Why Hip-Hop Lyricism Is Alive And Well In 2017
Some of rap’s best wordplay exists below the surface—you’ve just gotta know where to look
Last year, Lil Wayne made clear his feelings on hip-hop’s state of affairs. “No one’s trying to be the best rapper alive anymore,” said the 34-year-old MC, who spent much of the 2000s convincing anyone who’d listen that he was exactly that. It’s not an unpopular opinion—consider the disparaging “mumble rap” tag that’s become a catch-all denigration for artists who are more focused on creating vibes than formulating triple entendres. But if you think hip-hop lyricism is completely dead, perhaps you aren’t listening intently enough.
2017 has seen rap’s wordsmiths put poetic rhymes to the forefront of their artistry. From Kendrick Lamar’s devout DAMN to Jay-Z’s soul-baring 4:44, hip-hop has seen critical and commercial successes rooted in masterful lyricism. But beyond the household name MCs, there’s a surplus of rappity rappers below the surface who are pushing the bounds of wordplay.
Case in point: Royce Da 5’9”. The Detroit rapper—one-fourth of Slaughterhouse and formerly one-half of Bad Meets Evil, alongside Eminem—released the fourth installment of his Bar Exam mixtape series in June. On it, he reverts to the jackin’-for-beats approach of a decade prior, completely bodying contemporary tracks like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli,” Future’s “Mask Off,” and Big Sean’s “Moves.” Jaw-leaning punchlines, countless puns and assorted rhyme schemes keep each song fresher than Will Smith returning to Bel-Air, styled by Dapper Dan. Peep this wordplay on “I Got The Keys (Freestyle)”:
You niggas is about as much action as a buttoned-up bra
I’m taking everybody instrumental, going Ted Bundy on it
Out here cooking so much the original sound like it’s Peg Bundy on it
There are younger guns who are eager to prove their lyrical firepower, too. Dreamville’s newest prospect J.I.D. is a rapper’s rapper, a Southern wordsmith who is unapologetically Atlanta, but doesn’t embody the city’s signature trap aesthetic. He’s more wolf than sheep, a beast who will devour an instrumental and then dance upon it. While on a press run for his EP, The Never Story, J. Cole’s latest signee torched every mic set before him, freestyling for Funkmaster Flex, Tony Touch, and DJ Kay Slay. With a high-pitched vocal tone and multisyllabic rhyme schemes, J.I.D. naturally draws comparisons to fellow wordplay kingpins Kendrick and Wayne. His album is packed with raw songs showcasing the boundless potential of an unpredictable storyteller and songwriter.
One of this year’s more unexpected, lyric-driven rap releases comes from Daylyt, the battle rapper best known for epic trolling during faceoffs (he once attempted to literally take a shit during a battle). He knocks off the antics on his latest album Let There B Lyt. The Watts rapper is at his strongest on stream-of-consciousness tracks like “Last Breath,” which walks listeners through his hometown, or the album leftover “The Daytrix,” a vivid first-person perspective depicting Daylyt’s birth and rough upbringing. Willie B of TDE’s Digi+Phonics production team handles all of the beats, creating open fields for the wordy battler to stretch the bounds of his imagination.
Write time from a child showed us the pencil
Growing up right still led to the pen so
Who give a fuck who done led us to the paper?
Ganging junction and paragraph best ways
Paper right to the pen then we got a battle with essays
—Daylyt, “Last Breath”
There are even lesser-known rappers who kick sick rhymes as well—guys like Detroit’s Nolan The Ninja rap dead-eye lyricism over dusty boom-bap soundbeds (see the vigorous “14K”), while Vic Spencer from Chicago packs offbeat humor and vivid illustrations of violence in his similarly nostalgic music. It makes perfect sense that the late, great Sean Price embraced Spencer as a kindred spirit, given their shared passion for punching beats with brass knuckles and wearing the cape of dark knights instead of vibrant Supermen.
Open Mike Eagle—who is set to co-host a music-meets-standup Comedy Central show called The New Negroes—recently announced his upcoming album Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, which features the wonderful “95 Radios.” He’s another lyric-focused rapper who’s been keeping high-quality rhymes alive, along with his childhood friend and rap philosopher Milo, whose upcoming who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is set to entrance listeners with premium raps (see: the introspective “Sorcerer”). And don’t forget reliable wordsmiths like Skyzoo and Oddisee, whose recent projects Peddler Themes and The Iceberg, respectively, are examples of lyrical prowesses that have aged like wine.
Lyricism ain’t dead—there are still rap fans who want to hear lyrics worth dissecting and rewinding, and MCs who are eager to serve them. For every Desiigner on the radio, there’s a Roc Marciano in the underground. For every Playboi Carti taking over festivals, there’s a Mach Hommy waiting to be found. You can enjoy Cardi B and Sammus, and there’s room on Spotify for both Rapsody and Migos. For every rapper accused of mumbling, there’s a wizard waiting to wow you with words. Who are your favorite 2017 saviors of lyricism?