Monday, December 11, 2017

In Defense of Mumble Rap: Dismissing Haters in the New Age of Poesy

This Blog Post Was Written By 
John Ribaudo 

2016 and 17 were― as most years are― exciting for hip-hop music, introducing us to countless new entries to the hip-hop canon and a host of new sounds. Of these new additions is the contentious category of “mumble rap”. The term was well characterized by Wiz Khalifa in reference to fellow artist, Desiigner, as an appraisal of Desiigner’s innovative lyricism and sound:
"We call it mumble rap. 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. Those artists, if they want to stay around, they'll figure out the next thing to do. But right now, that's what's poppin”.

Although mumble rap has been well received by millions of fans, it also has an (un)fair share of detractors. Many opponents to the sub-genre insinuate that mumble rap is childish, unskilled, and even disrespectful. Some of the new performers who belong to this new sub-genre have playful antics, and some may even fail to honor their legendary predecessors, but one critique of mumble rap which is just wrong is the insinuation that mumble rap is in any way a lack of musical or poetic talent.
For those unfamiliar with mumble rap, the name tells all: many mumble rap records feature lyrical delivery that is difficult to decipher at first, second, or third listen. The lyrics of Desiigner’s breakthrough hit “Panda” are most likely little-known by his fans or casual listeners alike. Even so, the song doesn’t fail at its goal to get people going. Some may attribute this hype to the song’s beat, and this is not to say that the production deserves no share of credit for the song’s intense energy, but the lyrical delivery is moreso key to the song’s success. Here, try it for yourself:
It’s easier to bounce with the beat than decipher the delivery, so, how does Desiigner command us so well with his verbals? The answer lies in defamiliarization, the practice of twisting language such that we can have a visceral understanding of it’s content, yet not be fully able to abstract and concretize its form or meaning (this is closely based off of Roman Jakobson’s definition of defamiliarization). Through his use of hard-to-comprehend delivery, Desiigner demands active listening. This is similar to the rhetorical practice of speaking lowly, a power-play sort of move that forces listeners to devote careful attention to the speaker. This delivery can also be heard on popular tracks like Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia”. This use of language engages listeners deeply. The charm to Desiigner’s delivery is not only in it’s meaningful decoherence; it is so closely fused to the song’s beat that it feels like an instrument of its own.
Another example of defamiliarization: a group also commonly described as “mumble rap”, Migos, uses a textbook definition example of defamiliarization in their popular track “Pipe It Up”. Without ever explicitly defining what it means to “pipe” something “up”, the Migos create a grandeur feeling of triumph, vitality, and lavishness; they use the language we do know to illustrate things we do not and take the words into directions not obvious for them to go in. And, just as with the three aforementioned tracks, “Pipe It Up” creates chaotic excitement, not despite but because of its incoherence.
It would be amiss to not recognize the many complex linguistic tools used by its artists to create complex and layered musical experiences. And while it may be true that some of these artists don’t pay full respects for their musical predecessors, I’d rather call mumble rap irreverent than irrelevant.

Before I wrote this, I read these:

Side notes: 1) The music videos for “Magnolia” and “XO Tour Llif3” resemble a visual form of defamiliarization. 2) If you like the video for “Magnolia”, I highly recommend the video of A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane”. Not relevant to this blog post, but still great. 3) Some of the lyrics in these songs are actually very clear and easy to hear. Maybe that makes us more curious to decipher the rest of them?