In a recent DJ Vlad video entitled “Cassidy on Lil Yachty’s Pro-Gay Teenage Emotions Album Cover: I Don’t Respect It,” the Philly rapper is shown the cover of Yachty’s album, which shows two men kissing in the corner. In a repulsed tone, he tells DJ Vlad, “That’s why I don’t listen to that,” before decreeing that he doesn’t “approve” of the album cover. No word on if Yachty’s creative team will go back to the drawing board at the “Hotel” rapper’s behest, but it doesn’t seem likely. In recent years, artists and fans who share Cassidy’s desire to see what he described as a “real n—- from the street” spitting “hard sh*t” can’t seem to resist giving the world their two cents about a hip-hop subgenre they’ve condescendingly dubbed “mumble rap.”
But, to borrow from Jay Z on “Already Home,” the fact is… they don’t use the same beats, don’t play the same shows, don’t have the same core fanbase, so why does their success bother the old guard so much? What’s the fixation with artists that don’t actually harm Cassidy’s bars-over-everything ilk? It’s not like Young Thug or Lil Uzi Vert are taking up freestyle spots on Hot 97. Hip-hop purist Wale recently shared a recollection of a show he had that was down the street from a Migos performance in Atlanta, and that both shows were well-received; there’s room for everybody.
Many fans, journalists and artists have chalked up the schism between the segments of fans to a “generational divide,” but it’s not that simple. I’m 28, teetering on the edge of both worlds, and I’ve found the space to enjoy artists like Uzi and Young Thug for their melodic gifts just like I enjoy an ’03 Cassidy freestyle for his punchlines. There are hip-hop vets like NORE and Jadakiss who big up younger artists and plenty of generation Zers in the “Lil Yachty trash” Twitter tag. Hell, the rap game is full of mid-to-late-30s MCs like Rick Ross and 2Chainz who cater to an early 20s, club-hopping demographic, so trying to divide the culture along age lines isn’t a strong talking point. Neither are the other flimsy rationalizations that hip-hop conservatives use in attempts to malign “mumble rap.”
One of the primary disparagements levied against “mumblers” is that it’s difficult to comprehend what they’re saying through their mush-mouthed, over-compressed deliveries. But Bone Thugs N Harmony recently admitted on VladTV that their tongue-twisting cadences are difficult to decipher for even the most diehard hip-hop fans, and they’ve never faced much denunciation for it. Neither has Twista, Juvenile, or the James Brown — channeling Mystikal — nor should they. They all had go-to cadences and regional twang that worked for them. Even if we didn’t always understand it, we appreciated their originality.
Critics also question whether artists like Uzi and Yachty can be considered hip-hop because they eschew the bar-for-bar precision of a Cassidy for freewheeling vocal excursions. They stretch words. They hold notes. They even — gasp — sing sometimes. But as I’ve noted before, plenty of legacy acts, like Ol Dirty Bastard for instance, have released confounding, melodically driven music that defied hip-hop convention. Ol Dirty is lauded by many of this same group as a genius for it. Even Cassidy noted in his Vlad interview that he felt Uncle Luke was merely “chanting” on his records, but the Philly rhymer had no confusion about whether Mr. “Face Down Ass Up” was a hip-hop artist.
For every censure against “mumble rap,” there’s an artist of yore who was equally maverick and won over the same #realhiphop fans who now hate Yachty and Uzi. So what is the echo chamber of hatred and dire need to compartmentalize them really about? Perhaps it will become clearer after watching Joe Budden pester Yachty about “what kind of message” he was trying to convey with his Teenage Emotions cover. Or listening to Beanie Sigel go on a homophobic diatribe about men “wearing dresses” and acting “feminine” when justifying why he doesn’t listen to Uzi. Yachty and Thug were called “soft” by AllHipHop.com’s Chuck Creekmur, even though both artists reference toting guns and committing violence in their catalog. RA the Rugged Man surmised that “mumble rappers” should “take the cock out of their mouths.” How much of this is really about music?
