For just a couple minutes, let’s play a simple game. Here’s the setup: hip-hop is a game and there are different teams constantly trying to win. If each team represents the different attitudes of current hip-hop, and the winner is determined by deciding which team is influencing the genre the most, then what are the teams, and who is currently winning in the game of hip-hop?
In one corner there are the singers, currently headed by everyone’s favorite Canadian actor-turned-singer Drake and flanked by many other prolific singers, like the Weeknd, Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Rihanna. The artists on this team are truly unique; with an unmatched capability to jump onto any rap or pop track and create an entirely new dimension of sentiment, singers have always been an invaluable asset to hip-hop.
Trappers are on the other side of the hip-hop spectrum. Currently, their flagship act, Migos, seems to be topping charts and making music headlines every other week, and the team is rounded out by similar acts like Future, Lil Yachty, Young Thug and Rae Sremmurd. When it comes to their music, the artists of this genre seem to clearly value quantity over quality, but instead of questioning the artists’ validity, maybe it’s time to start praising their ability to simply give their fans the music that they want.
Then there are the scholars: they’re not very flashy with their work, but anyone can sense a new release from a mile away because with every new project there seems to be an accompanying paradigm shift for the entire genre in tow. On this team is Kendrick Lamar the unequivocal king of the scholars, as well as other amazingly thoughtful acts like J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Run the Jewels.
And finally, there is the royalty. These artists have assumed a god-like position within the rap game not necessarily for the timelessness or transcendence of their work, but because of their brazen attitudes, opulent lifestyles, and the sage advice they always seem to have. Hip-hop’s current flock of royalty includes Rick Ross, Jay Z, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj.
Of course, one fallacy of the game of hip-hop is that rigidly defining these teams would be a gross act of oversimplification. It is important to acknowledge that artists can easily move from team to team at will, and it would be a great disservice to the genre to not acknowledge that fact. It is fair to say that at times, Drake’s music and attitude have been consistent with that of royalty and that he should be considered as such. Big Sean’s most recent project I Decided, which provides a substantial commentary on the ephemeral nature of life, makes a pretty good case for why, possibly, Big Sean ought to now be considered a hip-hop scholar instead of hip-hop royalty. And who says that all contemporary trap music has to be understood as rap? Future calls himself a “super trapper,” but musically, maybe it’s time to reclassify him a trap-influenced singer, rather than continue to group him with the likes of Migos and Young Thug.
As for the answer to the central question, coming up with a definitive answer is difficult. Measuring a concept as subjective as an influence, especially when it comes to a genre of music, seems like an impossible task, but ultimately, it’s not. When the parameters are defined well enough and the artists and works in question are given the proper critical ear, it definitely is possible to determine which of the four groups is currently exerting the most influence on the hip-hop genre. And right now, that group is the trappers.
For better or for worse, the trophy of the game of hip-hop is currently in the hands of trap music. The contemporary understanding of trap has pervaded popular culture at a truly unprecedented rate, and for every new single released by one of these trappers, there is an earthquake effect felt on the cultural landscape of the music. At the beginning of 2017, Migos’ Culture practically forced the term “boujee” into the typical millennial lexicon. Kyle, of the fledgling SuperDuper crew, has been making excellent electro-pop-rap for the past four years, but he has Lil Yachty solely to thank for the mainstream chart success of “iSpy.” And on top of all that, one could almost hear the crowds of record executives rejoicing once mainstream pop began to partner with trap, in the form of Maroon 5’s newest radio single that features Future.
The trophy of the game of hip-hop is constantly changing hands, and that is certainly how the system is supposed to work. In 2016, it would be fair to say that the scholars kept a very firm grip on their title for the entire year. Spring gave us Untitled Unmastered, summer gave us Coloring Book, winter gave us 4 Your Eyez Only, and for the year’s entirety, listening to hip-hop went hand in hand with urging your friends to stay woke and attending as many anti-establishment marches as humanly possible. But now that the trophy is in the hands of the trappers, it’s time to start changing with the times. For the time being, we’ll get our rainbow-colored grills, don our boujee-est clothes, and dab like there’s no tomorrow, but of course, all while keeping an eye on the prize and seeing who the next winner of the game of hip-hop will be.