By COLEMAN HOPKINS
In 1989, a new variation of rock emerged on the west coast that had a unique, holistic sound both reminiscent of an earlier age and refreshingly original. Over the next six years, this grunge sound transformed the music industry and all rock music thereafter.
Even today, bands like the Foo Fighters and artists like Jack White are heavily influenced by this era’s most prominent acts, such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, who all pushed pop-metal music out of the stores.
In a similar fashion, I believe that Hip-Hop is on the cusp of a musical metamorphosis and that 2015 is going to be the year for that major change. Already, several expansive and ambitious projects by young artists have been undertaken and met with high praise from critics, buyers and even other artists.
More than 20 years ago, Nas released “Illmatic,” which is arguably the best Hip-Hop album ever and certainly the most influential. With this album, Hip-Hop was transformed in every sense of the word.
The east coast, particularly New York, has become the capital of innovative, complex rap that forces competition and promotes the entrance of new rappers into the industry in a way that the group of 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube in California has not. Artists like Jay Z, the Wu-Tang Clan and Outkast defined the genre and culture for years, and their legacies’ are tied to the new era of Hip-Hop that Nas ushered in.
From a cultural perspective, Hip-Hop began to move, albeit slowly, away from some of the less-flattering tenets that the music had become synonymous with. For example, politically influenced, conscious rhymes from Mos Def began to replace the misogynistic verses that Snoop Dogg and NWA had been famous for.
Moreover, the genre became more diverse with the arrival of non-black artists like Eminem and Big Pun. In turn, these artists helped to disseminate the music by making it more accessible to Hispanic and white audiences. Female rappers like Lil’ Kim also set the stage for other female acts to follow and helped to change gendered themes that held the music back.
Prior to “Illmatic,” rappers focused on more basic rhymes and production. By contrast, Nas incorporated multisyllabic rhymes into his songs, even having entire verses that were more complex than artists before him, but that did not sacrifice a great delivery and message.
On top of that, his famous ten-track masterpiece saw production from multiple producers that ended up giving the album an original sound that was emulated by most rappers in the years after.
While “Illmatic” came out in 1994, 1995 was the first year that these changes became more visible and audible, with underground artists finally getting a shot at success. With a thriving market and a series of musical entrepreneurs, a slew of critically acclaimed albums dropped one after another from relatively new artists: GZA’s “Liquid Swords,” AZ’s “Doe or Die” and Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous” all came out in 1995 and have since become classics. These albums all put a focus on storytelling, lyrical proficiency and the sad realities of a thug life that had been romanticized by rappers like 2Pac.
It has been twenty years since 1995, and over that time, Hip-Hop has reinforced the old axiom that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sounds from DMX, Chief Keef, Kanye West and Eminem, for example, have kept the music and the subject matter musty and largely uniform.
However, 2015 thus far seems to be moving away from this trend with younger artists like J. Cole and Drake releasing successful projects that are moving in different directions, both musically and in terms of the subject matter, from the Hip-Hop establishment.
Specifically, Drake has become famous for the feminist themes in his music while other artists like Lupe Fiasco have voiced concerns over the messages that mainstream Hip-Hop sends to children. While these two artists are just examples, they represent the rule, not the exception. Nicki Minaj, Joey Bada$$ and Kendrick Lamar have all become renowned for their innovative lyrics and nontraditional approach to the genre.
Ultimately, time will tell if 2015 is as important a year for the genre as I suspect it could be, but with the amount of ambitious projects already out this early in the year, such as Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” J. Cole’s “2014 Forest Hill Drive” and Joey Bada$$’s “B4.DA.$$,” I am confident that, by 2016, Hip-Hop will be headed in a different direction with new artists and messages at the forefront.