The End of Mumble Rap
In fact, let’s stop calling it Rap all together..and that’s not a bad thing
First of all, I don’t use that term. Actually, when I hear it, I feel insulted as if I made the music that those words are hurled upon.
Of course the definition of mumble doesn’t necessarily spell insult. It simply means “to speak in a low indistinct manner, almost to an unintelligible extent; mutter.” But when it’s a prefix to Rap it becomes like ‘Black’ in the arsenal of a self-hate jokester.
I spent almost a decade hating all things Rap, stuff that people love and cherish. DMX. Nope (Actually, none of the Ruff Ryders). Dipset, Dipset. Nope. Then I spent the last seven (years) learning to appreciate almost everything.
Meanwhile, there was a great divide growing. Many people of my generation and the one right behind mine began hating music the same way I did in the late 90s and early aughts. They longed for the music of their youth (whenever that was).
And the Mumble Rap title was born. But what is it? We talked a bit about that in Kanye Babies. What we’re discussing here is a little different.
I loathe titles. Even wrote about it. But since titles are a search/algorithm/advertising reality, I think it’s time we drop the term Mumble Rap and come up with some other term for it. We need a new title.
I have a way of measuring if an MC had a classic verse or not and it goes something like this:
Think of your favorite rapper, ok. Now rap one of their songs.
I have always been of the contention that the inability to quote a rapper’s lyrics speaks to said rapper’s skills. Most people who heard “Rapper’s Delight” way back when can still quote it now. Run DMC, Slick Rick, Rakim, so on and so forth — all of them have quotables.
When I say quote, I mean sans music. That whole gun to the head test that people always talk about — what song could you recite the lyrics to accurately if someone put a gun to your head — they would kill me thinking I was trying to show off because whether it’s “Cha Cha Cha” or “Start of the Ending,” I can rap those songs from the ad libs to the fade out.
Whether the songs are simple or complex, good lyrics are unforgettable and stay embedded in your mind.
That’s not knocking MCs whose lyrics I can’t remember to save my life — I’m sure there’s something appealing about their rhymes — but for something to be considered classic…you should be able to remember it.
Another criteria for a classic lyric is:
Does it make sense?
Admittedly, I’m not a man who prefers poetic lyrics. When I say poetic, I mean in the truest sense of the word — verse as opposed to prose. Sure, clever is good but opaque is annoying…to me.
Despite that, if somehow sense can be made of a poetical rhyme, well, go with god. Sometimes, however, people just be reaching and love for the listener to try to make sense out of their nonsense. Pissing on you, calling it rain. You know the deal.
Which brings me to:
Does it make me think?
Like I just said, when I say I prefer prose that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t want something to be thought provoking.
When a rapper can say something that will make me reflect on life or a time to the point where it either evokes the smells and sounds of an era or I’m instantly flashbacked to a specific place and time, then they’ve done their job.
Hearing 3 Stacks saying “I came up in a town, they were murdering kids” on “the ends,” I could see the 26 March 1981 Jet cover with all of the missing children on it. I remember being afraid of going out on my porch even though we lived thousands of miles away from Atlanta. That may have been the first time I felt afraid. One verse brought back those memories.
That’s what a good rap should do. That’s classic.
But that ain’t all.
Does it build on or advance the art of lyric creation?
The reason that people are clamoring for an Andre 3000 album is because every time he pops up, he completely alters whatever expectations we have for Rap.
It’s almost like you can hear the rhyme being constructed and, like if you’ve seen the shell of a building, watched the walls get erected, the electrical put in, the tiles laid, etc., one can’t help but to marvel at the brilliance of the human mind. That’s what a Andre 3000 verse is like.
