With the release of 4:44, Jay-Z seems to have single-handedly grown rap up. Despite the fact that hip-hop is damn near 40 years old, Jigga’s newest release has many arguing that hip-hop has finally reached its nonironic-dad-hat phase. I would argue that Jigga did this years before with his 2006 release, Kingdom Come, which was widely panned by critics and even caused Jay to run back to the drawing board to repurpose his old hustler lyrics on 2007’s American Gangster.
But as hip-hop continues to Harlem-shake toward its AARP card, I wonder if the “Get off my lawn” purists of hip-hop’s past—you know, the ones that use terms like “God Body” and will argue that Rakim’s verse in “Paid in Full” might be the most complete verse ever written (a truly hard argument to fight)—are being too critical of inaudible raps and, by default, those who produce them. You know, those old heads who don’t believe that mumble rap, with its lean-induced drawl that makes hardly any of the lyrics decipherable, should be anywhere near the timeless, beloved verses of Kool G Rap.
In fact, when I pitched this story, in which I planned to defend mumble rap, to The Root’s managing editor, Danielle Belton (who’s quite the hip-hop aficionado), her response went something like this: “It’s terrible.” Not the story idea, mind you, just mumble rap itself.
She isn’t wrong; in fact, those who are dismissive of mumble rap (and there are many of you) aren’t wrong if the measuring stick used to compare mumble rap is using, say, anything off the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. So I’m really not defending mumble rap in a lyrical capacity; what I’d like to do here is frame the conversation around the expansion of hip-hop’s boundaries and look at how the Hip-Hop Council, which I imagine looks a lot like the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones, could be more inclusive. And to do this, I think we should use jazz as a framework.
I grew up on jazz. I remember my dad playing free jazz a lot around the house. I remember it sounding like a truck full of musical instruments crashing into a wall: a cacophony of untimely horn bursts, cymbals bashing and, occasionally, someone yelling off in the distance. My dad would tell me that jazz great Ornette Coleman, the godfather of free jazz, was really a fraud “because he couldn’t play shit.” He was basically saying that Coleman was selling us on free jazz as music because he couldn’t blow “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The perception of mumble rappers—who were actually named by a nonmumble rapper and resident stoner, Wiz Khalifa, who first uttered the phrase during a 2016 interview with Hot 97—is that they don’t care for lyricism and are mumbling because they can’t rap. It’s the Coleman theory all over again. It didn’t help matters much when Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti, two of mumble rappers biggest names, basically argued during an interview that they could say anything and make it work on record.
I don’t believe this theory for a second—or maybe I do, or I’m still not sure. But as rap culture has continued to push its way into drug culture, Xanax and promethazine (lean) have begun to get a foothold in the music. Rappers have begun to speak lazily on the mic, and as a result, the mumbling has become commonplace for some rappers who push the lifestyle. While I don’t defend the drug culture that has perpetuated this style of rap, I do see value in their art. I would argue that mumble-rapping is akin to jazz scatting, where the rapper is riding the beat, making his voice into more of an instrument.
I would encourage you to take another listen to Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia,” but this time don’t attach yourself to the lyrics. Instead, see if you can appreciate Carti’s ability to handle the beat like a surfer. He isn’t trying to control the beat; instead, he’s really just gliding across it. I know that this is difficult because hip-hop hasn’t trained the over-30 crowd to listen to the music this way.
I also know that hip-hop can be dismissive of those who don’t have like-minded ideals, so I will add that if you are a hip-hop purist, then you are aware of the impact that Das EFX and Fu-Schnickens had on the culture. While both were witty with word play, neither group was the most lyrical on the block. In fact, they played with language and delivery and could arguably be the great ancestors of mumble rap. But sit there and act like “Mic Checka” and “La Schmoove” don’t bang, and I will call you a liar to your face or on social media. Don’t @ me, bro.
In the same way that jazz has hundreds of subcategories in order to classify its music—so that Dexter Gordon, who played post-bop, doesn’t have to battle the free jazz of Sun Ra Arkestra, which doesn’t have to battle the contemporary and exploratory jazz of the Art of Noise, which doesn’t have to battle jazz songstress Sarah Vaughan for jazz supremacy—I think it’s time that hip-hop adopted that same practice.
We are in a mumble-rap phase in hip-hop. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, hip-hop was in a return-to-consciousness phase that got drowned out by gangsterism. Like art, mumble rap is just in a minimalist phase—a vacant period that doesn’t need to be throughly examined or dismissed. Get three drinks in and throw on Future’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” and see if you still need lyrics to vibe out.