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This is a New Golden Age for Hip Hop

By Ryan Bassil

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There was a brief moment, somewhere at the latter end of the 00s, when hip hop entered a transitionary period. Stalwarts like Jay Z, Eminem and Lil Wayne released the most mediocre records of their career. Young Money had released a collaborative album full of half-arsed ringtone production in which almost every verse was literally phoned in from a different studio. Mr Hudson was ruining one track at a time with his pained, Kentish Town vocals and the hottest ~rap~ record in the charts was about a pair of apple bottom jeans, with the boots, with the fur - basically an ode to George at Asda.
 
Like an ex-premier league footballer now playing for a League 2 Cheltenham, hip-hop was exhausted, out of ideas, and resting on its laurels. (Americans, insert your own hackneyed baseball metaphor here)
 
But new artists, like Drake, Kid Cudi and Tyler, The Creator, who all put out their first mix tapes at this time, signalled a shift in both the sound and aesthetics of the genre. By 2010, the floodgates were opened, and riding in on a lifeboat built upon web 2.0, a myriad of countless other new artists were born, unafraid to exercise their own creativity and pushing it out to their own digital native fanbase.
 
The past two years felt like the best in hip hop for a long time, seeing a new legion of internet born artists - Kendrick, A$AP, Danny Brown, Tyler - come good on their hype, all making assured debut records or genre bending mixtapes and visuals. But it turns out, just as 2011 was the introduction to 2012, last year was just the prologue to 2013. This year has been more colourful, varied, and produced the most consistent run of exciting hip-hop LPs in a generation.
 
A new release has come almost weekly, with new records from Kanye, Mac Miller, J Cole and Jay Z, and Drake, Pusha and Danny almost falling on top of each other. Yet rather than a feeling of saturation, the top releases of the year, WOLF, Nothing Was The Same, Yeezus, Old, Acid Rap are all stubbornly different. Not just aurally, but in their artwork, marketing campaign (or lack thereof), and visual identity.
 
 
Hip hop is now an art form. It’s not that it wasn’t one in the past, it’s just that now, everything is much more meticulously crafted. The banal platitudes, that hip hop is about guns, bitches, and will demonise children, although still perpetuated, are a minor detail in a high definition portraiture. It’s at the pinnacle of the creative world, projecting videos on to buildings, releasing short films, and turning child pop stars into tabloid fodder. When Kanye West says that rappers are the new rockstars, he’s almost right. They’re cultural footsoldiers, unafraid and affirmative in their decision to charter new tangents and own them, spirographing the genre off in multiple directions.
 
Old people with sticks in their butts will always negate modern music because of its lack of concreted scenes. But this year, we’ve feasted on an all-you-can-eat buffet of every cuisine, in a musical restaurant that is frequented by a high-proportion of the popular culture-loving world. This new found place that hip hop has, of sitting atop both the think-piece and twitter discussion pecking order, saw its evolution point in that transitionary period of the late 00s.
 
It didn’t matter if they were a “fucking walking paradox” who had “threesomes with a fucking triceratops”, or a “pretty motherfucker” who repped Harlem, the new-school of hip hop were successful because they did exactly what they wanted. Instead of subscribing to the quite clearly defunct blue-print of the past, they drew up their own one, on the internet, with all their fans involved in the process. Beyond trying to cling on to something that just didn’t work anymore, no one cared about Tha Carter IV, or Lasers, and to be honest, beyond the hype, even Watch The Throne (be real, how many times have you bumped that in full since 2011?).
 
 
It was a power shift. And this year, we saw that power shift back, creating a happy medium where the Grandads, the Dads, and the Baby Daddies of hip hop all put their best work in. In his “Control” verse, Kendrick asked everyone to step their game up. But, he missed the point, that somewhere in this shift of power, everyone already had.
 
In an attempt to regain some of the hype stolen by newer artists, the older crowd, those who are three, four, five albums deep, went H.A.M on their promotional approach. Each of the big releases this year has been backed by a marketing campaign that was often as creative as the music itself. Kanye literally projected his face on to buildings across the globe. Jay Z, alongside selling to Samsung (which is smart, but another story) performed for six hours straight in a gallery and went out on a worldwide tour with the biggest popstar around. Drake piece-mealed out new videos, and offcuts from his record, and Pusha put out the best track of the year two seasons before his album was even out.
 
