There have always been oddballs in hip-hop. Rappers like MF DOOM, Kool Keith, Shock G have represented the left-field and still managed to carve out their own niche in the music world. But today we’ve got Lil B, Odd Future, and Kreayshawn, three of the most out-there acts to ever hit the scene, all on the brink of serious mainstream success. What’s going on in hip-hop?
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The rules used to be simple – if you had a superior way of using language and delivery, you were better than the next guy. Win over your neighborhood, work your way up among the ranks, prove yourself to enough people, and you’re gonna be on top.
Slowly but surely, as they always do, things have changed. The rap game has always been competitive, and hopefully it always will be – it’s one of the things that drives rappers to develop new styles and come up with ways to stand out. But these days, the criteria is different. It’s no longer just about delivery, rhyme scheme, flow, or any of those old-school words that heads use when dissecting an emcee. These days it’s just as much about image, style, charisma, and some “it” factor that always seems to pop up.
There’s a million ways to talk about the “it” factor, but anyone who claims to have it fully figured out is just an asshole. “It” is the kind of thing you can never put your finger on. That’s why, for years, people have described it simply as “it.” There are too many variables that have come into play to make artists like Lil B and Tyler, The Creator, and Kreayshawn popular. What it boils down to is an individuality (like it or not, you have to admit they all stand out) and an ability to rally the troops (anyone can be weird, but to get people to follow you is an entirely different game).
While traditional rappers have placed an emphasis on “keeping it real,” insisting that their raps are a reflection of their reality, the hip-hop oddballs embrace a larger-than-life image fueled by viral videos and internet memes. Tyler approaches his music like a film-director of some horror movie, and if you’ve only heard one Lil B song, you might think he’s a murderous, blasphemous, womanizing criminal or a crusader for world peace and absolute positivity, depending on which song you’ve heard.
Then we’ve got Kreayshawn. Her appearance alone is enough to inspire curiosity, and once she opens her mouth, most peoples’ heads start bubbling with question marks and exclamation points. Her emergence (and that of her friends, such as V-Nasty) into the spotlight has raised issues of appropriation and authenticity, and whether you think it’s quality entertainment or an offensive gimmick, you most likely have an opinion.
Instrumental to the rise of the hip-hop oddball is the rise of the ironic fan. I don’t know when this all started, but it seems to be one of those new things that old people know nothing about, like planking, silly bandz, and fun. I didn’t realize what an ironic fan was until dirty hipsters started taking a liking to Gucci Mane, but shit has gotten serious. The line between ironically enjoying something and being a genuine fan is becoming increasingly blurry, and I’m not going to try to explain it, but you know it when you see it. Any artist can win over genuine fans, but if you can attract the ironic ones, your potential market grows exponentially.
It doesn’t matter what’s “good” anymore. Go ahead, test it out for yourself. Try to start an argument with an Odd Future fan that Tyler, The Creator isn’t good. Base your argument on production, lyricism, whatever. I can already tell you what the first two words (and probably the third) you’ll hear back will be. Try to debate that Lil B can’t rap, and see if your opinion matters to the kid screaming “thank you Based God!” and offering up all his bitches. The allegiance to artists runs deeper than logic. If you don’t like it, you don’t “get” it. In the mind of fans, it’s as simple as that.
For the first time in a while, there is no shortage of diversity in hip-hop. The club hits are still topping the charts, college rap is now a certifiable category of its own, and there are pockets of sub-genres filling up everywhere, from the lyrically inclined traditionalists to the electro-inspired alternative-minded. In a musical atmosphere where the mainstream is often dominated by cookie-cutter hits and same-sounding stars, maybe the rise of the oddball is a good thing. Just as punk rock forever changed rock & roll, maybe this brand of don’t-give-a-fuck rappers, who could not care less about the conventional ways of approaching hip-hop, are going to be the unlikely ones who change the direction of the genre.