The merit of mumble rap has grown to become one of the most divisive topics in today’s hip-hop industry. Although some fight to fiercely protect the sanctity of rap as a voice for society’s marginalized groups, others agree that hip-hop has expanded to upbeat, pop-inspired production that serves to express artists’ bravado to the masses.
The term “mumble rap” was coined in 2011 to describe the slew of rap songs that started shifting to grittier production and simpler, incomprehensible lyrics. Some rap fans will remember Future indecipherably spitting the line “I do the whole dash, dropping all cash / Gutta to the death of me I’m sticking to the recipe” in his song “Tony Montana.” This appeared on “Pluto,” the album that supposedly kickstarted the emergence of the subgenre. Perhaps the most pertinent example is Desiigner’s “Panda,” a song so famously unintelligible that people can often only sing along to the title of the song.
Today, rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty and Playboi Carti represent the most prominent faces of this new subgenre.
Perhaps the only thing these rappers have in common besides their repeated overuse of the ad-lib “yeah” is their young age — Lil Uzi Vert is only 24 and Playboi Carti is only 22. Mumble rap may not even be the correct term to describe today’s top-selling songs that critics may argue are a reflection of the young generation’s laziness. Mumble rappers are often blamed for not putting enough effort into their music — perhaps we’re the ones that don’t want to put in the effort into deciphering the heavy lyricism. Some argue that mumble rap isn’t dumbing down audiences, rather it is a response to contemporary audiences that are demanding less nuance in the music they’re consuming.
Tristan Ziegler, a marketing coordinator at Sony Music Entertainment in New Orleans, believes that although the term “mumble rap” is overused, it deserves the same recognition as more traditional lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.
“I think mumble rap is absolutely a valid subgenre of rap,” Ziegler told WSN. “To me it is just another era in the evolution of the genre as a whole. I consider listening to Playboi Carti’s music as kind of my guilty pleasure. His confidence and ability to sound so nonchalantly powerful are what appeal to me. Young Thug is, to me, a musical and lyrical genius. His lyrics are a beautiful blend of bluntness and absurdity. His songs are so engaging and sound amazing.”
But is it fair to sweep all rappers we can’t understand into a broad category? Some musicians reject the term “mumble rap” for being overly reductive, belittling and even offensive. Although it’s easy for us to disregard the onset of fresh young rappers as untalented, there are plenty of successful rappers whose murmuring vocals have earned them Grammys. Kodak Black mumbles. So does Lil Wayne.
Wyatt Corder, previous music industry coordinator and leader, and trumpet player of the group “Big Wy’s Brass Band,” thinks the term ‘mumble rap’ is downright offensive.
“I don’t really like the term ‘mumble rap’ because it degrades an entire subgenre of music to an insult of the artists making the music,” Corder said to WSN. “To me it means this kind of anti-lyrical, overly produced, braggadocio-filled rap. But I consider mumble rap to be a subgenre of rap that deserves the same recognition. Emerging styles of music can sometimes be panned by critics and listeners alike. I think that’s where mumble rap is right now. It sounds rudimentary compared to guys like Kendrick, but it has its own flair and energy.”
Jamara Robinson, a hip-hop artist manager and marketer at Sony Music Entertainment also weighed in on the subject.
“I don’t think [mumble rappers] should receive the amount of harsh feedback that they do,” she said. “The criticism just reflects the close-mindedness of someone in terms of their music interests, ultimately blocking the evolution of the culture. People forget that there was a point in time where these artists aligned with the styles of older hip-hop artists.”
Perhaps mumble rap hasn’t been given its fair chance in the spotlight or adequate time to evolve. Rappers, music critics and industry executives were so quick to dismiss mumbling from the genre of true rap that perhaps newcomers like Trippie Redd and Lil Xan never had the time to show their colors.
So what do mumble rappers actually think of themselves? There will always be conflict over what constitutes true and authentic rap, as definitive boundaries between musical genres are becoming more and more blurred. To you, rap could signify oppression, liberation, the voice of a generation, but to someone else, it may just be the music they turn on on a Friday night. Since art is subjective, neither is invalid. The debate over mumble rap signals the much larger conversation asking us whether music is supposed to preserve its original form or serve as a mirror for today’s society.
As Lil Uzi Vert put it simply in an interview with XXL: “It’s just lit. It’s all about being lit.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 24 print edition. Email Ankita Bhanot at [email protected]