As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.
During Kanye West’s most recent rollout (which for all intents and purposes began in that hazy period of uncertainty accented by manic Twitter usage where Yandhi was first mentioned in August 2018 and finally culminated in the October 2019 arrival of Jesus Is King), it was oftentimes difficult to place any sure bets regarding where the music would be taking us, let alone if it’d be released at all.
Given the focus on the eccentric and passionate unpredictability that has become synonymous with West’s personal brand ethos, it is undeniably interesting to note that his fans seemingly now exist on a spectrum at this stage in his 15-year-plus career. There are those who remain loyal and steadfast, those who are more invested in the music than his moves outside the studio, those who remain nostalgic for the “old Kanye,” those who are simply tired, and those who — perhaps out of self-preservation — have muted his name from the timeline altogether. While 2018’s Ye still became his eighth consecutive album to debut at the No. 1 slot on the Billboard 100, for many fans, it didn’t quite resonate as deeply as his previous releases have, leaving countless curious about what the cards would have in store next for the Chicago native both on a creative level and in general.
Regardless of where one may currently fall on the sliding scale that is Yeezy fandom, West’s career can be quantified in a multitude of ways, including by genre, by era, and by controversy. When it comes to sonic evolution and taste-making experimentation, he has been captivating listeners and keeping fans on their toes since he first solidified his career as a recording artist with 2004’s The College Dropout. He later flipped the script with 2008’s electro-pop masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreaks, proudly showcasing his vulnerable dexterity. As exemplified vibrantly throughout his esteemed catalog, West has precariously exerted his innovative musical prowess, weaving between different genre influences and carving his own influential path as a result.
The star’s arrival at delivering a contemporary and conceptual Gospel project can be considered a fitting, natural progression in the year 2019, especially when factoring in prior occasions that his music has included nods to religious themes and other signifiers of the beloved genre. While he’s made some (on brand) outlandish comments in conjunction with the album’s release, West’s ability to engage his fans through reinvention remains one of his strongest qualities as a legacy artist.
With today’s music landscape providing a continuous inundation of new projects to digest, dismiss or take delight in, risk-taking and experimentation is to be taken seriously, as doing so can either yield great reward or sharp criticism. It is difficult enough to become an established voice in any given genre, and being able to skillfully navigate across genres can potentially unlock an upper echelon of one’s greatness. While hip hop has a storied history of artists including all sorts of influences in their respective artistic output, there are a handful of rappers who have found luminary success experimenting with crossover genres such as rock, country, R&B, pop, funk, reggae and more.
In the spirit of Kanye West diving headfirst into a Gospel-like album with Jesus Is King, let’s take a look at seven times artists released concentrated projects outside of their respective signature sounds over the years.
Artist: Snoop Dogg
Album(s): 7 Days of Funk (2013), Reincarnated (2013, as Snoop Lion), Bible of Love (2018)
Genre(s): Funk, Reggae, Gospel
Takeaway: Snoop Dogg’s multifaceted career is especially fascinating to take notes from. His ability to experiment across genres such as funk, reggae and gospel without turning off his primary audience or losing his identity at the core of his self-expression is arguably unparalleled. As such, putting Tha Doggfather in any other category besides legendary is a grave disservice to how much ground he has covered throughout the years, both sonically and with his business savvy in mind. Ultimately, Snoop makes music he feels passionately about and this is something no one can take away from him. Ever.
Artist: Queen Latifah
Album: The Dana Owens Album (2004), Trav’lin Light (2007)
Genre(s): Soul, Blues
Takeaway: As a hip hop pioneer and entertainment mogul, Queen Latifah’s longevity is rooted in her multifaceted talent and relentless work ethic. While she is best known for her historic contributions in hip hop, she did go on to break out of her musical comfort zone, releasing two all-singing projects that showcased her soulful and powerful vocal chops outside of the genre. Her 2007 project, Trav’lin’ Light, earned her a Grammy nomination, further showcasing how risk-taking can be rewarded and further cement one’s status as an icon.
Artist: Beastie Boys
Album: Polly Wog Stew EP (1982)
Takeaway: Prior to establishing themselves in music history as seminal rap veterans, the Beastie Boys first got their start as an underground punk/hardcore band in the early 1980s making their rounds in the local music scene. In the foundational years prior to experimenting with rapping and becoming the third hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the group drew influence from bands such as Black Flag, Misfits and Dead Kennedys. The year after recording their first punk EP, the Beastie Boys released their first hip hop track, “Cooky Puss,” and the rest became history.
Artist: Lil Wayne
Album: Rebirth (2010)
Takeaway: Lil Wayne has been vocal about being inspired by subcultures such as skateboarding and alternative rock genres throughout his career. After releasing the legacy-defining Tha Carter III in 2008, he decided to showcase another aspect of his artistry and versatility, committing to a full-fledged rock-inspired album. Years after the release of 2010’s Rebirth, Lil Wayne found himself collaborating and touring with Blink-182 in 2019, creating somewhat of a full-circle moment and stirring up nostalgia.
Artist: Childish Gambino
Album: Awaken My Love! (2016)
Takeaway: Childish Gambino’s third studio album completely strayed from his previous rap-centric works, a shift that ultimately worked in his favor and helped him gain newfound recognition on a widespread, mainstream level. Fans celebrated his R&B-leaning project wholeheartedly, with the standout single “Redbone” essentially soundtracking the entire year and becoming his first top 20 single. The infectious song went on to receive three Grammy Award nominations, winning the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance. While the genre-fluid creative born Donald Glover has stated he is retiring from music and touring entirely, many fans are hopeful he’ll pull a fast one on us again in the near future.
Artist: Young Thug
Album: Beautiful Thugger Girls (2017)
Genre(s): Experimental, Pop, Country, R&B
Takeaway: Young Thug has established himself as a treasured wildcard, taking all sorts of artistic risks throughout his ever-evolving career. A great example of this can be found throughout his 2017 release, Beautiful Thugger Girls, where he can be found weaving between genres such as country, pop and R&B with ease and authority.
Artist: Vic Mensa
Album: 93PUNX (2019)
Genre(s): Emo, Punk, Alternative
Takeaway: This year, Vic Mensa made a bold re-introduction as the lead vocalist of alternative punk band 93PUNX. Their self-titled debut, which featured guests such as Good Charlotte and Tom Morello, was executive produced by Blink-182’s Travis Barker. While the project was met with some harsh reception from fans, the project’s lead single “Camp America” made headlines for its strong political statement against ICE. The accompanying music video went viral and featured children in cages, calling for the country to re-examine its treatment of asylum seekers and immigrants. Artistically, Mensa is establishing himself as a fervent activist, making his transition into punk and rock an organic extension of his self-expression.