It’s 2018, and the economy (for now) is booming. We live in an age in which we consume more pop culture and feel worse about it than ever before. We are more aware of the taboos and criminal acts that percolate beyond the stage lights, if not beyond the withering gaze of social media. We look for heroes, and everyone seems to be found wanting–too flawed, too corrupt.
When you survive a chaotic, contentious year like this one–most fans will agree it wasn’t great, but will debate just how bad it was–you narrow your gaze from the forest and turn towards the trees. There is Pusha T’s Daytona, a marvel of economy and caustic wit. There were innovations that worked, such as Tierra Whack’s medley of minute-long pop R&B and rap suites, Whack World. There were innovations that didn’t work, like G.O.O.D. Music’s summer series of EP-length albums, all produced by Kanye West, which after a strong opening with Daytona went rapidly downhill from there. There was the surprisingly poignant return of Lil Wayne, the one-time child star who has grown into an elder statesman after a series of tragic, near-fatal setbacks. There was a boomlet of fast-talking, sexually-forthright women who dazzled rap aficionados, even as a true commercial breakthrough for them (save for City Girls’ appearance on Drake’s “In My Feelings”) remained just out of reach.
Rap has atomized so much that it’s possible to ignore the headline-grabbing noise and simply find something you like. Fans of idiosyncratic street-rap flows glorified 03 Greedo, Key!, and Maxo Kream. Meat-and-potatoes backpackers contented themselves with PRhyme and Roc Marciano. Followers of the Chicago school of poetic, jazzy lyricism flocked to Noname and Saba’s new work. In the Bay Area, there was SOB x RBE, Mozzy and Nef the Pharaoh. In Los Angeles, there was Nipsey Hussle and Jay Rock. In New York, there was Sheck Wes and Flatbush Zombies.
However, hip-hop culture remains a consensus culture. We exult in its nooks and crannies, its regional curiosities and local flavors, but we turn to the mainstream to make sense of it all. Cardi B, a woman whose big, boisterous personality and social media prowess outpaced her musical talent, proved an unusual choice for Most Valuable Player. Drake is Drake, and with nearly a decade of sad-boy vocals and tough-titty bars in his catalog, he seemingly has few surprises left to offer. Travis Scott is a blockbusting Michael Bay of rap, all maximalist noise that signifies nothing. The less said about Post Malone, the better. Future, J Cole, A$AP Rocky, YG, Nicki Minaj…they seemed to falter in 2018 with work that paled in comparison to past glories.
In 2002, another semi-lousy year for hip-hop concluded with the promise of 50 Cent’s “Wanksta,” and the following twelve months brought Jay-Z’s triumphant “retirement,” OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, T.I.’s Trap Muzik and the commercialization of crunk. Today, hope continues to animate a culture that’s poised to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” next year. Who will rehabilitate this aging genre and prevent its deterioration into bland rap singing and Spotifycore? Who’s going to take the weight?