Hip-hop’s generation war has raged almost since its inception. In fact, hip-hop itself grew out of New York teens’ rebellious need to reject their parents’ staid funk and disco tunes and establish their own sound. However, since then, every subsequent generation of rap fans has demeaned and disrespected the one before and after it.
LL Cool J dissed Kool Moe Dee as “old school” when the veteran battle rapper snuck a few subliminal shots into “How Ya Like Me Now,” New York heads booed the new jack Southern sound at the 1995 Source Awards, Pete Rock made Waka Flocka Flame the face of a rant against younger rap heads, and Waka Flocka himself upbraided colorful Floridian newcomer Lil Pump as an albino version of himself. Seemingly every time rap experiences a generational shift, grumpy old rap heads like Joe Budden are waiting to pounce on young upstarts like Lil Yachty for being everything they weren’t — or not being everything they were.
Well, according to a recently-published story in the New York Times about how music influences our tastes as we age, it appears science has some possible explanations. Using demographic data provided by Spotify (this is why they collect this stuff, BTW, nobody is trying to steal your identity), the Times established a correlation between songs’ popularity with older audiences and those same songs’ popularity when that audience was in high school.
The examples from the article are — unsurprisingly — pretty rock specific, but for one example used, the song “Creep,” by Radiohead, is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. They would have been around 14 years old in 1993 when the song was a hit on Top 40 radio, a result that turned out to be consistent among age groups.
The pattern is established; the songs you liked in high school tend to be the songs you like as you get older, generally informing and influencing your tastes overall.
Musical genres, however, evolve over time, and almost none more so than hip-hop. There’s a prevalent theory in some rap fan circles that rap experiences a tectonic shift every 7 years with a groundbreaking album that changes the trajectory of the genre as a whole.
With every shift comes another wave of old-head grousing about the death of the culture or bemoaning the current “state of hip-hop” as watered-down or sold out for corporate interest — never mind the preponderance of conspicuous consumption that forms the foundation of many of rap’s biggest hits even predating “My Adidas.”
Now, the internet is so lousy with “Rappers Then Vs. Rappers Now”-style memes, Kodak Black was able to subtly subvert the theme on his own Instagram to hilarious effect.
However, the above mentioned study does tell us something important: Why these older pioneers and their fans are so damned grumpy about rap’s changing sound. Simply put, due to the fact that hip-hop no longer relies on dusty funk, soul, and jazz samples over crackling beat breaks, and instead builds on churning bass, eerie synths, and thundering 808 drum kits, that rap’s older fans take such issue with younger rappers.
For instance, I distinctly recall internet forums full of complaints that 50 Cent was ruining hip-hop a good five years before they did the same thing to Soulja Boy when he appeared to teach the world his “Crank That” dance. In fact, that sentiment was the driving factor in the beef between 50 Cent and Nas, who was one of his biggest critics in 2006, when he campaigned for the rap crown on the platform that Hip-Hop Is Dead. I was 15 or so when I decided that pro-Black offerings from the likes of Talib Kweli and Mos Def were my jam, and I loudly agreed with Nas about both of his imagined adversaries.
Like many of today’s most strident critics, Nas disliked the sound of 50’s more pop-friendly output — singsong hooks, pristine beats — in comparison to what he’d grown up on, despite coming from the same city, rapping about many of the same topics, and Nas’ own shift into poppy fare with “You Owe Me” and “Oochie Wally” almost ten years before. However, as it turned out, both Nas and I were wrong — hip-hop is still alive and kicking, just changed, and our obnoxiousness did little to endear the sounds of our youth to our successors, who simply kept making music they wanted to listen to while we looked like grade-A jerks.
That’s why when I, in my newly enlightened state of mind, wrote that NBA Lakers star Lonzo Ball was right in saying “nobody listens to Nas anymore,” so many heads came for both myself and Lonzo with equal vigor and fury — although I’ll admit the young basketball star caught the worst of it, what with the snide insults like “Oatmeal Face” and derisive comments and stunts from Nas associates and fans and even other ball players.
But the point Lonzo was making — albeit in a less articulate way — is that tastes have changed. No one his age is really checking for boom bap.
However, if you flip that statement, its reverse is also true. His critics certainly haven’t checked for Migos and Future, his examples of “real hip-hop.” While many are quick to decry the “lack of content” displayed by the Soundcloud generation, it’s really because they haven’t checked for the levels of depth and lyrical dexterity of a Young Thug or a Takeoff or newcomer Lil Skies (who’s proven to be quite lyrically dextrous while appealing to youthful sensibilities) — and the only reason why is a difference in production styles and rhyme delivery from the styles that were popular when they were young themselves.
Nas would have been 15 years old during LL Cool J’s original run at radio in 1986, so it would be difficult for him to accept a 50 Cent. 50 Cent was definitely in high school during Nas’ pop phase , so of course he emulated it, which only put off the grizzled vet.
Critics who were 15 during 50 Cent’s run of radio dominance and his aggressive style from 2005 find it difficult to accept a Lil Pump or a Lil Yachty, because when they were entering their teens in 2013, even more pop-centric fare from the likes of Drake held sway as the genre began its shift to trap anthems like “Type Of Way” from Rich Homie Quan and “Versace” from Migos. A whole generation of rappers today sounds like Drake, because he’s what’s was hot in 2010 when 25-year-olds Russ and 6lack would have been entering high school, but older heads hate the emphasis on melody as opposed to straightforward rhyme patterns, and a generation from now, fans who grew up on Soundcloud-centric emo rap will likely despise whatever comes next.
Although high school can be one of the best times of your life, it’s also when you’re most malleable as a person. Your tastes are more easily influenced by pop culture and peer pressure. Should we really rely so much on our teen instincts to determine everything we’re going to listen to for the rest of our lives?
Getting stuck in your early teens only prevents you from possibly enjoying the way music changes. Think about it; if the only good music to ever come out is what was popping in high school, you’d pretty much have to give up on pop culture at graduation. If everything stayed the same and never changed, we’d all still be listening to World War II-era Dixieland tunes. There’d have been no rock, no R&B, no funk, no soul, no disco, and, well, no rap music at all.
No one says you have to give up the music that made you happy growing up, but by only clinging to that music, you miss out on the genuinely enjoyable fare being presented by the younger generation. Living in the past won’t stop progress. Accepting that change is inevitable is the only way to avoid becoming a self-caricature like some of the critics mentioned above. Those old records aren’t going anywhere, and giving new stuff a chance to surprise you doesn’t mean you lose the past. You just gain the opportunity to go back and re-live old memories while making new ones.