But what was apparent, with each leaked track listing, album artwork preview, and lyric screenshots, was that there was a hunger. The bigger moments, like Kanye’s face taking up every street corner, were global points of interest. It’s easy to suggest that music sites that previously neglected hip hop are only covering it now because it’s popular again. But maybe it’s become popular because hip hop has worked out how to fuck with the internet? I’d much rather write about Tyler, The Creator’s trailer for a short film, than the new lyric video from Kings of Leon.
 
 
These events generated a wider interest in hip hop than ever before, pushing the newer artists to higher levels, in an attempt to make themselves heard. The beginning of the year saw the release of Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, a luscious hyper-coloured release that, despite being wholly independent, has been downloaded 270,000+ times. For a few weeks this Spring, it was almost impossible to loiter around anyone with even a basic knowledge of hip-hop that wasn’t humming the melody to “Cocoa Butter Kisses” or “Chain Smoker”. The record was a great success, and deservedly so, because it tied into the reason why good music is good music. It was catchy, memorable, and instantly likeable. But even more so, it was well produced, put together, and thought out.
 
This approach has manifested itself in every release from Danny Brown’s Old, through to Kanye West’s Yeezus, through to Tyler’s WOLF, through to the countless amount of unique long players that have been released this year. But it hasn’t just been about albums. Lots of small scenes are cropping up, all existing, evolving, and learning, in their own realm.
 
 
Vic Mensa is swimming around Chance infested waters. If you like throwback hip-hop, then Joey Bada$$ put out his Summer Knights tape, and a few months later, could have been found weeping in a corner as Bishop Nehru announced that he’d be collaborating with DOOM on a new EP. On the low-BPM “Hive”, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and Casey Veggies proved that ~serious~ rap fans who have a penchant for wordplay are in good hands. And on his In Dark Denim mixtape, Antwon provided us with a splatter house of R’n’B and rewind able cuts that sounded like the past, but the future, too.
 
Whether you like him, you loathe him, or think he’s a character created by a shady internet forum, Yung Lean and the rest of the Sad Boys contingent have put out post Lil B records that are worth fascinating over. And for some, apparently, crying into Oreo milkshakes. Although admittedly released at the end of the year, on “Cleaning Out My Closet” and the rest of the Classick tape, Angel Haze proved that female MC’s no longer need to channel Lil Kim’s aggressive sexuality just to write bars that are deeper than any of their male contemporaries. There’s literally so many different variations of hip hop out there, it is impossible to list them all. But if we did, and it was presented as a picture, it would be more colourful than any swatch found in a Dulux catalogue.
 
It’s not just the music that signifies a new age of hip hop. In the 00s, the main proponents of discussion came from rappers headlining festivals. Who is a Jay Zed, what does he do, and more importantly, why is he shouting over distorted music at my festival? The power shift effect, that has catalysed hip hop as a creative force, has brought it back to the top of the news cycle. And everyone is hanging on to each word. It has dominated the media in a big way this year. No other artist in the world has held the attention of the majority of the internet with a single interview in the way that Kanye West did. Danny Brown’s onstage fellatio, Tyler The Creator’s Australian visa saga, Gucci Mane’s mental breakdown, and Jay Z’s Samsung campaign had everyone from Jezebel to The Guardian writing about hip hop.
 
 
Rappers weren’t just doing things that were reported on. They were doing things as part of the media, too. Odd Future signed on for another season of their TV series and have sold clothes, Mac Miller had a show on MTV. Riff Raff is the king of Vine. Pusha T’s dog has an Instagram. It’s got to the point that rap artists are the media, rather than, as was the case ten, fifteen years ago, being a showcase that the general public would gawp at.
 
It’s easy to argue that this isn’t a golden age of hip hop, because things are so different. But that’s the point. Things ARE different and that’s great. We’re at a point where rappers are probably the only people pushing boundaries. If we take Kanye’s proclamations of everything being Pusha T as a metaphor for the 2013 Rap Game, we wouldn’t be far off. Culture is rap music. The media is rap music. The internet is rap music. And we’re in a really fucking good place because of it.
 
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil
 
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