Uzi admits that Chief Keef is a large influence on his work. Keef has collaborated with 21 Savage and Future, even making the latter a beat, but at the end of 2016 he dissed “f—-t ass, blonde hair rappers shakin’ their booty” — which sounds like he may not be down to jump on a “XO Tour Life” remix. Even in the same sonic realm (and age range) there’s a divide that too few are ignoring in the “generational” debate: Keef and others are fine with the melodic genre-bending as long as it’s packaged within the confines of traditional masculinity.
Artists like Future, Savage, Kodak Black and Migos do face criticism for their perceived lack of clarity, but the brush back isn’t on the same level as what’s levied against Yachty, Thug and other artists, because those previous artists largely dress and carry themselves in step with what’s popularly perceived as “masculine.” Lil Wayne and Future have been blurring genre lines since at least 2007 with songs like “Prostitute” and “Turn On The Lights” respectively, but Joe Budden has never said either is “bad for hip-hop” like he deemed Yachty on Complex‘s Everyday Struggle.
If these young trap rappers didn’t dye their hair, dance around, or wear anything besides Nike apparel, would “mumble rap” be framed as the scourge of hip-hop that it is now? Or is the vitriol only so cacophonous because Yachty’s presence can be conveniently rolled into a perceived “feminization of the Black male” agenda, just like fashion-forward, skinny-jeaned artists such as Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Wiz Khalifa before them? Hypermasculinity is an important part of the schism, and that isn’t a generational concept, it’s damn near existential. Black men — including me for a period of my life — have felt a need to conform to a populist ideal of masculinity or risk having their manhood questioned. From the tone of your voice to the way you wear your jeans or hair, any anomaly has been picked at and ridiculously used as evidence of potential homosexuality. You can’t even big up Trey Songz’ catalog of hits without a “pause“ being thrown at you these days.
And it’s deeper than rap. Even when we were fighting for our own salvation in the ’60s Civil Rights movement, brilliant men like Bayard Rustin were encouraged to play the back because of the stigma of being gay. It makes sense that we’ve adopted such a cold exterior at the hands of figurative and literal castration for hundreds of years, but it’s gone overboard.
This is not to say it’s impossible to legitimately dislike Thug’s music, or that there can be no sensible, well-thought-out critiques of what’s deemed “mumble rap.” Yet, among the chorus of Young Thug haters there is a substantial faction who enjoy Future’s “Mask/Off,” but would probably like it a lot less if it were a Thug song, because they’re too worried about how he was dressed when he recorded it. That’s arguably a big part of why, despite his stature as a critically-lauded artist with placements on mainstream hits, Thug’s album sales have been relatively low while Future and the Migos top the charts. Let’s not forget Migos’ own struggle with their commentary on Makonnen coming out as gay.
There is a large cross-section of men within the culture who agree with Cassidy and Lord Jamar, who called Yachty’s cover “abnormal” and said it might as well have also featured “a mouse with an ear on its back.” Their attempts to inflexibly define what hip-hop is directly parallel to the way they alienate non-conformists who look like Yachty and Uzi in their own communities by questioning their manhood. As the number of LGBT suicides indicates, society’s rife intolerance of people who operate beyond a certain visual aesthetic and form of conduct is an issue of a life and death. This goes beyond music, it’s about marginalizing entire subgroups of people.
We can use hip-hop as a venue to change that circumstance. The spirit of the genre has always been rooted in rebellion against oppression and embracing new perspectives. To quote Djay from Hustle And Flow, “every man has the right, the g*ddamn right, to contribute a verse.” And woman. And trans person. And gender non-conforming person, and everyone else — no matter what they look like. Compartmentalizing and devaluing an artist’s message because of nothing more than fear and unsubstantiated paranoia is sorely misguided.
40-year-old hip-hop fans may want 18-year olds to “grow up” and refine their tastes, but they may all need maturing when it comes to confronting their own insecurities and misgivings about what’s considered masculine and what isn’t. How can the blind lead the blind? It’s fine to dislike whoever you want, but if it’s because of how they dress — and what you think that implies about their manhood — you’re weak and need to reevaluate your inner constitution. Yachty, Uzi, and dozens more imitators are going to be in the game whether we like it or not. We might as well accept them with understanding, rather than a ridicule that’s based in fragility.