes that the inextricable link between social and musical development is revealed. The hip-hop/rap genre, despite having garnered a reputation of violence and misogyny, is a uniquely genuine voice amidst the development of our culture.

Lyrics and Society

Perhaps the most striking difference between 1990s hip-hop and more modern tracks is the lyrics. In general, hip-hop in the previous decade had a relatively narrow focus. Songs were less about an artist’s success and more about his or her rise to it; even the most financially successful rappers wrote about violence, crime, and living in poverty. According to Rauly Ramirez, manager of Billboard’s Hip-Hop chart, ‘90s rappers “would create this persona,” portraying themselves as thugs and gangsters because that was “the character [they] had to be to succeed.” The necessity for an artist to create and maintain this character led to a common theme among rap songs in the ‘90s. Rap was the story of the ghetto life and the anthem of gangsters, which prevented hip-hop from joining pop and rock in the mainstream.

Those who did listen to hip-hop, however, found that even as artists were carefully constructing their persona, there was honesty in their lyrics. Poppa Sims, a lyricist associated with the major record label Bad Boy Records, emphasized that in writing openly about violence and drugs, ‘90s hip-hop artists forced listeners to consider the “underlying reasons behind these things…it was survival.” Indeed, the early era of rap publicized the notion that poverty begets crime. On his 2002 debut album “Gangster and a Gentleman,” artist Styles P claimed that after a childhood of abuse and poverty, “the best thing that happened” to him was breaking into the crack industry because he was finally “gettin’ everything that [he] was askin’ about.”

While, a decade later, rap lyrics still tell an artist’s story, each rapper has a different one; artists no longer need to write about the “ghetto life” to be signed by a major record label. The definition of who a rapper can be, and what stories hip-hop can tell, has broadened indefinitely since the mid-2000s. Ramirez pinpoints the origins of this transition to the release of Kanye West’s 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout.” Rather than focusing on drug dealing or violence or living on the streets, the album addressed religion, West’s pursuit of music, and as he says on the track “Breathe In Breathe Out,” his desire to “say something significant.”

In the years following the release of Kanye’s first album, more and more rappers moved away from “gangsta rap” and towards developing their individuality as artists. Today’s most successful hip-hop artists rap about everything from thrift shopping to the sheer excess of their lifestyles. Even as sexuality increasingly perpetuates mainstream hip-hop, artists are less afraid to present a softer side to relationships as well. In J Cole’s 2013 hit “Power Trip,” the sole reference to drug usage was the line “love is a drug, like the strongest stuff ever” and Drake, whose album “Take Care” topped the Hip-Hop/Rap Charts in 2012, confessed in “Shot for Me” that he “never cheated, for the record.” Indeed, contrary to the themes of aggression and illegality that perpetuated earlier hip-hop, many of today’s biggest artists have taken a gentler approach towards romance even amidst the genre’s misogynistic reputation.

Social Media and the Internet

The Internet, and in particular the role of social media, has become an irrefutable reflection of societal development. Websites like Tumblr and Facebook, where users can express themselves by publishing photos or writing blog posts, seem to emphasize a fresh pursuit of individuality and self-expression. Meanwhile, a person’s ability to share these updates with “followers” or “friends” suggests a simultaneous desire to achieve a sense of community. According to WAJZ-FM program director J Will, it is this rising relevance of social media sites that bears responsibility for many of the stylistic developments within the hip-hop genre.

Prior to the rise of social media, an artist’s sole means of establishing a fan base was to capture the attention of a record label. With only a few major labels in the business, this reliance on agents contributed to the streamlined message seen in ‘90s rap lyrics. But as emerging rap artist Miles From Nothing puts it, “we’re in an era where artists don’t need agents. If they know how to use sites like SoundCloud and YouTube, they can get themselves out there.” Ramirez agrees, admitting that in many respects social media outlets have replaced the function of A&R scouts, who ordinarily are responsible for recruiting artists to different record labels.

Not having to uphold the expectations of a record label allows artists to craft their own message while still finding success. Immortal Technique is one rapper whose albums underscore the effects of this artistic freedom. Immortal Technique, who has released five albums since 2002, has not signed with a record label, giving him the freedom to rap about controversial political and social issues. In his 2008 album “The 3rd World,” for example, he raps that the United States government “[calls] us terrorists after they ruined our countries…and that’s not socialist mythology, this is urban warfare.” While not all unsigned artists choose to pursue such controversial themes, they are able to create a loyal fan base through social media and music sharing sites while maintaining complete control over the music they’re producing.

