Retrospective: The Decline Of Hip Hop?

Introduction By @TrueGodImmortal
-Has hip hop declined? Has it evolved? Some would say both. I am one of those people. For those on separate sides, the ones who think hip hop has declined usually have their memories dead set on the greatest era of the genre, the golden era. When guys like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and KRS ruled the land. When the rap groups were groundbreaking like NWA and Public Enemy. After that era, we got another form of golden era that came from the future legends like Wu-Tang, Biggie, Nas, Pac, Outkast, Jay-Z, and many more. Hip hop production was more centered on dusty rugged drums and cinematic samples, along with some classic soul feel behind it. From the conscious and gangsta era to the Mafioso rap era, hip hop always seemed to be reflective of the time. After 1997, when Biggie and Pac were killed, a lot of people said that hip hop was dead. For many of a certain generation, the death of two of the biggest artists at the time, over issues that stemmed from music, signaled a shift in hip hop and the culture overall. Did hip hop's decline start with the death of Big and Pac? Perhaps, but I will say it at least brought a shift in the content and what was more popular, as a more glossy and shiny era temporarily galvanized the audiences around the world.

However, for every shiny suit, there was still a Wu-Tang and a Redman to offset it. Then, at the height of the Bad Boy era post Biggie, we had an amazing Yonkers MC arrive and shake the game up in DMX. X embodied that rugged feel that we associate with hip hop, and he was absolutely amazing to witness in this sense. After X came and made this more rugged, you had lyricists like Big Pun, Mos Def, Canibus, and the rise of a more conscious yet underground awareness take over via Rawkus Records. The differing in the sounds of hip hop then were really different, and we loved that. The underground had more soulful samples and harder drums, while the mainstream sound could really be soft or also go a more rugged route as well. Hip hop has so much versatility to it at the time that while the lyricism had taken a bit of a hit compared to the golden era time, there were still enough pure lyricists around. As the 2000s began, many would say the game went through another shift, as the mainstream once again took a more commercial approach, as Nelly, Ja Rule, and various artists went for pop chart appeal. Even some of the more conscious or hip hop to the core artists centered their music to commercial success, as we watched Nas team up with Ginuwine for a strange anthem in "You Owe Me" as the 90s came to a close, Jay-Z took a slightly more commercial approach, LL shuffled between the commercial and hardcore (though he did this usually), Mos Def took more to his singing vocals, and Common ended up going a bit more experimental himself. Still, hip hop felt slowly on the decline due to the commercialization, but as fans, we really didn't notice it as much.

Then, after the commercial side of things hit, we got treated to the arrival of 50 Cent and G-Unit taking things back to more of a street sound, with Dipset and D-Block also giving things a more gangsta feel for the first time in some years. Hip hop goes through phases and for some reason, right after the streets got brought back to the forefront, a new wave was started so to speak, led by the commercialization of more outspoken conscious music around election year in 2004. Kanye West came along, Jadakiss took a political approach, Common was revived, The Roots hit hard, Nas put out a double album, but most of all, all these artists had something we could love: lyricism and flow. Those two combined with amazing production is what shapes hip hop in a way. In the best way possible. Since about 2005, we've seen less of an appreciation for lyricism in the mainstream and a true decline in hip hop in that sense. When the trends began rolling in, such as Crunk, Snap, Dance, and even the most popular subgenre, Trap, lyricism went out the window in lieu of real life stories told with conviction, gimmicky artistry and banging 808s in the beats behind simplified production. Do I love trap music? No. Do I enjoy it? Yes. There's a place and time for everything in hip hop and the subgenres. What is lacking today then that makes us look at it like a decline? Or are we wrong? Has hip hop NOT declined? Has it stabilized? Has it evolved and we haven't caught up? It's hard to say. I'll come back to this in the Outro. For now, let's see what the team has to say.

