Many music fans lament the supposedly abhorrent state of modern music, as if the 2000-2010’s pop music environment is suddenly much worse than decades’ past, as if they’re insinuating that mainstream pop music being bad is for some reason a modern phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong, I hate most of “today’s top hits” playing at every college house party or mainstream radio station as much as the most hardcore-hipsters, but trust me, pop music has always been bad. Us millennials are only realizing it now because we’re growing up 😛
That being said, every pop culture movement has its own unique style of crap, and for the period of the 2000’s through the present, hip hop has dominated as the trendy “in” genre that rules over most North American musical markets, and by extension, much of the rest of the West and the world. Even if “hardcore gangsta” rap isn’t your preferred type of music, it’s hard to avoid the likes of Drake, Lil Wayne, and (my personal favorite) Nicki Minaj no matter what you do. And this isn’t limited to Western and/or English-speaking regions of the world — community freestyle-rap competitions and trending pop stations have turned to the ways of hip hop in places like Nepal, Korea, Japan, and Brazil.
The mainstream dominance of hip hop has led to many music-buffs, majors, and aspiring musicians to view the genre with distaste and snobbish prejudice. Now, discounting any sort of covert, unacknowledged, under-the-surface racism going on here within supposed “real” practitioners of music (hip hop has remained fairly African-American/black-dominated, unlike rock ‘n roll, which has been heavily white-washed since Elvis Presley), to a certain extent many of these snobs have a point: Much of mainstream, charting hip hop is incredibly bad. If one considers the likes of Drake or Minaj the pinnacle or primary trendsetter of the genre, than yes I concede the musical style is not doing well.
But here’s the thing: I don’t and never have considered much popular hip hop post-Biggie/2Pac to be noteworthy or influential in the genre of hip hop as a whole. That stance by its very wording is hipster-ish, but in this situation that’s appropriate.
That’s not to say that “hip hop is dead,” far from it. It’s incredibly easy (and lazy) to lounge in one’s nostalgia, longing for the days of East-vs. West Coast hip hop wars or, going back even earlier, the funk-tastic and/or political styles of Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim, and the Beastie Boys. I don’t think true fans of hip hop should do that, though.
While it’s fair and probably accurate to argue that mainstream hip hop (or most of the what the general public recognizes as hip hop) hasn’t been consistently good since the early ’90’s, hip hop has been going strong since its inception in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s till today. Yes, I said “till today.” As in now.
Some people call it “the underground,” others refer to this kind of hip hop as “sidestream,” and others still identify modern high quality hip hop as simply real, good rap. Whatever convenient term you choose to slap on it, however, the point I’m trying to make is that hip hop is as strong now as it ever was — you just have to know where to look for it.
Here are my picks for the top working hip hop artists of today (circa mid-2010’s). If you’re still into hip hop despite the increasingly embarrassing state of today’s mainstream library, or are stuck in the glory days of the early 1990’s, I recommend you check these guys out.
5.) Big Boi: Originally famous for his work with Andre 3000 in the Georgia-based rap-duo, Outkast, Big Boi has managed to retain his star demeanor and lyrical skills well into his solo career. The man would be notable for being one of the few good hip hop artists to come out of South alone, but his smash solo debut, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010) proved that he had plenty of artistic power left in the tank. Not only does his solo music feature outstanding beats, smooth lyrics, and great guest-star performances, but Big Boi has largely retained the hilarious sense of humor from his Stankonia (2000) days.
Big Boi is by far the most “mainstream” of my picks listed here, so if you’re curious about getting into non-super-processed music that’s still capable of becoming a charting record, this is the best place to start. As such, stuff like Chico Dusty can still rock at parties without people looking at you funny. 😛
4.) Mos Def: Now known professionally as Yasiin Bey, the man born as Dante Terrell Smith has been around for a while like Big Boi. Well known for his scathing indictment of the white-American power structure as well as his pious dedication to Islam, Mos Def weaves intricate portraits of social inequality and racial strife in brilliant concept albums of precision and quality the likes of Lil Wayne could only dream of. To date, his best album is his solo debut, Black on Both Sides (1999), but he’s been turning out solid records his whole career. 2009’s The Ecstatic was admirable, as were his multiple collaborations with colleague Talib Kweli.
3.) The Roots: The Roots are arguably the most influential hip hop group (band) since N.W.A. Like that Compton-based group, The Roots have helped redefine the limits of and methodology behind hip hop, infusing acoustic instrumentals and R&B vocals as elements that can be fundamental to rather than simply supplementary to (or distracting from) hip hop. For more mainstream Autotune/rap followers, The Roots will likely be a band that will take some warming up to, but more “traditional” music students will take to them quite well given their skill and versatility with a wide variety of instruments and musical hooks.
2.) Jurassic 5: This group (there’s actually six of them) has been hot and cold since 1993, often being painfully repetitive or infectiously catchy, breaking up in 2007 and then reforming in 2013. Regardless of their inconsistency, at their best J5 have the best flow in the genre today, often using minimalist beats with a heavy focus on intricate lyrics and a wide variety of rhyming schemes. Their vocal performances possess a much wider range than, say, The Roots, stretching from squeaky alto’s to broad, thundering baritones. I dare you to try and repeat these rhymes, I fucking dare you.
Seriously, I don’t think even The Notorious B.I.G. ever had flow this smooth and intricate, and across four different rappers to boot. J5 is a true throwback to the dance-beat funk hip-hop of the ’80’s, trading an emphasis on ghetto anthems and street-violence for dance-able ideological warfare and Black Nationalist Islam. It’s heavy stuff, even when it repeats itself way too much. 😀
1.) Brother Ali: I’ve covered this man a couple times in my musical album reviews. Ali is as versatile and interesting an artist as any in the game today, and his heart and emotions come through every song he writes because he wears them proudly on both sleeves. He’s an artist you feel that you grow with and get to know over the course of his career, much like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Unfortunately he’s never mastered the true concept album like NIN have, but on the other hand he’s never been a slave to it either.
The one downside to Ali’s proud yet honest demeanor is that he boasts about his faith so much to the point that it becomes annoying at times. I understand that Black-American faith has established some sort of street-cred and is seen as an ideological underdog in the States, but no matter how you spin it, I can’t separate how I feel towards cheesy, obnoxious “Christian-rock” bands from black Muslim artists boasting about how “Allah is the coolest thing, dawg,” and shit like that. It’s all the same thing to me. And Ali’s not even black, he’s albino! 😛
Despite the frequent and literal preaching, though, Ali’s a masterful hip-hop musician and works with one of the best producers in the business, Ant. His beats and song productions are amazing, and his sheer range of lyrical subject matter makes him one of the most relatable artists ever to make it in the business.