Even as sites like Youtube allow rappers more freedom in constructing their messages, social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram give listeners a entirely new level of access to their favorite artist’s daily life. Will suggests that, because we live in an internet-infused world “where people want to connect with one another,” we crave a sincerity-driven connection with rap artists. As the barriers between these artists and their fans break away, honesty has become an integral part of a record’s success and an artist’s longevity. It used to be “very much about painting a picture,” Ramirez notes. “Now it’s about being yourself.”

Underground Versus the Mainstream , Then and Now

The rise of the Internet age affected one other crucial aspect of the hip-hop genre. With social media providing increased visibility for artists, what constitutes a mainstream rapper, and the relationship between artists and radio stations, has changed completely. Underground ‘90s rap, according to Ramirez, stuck to politically and socially conscious messages as opposed to “the [gangster] theme that perpetuated a lot of mainstream hip-hop.” While ‘90s mainstream artists signed with major labels and maintained a “thug” persona, underground groups such as Public Enemy spat lyrics like “how the hell can a color be no good for a neighborhood,” a line from their 2000 track “Who Stole the Soul.”

Fast forward a decade and, with the aid of social media, there is no longer a single theme for mainstream hip-hop artists. As Will puts it, mainstream music has become about “how well [a track’s] message resonates with the typical person.” The more universal a song, the larger an audience it will reach; now that hip-hop has become more accepted by the masses, the potential for rap artists to make it big is even greater.

That being said, even artists who avoid the mainstream by remaining independent of any major record label can still find financial success. Of the 75 rap albums that topped the Billboard Rap charts since 2010, nearly 15 percent were produced by artists considered outside of the mainstream. However, despite the fact that underground rappers now have the potential to succeed financially, because they rap about themes that appeal only to a loyal niche of listeners, Will admits that “the chance of their music actually making it onto radio is unlikely.”

The hip-hop that does play on the radio is different from ‘90s rap not only in message but in sound. Ally Reid, station manager at FLY 92.3, says that she has seen an increase in collaboration between hip-hop artists and vocalists from other genres. “There are genres that used to exist,” she observes, listing rap and pop as examples, but “a lot of those boundaries have really…broken away.” Ramirez agrees, adding that “the songs that fly up to the top of the rap charts…are a blending of the genres. They’re the most digestible.” Hip-hop artists who do choose to sign with major labels such as Columbia or Republic Records are encouraged to find pop artists to sing catchy hooks, or add more of a dance beat to their record, in order to achieve success on a mainstream scale.

What Hasn’t Changed

Of course, some aspects of the genre haven’t changed. As Poppa Sims puts it, in addition to a commitment to honest communication, an artist’s “longevity comes from the fact that [he or she] put in real, hard work.” Most of today’s biggest rappers, such as Eminem, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, debuted in the ‘90s era of rap, and have since worked to establish their own record labels and production companies while continuing to record in order to secure their footholds in the music industry.

But this type of decades-long success is also dependent on an artist’s commitment to telling their story and maintaining a consistent message, even if it requires doing more of the production legwork to avoid the inherent limitations of signing with a label. If a rapper can’t get people to “familiarize themselves with who they are, then they’re easily forgotten,” Sims attests. An artist’s success, therefore, is contingent upon his or her sincerity across albums. Ramirez cites artist 50 Cent as an example of how damaging a lack of honesty can be. “He defined a very strong persona early on,” Ramirez says, but people just “wanted to see him as a person.” Because 50 never adapted to the demand for sincerity in hip-hop music, he remains removed from the comparative success of fellow ‘mainstream’ artists.

There seems to be a general agreement that these basic strategies for success won’t be changing anytime soon. Ramirez predicts that as long as social media remains relevant,  “doors will continue to open…for different characters and different styles,” and it will become even easier for new artists to break into the game and for rappers to find success independently. More and more hip-hop artists are finding their way into the mainstream as well. Will attributes this to more listeners “opening up their ears to the genre, and understanding that this is just another way people are communicating.” As it continues to evolve alongside the development of social media and the Internet, rap will only strengthen its foothold in the music world. In the words of Will, “hip hop is here to stay.”




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