Check some of “Solo” on Frank Ocean’s album:
So-lo that I can see under the skirt of an ant, So-lo that I don’t get high no more when I “Geronimo!” I just go hit, So-lo my cup is a rojo, my cholo, my friend, So-lo that I can admit, When I hear that another kid is shot by the popo it ain’t an event
So-lo that no more high horses, so hard to wear Polo, When I do I cut the pony off, now there’s a hole that once was a logo
Andre 3 stacks his verses like that. Building on a word, a theme, a flow. Breaking up lines and rhymes, eluding all expectations. It’s plain to see that it’s the work of someone that’s studying how to put verses together and how it’s been done in the past.
There will be think pieces for months on end about 4:44 and won’t need another. Suffice it to say, Jay-Z dropped the most mature, timely album to date. But to say that Jay-Z’s never made an honest album are the words of someone who hasn’t really listened to Jigga…just heard him.
Nonetheless, a classic verse/album is relatable because when an artist is introspective and honest an active listener can’t help but to reflect on their own life.
I’m in my 40s, lived long enough to have a regret, long enough to have made bad decisions, financial and otherwise. So lines like:
I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
I bought every V12 engine
Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’
I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo
For like 2 million
That same building today is worth 25 million
Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo. Jay-Z, The Story of O.J.
I know this life. We talk about Gentrification — I’ve written about it in three places — but I could have moved back to Denver and bought a home next door to Understanding Allah, who I wrote about having an apartment at 19. He was the first homeowner that I knew and homes were still affordable in the late 90s. We could have bought the neighborhood. But I had “dreams.” Denver wasn’t in the equation.
This picture could easily be Sad Bo.
I could go on and on. The bottom line is if we’re talking what Rap is, for people who grew up and studied it, all of what I mentioned above is a given.
There’s a criteria for not only what makes something good but what makes something Rap. So what then is Rap?
Let me tell you, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you saw that video there, didn’t know the song, and didn’t even go back to play it when you were done reading this article and clicking on that heart.
I wouldn’t mind if you took a second to stop reading and just vibed out. Fa real.
So take a second.
I don’t even know where to start with this. Oh yeah. So look, Black Moon’s debut Enta Da Stage came out in the fall of 93, blew our wigs back. Awesome album. I talked about it here. Damn good album. But right before the school year ended we were blessed with this surprise.
One of the best things about that era in my opinion was the unexpectant 12" remixes and extra cuts. You would hear a song on WRFG and be baffled.
“That ain’t on the album!”
I only bought cassettes at the time so I would ask Sayyed Munajj, who had been buying CDs since they came in those big, bulky ass cases, if the song was on the CD.
“Naw,” he’d reply.
Then I’d be forced to take a trip to Wax N’ Facts.
Sure enough, there would be a 12" (and a cassette single) with a remix on there and if we were lucky enough, an extra song. And that was the case with the “I Gotcha Opin” remix. On the flip side was “Reality…(Killing Every…).”
This was the spring of 94. Those songs carried me through to the summer. Why? Because it seemed that Buckshot was on to something.
Rappers had sung before. In fact, Rappers have always did a bit of singing. But what Buckshot was doing was mixing his gift of inflection, flow, and lyrical ability with a singing type voice that went smooth with the Barry White (on one side) and Quincy Jones (on the other) samples. It was a hit. I was of the belief that had Buckshot dropped an album in that style during the fall of that year (94) it would be a classic.
That didn’t happen.
But I bring that up to illustrate how his singing (if that indeed is what we’re going to call it) still exists within the confines of Rap.
Like I just mentioned, Buckshot had similar inflection, flow, and lyricism on the remix, but it’s also the song construction — it’s dense — that makes it Rap. Have a look:
I woke up in the morning, hopped on a train I saw my man
He had an L in his hand, hide it from the beast
At least I catch a bus before I hit my block
I take a mega hit frontin’ on the good ship lollipop
Move the hop so I can put the hip in the grip
Everybody slip so I can take a trip to the dip
Dig a deeper hole microphone control with soul
Look at my hot eye’s tell me how could you be cold
I’m coming to you from the underground, with a thunder sound
#1 question, “Yo how can I be down?”
