I want to preface this article by saying that picking only three songs to encapsulate my generation's contribution to music is an impossible task to narrow down. The evolution of hip-hop is complex and deeply intertwined, generations of artists inspiring each other and sampling one another in a way that makes it difficult to pin down an origin of one sound or musical movement. Subjectively, I decided to make my decisions not only based on the popularity of the song or its production value, but the politics of the song itself. As in the ability of the song to demonstrate its eras aesthetic, style and sound. After considering which parts of our modern culture I wanted to highlight, I picked three songs that did the most to holistically reflect the music and culture of the period.
Beginning with this early 2000s hit, I would be remiss not to include this song as personifying a time when Pharrell and the Neptunes were beginning to set the scene for what we now consider modern hip-hop. Influenced by producers such as Teddy Riley and “new jack swing’, Pharrell and Chad Hugo defined the early 2000s sound through what is considered the ‘Neptunes sound’ one that was futuristic both in its production style but also its ability to disseminate a sound that would continue to be sought after even today. As ‘super producers’ they created a precedent for all those that came after, to create beats that could cross any genre and thus put them in a position to work with all kinds of artists.
While the song itself is one among many of the Neptunes early hits, I chose it because of its salient cultural weaving of the modern relationship between music and fashion. In the music video for the hit song, Pharrell takes us on a tour of his Miami mansion sporting his own brand, Billionaires boys club, the house is filled with girls, red solo cups and skaters doing half-pipes in the background. Most symbolic is the way the video was one of the firsts to merge hip-hop and modern streetwear and skate culture, driving a period of fashion so influential and revolutionary that in only two decades has been revived in 2022. When considering the intersection of fashion and music today, "Frontin" was a song that led a movement setting the scene for a kind of industry that dominates today and defines the modern hip-hop scene.
When I narrowed down my list of songs one of the artists I had to work around was Kendrick Lamar, knowing that he would inevitably end up in my top three. However choosing a song out of his discography wasn’t hard. Wanting to highlight both his poetic storytelling as well as his raw artistic talent, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is arguably one of his most telling tracks where we see the power of Kendricks words, creative delivery and force for politics come together in one song. Like much of Kendricks discography, the rhetoric of his words lies in his ability to put together a narrative of deeply personal lived experiences, both of racial struggles and systemic oppression.
In this song, Kendrick breaks the mold of the genre by making it not just about the music and the lyrics but the intentional delivery and organization of the song. The beginning is a dramatic back and forth between two different perspectives, bringing the song alive with a theatrical composition of stories. By the end of the song Kendrick has spent twelve minutes toying with spirituality, gang culture and the violence of the streets in what feels like a cinematic religious sermon. Not only is Kendrick an artistic luminary of modern hip-hop but he has become a musical spokesperson for the political and social climate of today. Coming out of one of the biggest social movements in America, Kendricks ability to tie together music and politics redefines what it means to be an artist in modern day hip-hop.
While one could argue that this song is annoyingly mainstream, when I first started thinking about the songs and musical greats of my generation, I immediately thought of the 2016 XXL Freshman Cypher. What this video communicated was a new sound and a group of rappers that would change the course of hip-hop in the late 2010s, ushering in the era of SoundCloud rap. As a widely accessible place of open creative experimentation, SoundCloud ultimately stood at the forefront of this revolution, quickly taking over as hip-hops most valuable platform. Thanks to the service anyone could make beats, put out tracks and gain viral attention. It was because of this new visibility and artistic liberty towards making music that rap and hip-hop became what it is today — democratized and internet based.
Lil Uzi Vert as an artist embodies how this new era of music changed the course of the genre entering into what we now call internet rap. It was a space where anyone could put out anything without restriction and anyone had the potential to get big because of it. While there is no one sound that distinguishes this era, the songs carry with them unpolished, emotionally rowdy and chaotic tones. One article captures its distinct inflection “low-fidelity and insistent, throbbing with distorted bass, like trap music reduced over a hot fire to its rawest component parts… At its best, it has an almost punklike purity, emphasizing abandon over structure, rawness over dexterity.” As a genre that became as big as it did in such a short time, it inevitably defines the culture on which it rests. Trap music, internet rap and skater culture continue to be influential in both music and fashion, making much of what we consume align with this aesthetic, predicting trends, sounds and the politics of our time.