Hip-Hop’s New Wave Is Emerging

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Hip-Hop’s Generation Gap: ‘Emo’ vs. ‘Dad’ Rap

As the music genre has become a commercial juggernaut, some worry about a cultural divide between younger and older artists

Rap has become the most-consumed music in America, according to industry data, but with its growth comes a new concern: a widening generation gap.

Just as rock ‘n‘ roll splintered in the 1970s when punk arrived, a beef between some young hip-hop artists and “dad rappers” is dividing fans. Some music insiders worry that the schism will hurt the unity of the hip-hop community when its music is at its cultural and commercial peak by splitting fans into opposing camps.

“Hip-hop is a culture, and all cultures, without exception, have traditions and norms,” says Tuma Basa, Spotify’s global head of hip-hop. “It can stop being a culture if some of its traditions and heritage is not—forget about acknowledged—even known.”

On one side are upstarts whose raw, genre-hopping music has been labeled “emo rap.” On the other are elder statesmen like Jay-Z, who cater to older fans in a youth-obsessed genre. Bridging the divide? Thirty-something stars like Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj.

Below are five things to know about rap’s generation gap.

Migos, a trio consisting of Offset, Quavo and Takeoff, onstage at Citi Field in New York City.

Rappers like Future and Migos, whose mumbling delivery drew both attention and criticism a few years ago, have achieved mainstream success. The new generation—particularly those in Florida’s underground scene and on the streaming platform SoundCloud—diverge even more from traditional styles.

They meld hip-hop with diarylike lyrics, lo-fi production values and indie-rock influences, evoking “emo,” the angst-ridden rock genre popular in the early 2000s. On his debut studio album “17,” for example, Florida rapper XXXTentacion, 19, often sings; there are moody, atmospheric guitars and pianos, and song titles like “Depression & Obsession” and “Revenge.” The 20-minute album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart but received mixed reviews. (XXXTentacion, one of rap’s most controversial figures, faces charges related to an alleged domestic-abuse incident in Florida. He has pleaded not guilty.)

The gloomy lyrics and unpolished attack of acts like his and Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who racked up 3.5 billion on-demand streams last year, according to Nielsen Music, seem like a natural progression from Atlanta heavyweights like Future, says cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. “It feels like it’s going to stick around.”

Ski Mask The Slump God performs in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.

Rap’s Growth, Technology Fuel the Divide

Back in the 1990s, rock music expanded by absorbing elements of rap, spawning groups like Rage Against the Machine and Korn. Now the reverse is happening: Rap is incorporating rock, having already annexed R&B and pop music.

“Every genre that used to exist in music, exist[s]in hip-hop,” says David Jacobs, a music-industry lawyer. Emerging artists who might have once tried to be rock stars “are becoming rappers,” Mr. Jacobs says.

Streaming services and social media are also fueling this expansion. Up-and-coming rappers used to rely heavily on the sponsorship, or “cosign,” of veteran rappers. ( Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label in 1998 signed Eminem, for example.) Today, artists like Ski Mask The Slump God can amass an audience on their own.

Fledgling hip-hop acts were previously dependent on traditional gatekeepers to help them get their music out, says Steven Victor, executive vice president and head of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, who signed Ski Mask to Victor Victor Worldwide, his personal label, a joint venture with Universal Music Group. “With the internet and streaming, it doesn’t matter.”

Lil Yachty during the 2017 BET Experience at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Upstarts Give Their Elders the Finger

Hip-hop has experienced many divisive moments over the decades, but today’s young rappers are making headlines by taunting the establishment.

In 2016, Lil Yachty, now 20, told the website Pitchfork that the legendary rapper Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., was “overrated.” (He later apologized.) Lil Pump, a 17-year-old Florida rapper, has a song titled “F**k J. Cole, ” referring to the thirty-something rapper. J. Cole’s representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Atlanta’s 21 Savage, 25, has criticized older “O.G. rappers” for scapegoating the new generation. “They say we make drug-user music,” he wrote in November. “Like making drug-selling music is better.”

Experts say young rappers are simply “trolling” their elders for fun or publicity. But Mr. Abdurraqib says he is worried about the potential damage to the hip-hop community’s sense of history and lineage. Droves of rock fans have listened to Led Zeppelin over the decades. What if teen rap artists and fans aren’t curious about Biggie?

If rap’s generations go their own ways and disregard each other’s music, as some observers fear, that could also dent album and concert-ticket sales.

In rock, for example, nostalgia is a moneymaker. The five highest-grossing concert tours in history have occurred in roughly the last decade: U2, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Guns N’ Roses and Roger Waters, according to Billboard. Hip-hop’s nostalgia business—“classic rap”—remains a relative laggard.

Q-Tip, Consequence and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest, a critically acclaimed hip-hop group formed in the 1980s that is still performing.

‘Dad Rappers’ Figure Out Their Fanbase

After stumbling for years, stars like Jay-Z are winning over critics with more mature music. On “4:44,” his 13th studio album, he grapples with infidelity and parenthood, while doling out financial tips.

Other critically acclaimed “dad rappers” include Killer Mike, A Tribe Called Quest, Pusha T and E-40. They “have figured out who their audience is,” says Kim Osorio, former editor in chief of hip-hop magazine the Source, “and are catering to that.”

Last month, Black Thought, 46, leader of the Roots, unleashed a blistering 10-minute freestyle during a radio show. The performance went viral, eliciting praise from rap purists for his wordplay and breath control.

“This Black thought verse is one of the most undeniable & impressive feats in rapping I’ve ever seen yet all I can think about is some 19 year old kid rolling his eyes at it then mumbling a sloppy 8 bar verse that everyone will worship. Also, I’m very old,” hip-hop musician and producer Blockhead said on Twitter.

Cardi B, a Grammy nominee for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, performing in London.

Stars Attempt to Build Bridges

Hip-hop is firing on all cylinders despite its generational tensions, as evidenced by this year’s Grammy Awards nominations.

Jay-Z, 48, and Mr. Lamar, 30, are competing for Album of the Year. Female MCs Cardi B, 25, and Rapsody, 34, are vying for key rap awards, along with 26-year-old Tyler, the Creator and Migos, whose three members are all in their 20s. Lil Uzi Vert, 23, scored a nod for Best New Artist. The winners will be named Jan. 28.

Some of the biggest stars in hip-hop are consciously attempting to build bridges. Mr. Lamar has encouraged younger rappers not to diss veterans, while publicly supporting XXXTentacion’s music on Twitter.

When he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in November, Chance the Rapper, 24, performed in a sketch called “Rap History” that featured out-of-touch aging rappers and a superficial young artist named “Lil Doo Doo.”

Unity makes good business sense, Jay-Z says on his new song, “Family Feud.”

“We all lose when the family feuds,” he raps. “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.”


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