In 2017, hip-hop evolved in many weird, wacky, fun, experimental, and dope ways over the course of the year. But we’re still figuring out and speculating how that would affect the direction of the culture and the genre in 2018. One thing I didn’t really get to address though, was how the form itself was changing, and how that means we have to find new ways of talking about hip-hop, as well as expanding not just the lexicon of the form, but its attributes as well.
For instance, we can’t just consider a good rapper to be “someone who raps like Nas in 1991” in 2018. We just can’t. To do so would be a disservice to dozens of up-and-coming, young artists who are taking the genre in hand and bending it into an astonishing array of new shapes and sounds. But if we must expand our definitions, we can’t just apply the expansions to newer artists, because anyone should be able to play by the new rules. And the one artist who truly benefits from this expansion is someone who’s made it a point never to play by any discernible rules but her own in the first place.
Under the old rules, Rihanna might never be considered one of the most intriguing, interesting, fun, and, dare I say, best rappers in the game. In 2018, (almost) anything goes, and Rihanna has found herself at the forefront of a new wave of MCs. The game is changing, and Rih Rih is, unexpectedly, one of the leaders of the new school. Though she didn’t put out a record in 2017, across five key tracks she revealed her own moves toward the center of rap, or, perhaps, moving rap itself to center around her. If she’s good enough to trade bars with your favorite MC, she’s good enough to be your favorite MC.
“Wild Thoughts” with DJ Khaled
Right now, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, I’ve heard this song a thousand times on the radio. It never occurred to me that it’s a rap song.” That’s because you’re still using the old rules. Take a step back, forget what you’ve learned about the world so far. Imagine anyone else — Young Thug, for example — rapping “Kitty, kitty, baby give that thing some rest / ‘Cause you done beat it like the ’68 Jets” and realize that’s not just a bar, that’s a deep cut, the sort that certain, less-evolved minds would only be willing to attribute to the manly-man, sports-oriented, tough guy rappers of the 1990s. Except now you know better: Rihanna is out here spitting and the sooner we all appreciate that fact, the more we’ll realize that hip-hop is the best it’s ever been.
“Loyalty” with Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is the rapper and Rihanna is the supporting R&B singer who holds him down on the hook like Ashanti did with Ja Rule, right? Go ahead and give this one another spin to refresh your memory. That’s Rih Rih, trading bars with one of hip-hop’s very top talents with as much aplomb as a twenty-year veteran, going back and forth like prime Jadakiss and Styles, or Ghostface and Raekwon. If K. Dot can get credit for the crooning he does on the chorus here, Rihanna should get just as much for the raps she flexes, especially as she seems even more adept in Kenny’s field than he is in hers.
“Selfish” with Future
Speaking of crooning, Future is primarily billed as a rapper, despite spending a fair amount of his time harmonizing, especially on his standout HNDRXX album from last year. So, if Future gets to be a rapper while vocalizing, Rihanna gets to be a rapper while vocalizing. She matches Future note-for-note here, which she should be able to do as a “singer,” but the main idea, really, is that these titles are malleable and unfixed. In 2018, don’t expect to find too many “pure” rappers coming along — and vice versa. After all, Yeezy taught us long ago that singers should be able to both rap and warble to their heart’s content.
“Nothing Is Promised” with Mike Will Made-It
Adopting a choppy flow, Rihanna stomps across the murky Mike Will Made-It beat like a rampaging, radioactive dinosaur, bragging and boasting like she’s been in the trap for years rather than touring the globe and releasing her own wildly popular line of cosmetics. That’s conviction. That’s charisma. That’s Rihanna, mastering her own flow and giving it new life, much like one of her compatriots who happened to have a monstrous 2017 herself.
“Lemon” with N.E.R.D.
The beat is unconventional. The pocket in it is unlike most of what has been heard before in hip-hop, yet Rihanna still finds it, ducks into it, and hangs out like she was born there, slickly serving up polished punchlines like, “This beat tastes like lunch / But it’s runnin’ from veneers and it’s runnin’ from the fronts.” Rihanna’s getting way too good at this. If there’s any other rap album to look forward to in 2018, it’s the one rap fans in the know have been clamoring for since last year. Keep those fingers crossed.