With a rhyme scheme that tight, singing it, no matter the skill level of the singer, would sound like Rap.
A great example of that can be found in Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.”
The beginning of the song is typical R&B. One word at the end of the line rhymes with the word at the end of the next line. There’s a lot of space for Marvin to get busy in. But as we get towards the end of the song, we get this memorable, funky ass tidbit:
I know some places and I’ve seen some faces
I’ve got good connections they dig my directions
What people say that’s okay
They don’t bother me
Ready to make it, don’t fool with no women
Don’t care ‘bout no trouble got myself together
I feel a kind of protection is all around me
Click on this here hyperlink so you can hear it. You’ll see what I mean. Having those two words rhyming in the same line lends itself to a more staccato delivery. The song is from 1972, there was no Rap as we know it yet but it sure does sound Rap-like, Rap-eque. That’s because of the song construction.
Despite that, Marvin Gaye would have struggled trying to sing “I Gotcha Opin (remix).” That jawn is too damn dense.
There have been tons of sing/song Rap groups that I may have not supported — take Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Sure, they may have been giving us a singing type delivery, but the lyrics are still constructed like Rap. Here’s one of their most popular songs:
Your feelin’ the strength of the rump
Step up, hear the funk of the jump that the thugstas feel
Just be thuggin, straight buzzin, lovin yo peoples cause we so real
Chill, better bring yo weapon, when steppin
Bring on that ammunition, trippin’ on sip
Not to mention, never knew no competition
But i gotta get mine,so scream out, mo, and let me hear ya holla
Not about that mighty dollar
Roll with the bone, mo’ thugs will follow
(listening to that now, shit is hard. I thought it was then also…I just couldn’t…)
Again, Marvin would look at that and be totally baffled. The only way to get rump, funk, jump, feel (which will rhyme later after…), thuggin, buzzin’, lovin’, & real out, the only way to sing all of those words in three lines without sounding absolutely crazy is by having some sort of staccato Rap style. Singing alone won’t cut it.
So what are these so-called Mumble Rappers doing that is different? Let’s take a look/see.
I guess the first question that would have to be asked is who are the Mumble Rappers? That would be the starting point if…we could even agree on who they are.
Sometimes, I have to be honest, it sounds like people are lumping anyone with an accent that they don’t vibe with in that category. More specifically, people from the south. That could be why I get offended.
Because to call Migos, 2 Chainz, or Gucci, Mumble Rap is really just saying you don’t like how they rap. But they are rapping. You might not like this verse from “Culture,” for example:
Bought the Benz off the lot, Just to give your hoe a lift, I’m havin’ the sauce in the refrigerator, Just make sure you bring the chips
Aye it’s a fuck nigga in the back, Just look at him, look at him plot, He probably think it’s the club light but really it’s the red dot
You may think that’s wack as fuck, but not only is it rap, it’s kinda complicated. The lot, plot, dot is one bit of rhyming and the closer situated lift and chips is another. Reading it, you might not even see how that works. Which is the beauty.
I’m sure by now, people aren’t lumping 2 Chizzle and Gucci Mizzle in that Mumble bunch. We ain’t gotta dig in their catalog to show they have some semblance of bars.
So who are they talking about?
I’d have to ask my young brothas from my Straight to the Remix group when it was that we all agreed that Thugger found his voice but at some point in the last year we all began marveling at each and every feature that he’s been on.
As a result, I was excited to listen to Beautiful Thugger Girls…and I wasn’t disappointed. Now, would I call it a good Rap album. Absolutely not. And I wouldn’t call it Rap either.
Maybe you recall a few years back when Wired did an article about Thug where they quote Shea Serrano saying the Atlanta entertainer is “maybe the first post-text rapper, in that he doesn’t even really need words.” The article goes on to cite a Canadian linguist, Darin Flynn, who offers this up:
The closer that rappers deliver their lines the way they would actually speak around peers, the more it gives you a window into black English vernacular. As a linguist, I get to hear the cadence of how people in Atlanta actually talk with their peers.
