2019 was a year of growth for music. From Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” to Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” music was all about authenticity. Many of our urban faves scored hits that were made with an experimental steez, but also genuine intention. Sound Cloud rappers came out of the woodworks, album releases dominated social media, and R&B regained much of its rooting; but in sorely unconventional ways. And why do I say sorely? Because in this twilight zone of a year, the progress of urban music landed outside of our general expectations; Let me provide some context.
At the top of 2019, Lil Nas X dominated the airwaves with his country meets hip-hop jawn “Old Town Road.” While the genre-blending hit topped the charts, Billboard’s sly removal of the song off the Country Charts (where it was charting at #1) sparked much controversy about who determines music composition or in Billboard’s exact words “embracing enough elements ” of a genre. Many listeners including myself could clearly see the discriminatory undertones of these actions, but fortunately fellow country musician Billy Ray Cyrus hopped on the “Old Town Road (Remix)” elevating the song as a winning underdog anthem, which went on to hold the longest #1 spot on Billboard ever at 17 weeks.; A tasteful diss to the country naysayers and a resounding sound of foreshadowing for the year.
“Old Town Road” was a testament to the restorative power Hip-Hop has, and I believe that contributed to the very diverse sounds we experienced in 2019. Either sonically, visually, or lyrically Hip-Hop and R&B stretched its boundaries. Charting hits like Post Malone X Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” Bruno Mars X Cardi B’s “Please Me” or the Travis Scott X Drake’s heavy hitting “Sicko Mode” led a movement of genre-bending that amassed major pop appeal. Typically genre-consistent artists, dabbled in elements of rock, funk or electronica or completely turned their projects on its head like Tyler The Creator’s opus Igor or Kanye West’s glorified Jesus Is King ( which was created out of a series of modern gospel performances the Chicago Rapper initiated). The irony of all this music experimentation is the context in which it lives. This year, music coexisted with aggressive politics, cancel culture and endless tweet wars between fans and musicians- An offset to the upbeat, off kilter sound that gave modern pop a run for its money.
Pleasant projects (debatably) like Kehlani’s While We Wait, Chris Brown’s Indigo or Chance The Rapper’s The Big Day, felt familiar, like we were all still in 2016 enjoying warm summer days and happy ignorance. Fresh Faces on the scene like YBN Cordae, Da Baby, Lizzo, or Doja Cat, just to name a few, brought high energy anthems to urban music. Breakout hits like “Suge,” or “Truth Hurts,” are enthusiastic records; Jingle-like piano melodies, flourishing 808’s and bright visuals all played into this childlike, nostalgic sense of rap music that’s gaining popularity.
In the midst of the loud, overcrowding Hip-Pop explosion, albums like Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby, Summer Walker’s Over it, and Daniel Caesar’s Case Study 01, brought us back to reality, cementing the power of tender vocals and minimalist production. Gaining incredible exposure and success commercially, soulful artists like Khalid, H.E.R, BJ The Chicago Kid, Lucky Daye, Snoh Allegra and a plethora of etc. can thrive in what was once a bleak, aging sub-genre in urban music. R&B seemed to be the most consistent and accessible sound this year. Likely due to more Rap/Hip Hop labels adding singers to their rosters, strategic collaborations maximized theses artists’s star power and marketability; J.Cole’s led Dreamville’s Revenge Of The Dreamers III released this past summer is a perfect example of that. A defining moment of 2019, ROTD 3 encapsulated not just a beautiful mix of musicians and artists working together, but restored a fluidity between Rap and R&B in the public eye.
Thanks to artists like Anderson. Paak, Smino and A Boogie wit da Hoodie and plenty others, we are not limited by the elements of Hip Hop. The unique mixture of melody and rhythm that these artists create feels like a distant cousin to the genre; or more justly, a rooted parent to Rap. Either way, Smino’s features this year have been explosive, Paak’s Ventura, feels timeless and completely lost in the groove, while A Boogie, uses his high pitch vocals to creates pockets of intensity against trap flavored beats.
As the evolution of urban music takes many forms, the influx of femcees have definitely contributed to it. Whether it was Megan Thee Stallion “driving the boat” or Rico Nasty shouting out “Kennnnnyyy” before the beat drops, lady rhymers and MC’s alike dominated the culture and sound this past year. Major albums drops like Kash Doll’s Stacked or Doja Cat’s Hot Pink charted on Billboard and gained viral power on social media sites like Tik Tok or Triller thanks to upbeat, interactive singles. With a surge of diverse femcees on the brink of mainstream success, rising conversations around misogyny, equity and opportunity also made hip hop a powerful tool for social commentary.
Heralded niche spitters like Rapsody with Eve or Quelle Chris’s Guns shared opinions on the current issues surrounding violence, women and their social perspectives. 2 Chainz Rap or go to the League was interestingly intellectual; Songs like “Forgiven” and “Momma I hit a lick,” exposes the struggles of financial freedom. We can even go across the pond and find politically charged projects like slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain. As unique voices continually gain traction towards the pop music scope, production led jams pushed through with shockingly contrarian energy.
Rap’s New School is full of surprisingly young, bright-eyed artists who either hum sad love stories through ear numbing bangers or match the sounds of their production with abrasive and lyrical crass. Rappers like NBA Youngboy, NLE Choppa, Lil Tecca and Roddy Richh secured commercial success with continuous chart topping hits. Albums like Baby Keem’s Die for my Bitch or YK Osiris’s The Golden Child is pushing the momentum of highlighting vastly diversified beats under Hip Hop. YNW Melly or BROCKHAMPTON’S sounds, while recently introduced to the mainstream have discographies noting their vocal and sonic experimentations as well.
And for rappers whose already been granted stardom, they continued they’re reign with exceptional projects that was reflective and inviting for new listeners and fans alike. ScHoolboy’s Crash Talk, Young Thug’s So Much Fun and Freddie Gibbs X Madlib’s Bandana, were all released with critical acclaim. Offset, YG and Logic also came on the scene this year with monster hits. Songs like “Clout” or “Go Loko,” kept clubs jumping.
In the evolution of all these sound and subgenres, purists searched for peace in the form of street tales over boom bap. Leading a wave of classic hip hop music is Griselda Records. Spearheaded by Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway, rappers from my hometown Buffalo, NY, has gained national attention with their bone chilling stories and dreary instrumentals full of heavy vitriol and a strong stamina. Cohorts like Dave East, Joey Badass and Casanova has also lended their talents to building thorough projects emulating Golden Age Rap in the modern era.
The impact of all these different artist, whether belting a note, or grunting a bar has had their fair share of critique. If one thing reigns true, the gap between the talent and the audience has grown extremely close and coincidentally sometimes made artist accountable to fans in an unhealthy way. Artists now having a bigger responsibility to not only cater to their audience through music, but be a voice. Because of this, saying “For the Culture” seems more toxic than it did a few months ago and reaching expectations are sometimes simply unattainable.
And while neglecting expectations has proven to be a good thing, they can also lead to controversy. In the midst of the cultural progress and explosion of 2019, there was no shortage of sad stories and disastrous losses. From the deaths of rappers like Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle to rappers like 6ix9ine and Kodak Black thrown behind bars; turmoil was a constant, and perhaps a catalyst for the sonic expeditions of our favorite artists. While for most, 2020 is the end of an chaotic era, to me, its the beginning of a movement. As artists grow and listeners embrace, Hip Hop is only ascending, but it’s important to remember, nothing comes without sacrifice.
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