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Rap Renaissance: How New York is Changing the Game

Arts & Culture | November 12, 2013

Over the past few years, New York City has been the hub of a promising rap renaissance. Emerging crews have collectively revived the urban sounds of the 90s, fused party rap with Houston lean music, and introduced a new aesthetic of druggy mysticism. Joey Bada$$’ Brooklyn-based Pro Era and A$AP Rocky’s Harlem-based A$AP Mob have helped move rap away from the smothering clutches of the late Dirty South movement and into a new age of creativity. Between 2006 and 2008, an attempt to revive classical Southern rap oversaturated and quickly stagnated the genre into a cascade of mindless dance songs. Thankfully, we’ve forgotten that Flo-Rida’s “Low” and T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” were the two most popular rap songs in 2008. Instead of developing personalities and lyricism, rappers mechanically spewed out lyrics and sounds that revolved around mindless notions of club scenes. Today, however, 2008 rap just seems like a distant hangover. The New York renaissance has helped rap regain its charm, honesty, and unpredictability – of course with the help of other movements such as, California’s Odd Future and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy. Project after project, New York has pioneered new competitive sounds, developed more widely relatable lyrics, and set up a context of continual improvement for fans.

Rap finally seems to have regained its focus on developing an honest narrative of each rapper’s true characters. In both Pro Era’s PEEP: The aPROcalypse and Joey Bada$$’ astonishing mix tapes, 1999 and Summer Knights, you can lyrically and sonically feel the laid-back and honest personalities that make up the Pro Era crew. These kids, mostly students from Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, give you a candid picture of their lives and make you feel like they’re rapping for themselves and no one else. While Southern rap cultivated an ambience of dishonesty and conformity, these New York rappers have brought honesty to the forefront of hip-hop. Flushing, Queens native, Action Bronson has also recovered sincerity in the genre – demonstrating his uniquely appealing character as a wise guy, overseas-traveller, luxury chef, and occasional rapper. Bronson’s raps and promotional videos entertain his fans with authentic and ironically lavish images of his lifestyle. Artists like Pro Era and Bronson are clearly seeking to gain trust from their listeners, something that late Southern rap has long neglected. As New York MCs approach their music as a project of baring their sincere selves, they have restored life to rap and have given the genre a genuine charisma absent in late Southern rap.

More than approaching their projects with an attitude of integrity, New York rappers are developing their projects comprehensively. For example, creating new fashion trends, and are channeling a range of musical influences in unprecedented ways. A$AP Mob, for example, has meticulously worked to create visual trends that combine messy urban style with high fashion. The fashion image that A$AP Rocky and his team have developed, for example, guides much of their lyricism—although sometimes to his disadvantage. More than crafting appealing imagery and fashion trends, A$AP Mob has drawn from various musical influences to craft a progressive sound, which mixes together familiar New York urban standards with the Houston screw influences – which late Southern rap coincidentally misapplied to their vain club music. While late Southern rap was no more than a slew of the same predictable sounds, crews such as A$AP Mob have inspired a comprehensive creativity in both music and fashion.

The vision of the A$AP Mob seems to have launched a thirst for competitive innovation amongst other rap groups in the New York area. Earlier this year, a lesser-known group, The Underachievers, demonstrated unexpectedly comprehensive sounds on their popular mix tape Indigoism. The tape was original in sound and lyricism, mixing organic bluesy samples with refined trap drums under a vivid and aesthetic of supernatural acid rap. Indigoism delivered a sound and visual appeal only possible with an organic blend of widespread musical influences. This summer, another Brooklyn-based group, Flatbush Zombies released a conceptually similar mix tape entitled, D.R.U.G.S—which stands for Death and Reincarnation Under God’s Supervision. On the tape, producer and rapper, Erick Arc Elliot combines a unique soundscape of spacey jingles and dark bangers. Lyrically, the Zombies add original elements of horror and fiendish villainy to the druggy mysticism we found on projects like The Underachievers’ Indigoism. Apart from Eric Arc’s impressive production, Meechy Darko’s unpredictable flow and gruff intonations give D.R.U.G.S an original, engaging, and unexpected edge. The Underachievers and the Flatbush Zombies frequently collaborate under the Beast Coast umbrella. However, instead of conforming to a repetitive and homogenized style, these groups seem to motivate each other to develop lyrical, musical, and aesthetic range. While late Southern rappers approached their music with an attitude of conformity, Beast Coast, A$AP Mob, Pro Era, and Action Bronson, and other New York MCs compete with each other to build and develop originality in both their music and visuals.

Although several New York groups have given rap a new creativity and energy, as of late, the momentum seems to have been slowing down. Maybe it’s just that fans have been spoiled with a wave of originality, but many of these artists’ recent projects—with the exception of Action Bronson’s Blue Chips 2, Joey Bada$$’s Summer Knights, and A$AP Ferg’s hit singles “Shabba” and “Work (Remix)”—have been somewhat underwhelming. The Flatbush Zombies’ second mix tape, Better Off Dead, is among the highly anticipated Beast Coast projects that ended up veering into disappointment. Better Off Dead is less original in its production, conceptually disorganized, and is littered with clichés. On D.R.U.G.S, Meechy Darko, for example, referred to how his crew was blowing up the rap scene with originality, he cleverly mixed the dead Zombie aesthetic with the familiar notions of hip hop’s death, rapping, “Hip-hop dead, that’s cause we here.” On Better Off Dead, although he tries to deliver the same message, he ends up coming off cheap and irritating: “Zombies blowing up like the Boston marathon, Boom/ War too soon, opposite of late bloom.” Much like on The Underachievers’ second project, the Zombies seem to be prematurely taking their influence on hip hop too seriously on this album. Instead of channeling a competitive attitude, The Underachievers and the Zombies ended up both losing their originality in sound and reducing their previously appealing drug-magic aesthetic into a conceited gimmick.

These recent upsets are not cause for too much concern or anxious notions of an end to the New York City rap renaissance. However, a declining competitive attitude coupled with premature self-confidence suggests a questionable future for some of these previously groundbreaking artists. Despite this, it seems that new and talented rappers are feeding off the fresh sounds that the likes of Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers have created and are now springing up across the five boroughs. Even if the previously groundbreaking momentum is slowing down, the renaissance in New York is nevertheless continuing to inspire a wave of unpredictable experimentation that late Southern rap never thought to pursue. New York has done more than simply channel nostalgic sounds of the 90s, revive Houston screw music in a more original way than did late Southern rap, and cultivate progressive and memorable visuals. By abandoning the dishonest attitude of late Southern rappers the new wave of rappers has revived rap as a charismatic genre genuinely seeking to explore, complicate, and reflect the complications of the human experience.