For much of 2016, hip-hop music was under a microscope. As artists like Desiigner and Lil Yachty found success with seemingly indecipherable lyrics (see: the two-week Hot 100 chart-topper “Panda” and the Grammy-nominated D.R.A.M. collaboration “Broccoli”), critics questioned if the lyricists deserved a seat at rap’s table. Their penchant for mumbling words over a hard beat — utilizing the sounds from their mouths as part of the instrumental — became a fan magnet while some veteran artists took umbrage to the technique.
The phrase du jour became “mumble rap,” first coined by Wiz Khalifa in June during an interview with Hot 97’s morning show Ebro in the Morning. “We call it mumble rap,” Wiz explained of the newer generation’s lyrical style. “It ain’t no disrespect to the lil homies, they don’t want to rap. It’s cool for now; it’s going to evolve.” He punctuated that sentiment by explaining that if they wanted longevity, they’d have to find another way to rhyme eventually. After much deliberation, the conclusion was drawn that they were rappers but no one knew what the hell they were saying despite it being perceived as a backhanded compliment.
Not all of hip-hop’s vanguard welcomed the new regime with open arms. Pete Rock came for Lil Yachty over Instagram in September, with jabs like Yachty “sucks mud on a rainy day” for not being able to freestyle and challenging his breed of rapping altogether. In the summer, Rock also entangled himself in a short beef with Young Dolph over cocaine references in his music. Yachty’s charge was more about inability, not subject matter. “Personally ion like his type of music either,” Yachty later replied over Twitter, referring to Pete Rock as an “old head.”
Even bigger than the cyclical back-and-forth in hip-hop, though, are acts now hailed as legends but were once shunned in their earlier days. Fans have been flashing decoder rings over rappers’ lyrics for decades and vacillating in their preferences. Jay Z’s initial high-speed rhyming style — adopted from his earliest mentor Jaz-O — made him not only hard to understand but was read for filth during an archival dig around Reasonable Doubt’s era (the album was released in 1996) and the years that followed. Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard had ostensibly garbled lyrics, but his spot as hip-hop’s drunk uncle shielded him from any harsh ridicule. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were a quintet of indescribability when it came to their lyrics, eliciting more cassette rewinds and scribbling words down on paper over shunning them.
The predicament of simple comprehension in hip-hop is the same, yet the reaction is now different. During Chicago’s drill movement, Chief Keef amassed a considerable amount of suspicious success for murmuring his bars on a track. Lil Uzi Vert has since carried that torch as well. When Young Thug hit the scene in 2013 with his breakout hit “Stoner,” his verse on Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” became viral video fodder by poking fun at his indecipherable wailing of words. But the greatest torchbearer was Future, who graduated from Atlanta’s Dungeon Family in his early days and ultimately left his lyrical coherence with them. 2016 is merely an extension of hip-hop’s storied relationship with words.
“2016 was all about the lyrics, which is ironic given that some of the biggest songs of the year were the most difficult to understand,” says John Kennedy, features editor for lyrics engine Genius. “Rihanna and Drake‘s ‘Work’ was the most viewed song in Genius’ analytics-based year-end recap not only because it’s a popular record, but also because many listeners didn’t understand her patois. Similar for Desiigner — everyone was trying to figure out what he said besides ‘I got broads in Atlanta.’”
While most fans of Desiigner’s “Panda” had no idea what he was saying until he made a Genius video dissecting the lines bar for bar, he carried the torch for “mumble rappers” everywhere, leading the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks. Everyone was tuned into Desiigner’s success, even Kim Kardashian, who shared the “Panda” decoding video. Granted, her husband is Kanye West, who co-signed Desiigner and gave him his first major push by adding “Panda” to his album The Life of Pablo. To note, West is a curious case who hops on trends that fascinate him, like he did with Twista. The fellow Chicagoan’s speed rhyming had been around for years prior to West’s stamp of approval, yet Twista found fame through West-sealed cuts like “Overnight Celebrity.” He, too, became difficult to understand.
Stephen Niday, Genius’ head of lyrics, echoes that sentiment. “There have always been artists who were hard to understand, whether it be because they don’t fully enunciate all of their words or they rap really fast,” he adds. “It’s nothing new, so the process of transcribing and decoding lyrics isn’t any more difficult. A little bit different, sure, but definitely not any more difficult than it’s ever been before.” Twista was given the pass as his delivery was defined as lyrical dexterity, but even he eventually slipped through the cracks. Wiz Khalifa’s forecasting that mumble rapping will be a temporary phase seems plausible given the history of rap trends that go beyond just simply rhyming.
Still, in some ways there’s a certain charm to finally learning what an artist is saying and the reasoning behind their rhymes. Jay Z wrote a book about it in 2010 called Decoded. An artist who was taken to task for dismantling hip-hop with his flashy rhymes released a book about deciphering lyrics that ultimately became a New York Times bestseller. Aspects like social media and viral memes have made a bloodsport out of challenging today’s younger artists’ lyrical capabilities. Placing Lil Yachty in the hot seat on video and forcing him to freestyle just to prove that he can’t is far different from picket sign protesting an artist’s approach of yesteryear.
There is no true barometer other than time. That worked in the favor of the aforementioned Future, who hasn’t tweaked his cadence one bit but is now one of rap’s beloved. Future is a unique case where maintaining his rabid fanbase, otherwise known as the “Future Hive,” allowed him longevity and three No. 1 albums within a span of seven months (Evol, DS2 and the joint Drake collaboration What a Time to Be Alive) by catering to the supporters who understand him and his drug-laden bars. While the fate of the mumble rapper is anyone’s guess, there is probably another new act and accompanying trend being groomed, waiting to annoy the public and then perhaps enchant them.