2015: The Greatest Year in Rap?

December 29, 2015

The origins of hip-hop have been well documented. Hip-hop began as a progressive movement in the inner city of the South Bronx during the mid-to-late 1970’s. New York during this period was a time of diversity and integration, but also a time of violence and poverty that was unprecedented in the inklings of history. The families within these areas were vastly underrepresented, and they felt they needed an escape from the harsh realities that surrounded them. For them hip hop was that outlet, and it would establish a culture we could call our own.

The culture of hip-hop was made up of a total of nine elements, the most notable of which is rap music. The genre encompasses an artistic crusade that has grown and evolved from the many changes it has endured since its genesis. Rap has been crafted from many of the sculptors that have laid their prints onto its interchangeable form. Shifting from the party-song/feel good era of the 1970s, to the black revolutionary phase during the early-late 1980s. From then rap made its West Coast campaign during the g-funk rhythmic of the 1990s, to indulging into stories of the glamorous lifestyle that made up the early 2000s. Throughout the mid-2000s the dance craze era cemented a hand print within hip hop culture, however this time period was considered a low point in rap. Since then the genre has been slowly revitalizing itself to what it is today, and in turn created arguably the greatest year in rap music. The number of contributions artists have provided for the genre, the overall cultural impact these artists have made, and finally how well 2015 compares to year’s purists consider the greatest in rap history is to be evaluated.

Following the drought of 2014 both critically and commercially, 2015 has singlehandedly reignited the genre. Today rap music is a collage of all the styles and sub-genres it has developed, and combined them to form an encyclopedia of artists that are equally as influential as the next. Artists with their own following/fans that support them and have allowed them to flourish in their respected lanes. It doesn’t matter if one is a J. Cole, Young Thug, Lil Durk, Asap Rocky or whether an artist is from New York, Atlanta, Houston, Compton or Chicago they still have an opportunity to build something powerful enough to substantiate influence within our culture.  For example, look at how many artists have released culture defining projects this past year. All of these artists are different, and all are of varying regions and stages in their careers. Newcomers like Fetty Wap, Dej Loaf, Goldlink, Rae Sremmurd and Travis Scott have established themselves as rap’s new regime. Artists such as Wale, Big Sean and Asap Rocky who are still exploring their placement in the rap game have managed to drop credible music of their own. Rising legends like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole continue to cement their legacies with culture shattering projects that not only took over rap, but overshadowed those musically almost entirely. Legends that have already cemented their placement in rap like The Game, Lupe Fiasco, Snoop Dogg, Scarface, Dr. Dre and Jadakiss have also helped lay the ground work for arguably one of the best years in rap history.  The current climate of our culture’s grasp of social media has also made a way for independent artists that previously were vastly overlooked, especially among casual fans of hip-hop. Artists are able to exploit their music themselves, eliminating the politics and restrictions associated with a record label. Since its emergence more artists have prompted to release their music independently, and have managed to gain more success than ever before. Hip hop artists that have adopted this method are Mac Miller (before signing to Warner Bros.), Macklemore, Joey Badass, and Troy Ave, etc. All of which have garnered achievements uncommon during the 90s and other such eras.

This past year was a cultural takeover that we have never witnessed before. Rap has become the most influential genre in the world, far exceeding that of rock n roll. Though the Pop world still reigns supreme commercially, hip-hop and rap have tight grips upon the minds of our youthful society. Domenico states “There is also an overall enthusiasm for everything concerning the urban black subcultures: fashion, hairstyles, even jargon. For the first time, white teenagers embrace en masse the cultural expressions of the African-American. You could say that Black is the new Black.” (2015). For example, hip-hop artist/vocalist Future is arguably the hottest name in music right now. Over the course of this past year -beginning in November 2014 to now- Future has released a total of four mixtapes and an album in 2015. His sound –with the help of producers Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made It, Southside and 808 Mafia- has been utilized by a number of Pop and RNB artists in order to generate sells due to its futuristic and trendy appeal. Fellow artist and collaborator Drake is another notable artist that continues to elevate the culture. He is completely in a league of his own. Yes, Future with the help of other Atlanta producers/rappers are influencing musically, however Drake is the only artist that is capable of having a foot in the Pop and RNB markets while still garnering respect among hip-hop purists. Here Tharpe explains the contributions Drake has made to the culture since his coronation into rap. “With each album comes at least one new phrase that’s instantly added to the contemporary pop culture lexicon before being used to death. One feature from Drake has a 95 percent guaranteed success rate of boosting your song and/or album, in some cases your career—these days it’s turned into a fun guessing game deciding which bubbling banger from an up-and-comer will get the Drake stimulus package.” (Tharpe, 2015).This past year was unofficially Drake season, and his accolades speak for them self. In 2015, Drake was one of two -the other being J-Cole- hip-hop artists that’s albums sold over one million units. For the 2016 Grammy’s he’s obtained a total of five nominations. This man is doing it all, and is continuing to spearhead a new pedigree of musicians that are taking over the art.

