Hip hop has undoubtedly evolved since its early days emerging from the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s. What started as a raw, gritty style of music made with simple equipment has become a dominant, commercial force in pop culture.
With mainstream success and big business mentality, some have argued that raw talent and artistic authenticity have been left behind. Image, internet hype, and marketing prowess seem to be more important factors for success than the quality of one’s rapping or production abilities. You could argue that 75% of today’s music is garbage. Is everything “Bubble Gum” rap now? What happened?
Looking at hip hop today, there is evidence on both sides of this argument. On the one hand, there are certainly artists who have achieved fame just for their viral personas and controversy rather than their talent. Figures like 6ix9ine, Cardi B and Lil Xan and countless others rose to prominence incredibly fast based more on spectacle and social media impressions rather than their skill at rapping. Their music is often panned by critics and seen as lacking substance, originality, and signs of artistic growth.
Take Cardi B. Though she has earned praise in some circles as a socially conscious voice and advocate for women, most objective hip hop fans and critics argue Cardi B’s music itself demonstrates zero lyrical ability when compared to the top female MCs of the past and present. While she has an undeniably big, vibrant persona that connects with audiences, her technical rap abilities seem pretty limited – especially when analyzing her rhyme schemes, flows, wordplay, and storytelling. Her acclaim appears to be more personality and hype-driven rather than her skills on the mic.
For example, artists like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, and Rapsody have all received acclaim for their intricate rhyme patterns, clever punchlines, and ability to explore hip hop evolution. However, Cardi B’s lyrics rarely display sophisticated wordplay or complex flows. Much of her musical success has been attributed to her charismatic, no-filter personality and party anthems instead. Songs like “Bodak Yellow” became vehicles for her star power rather than demonstrations of raw talent on the mic. I mean you can argue that artistry has many dimensions and clearly Cardi B has connected widely for other reasons.
At the same time, the last decade has also given rise to rappers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Tyler the Creator who are all critically acclaimed for their creative songwriting and musicality. Lamar in particular is hailed for his intricate lyricism and storytelling ability. The fact that he has won Pulitzer Prizes and dozens of Grammys suggests there is still space in the Industry for raw talent to be recognized.
So while hype and marketing provide fuel for that initial burst of fame, longevity and acclaim still seem to depend on the substance and quality of an artist’s work. For instance, despite their initial buzz, many wrote off 6ix9ine and Lil Xan quickly as one-hit wonders after evaluating their thin catalogs. On the other hand, Lamar and Cole continue to top charts and sell out arenas years after first breaking through.
The dominance of streaming platforms and social media makes it easier than ever to gain quick notoriety with flashy personas and viral content. But at the end of the day, developing big fan bases over entire careers requires showcasing actual artistic talent again and again. For the culture to evolve rappers and producers need to back up any hype with actual bars and beats.
The history of the genre gives hope that raw talent will continue to emerge from unexpected places. As long as hip hop continues to incubate outside the mainstream in unknown cities and home studios, generations of artists with genuine talent will no doubt grab our attention when ready.
So while flashy viral success is more attainable than ever, lasting respect and acclaim is still largely tied to talent. As much as hip hop has changed, at its core it still remains a culture that values the craft and authenticity of its most gifted MCs and producers. For these reasons, talent undoubtedly still matters – and will likely always matter – in hip hop even as hype and marketing provide shortcuts to fame for lesser artists. Raw skills eventually separate prospects from pretenders.