As far back as I can remember, rap/hip hop has been my genre of choice. The first tapes I ever got were back in ’87 which played the tunes of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, followed by Tone Loc. It took me a couple listens, but it wasn’t long before I realized I loved everything about the music, although as a kid I didn’t have an appreciation for the content and lyrics, I just knew I loved the beats. They kept me engaged and they didn’t stretch their words in a high pitched melodious way, these guys were talking and I could understand what they were saying (albeit not contextually). Of course, over time, my rap library grew. Before I hit my teen years, I had been acquainted with gangster rap (thanks to NWA) followed by Tupac, Eric B & Rakim, Das EFX, Kris Kross and so on. As I aged and grew, hip hop was there, sometimes taking a backseat to some “rap infused pop” music, but there nevertheless. My appreciation and understanding also grew. I gravitated more towards East Coast rappers and by the time “36 Chambers” was released, my love for hip hop/rap was cemented.

Album after album proved to be innovative and each sounded like nothing before it. Producers were creating their own sounds while still incorporating beat familiarity from decades before, each producer came with a style that was signature to them. Rappers had different flows and delivery styles, seeing as how Ice Cube sounded nothing like Eazy E (vocally), who sounded nothing like Method Man who sounded nothing like Nas who sounded nothing like Tupac (and so on), but they each told a story. THEIR story. You didn’t have to experience any of it, but you could hear the emotion, the struggle and “heart & soul” infused into each track. Hip hop was growing and strengthening. Talent was popping up everywhere, the east coast dominated, but the west wasn’t far behind and we saw brilliance coming from the Midwest and the south. Personally, as a fan of the genre I could never imagine it to be different. Hip Hop in the 90’s was the embodiment of what DJ Kool Herc had started back in the early 70’s, but evolved as society did. The themes and topic choices of the albums mirrored life (for many) while explaining and teaching it to those where it didn’t. There was substance. Most rappers hitting the mainstream were challenging censorship and regardless of how unlikely radio airplay was, still managed to emerge from the underground circle. No matter what, quality and substance were at the forefront of their craft. Is this to say there was no “mindless shit” hitting radio waves? Of course there was, but there was such an abundance of high caliber and consistent rappers, the crap was often lost somewhere in the mix. Like I had thought for over a decade, the decline of the genre I grew to love and appreciate would never change….right? WRONG! I would be proven SO wrong!

Hip hop did start declining, I know some would disagree, but in my opinion it did. I (half) jokingly say “hip hop is dead” but that’s not entirely true either. It’s not dead. It’s just not the same. Some would attribute that to the deaths of Tupac & BIG, and I don’t agree with that either. Pac passed away in ’96 and BIG in ’97; and if we look back to the years that followed, our favorite rappers were still putting out great albums. The quality was still there and the standard was maintained. To me, the decline started in 2008. For those who can’t quite remember the releases that year, it was the year Kanye released “808s and Heartbreak”, and it was also the year Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, Flo Rida and Soulja Boy also had their debuts, sophomore projects (and third albums) released in fact, and it was quantitatively a record year for the genre with over 120 releases. It was also the year the purity of the hip hop we knew and loved was replaced with heavy “pop” sounding beats and materialistic driven content. The majority of rappers seemed to be more concerned with flexing their chains and “stacks” rather than recounting stories of their experience. Jadakiss summed it up in one perfectly articulated and impeccably delivered line in his “Letter To BIG”:

“People in power is queer/
I could go on for a year 'bout how it would be if you were still here/ 
The game got cheaper/
Rappers is more commercially successful now, but the heart's a lot weaker/”

The game did get cheaper, commercial success was much more attainable and sadly, the “heart” wasn’t only weak, it was almost non-existent. Personally, for me, I attribute that to the advancement of technology and the accessibility through social media. Artists didn’t need labels to sign them anymore, rappers were getting discovered through sites such as YouTube and Soundcloud. Studios that were once in offsite buildings with designated staff and positions were now popping up in basements and rooms inside homes because production/mixing and sound equipment became accessible and more affordable, not to mention apps and software. When you have one year with THIS many releases and the majority are brand new artists pumping some mash up of pop, EDM and autotuned rapping with lackluster, unrelatable and mindless repetitive words together flooding the charts, you realize the downward momentum is not stopping anytime soon. For me, 2008 was without a doubt the beginning of the “end”.