What time period is this comparing to, and by what measure? This essay is comparing 2015 to years 1994 and 1996, both considered to be plateaus within the golden era of rap music. As far as sales, there is not a conversation. With the emergence of streaming, album leaks, and illegal downloading unheard of during these opposing eras it would be sacrilegious to use album sales as a barometer for cultural and musical impact. The comparison is based on how the genre impacted popular culture, its critical reception, and its longevity or potential thereof. 1994 had notable classic albums like Illmatic, Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalistic and Common’s Resurrection, etc. Illmatic and Ready to Die are hip hop cornerstones that helped revive East Coast rap. Resurrection and Southernplayalistic cultivated a movement for both Chicago and Atlanta that has since amassed to the heights the two cities have reached today. In 1996 classics from established artists Tupac with All Eyez on Me, Nas’ follow up It was Written, and Tribe’s Beat, Rhymes, and Life, etc. The debuts of rap’s greatest MC Jay Z with the release of Reasonable Doubt, and the queen of rap Lil Kim’s album Hardcore brought upon a new regime in rap that would rival any in history. Though 1996 spawned three of rap’s greatest and most impactful artists of all time, 2015 maintains three of its own that may one day submit their names in the greatest MC of all time conversation in Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake. J. Cole’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive is undoubtedly the greatest project of his career so far, and made people appreciate a self-produced piece that did not rely on features from other mainstream artists. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late has been in rotation since its release this past February. Kendrick Lamar released one of the most beautifully crafted socially conscious and groundbreaking records since the likes of Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Black Star in 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Greg Tate, a respected writer for the acclaimed Rolling Stone Magazine says “To Pimp a Butterfly is a densely packed, dizzying rush of unfiltered rage and unapologetic romanticism, true-crime confessionals, come-to-Jesus sidebars, blunted-swing sophistication, scathing self-critique and rap-quotable riot acts. Roll over Beethoven, tell Thomas Jefferson and his overseer Bull Connor the news: Kendrick Lamar and his jazzy guerrilla hands just mob-deeped the new Jim Crow, then stomped a mud hole out that ass.” (Tate, 2015).

Though, with all that has happened in 2015 there is still one question that needs to be asked. What exactly has any artist this year done to propel the culture no differently than any other artist before them? The answer is simply the abundance of music that is being produced and its reception from other fans/musicians. One may argue that 2015 is a product of its era. One that is constantly releasing filler albums/mixtapes to keep the consumer on its toes, versus focusing on releasing quality projects that will become a staple for the genre. I beg to differ, I believe this year has been one of the most celebrated critically since the two years I mentioned. Right now, I will confess it is hard to scope and assess these accomplishes with those that were so monumental 20 years ago. The difficulty lies within the luxury of time, and how it has allowed fans and purists of hip-hop to fully analyze how the years 1994 and 1996 impacted rap. We cannot quite do that, especially with 2015 recently coming to a close. Undoubtedly this past year was an amazing one, but in order to compare past generations and moments in hip hop there must be time. Time to define what, albums artists, and messages this era has developed that transcended the genre and the culture.

The number of contributions artists have provided for the genre, and the overall cultural impact these artists have made this past year compared to those purists consider the greatest in rap history is nearly unprecedented. Today rap is a collage of artists of different styles, regions, and messages within the genre. Artists of the new, present and past are capable of striving in our current hip-hop climate. The internet has been able to ascend independent artists that may have been looked over. The upper echelon of hip hop have developed a sound that has shifted the art in its entirety. What made 1994 and 1996 special is the legacies that were left behind by the artists within them. Only time will tell if these artists are seemingly a product of their trendy climate, or if their careers will continue to blossom and develop in to one’s like the artists previously mentioned. As new styles, trends and phases develop will these projects maintain the same musical eminence as it had when it was released? How will the current music stand once a new age of rappers transform its landscape and form? Without question this past year was the greatest year in hip-hop among the new millennium, but how well they compare to the era of Biggie, Tupac and Jay-Z is still one that will be debated among other hip-hop purists and analysts. Do not get blinded by nostalgia, think objectively. Though there is no evidence that this year is undoubtedly the best in rap history, there is one thing that is clear. The culture of hip hop is in a renaissance, one that will be talked about for decades to come.

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