Jimmy Speaks: The Evolution of Hip Hop and What the New Generation Can Learn from Today’s Superstars

Hip-hop, like many other forms of music, doesn’t stay the same for too many years. The origins of hip-hop are fairly humble: kids in the Bronx fooling around with records trying to come up with a new way to keep the party going. Over the past thirty years we’ve seen hip-hop evolve from the partiers of the 80’s to the gangsters of the 90’s, and have even experienced a short period of conscious backpackers in the early 00’s.

As the next decade of hip-hop is upon us, the game is changing once again. We’re now at a point where it really doesn’t matter what the dude on the mic is saying. And for the first time, you can make a good argument that the most important person isn’t the MC or the DJ but the producer.

The music has come full circle in the sense that its more party oriented, its just that with advances in technology the creative person behind the sounds is a producer with protools/fl studio or whatever he uses, instead of a DJ chopping up Chic records. The superthugs and Ph.D. candidate backpackers from the 90’s and early 00’s? They’re moving further towards the fringe of the game.

I first noticed this when I heard “Crank that Soulja Boy” for the first time. I thought it was a harmless party song by the next one hit wonder. Instead, the young man has “youled” himself into the mainstream. (Exhibit B: “You’re a Jerk” by the New Boyz.)

On the other hand, there is a new group of guys are on the horizon with the chance to take the game to a place it’s never been before. These guys all do their own thing and are similar in the sense that they’re all different. They all possess the ability to inject some freshness into a genre of music that has become stale.

Of course I’m referring to the “freshman class.” Led by Drake, whose “So Far Gone” Mixtape might actually be the album of the year in hip-hop, these artists (including Wale, Kid CuDi, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Asher Roth, B.O.B, Big Sean) have gained sizable, loyal followings through doing something different and sticking with it long before it was cool to be different.

Yet, their road to stardom was paved over five years ago. In 2004, Kanye West dropped “The College Dropout,” which opened the door to the mainstream for those doing something different. There have always been different movements within hip-hop, though many of them fail to make it to the mainstream. For almost 20 years, gangster rap dominated the commercial scene.

Kanye broke the mold. During a time where everyone had a ton of jewelry and at least purported to have a rap sheet filled with all sorts of felonies, Kanye came out of left field. Here’s a dude dressed like Carlton from the Fresh-Prince during a time where everyone wore their clothes four sizes too big.

He proved that you didn’t have to look like an idiot or rap like a G to sell records. All you really need is talent (although, you can argue that a lot of people out now lack that, among other things). He showed that if you’re good enough, you don’t have to rely on a false image or stick to conventional ways of making music. You can stay true to yourself and the art, make music and sell records.

Five and a half years after the dropout dropped, the future of hip-hop seems to be cut out of the creative cloth. Many of those who rely on gangster images (see 50 Cent), are waning in popularity while a lot of artists who reigned during the 90s and this decade are beginning to show their age.

But the story of Kanye clearly isn’t a cut and dry success story. Due to his recent actions and misfortunes, Kanye is now labeled more as an asshole than a musical genius. What happened?

I was pondering this the other day while listening to “Gone” off Late Registration (the Smoking Section posted a link to the track earlier in the week). Listen to the last verse and internalize the type of artist he’s talking about. Doesn’t it seem like 2005 Kanye is rapping about 2009 Kanye?

It definitely seems as if he’s flipped sides like Anakin. He’s gone from underdog to popstar. Not that I can blame him. It’s hard to rap about being broke when you’re not broke. It’s tough to rap about your struggles when you’re not struggling anymore. It’s hard to relate to those trying to come up when you made it big a long time ago.

Hopefully the next generation of hip-hop superstars will take heed to what’s happened to Kanye’s career. Not that he’s stopped making good music; it’s been tough for him to sustain the persona and passion that made him popular. After dropping “Graduation” which was solid but not as lyrically powerful as his first two albums, he basically created a new genre of music to keep his creative edge.

In addition to his music, Kanye’s personal life has become more public and he’s struggled to handle it. Outbursts at various events, incidents with the paparazzi, and now his relationship with Amber Rose seems to be carried out all in public. How will Drake react this time next year when every move he makes is scrutinized?

I guess the lesson in this is to stay grounded. For Kanye, how he bounces back from the Taylor Swift incident and how he handles his immense fame from here on will affect his career. For those in hip-hops on-deck circle, a little more is at stake. If they are successful, they have the chance to revamp hip-hop and perhaps place their stamp on the game for a decade or more like Jay-Z and Nas have in this outgoing generation.

What if they can’t sustain the buzz or live up to the hype? Will Soulja Boy eventually ascend to the throne of hip-hop? Will the Newboyz become the next Wu-Tang? For the future of hip-hop, lets pray this doesn’t happen.