Music is birthed from creativity, as artists capture a specific sound and build off of an aesthetic and style to keep listeners engaged. Genuine skill is required to be a successful artist; pure creativity and passion are not good enough on their own. A true test of an artist’s skill occurs when musicians try to venture across genres. Unfortunately for the hip-hop and rap community, rappers’ attempts at creating rock albums has revealed a lack of cross-genre skill in many musicians.
From the beginning of rap’s existence in the mainstream, influence from other genres of music have expanded rap into various thriving subgenres and revealed how gifted these artists are. Jazz rap — most well known through supergroups De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest — is defined by upbeat horn based production and swing-oriented flows. It has become one of, if not the most popular subgenres of rap. Furthermore, rap music with soul samples and punk aesthetics remain popular with artists such as Madlib, Lauryn Hill and N.W.A. respectively. However, during the 2010s, rappers have moved away from this sampling and begun to create projects that shift genres completely.
A modern wave of rappers attempting to create rock albums has become a trend characterized by failure. This trend began with Lil Wayne’s album, “Rebirth” (2009). This album, despite including some rap-oriented tracks, was promoted as Wayne’s rock album debut. While the album debuted at the top of many weekly music charts — even peaking at number two on the Billboard charts — critical acclaim of this album was nonexistent. Metracritic, a website that combines data regarding reviews from various art critics in order to give a score out of 100, gave “Rebirth” a mere 37. Other publications and reviewers such as Pitchfork expressed distaste for this album and rated it a 4.5 out of 10. When it came to commercial success, this album did not stay relevant for long: Currently, only three songs from this album are included in Apple Music’s most streamed songs, and even then, they come in low on the list. When one thinks of Lil Wayne, “Rebirth” doesn’t typically come to mind.
A plethora of rappers followed in the footsteps of Lil Wayne over the course of the 2010s, attempting to shift genres and create rock albums. These included Logic’s “Supermarket,” Vic Mensa’s “93PUNX,” G-Eazy’s “Everything’s Strange Here,” Kid Cudi’s “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” and many more. These attempts were no more successful than Lil Wayne’s — receiving negative reviews and quickly fading into irrelevance.
The reason these albums perform so poorly is due to the music itself, and “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” embodies these vast musical failures. Kid Cudi is a well-respected artist, renowned in the industry as one of the first mainstream rappers to express vulnerability and discuss mental health in his music. When he came out with “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” in 2015, many were shocked with how messy the typically smooth artist’s work was. The result is a mess. The production has little direction and sounds at times like dissonant guitar layered over each other in a random fashion. Cudi’s voice ranges from unenthusiastic and dry to ridiculous and out of control — not even the autotune can make his vocals on pitch either. The music is so disappointing that popular music critic TheNeedleDrop gave this album an incredibly rare 0 out of 10. Through all of this, one thing is very clear: Kid Cudi did not have the tools to make a rock album. This statement can be echoed for all the other albums previously mentioned.
This trend seemed to be a natural progression from the ’90s, with these artists increasing the amount of genre influence in the album to the point that the rap is almost nonexistent. The difference between this trend and its predecessor is the failure that accompanies all these works as opposed to the success of those in the ’90s. Each of these albums flopped commercially, and these artists’ careers are still defined by their rap endeavors alone. Never has a rock crossover strengthened a modern artists’ discography.
Importantly, none of these albums have had longevity because they exist as a novelty. Each artist clearly is talented at making rap music, but do not yet have the skills to successfully translate their creativity into substantive rock albums. From this, it is no surprise that the first mainstream artist to break this trend did so by learning from those who have mastered their craft in rock.
Lil Yachty’s latest album, “Let’s Start Here.” breaks the past narrative that rappers cannot create rock music and show’s hope for the future of genre jumping. As an up and coming voice in the rap scene during the mid 2010s, Lil Yachty’s cheerful attitude and goofy musical style — described as “bubblegum rap” — captivated listeners. As his career progressed, Yachty’s music lost most of the qualities that made him a fresh face in the rap industry in 2016; his overuse of triplet flows and autotune — along with writing about money, sex and drugs that grouped him with artists deemed “mumble rappers” by rap purists — warded listeners away. Yachty’s stream numbers plummeted, with older songs dominating his most streamed list.
Yachty’s new psych-rock journey is a return to form and creativity for him, reflected by the quality of music on “Let’s Start Here.” He pulled on his past success with upbeat instrumentals and let his unique voice take center stage, reaching far into his falsetto on songs such as “sHouLd i B?” and “the ride-.” Yachty also moves away from the “mumble rapper” tropes, diving into personal topics such as his mental health and what home means to him. There is no lack of creativity here, which is to be expected, but what is more surprising is how much focus and cohesivity each track has as an individual experience.
Yachty appears to have found a way to fix the faults of previously attempted rock albums: collaboration and homage. Yachty interacted with and collaborated with artists who have had past great success creating psychedelic rock music. These include: Jacob Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra), Mac Demarco, Ben Goldwasser (MGMT) and more. Additionally, Yachty closely follows his influences as he debuts this new style, but manages to never sound like a ripoff. This is best exemplified on the first track, “the BLACK seminole.”, a seven-minute opera that pulls from Pink Floyd. With this comes critical acclaim and high streaming numbers, with “Let’s Start Here.” outselling his past two albums in first week sales, despite not including one rap song and Yachty having a majority rap fanbase
The idea of rappers creating rock albums seems like a natural progression from the 1990s. Rappers in the past used ideas and elements from other genres to influence their work. As time went on, rappers began incorporating more influence and less rap. This trend continued into the 2010s, when artists fully separated themselves from the hip hop and rap genre for an album. However, what makes this trend interesting is how much these newer albums differed in success from ’90’s rap — seemingly flops, blips on the artist’s rap discography. Lil Yachty’s success on “Let’s Start Here.,” however, gives hope that this pattern may be broken.