This week, 19-year-old hip-hop artist Juice WRLD riled hip-hop traditionalists, as 19-year-olds do, by divulging that he wants to be regarded as “less of a rapper” and “more of a musician.” He told Billboard in full: “I feel like that’s what’s going to be most respected at the end of the day, that I’m able to do so many different things and become less of a rapper and just more as a musician.” That’s his prerogative, but the implication that he’s vying to distance himself from being considered a rapper is disheartening to many.
Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and others have been lauded for their musicality by some of the most talented instrumentalists and music producers in the world. But I understand where Juice WRLD’s comment comes from — and why more rappers of his ilk will continue to express similar ideas. Their placid attitudes toward being categorized as a rapper are a consequence of an ongoing generational and ideological schism in the rap game, the music industry’s archaic, racially-biased standards, and a subscription to Eurocentric ideas of what’s “rap” and what’s “pop.”
As satisfying as it may feel for some to sanctimoniously pile on Juice WRLD or any other artist who disappointingly denies being a rapper, it’s more important to not only educate them but challenge the institutions that made them feel that way. Juice WRLD wasn’t born with trepidation against being “boxed-in” as a rapper. That reticence was conditioned by spectating and participating in an industry that, as Outline noted, “perpetuates systemic musical segregation” through a Top 40 radio system offering more play to Post Malone than them because of the color of their skin.
Artists like Jeezy and Jay-Z made waves with the “I’m not a rapper, I’m a hustler” phrase in the yearly-to-mid 2000s, at a juncture when rappers like Jay were expanding their brands as entrepreneurs and southern trap rappers like Jeezy, who were literally “hustlers,” entered the game. Jay-Z and Jeezy rapped the phrases as boasts to amplify their perception as money-minded hustlers who “dumbed down to double their dollars,” as Jay-Z famously rhymed on “Moment of Clarity.” It was an annoying phrase properly satirized by a classic faux rap battle, but Jay-Z’s catalog and Jeezy’s efforts like Recession negate any argument that the two artists don’t care about being considered respected rappers.
Years later though, there’s more at stake with “I’m not a rapper” quotes. The phrase is being used with artists who are the furthest thing from a Jay-Z aesthetically. Younger rap artists are being heavily inspired by genres like electro, punk rock, and emo. Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, and other young rappers who identify as “rockstars” instead of “the best rapper alive” reflect changing standards, but not everyone is happy with the evolution. They’re breathing new life into the “not a rapper” argument not out of vanity, but to vocalize their desire to fully blossom as artists in an industry that loves to put artists in a box. For acts who weave between rock, hip-hop, and R&B, the industry’s white ideals of musicality — and hip-hop purists’ austere principles — are conditioning them to think that it may be best to lean away from hip-hop in the equation.
Uzi and Juice WLRD both have immense fan bases and flourishing careers with Billboard hits and well-regarded albums. But despite their successes, and a belief by progressive listeners that their malleable sound exemplifies the versatility of hip-hop, there’s a chorus of hip-hop purists who denigrate the sound as something other than “real hip-hop.” Tags like “mumble rapper” and “SoundCloud rapper” have been used as pejoratives.
Hip-Hop figures like Eminem and Crooked I have downplayed their artistry. On Eminem’s “Caterpillar” from his Kamikaze album, he rhymed, “Stampin’ out grasshoppers, you can’t be no Rap Gods/In fact you’re exact opposites/You make a wack song, and can’t hold a candle.” It’s no surprise that new school acts reciprocate the resentment. Young artists like Uzi aren’t trying to be rap gods, but their sound is still evaluated by that rubric. Revered lyricist Crooked I tweeted in August that, “if an entire album is full of auto-tune singy style verses I refuse to call it a rap album..It may be a great album but never a great RAP album.” With statements like that out there, who could be surprised that “auto-tune singy style” artists decide to reject being rap artists, however erroneously? Everyone who has ever vocalized that these young artists “aren’t real hip-hop” because they don’t take after Kendrick Lamar is complicit in their disdain for the term “rapper.”
But they don’t hold the complete blame or even the bulk of it. Uzi once tweeted, “I’m Not A Rapper all them lyrical bars and sh*t nah…I’m A Rockstar emotion and how I’m feeling is the way I make my songs.” And while Uzi has since stated that he will pay more attention to lyricism in his future music, those feelings are shared by many young rap artists. His tweet parallels Post Malone’s walked-back comments in 2017 that “if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.”
The implication that hip-hop isn’t an evocative genre doesn’t deserve to be dignified, but what is important is that while Uzi and other Black artists idealize being a rock star even while being lumped in with other rap artists, Post Malone’s fame and label support means that he has a better chance to actually become a rock star one day. This is the case even though Post and Uzi make similar music.
Post Malone’s biggest hits, such as “Rockstar,” “White Iverson” and “Better Now,” parallel the melodically-inclined, genre-fusing lane that Uzi and Juice WRLD occupy, but only the latter artists are viewed primarily as trap rappers by the music industry establishment. Post had the luxury to refuse being a XXL Freshman on the grounds that “he wasn’t paying attention to hip-hop so much… [he’s] going in more of a rock/pop/country direction,” as XXL Editor-In-Chief Vanessa Satten told The Breakfast Club in 2016 — even as his singles are exactly like the sound a modern XXL Freshman would breakthrough with. And since that point of coming into the game with an infectious “White Iverson” record (that could have easily been an Uzi track), Post Malone has quickly expanded his fanbase and easily ingratiated himself to a new (predominantly white) audience.