Although the negative aspects of technology, accessibility and social media in the rap side of the industry seem to outweigh the good, there is a ton of positivity in them also. What I find gives me “hope” is mostly found in the quality of underground/independent artists (although fans do luck out and get amazing rappers like Kendrick who are more mainstream). Even though at times it seems every person you meet is an aspiring rapper, they truly remain the hidden gems of hip hop that give us “Golden Era” fans the caliber of lyricism, flow and delivery they've intertwined with beats that are reminiscent of our '90's favorites.

If you ask some when hip hop started its decline, they'd maybe say 1997, some even 2001, but if you ask me I'd say 2004. I don't think there was just one reason for its downfall. It was a perfect storm of things that contributed to it. No one really jumped out and said anything until Nas proclaimed that hip hop was dead in 2006, then it took on a life of its own. This caused an uproar in the game and offended many rappers. But this wasnt the 1st time Nas has done this. Back in 2002, he went on Power 105 and ranted about artist he felt could put more quality in their music saying things like "make better albums", "Step your bars up", and "Be more creative". In 2003 when 50 took over the game, he beefed or had riffs with Jay, Ja Rule, LOX, Fat Joe and Cam just to name a few... thus bringing down the energy for east coast rap. Just imagine... he could've brought NY together to do major things, but instead at this very time the south was rising and taking over the radio airways with a mixture of southern, crunk, snap/dance, ringtone and trap rap. Although there were beefs down south, overall southern artists started collaborating, showing unity, dropping music on their own. Even NY artists such as Nas, Jada, Styles, Fab & Cam embraced the southern sound through features. The wave was too big not to ride it. By 2006, the south had taken over while every other region was treading along trying to find its identity again. Labels flocked to the south throwing out distribution deals and 360 deals, searching for the "It" rappers they could make money off of. Artist development went out the window.

They didnt care if you were here today and gone tomorrow, as long as they made a profit off of you. More rappers wanted to sing so autotune rap took over and became a crutch affecting the quality of songs. Rappers who made/make music with substance never went away. It's just you have to search for them while horrible rappers have machines behind them getting maximum exposure. Now A&Rs search for what's hot through the internet or what's viral. For the fans who don't like to think while listening to music but just wanna turn up or get lit, the radio will push trash rap down their throats, but for the fans who do like to think and vibe to good music, they rarely ever know about those artists who make that kind of music. So what's truly missing is balance. Is it the fans who are to blame or is it the rappers? Do the fans influence rappers to make certain music or do the rappers determine what the fans like? Maybe there's blame to be passed around. I must add that every genre of music including Rock, R&B and Pop have been declining for years as well. It'll never go back to the golden era, but if artists make quality music, love and respect the culture, aim for timeless music with the intentions not being money & fame, then maybe hip hop will be preserved. We can make a case that hip hop's decline started as soon as it went commercial back in the 80s and brought in so much money over the years dealing with people who weren't "hip hop". So maybe what we're experiencing now was just inevitable. I guess for those of us who experienced the height and greatness hip hop had to offer in the 90s, every time it changes now, it will seem like it's declining.

The decline of hip hop over the years has been pretty surreal. The growth and the popularity of it is amazing, but the music is simply not as real as it once was. From funky pop beat tracks that were made strictly for clubbing to the NWA's and Boogie Down Productions, to Nas, Jay-Z, Tupac, Biggie, then later on to DMX, Ja Rule, Eminem, 50 Cent, and somehow we transformed it into Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yatchy becoming the biggest hip hop stars today. How tragic is that. Although we'll never get Golden Age music (1989-1997) ever again, you'd expect to still have real artists in the game like Kendrick Lamar, Dave East, etc, right? Wrong.

Since fans and rappers support the evolution of this new hip hop, it will be around for a long time to come. It's fun at times to listen to in the car, but really really, it's not refreshing music anymore.