But that’s not the juicy bit, although that’s good. If there is any proverbial liquid to be extracted from this article it’s this quote:
It’s almost like a Rorschach ink blot test. In a way, what Young Thug originally meant becomes less interesting than your own interaction with and interpretation of his music, which depends entirely on who you are.
If you are a self-professed, hardcore Hip-Hop head, chances are you’re going to abhor every second of a Thugger song.
But people who are Young Thug fans, the ones who swear by him, nine times out of ten they’ve never heard that Black Moon song up there, likely have never heard that Bones Thug song…and don’t care. Greater still, they don’t care about any of the history of Rap whatsoever. They listen to what they like. The end. They probably never even debate if it’s Rap or not.
Just like I wouldn’t debate if two of my favorite albums from 2016 are Rap…although I’m sure they’re labeled as such.
What’s the saying? When people tell you who they are, believe em? Well, if that’s the case, what are we even talking about? I mentioned it in Kanye Babies and it’s not like that much has changed in a year.
Most of these dudes don’t want to be called rappers and they take every opportunity to say it. Just recently in a French magazine Numéro, Travis Scott repeated what he’s been saying as long as I’ve been reading about him:
What the fuck is a rapper? I dunno. A country singer, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. No one is a country singer unless he wants to get stuck in one single genre. Me, I sing, I rap, I do beats, I sometimes make videos. Labels piss me off. Travis Scott
Labels piss him off…until he records the album of his life, which let’s be real Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is, it’s a damn good album. I bet Travis wished that there was a label for it when the Grammy’s rolled around and he wasn’t nominated for nada.
Buried amidst the 150 or so encouraging comments on his Manager/A&R Sickamore’s IG post were Scott’s own three words:
“So hurt man.”
Well shit, dude. What award were they supposed to nominate you for? If you not a rapper and your music isn’t Rap…what is it?
Wherein we enter the codification portion of this writing.
If you follow my articles, it may seem like I have conflicting views. On one of my first posts I talked about the need to codify Rap. Then more recently I turned around and bemoaned the fact that people keep labeling the music we make. So that may seem contradictory.
But it’s not.
A couple years back the media was making a big deal about something that had been going on for quite some time before they caught wind of it. But once they did, whew.
Maybe you don’t know this, but at least since the 90s, Dancehall/Rockers/Bashment has ruled Jamaican music. Sure there was still so-called traditional Roots Reggae being recorded and sure it still had a place, but by and large it was all about Dancehall. And then something changed. Roots Reggae became cool again.
Artists like Protoje, Chronixx, and Jah9, young artists, Millenials (which for some reason is a big deal) were now making Roots Reggae, music with conscious lyrics…and they were drawing huge crowds, to the point where people started calling it a movement.
Enter: Dutty Bookman. Bookman had been studying the Harlem Rennaisance and appreciated the continuity that the term provided when searching for art from that era. With that in mind and modern technology, Bookman coined the term— Reggae Revival in November of 2011 — and it caught on. Four years later, even Vogue was covering the music. Abby Aguirre wrote a wonderfully constructed, interactive piece on the Reggae Revival that you should definitely check out.
The beauty of that is the movement was coined by someone from Jamaica, accepted by the artists, and it continues to grow. I’m not at all against that. I’m against outsiders imposing their terms on the music.
Like we talked about in Ya’ll Keep Trying to Name Stuff, it was the term Afrobashment that got my boxer briefs in a bunch. That was in line with what had been going on in British music for the past decade. Jungle, Grime, Dub Step, many of the creators of those genres never used those terms and found them offensive.
That’s what I had a problem with.
Well, I think that we’ve reached that juncture here. It’s time to name the music before someone else does.
