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.
He gets play on Top 40 and Rock stations that Uzi and Juice WRLD cannot, due to what Top 40 Democracy author Eric Weisbard says is Top 40 radio “functioning as a kind of filter that makes something softer, whiter, older.” That’s why his Beerbongs And Bentleys album has sold a whopping 1.791 million equivalent album units in the first half of 2018 and the album will be in the Best Pop Album category instead of the Best Rap Album category at this year’s Grammys.
It’s why he has his own Music Festival while an artist like Uzi, who’s arguably just as gifted if not more, has been griping with Atlantic records about fair treatment since he signed; creative direction seems to be one of the chief reasons why he’s aired the label out. He had to put out his smash single “XO Tour Llif3” himself and has complained about the label stifling his output on multiple occasions. It’s likely that Juice WRLD has seen Uzi’s creative struggle and wants to fly around the musical map like Post, unrestrained by a major label’s archaic limitations.
Artists like Kendrick, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West have shown that there can be immense freedom for rappers, but they had to sell boatloads of records and pay dues as traditionalist-appeasing rappers for years before gaining the goodwill for albums like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak and Lil Wayne’s Rebirth. Post Malone didn’t have to wait that long. That’s why Juice WRLD longs to sidestep that process as “more of a musician,” even if his phrasing was troubling. Post’s ascendancy exemplifies to young, Black, melodically-focused acts like Juice WRLD that there are tangible benefits to being marketed as something other than a rapper — even as you’re making rap music. Harmonious trap music has become the defining pop sound, but the Black rap artists who ushered in the sound are annexed from fully benefiting from their stances and becoming marketed as so-called pop artists.
Another hard to achieve status for rappers is “Grammy winner.” Rappers have notoriously had a hard time taking home trophies at what is viewed by many as music’s biggest award showcase. And while there’s validity in the argument that artists shouldn’t seek the Grammy committee’s validation, that doesn’t absolve the committee for basically getting it wrong by default. They got it wrong when Kendrick lost to Macklemore in 2014. They got it wrong last year when Jay-Z went 0 for 8. They also got it wrong with Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., DMX, Wu-Tang Clan, J. Cole, and a host of other top-selling, otherwise critically hailed rappers who do not count a Grammy win among their other awards and acclaim.
Rappers have boycotted the Grammys as far back as 1989, when Will Smith, Public Enemy, and others took a stand against the award show for not even televising the awarding of the Best Rap Performance Grammy. Smith, who won the award for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” called the snub a “slap in the face.” His partner DJ Jazzy Jeff has chalked the occurrence up to “60-year-old white men that didn’t understand this brand-new genre” and a belief that “hip-hop was just starting to break out of the mindset that it was going to die next year.”
30 years later, hip-hop is more alive than ever, with an overwhelming variety of bold artists and subgenres — but the genre is still not being appreciated as it should. That’s no coincidence, as the Black people who birthed the genre haven’t properly found their way into the music industry’s power structure. It’s an industrial microcosm of Black people’s continued struggle with redefining possibilities in any industry in America, from rappers to Black athletes who should “shut up and dribble.” Artistic limits, from inside the hip-hop community and out, taint young artists’ perceptions of how much musical ground they can tread in the rap game. While this predicament should be a harbinger for more artists to step away from the major label system, it doesn’t make that system any less woeful in its racially biased machinations.
This is a teachable moment for hip-hop purists to get off their high horse about what constitutes “real hip-hop” and accept all the young, talented artists who are making quality music. The more acceptance they feel, and the more they learn, perhaps the less young artists will feel inclined to reject the term as a recoil against those who insult them. We can support and honor our own better than anyone else can.
More importantly, there’s work to be done challenging the institution that’s still unfairly weighting the word “rapper” with the specter of limitation. Lil Wayne seemingly had to sell a million records in a week with Tha Carter 3 to gain the freedom to release a rock album. Meanwhile, Post Malone’s team has been grooming him for that shift all along. Juice WRLD has freestyled for an hour straight — obviously, he respects the craft of rhyming. He’s just trying to do “so many more things” in an industry that is prone to put a ceiling on Black art — unless they know the owners of the house.