Earlier this month, Future found himself off the Billboard charts for the first time in over three years. He’ll most likely jump right back near the top when he releases the new music he recently promised, but the circumstance is nevertheless compelling, considering that he’s a primary progenitor of a trap sound that feels more impotent by the year.
There have been strong trap albums released this year, such as Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy, 2 Chainz’ Rap Or Go To The League and Playboi Carti’s Die Lit. Even The Carters’ soulful Everything Is Love had its impressive trap-influenced moments, but they’re starting to feel like the exceptions that prove the rule with other formulaic releases every week. Has the genre reached a point of oversaturation? Earlier this year, T.I. and Gucci Mane went at it on social media about who started trap music. Instead, maybe they should be banding together and figuring out who’s culpable for stagnating it.
Over the past decade or so, trap music has grown to the point of ubiquity, where even white, mainstream pop artists like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are incorporating stuttering hi-hats and quaking 808s into their hits. There’s also Korean trap, and Latin trap making waves throughout the world. Once a sound gets that big, the fatigue is inevitable, but it didn’t have to come so fast.
Trap fatigue can perhaps best be exemplified by the lukewarm response to Migos’ Culture II in January. Just a year before, they were darlings of the music world with Culture and songs like the now-iconic “Bad And Boujee.” Their triplet flow and mimicable adlibs made them the kings of the trap format.
A year later though, the flaws of Culture II line up with the primary criticisms of the genre. The album was a whopping 24 tracks, which was largely attributed to them attempting to game the streaming services. The hefty tracklist is also a consequence of their prolific output. Producer DJ Durel reflected that the trio’s studio process runs with assembly-line efficiency, with a beat playing, the artists humming melodies, and a song ready as quickly as “20-to-45” minutes. Creating competent tracks that fast is an impressive feat, but releasing them all could, ironically, reflect a lack of quality control by Migos.
That’s what trap is becoming known for, mainly, because the bar for execution is perhaps lower than any other hip-hop subgenre ever. For every Migos and Gucci Mane, there’s an ex-trapper treating trap music like a mere hustle, or a social media star like Bhad Bhabie looking to parlay their voyeuristic following into a music career by jumping on a catchy beat and rhyming raunchily with a formulaic flow. Trap stars like Gucci Mane, Future, and Thug have risen to the heights as cultural forces, but there’s a growing underclass of rappers who don’t take the craft as seriously — and the internet gives them life.
To quote the late great Prodigy, rap stardom is for “a select few.” Just because a person has the means to jump on their homies’ thumping beat and ride it to a modicum of acclaim and show money doesn’t mean they should. If an artist can’t grip the listener and augment the soundscape, they don’t deserve to be on the beat.
Contrary to traditionalist belief, trap progenitors are true MCs, as masters of ceremonies. Whether it’s starting the party or leading a listener into a conflicted internal dialogue, trap artists are tasked with controlling the vibe. Who wants to turn up to music that doesn’t have lines everyone can drunkenly scream together? How else can someone dryly harmonizing about their savagery truly captivate anyone? Mic presence is vital to anyone who fashions themselves a solo recording artist. Even if trap music has a lower standard for assonant lyricism, the demand to compel still exists — and too many trap artists are dependent on production to sell their music.
2 Chainz, Cardi B, and Playboi’s projects succeeded because they’re compelling characters, and that shines through in their music. Whether it’s Cardi B’s unflinching raunchiness and bombast, Playboi Carti’s spastic adlibs, or 2 Chainz’ witty punchlines, they match their production with an actual mic presence. On projects like Blocboy JB’s SIMI and Lil Baby’s Harder Than Ever, the artists’ personality didn’t shine through their production as vibrantly.
But the same monotony affects producers as well. The genre feels stagnant partly because there aren’t enough producers trying to push the boundaries of the sound — or don’t have the means to do so. Trap music’s most respected producers all have their own, distinct sonic aesthetics. Metro Boomin doesn’t sound like Mike-Will, who doesn’t sound like Zaytoven, who doesn’t sound like TM88.