The first step in codifying a music is always difficult. Mostly because it’s not that simple. Artists are individuals, and, while many of them use the same programs, plug-ins, etc. their level of expertise can fool you into thinking that they’re doing something entirely different than the next person.
Fetty Wap doesn’t sound like Future for several reasons: the first being that Future has been doing that style of music for far longer than Fetty, the second being that he’s an originator of it, the third being that he’s from the south, and fourth because they’re totally different human beings.
But what can be said for certain…the style of music that they make is the same. How so?
The most important thing in compiling these artists together is Autotune. For years I found Autotune to be the greatest abhorrence ever created. It grabbed a hold of every genre and forced it into submission. No music was safe. I blamed T-Pain. But as I mentioned here and here, after studying Autotune further and observing trends in the African Diaspora, I’ve grown to appreciate it.
That translated into how I perceived American artists.
When I made my mid-year review in 2016, I dedicated a section to artists that lived by Autotune using the term humorously coined by Jeff Weiss back in 2012 — Sad Robot Music (SRM). When Weiss came up with that phrase it was an empty field with few artists but it’s now expanded to the point where even he would be amazed. Birds in the Trap hadn’t dropped yet and I had no idea that one of my other favorite albums of 2016, Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’, was on the horizon, but there were already a slew of SRM offerings —Lil Uzi vs the World & Lil Yachty’s Summer Songs, were two, new and eating up the Billboard charts.
I liked songs on Uzi, Yachty, and the Fetty Wap/PNB Rock projects. But when Birds in the Trap… came out, I put all those artists aside. Which brings me to the next aspect of this genre.
A Focus on Melodies Over Lyrics & Bel canto
Ain’t no one listening to Future for lyrical content or beautiful singing (which is the basic meaning of bel canto). Similarly, whether Fetty Wap is singing on key or not his fans are gonna love him. And they’re not concerned with his lyrical prowess either. Check this verse from his breakout hit “Trap Queen:”
I’m like hey, wassup, hello
Seen yo pretty ass soon as you came in the door
I just wanna chill, got a sack for us to roll
Married to the money, introduced her to my stove
Showed her how to whip it now she remix it for low
She my trap queen let her hit the bando
We be counting up watch how far them bands go
Not only are the lyrics simple, as you can see, the construction of the verses are very similar to how we described R&B — a word rhyming at the end of each line.
What makes this even more simple is it’s the same rhyme scheme on every line. His second verse, he actually raps. But that’s not what sells the song. It’s the singing/chanting/rap of the first and third verse.
And it’s HOW he sings it. It’s the memorable melody. The simplicity of rhyming hello, door, roll, stove, love, bando, go is hidden by the Autotune effects on Fetty’s voice.
Travis Scott does that to perfection. He rules with his melodies. And his use of Autotune is impeccable. He studied the greats — the progenitor Kanye and his disciple/John the Baptist, Kid Cudi (whom we’ll talk about in a second). But we could take any Travis Scott lyric to demonstrate our point. Let’s just pick one.
Day and night, I toss and turn
I keep stressin’ my mind, mind
I seek the peace, sometimes I can’t restrain
To join a rage at night, come out and play, play
Balance, find your balance
God said it’s my talent
Sprinkle a little season on the salad
Relieve my heart of malice, hit my palace
Stroke my cactus, ohh, don’t wait
Those first lines are an homage to Kid Cudi (who is on the first verse of this song, and we’re almost there), there’s no rhyme per se until talent, salad, malice, palace, and cactus. Certainly not striving for complexity there. And, also, these verses could be handled by Marvin if he was so inclined. But like I said, Scott excels at what he learned from Cudi.
It’s All About the Mood
Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ — man, that jawn is 19 songs, an hour and twenty-seven minutes of MOOD. Cudi and that hummmmm…he could get a Grammy for it alone if they had a category for humming. His voice seems to be perfect for the robotic sounds that Autotune provides, like Keanu Reeves is perfect for stone-faced, non-emotive roles. I doubt that anyone is lining up calling Cudi’s work Rap, Mumble or otherwise.
