Though it’s still very novel, the idea of an artist switching genres, or experimenting with another, is hardly a new one. A lot of the most revered artists of all time have stepped outside of the genre that they were originally associated with to much success. In the current musical landscape, there’s been a huge boom of artists who can’t be pinned down to simply one genre to the point where even the idea of genres is becoming more obsolete. Genre-bending artists like Frank Ocean and Blood Orange are popular examples of the growing trend. When it comes to rap/hip-hop, genre-switching is even more novel. Artists like Childish Gambino, Tyler, the Creator, and Mac Miller are all examples of rappers who have made albums that have stepped outside of the conventions of rap, and at the start of this year, there was a very unexpected artist that joined this group: Lil Yachty.
If someone had told you at the end of last year that Lil Yachty would drop an album that would be his foray into doing psychedelic rock and sound more adjacent to the likes of Tame Impala and Yves Tumor, you would have probably assumed they were trying to play a joke on you. At the time, Yachty was just involved with the recent Drake and 21 Savage album and had a huge hit with Poland. Everything seemed to be pointing to his new record having more of the similar vibes you’d expect from the Atlanta rapper. Then he dropped Let’s Start Here The album was an abrupt departure from the sounds of his previous records, and many enjoyed the change of pace, myself included. Yachty said with this album he had wanted to really prove himself as an artist. As an artist myself, I can really relate to and respect that sentiment. However, the more I thought about it, there was something about that sentiment had irked me just a bit. I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it until he tried to clarify his statement on the Rap Radar podcast.
“I mean, specifically, I do more than rap. For a long time in my career, I wanted to be taken seriously as a rapper. And I said that. And I would go and try and do radio interviews, freestyles, or whatever. Just because I wanted that. I did Michigan Boy Boat, I did things. That’s when I was trying to prove I’m a rapper. But I’m past that. Now, I’m proving I’m an artist,” Yachty explained.
While I understand what he’s saying and where he’s coming from here, I don’t think Yachty realizes that he’s still basically saying that to be taken seriously as an artist you have to do something outside of rap. This invalidates hip-hop as a genre because this paints rappers as not “true artists.” Now to be clear, this isn’t a hit piece against Lil Yachty. As I previously mentioned, I really liked his latest album and I very much respect his artistic shift. I don’t even blame Yachty for viewing artistry and rap in this light because I think this is a symptom of a much bigger issue here. Rap music often gets a bad rep in mainstream culture despite it being the most popular genre. Whether it’s right-wing idiots talking heads like Ben Shapiro who continually discount hip-hop, not even considering it to be music, or it’s from the people who have made millions off it. Remember when Post Malone said you shouldn’t listen to hip-hop “if you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life?”
This all devalues a genre that is multidimensional and spawned so many interesting and niche subgenres, it’s truly a disservice. In the case of Ben Shapiro’s take, we can just chalk that up to ignorance/being uninformed. However, Post Malone’s take is very disappointing seeing that the “White Iverson” artist had blown up through the genre and chose to disrespect it in favor of praising Bob Dylan. Dylan is obviously a legendary songwriter, but to say that hip-hop lacks the lyrical and emotional depth you could find listening to the likes of Dylan and others in that group is just incorrect. It just shows that he has never actually taken a deep dive into the genre that he only used to gain some fame from. The thing is, this is actually a pretty common sentiment we see in my generation online (I’m 23).
I had the idea to write this article for a couple of months now not only because of Yachty’s comments but also due to a trend on Twitter of people saying that you’re unhinged if you start your day listening to hip-hop. Of course, everyone who was saying this only thought of people waking up to songs by Future or Ice Spice (which isn’t wrong by any means), but they openly admit to seeing rap as a one-dimensional genre (happy/party music) and inherently see other genres as more emotional enriching. This is pretty ridiculous and shows they’ve never had the experience of starting their day to songs like “They Say” by Common, “Reality Check” by Noname, “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest, or, like, anything off The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It also shows that people like Post Malone must have never listened to songs with emotionally charged themes like “U” by Kendrick Lamar or the entirety of Navy Blue’s Ways of Knowing and Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs.
Rap is more than just the music that rises to the top of the charts and to use such a small sample size to make a grand statement on the genre is simply irresponsible. A lot of people use other genres to validate their taste in music; as if to say that if you only enjoy hip-hop, you have an immature taste in music. However, you’ll never hear someone say that about people who only listen to rock or classical music. Art is art, no matter what arbitrary rules we try to place on it. How can we treat a genre that has given us some of the most impactful poets in the last 50 years as a “lesser” art form? I hate to say it, but it truly does reek of anti-black sentiments.
All of the artists I previously mentioned are just that: artists. Yes, they also can be called rappers, but that shouldn’t delegitimize their title of an artist because what they make is art! Lil Yachty is also an artist, but not because he made “Let’s Start Here," but because since he came onto the scene back in 2016, he’s been making art as a rapper. He shouldn’t have felt the need to make music outside of rap to feel like he could be respected as an artist. It’s a shame that he did feel that way.