The problem is that they’re being imitated by thousands of bedroom beatmakers and “type-beat” producers who are merely looking to replicate what has already been done instead of exploring new sounds. Given that these amateur producers — and the artists that purchase their beats — don’t have the means to clear the splashy samples that major label A-listers do, they stick to moody keys and other trite melodies to match their drums.
There seems to be a cottage industry of derivative artists getting beats from derivative producers and making derivative music. However, the tracks still thump, which allows artists to sneak onto playlists and onto festival stages, validating their derivative presence. It’s not any fans’ “fault,” for enjoying 808s, but too many listeners are complacent with both unimaginative artists and producers feeding us the same old trap experience.
The circumstance has become so commonplace that few bat an eye to it — and even encourage it. Trap music is the perfect subgenre to feed the internet’s ephemeral culture, groupthink, and collective entitlement. If you like Kendrick Lamar, you’ll probably get a project every year. If you like Quavo or Future, you might get one every quarter. Trap artists, producers, and insatiable fans have created a symbiotic relationship where bangers with fleeting appeal are expected at a breakneck pace, lest your peers pass you by, which is arguably what happened to Rich Homie Quan, who halted his output in 2015 and quickly found himself behind one-time equals like Migos and Young Thug.
Is there a way to shift that paradigm? Will more artists follow Travis Scott’s model of putting greater care into his polished production — and being ambitious enough to want to collaborate with someone like Stevie Wonder? Maybe more artists will also take the lead from artists like Cardi B, the late Lil Peep, and the controversial Tekashi 69 by marrying trap with sonic influences like alternative rock, punk, and boogaloo.
Artists would also do better to bolster their lyrics with more than the usual “money-hoes-clothes” content. Tracks like Donald Glover’s “This Is America” succeeded at maintaining accessibility but still relaying a message. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, IDK, and more are capable of expanding the thematic possibilities of trap music, and more producers should explore “This Is America’s” tribal effect. Trap music performances can replicate live punk rock in terms of rousing a crowd to create and share an electrifying wave of exhilaration when the right song blares through the speaker. Imagine if more artists decided to use that energy with galvanizing, triumphant messaging instead of mere calls to material excess or nihilism? No one’s saying “Faneto” doesn’t bang, but how much more resonant could that charging sound be if an artist or two took it into a militant Ice Cube or Public Enemy lane? It’s worth a try.
The sub-genre’s over-commercialization isn’t just influenced by its participants, but by the corporate forces looking to ride its coattails. Trap music was arguably at its most thrilling when from-the-mud artists like T.I., Jeezy, and Gucci Mane gave listeners a vicarious ride through the Atlanta underworld, but the moody melodies and murky soundscapes become trivialized when used for Wendy’s mixtapes, corny car commercials, and “bro rap.” Hip-hop’s meteoric rise means access for people with no actual grounding or appreciation for the genre, which always spells a death knell for authenticity.
At this point, I’d rather hear some experimentation than a song where an artist melodiously revels in their drug abuse or zest to kill their own people. The entrepreneurial, redemptive aspects of trap are palpable within the music. Like most American phenomena, it came from poor Black people making lemonade out of their systemic oppression, to the delight of worldwide audiences. Many of its most well-known artists had no musical background and started doing music to get out of the streets and make clean money.
Hordes of artists and producers are merely interested in replicating the latest hit in order to make a quick buck, and labels seeking low overhead encourage it with exploits like hit-making manuals. Top-tier artists like Beyonce and Jay-Z can afford to pay multiple producers and clear the kind of samples that dynamize the trap sound, but too many lower-tier artists are stuck using the same run-through virtual synthesizer software — and being unimaginative with it. You can hear these developments in the repetitive, lethargic music we’ve been getting.
The best trap artists will still create music that we all love, but the floodgates are wide open for just about anyone to jump on a formulaic trap beat and try their hand at fifteen minutes of fame. If the beat is catchy enough, if the ad-libs are fun enough, or if their image is meme-able enough, they might even catch a wave. Inevitably though, the careers of so many trap artists mimic the drug game that the genre stemmed from: Here today, gone tomorrow.