It’s all Mood.
Birds in the Trap is a half hour shorter but also is all Mood. The sonics produce it. Whether that’s ambient sounds or in the case of Travis Scott’s latest work, extreme 808, the music surrounds you, sucks you in. There’s a lot going on.
Future is definitely closer to Rap. His music moves like it, feels like it. But it’s all about Mood as well. It’s just a different Mood. Future makes music for strippers to get loose to. But he ain’t trying to spit no bars either. Look at his current hit, “Mask Off:”
Two cups, toast up with the gang
From food stamps to a whole ‘nother domain
Out the bottom, I’m a livin’ proof (Super)
They compromising, half a million on the coupe
Drug houses, lookin’ like Peru
Graduated, I was overdue
Pink Molly, I can barely move
Ask about me, I’m gon’ bust a move
Rick James, 33 chains
Ocean air, crusin’ Biscayne
Top off, that’s a liability
Hit the gas, boostin’ my adrenaline
There may be two words rhyming in the same line like James, chains, air, Biscayne but the majority of the song…proof, coupe, Peru, overdue, last word in line rhymes. Future, Metro Boomin’, Mike Will Made It, and all the other Future team set a fucking Mood. Don’t believe it? Listen to any of his music in your car, volume close to ‘I can’t hear ambulances’ level. Watch a strip pole sprout in your vehicle. Which brings me to the last point.
It’s Really About the Performance
Future don’t fit into that category (the strippers do the performing), and he is in the older end of his generation. Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, and them dudes…with Travis Scott being the god of that cipher, those dudes are all about the performance. There’s a lot of jumping, running back and forth, stage dives, (and in Uzi’s case shoulder rolls), energy on 2,000.
The music is made to perform…which is why the lyrics and all that don’t matter. Well they do, only as much as the lyrics can be chanted with very little thought. And if you’re reading this and over 25, you SHOULD feel uncomfortable when you watch someone like Travis Scott perform. It ain’t your uncle’s Rap concert, that’s for sure.
I’m a fan of Future. Travis Scott might be one of my favorite new artists at the present moment. “Straight up.” I think Young Thug is seriously slept on…but not if we’re calling them rappers.
None of the above-mentioned artists nor anyone who makes music similar to theirs could even meet up to one aspect of the criteria that I listed above for a classic verse and it would be unfair to measure them by it.
They’re not out trying to make those type of songs. Future’s not saying he’s the next Rakim or no crap like that. Future stands firm on the same principle that many artists who make similar music stand on — he’s not a rapper. In Kanye Babies, I provided this quote from Fader Magazine that Future made some odd years ago and it’s more true now than then:
My music’s further away from rap now than it’s ever been, but rap is my home. I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’m comfortable with doing the music that I’m doing. Future
Lil Uzi had this now infamous Tweet:
Ok, cool. Again, When someone tells you who they are, believe em.
To be clear, He ain’t making Rock. Neither is Travis Scott. And I know that may ruffle their feathers. But what they’re speaking about is an attitude and, as Uzi tweeted “emotion.” That’s what their music is — Attitude, Mood, & Emotion.
Sad Robot Music is just as insulting as Mumble Rap, but we need to come up with some other term for this music. Because if we did, Future could get the respect he’s due, Travis Scott could get his Grammy nomination, and Lil Uzi would be free to shake his shoulders in peace.
I’m awful with titles. But if you’re so inclined, after you click that heart, leave your suggestions in the comments. We need to file a petition or sumn. But we need to stop criticizing a music that was never intended to be measured up to Illmatic or Doggystyle or whatever your definition of a Classic Rap album is.
Me personally, I measure all of it against Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, the first classic, I believe, in whatever the hell we’re gonna call that genre. Tell us what you think.