What A Year (So Far): Hip Hop Is Exciting In 2018
This has been the most bizarre Kanye album promotional cycle to date. After almost a full year away, Mr. West returned to the Twitterverse two weeks ago with Yeezy designs and a number of benign musings bordering on life advice. Yet since then, the boldly unconventional producer and rapper, who has created some of the most influential albums of the 21st century, has been running rampant. One minute, his barrage of tweets are being made into hilarious New Yorker cartoons, and the next minute, he’s endorsing a number of right-wing figures, chief among them President Donald Trump. The subsequent firestorm of controversy has quickly come to dominate the news cycle, with pundits from both corners relentlessly trying to make sense of the outbursts.
The truth is that Kanye has always been an iconoclast. He’s chock-full of unpopular, unfiltered opinions that inevitably generate public outcry at every turn. Tell him to not do something, and he’s going to turn around and do exactly that. Keep in mind that this is the same man who once said that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” after the disastrous U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina. Or how about the disturbingly accurate depictions of naked, wax figure celebrities such as Taylor Swift in “Famous,” which is still somehow up on YouTube? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he would choose to endorse a president who called African nations “shitholes.”
Of course, there’s no way of knowing what’s really going on in Kanye’s mind. He’s an artist beholden to no one but himself, a characteristic that, while admirable, has been an endless source of frustration for fans and critics alike. Perhaps he is simply latching on to others who have bucked political correctness in favor of public theatrics. What has been lost in all of the recent hubbub is that Ye shared the release dates for five massive albums, most notably a solo project and one with longtime musical conspirator Kid Cudi. And regardless of how you feel about Kanye’s provocative celebrity, there’s no denying that any publicity is good publicity as he prepares for a cruel G.O.O.D. Music summer. It’s a tried-and-true tale that dates back to his College Dropout days: Kanye is just being Kanye. He’s focused on himself and nothing else, to the point that he’s willing to stir up political division for the sake of promoting his new albums. That being said, Kanye knows a thing or two about postponing release dates, so only time will tell if he’ll keep his promises.
Still, the “dragon energy” thinker’s announcements regarding upcoming music are the cherry on top for a year that has already been particularly gripping for the hip hop community. J Cole graced fans with the timely KOD to the tune of 400k first week album sales. Post Malone finally dropped Beerbongs & Bentleys, the highly-anticipated follow-up to blockbuster Stoney. Cardi B hastily dismissed the notion that she is more than just a one-hit wonder with Invasion of Privacy. Nicki Minaj re-emerged from her social media hiatus with two fiery new singles. Nipsey Hussle knocked it out of the park on his long-delayed debut. And A$AP Rocky continues to turn heads with errant bouts of experimentation, as he gears up for the appropriately titled Testing.
Naturally, there were a few duds here and there: Migos churned out more hits with Culture II but at the expense of a concise and enjoyable listening experience. However, there are still plenty of artists that have yet to prove themselves in 2018: Rae Sremmurd and Mike WiLL Made-It are returning to the fray with SremmLife 3, a triple-disc project tentatively scheduled for May 4; Travis Scott’s Astroworld could be here at the drop of a hat (literally, who knows); Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, and Nas all have individual albums being executive-produced by Kanye; Meek Mill is no doubt itching to get back in the studio following his overdue release from prison; and Drake seems primed to continue his nine year stretch of dominance atop the Billboard charts, with his fifth studio album Scorpion coming some time in June.
All of this is to say that hip hop is in the early stages of one of the most action-packed years in recent memory. Think the 2007 sales war between Kanye West and 50 Cent, or the 2003 triumvirate of JAY-Z, Outkast, and 50. Besides the fact that there are a number of high profile releases due in 2018, it has been intriguing to watch the interactions between the experienced mentors of the genre and the next generation. Master manipulator Kanye West released the meme-inducing “Lift Yourself” before showing his approval of Smokepurpp’s remix of the sample-driven track. He reposted it with the caption “I’m posting this but not as a diss to J. Cole, I love J. Cole. I also love where Purp took his flow.” The reason for the disclaimer stems from Smokepurpp’s open dislike for the 2014 Forest Hills Drive rapper, which he voiced at a recent concert. The beef has been brewing for the past couple of weeks following the release of KOD, with the closing track “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)” addressing hip hop’s reckless obsession with drugs and material wealth. Although Cole is simply offering cautionary advice to the new crop of young talent on the track, many have speculated that he is subliminally dissing artists like Smokepurpp and Lil Pump. The “Gucci Gang” phenom inevitably responded on his Instagram story, clowning J. Cole for “dissing a 17-year-old.”
While Smokepurpp and Lil Pump continue to drum up headlines, others have caught fire rubbing shoulders with top-tier stars. BlocBoy JB climbed the charts with the Drake co-sign “Look Alive” before getting the nod from A$AP Rocky on “Bad Company.” Beloved boy band BROCKHAMPTON, which is in the midst of working on their projected summer release Puppy, recently posted a photo with Rick Rubin, citing the legendary producer as an inspiration for the Saturation trilogy. Oh, and just this morning, they added to the general excitement for all of the above, with the announcement that Puppy arrives in June.
As for Drake, what else is there to say at this point? Just when people thought 2015 was the victorious centerpiece of his career, he proceeded to drop back-to-back Billboard chart toppers in the form of “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What.” For nine years the Toronto rapper has been a fixture of hip hop. Trends come and go, artists experiment with new sounds and styles, and mistakes are made that redefine careers for better or for worse. Through it all, Drake has remained, always managing to stay one step ahead of those scheming ways to knock the commercial crown from his head. His prolific run has been capped by his ongoing growth as an artist, and his ability to turn any sound into his own shows just how efficient he has become at refining his music. He’s the king of his craft, a trendsetter whose music is wholly inescapable not only because it brings with it an onslaught of coverage across social media, but also because it has spawned innumerable artists seeking to duplicate what he has to offer.
Nowhere has hip hop’s emergence as the primary driving force in popular culture been as evident as in the success of Black Panther, backed by the acclaimed Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg-curated soundtrack. The historic cultural moment became the highest-grossing superhero film of all time in domestic box office sales, while the soundtrack, which debuted in the top slot on Billboard 200, has spent ten weeks on the chart and now sits at the number nine spot. It’s a storytelling device that perfectly complements the film’s exploration into themes of duality and the experience of the African diaspora. The confluence of Marvel’s blockbuster enterprise and hip hop culture is uniquely groundbreaking, and has resonated with a worldwide audience for its profound artistry and intentioned social commentary.
In sum, Kanye is back like he never left, Drake remains in peak form, some of the biggest names in the industry are throwing their names in the hat, dynamic personalities and budding stars are emerging, and to top it all off, Kung Fu Kenny won a Pulitzer. Hip hop has had a tremendous cultural impact in 2018, and has proven to be of immense historical importance in just a few short months. Significant strides are being made in terms of inclusion in awards shows, mainstream media acknowledgement, and television presence. For a genre that is in a constant state of change, perspective is more valuable than ever. Only time will tell where 2018 ranks in terms of the genre’s “greatest” years. Still, what is unfolding in hip hop right now is unparalleled. Hip hop has never been more commercially viable, novel sounds are being introduced in a flourishing underground market, and the biggest stars are at the apex of their powers. For all the ignorant chatter that hip hop is on the downslide, things seem to be just fine for the genre that continues to achieve one seismic triumph after another.