Outro By @TrueGodImmortal
-Personally, I enjoy the evolution of hip hop. However, it's different. The sounds of the West Coast and Jazz music inspired new era legends like Blu and Kendrick Lamar. The sounds of the southern classics from UGK and Outkast inspired new era southern spitters like Big KRIT. The East Coast wave lives strongly in an artist like Dave East, showing that the music today can still be potent, but everyone raised good points in their opinions. Hip hop changing was inevitable in some way because the industry that runs the distribution of the music is legitimately only in existence to promote this next wave and force it. It dawns on me that guys like Lyor Cohen and Jimmy Iovine care nothing about the culture, but making a large dollar amount. There lies the issue. Hip hop is seen as a business. The music of today lacks heart and soul, but before, we used to laugh at those type of songs. We'd never see Positive K or Sir Mix A Lot in a top rapper conversation in the 90s, and we never included Nelly, Chingy, and Ja Rule in these top 2000s rapper debates. It was BDK vs Rakim. Pac vs Big. Nas vs Jay. Now, some would say it's Cole vs Kendrick, or Kendrick vs Drake. The thing about that is, at least in Drake's case, the truth about ghostwriters has now come out, so it slants the view on rappers today. The rappers who at one point were respected, lose a bit of respect when you find out they don't write all their music. It used to be that hip hop had a story behind it. Hip hop represented the world and what we went through along with a focus on quality. It lacks that in some way, and knowing the sacred ghostwriter stories automatically take the music down in quality by a notch. However, there is some hope for the future. For every Yachty and Uzi Vert (who make simple yet catchy music), there's a Kendrick or a KRIT. For every trash album with just two solid hits, there's a TPAB or something in that vein. However, there's a shortage of originality today, more so in the cadence and vocal structure of songs. The sounds of mumble rap are fun for the club or even in the car riding out for a night of fun, but it has a shelf life one would think, right?

Who knows. Has hip hop declined? Yes. In some ways. Has hip hop lost its soul? Yes. In some ways. Has hip hop changed? Yes and No. There were always subpar artists with subpar music, and they were hated by a large number of people at the time too. Today, it is no different. Does it make the music from said hated artist better? No, but we can't like there wasn't any music that was mindless and just fun for the generation. Regardless, hip hop still lives on, as evidenced by a large number of solid projects released the last two years. The only thing that has for sure declined in hip hop on a mainstream level? The balance. The moment balance is restored on the radio or in general in hip hop, perhaps we'll look at it as being an improvement. Maybe not. What I will close with is simple: the generational gap will alter the answers to this question of has hip hop declined. There are some who will likely say yes. Some will likely say somewhat. There will be a whole generation of new listeners who think what we loved was "too serious", "too lyrical", and etc. This will only get worse as the generations go along and with the Internet being so prevalent, this phase of music will likely stock around. There isn't an iroginal sound anymore, and a lot of artists use the same style of beats and the same flow and no voice. The autotune style is honestly annoying and does nothing to enhance the song, but for some reason it's become a regular thing to use in the genre. Even guys like Fabolous and Jadakiss, NY boom bap legends so to speak decided to utilize this same style at times, conforming to the times. Look no further than NY as an example of the decline in general. Bobby Shmurda, Troy Ave, French Montana, and Young M.A. aren't what you consider really good rappers, but they managed a form of success utilizing the current sound and tweaking it slightly. However, as the standards of what's dope or what's really great music gets lower and lower, there is a small renaissance occurring in the game courtesy of well known names. With Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, and some legendary names all releasing albums over the last year or two, alongside KRIT, Kendrick, Dave East, Cole, and of course rumored albums from more legends like Nas and Andre 3000, hip hop is in good hands. There's a possibility the guys like Uzi Vert, Yachty, 21 Savage, and a few other newer guys burn out, but that'll change nothing. There will be more rappers in this type of style coming in. Trap rappers will not be going anywhere. So, has hip hop declined, I ask once more? Yes, it has. Let's just hope that the genre continues to bring good music to help offset the continous flow of subpar music and the over saturation of the genre. That's a tough task.



  1. Good article.

    In this day and age, where everyone is interconnected and a homogeneous stasis is resulting, kids need to acquaint themselves with the classics - regardless of genre - on an individual basis and cross-pollinate with other fellow adventurers and explorers. There be treasure in the field for those willing and able to dig.

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