Lizzo, the Little Apple’s Big Star
Atlanta is a show of its time–smart, funny, cutting, created by black men, about black men. It’s also about the city of Atlanta, specifically the Atlanta rap industry. So it makes sense that the star and creator would shout out one of the hottest acts from that city. Atlanta is the gravitational center of rap. It wasn’t always this way, and it won’t always be this way, but right now the Atlanta music scene is the vanguard of mainstream hiphop. The trap sound that sprang out of the area is pervasive and the list of big-name trap rappers and their artistic offspring is extensive. This is not to downplay the influence of the city historically, but right now trap is piping hot.
Trap, in fact, was one of the primary ingredients in what, for many, was Chicago’s first nationally-recognized rap scene. Drill music is in some senses the hardcore to trap’s punk. That is, it represents a distillation of an aesthetic, boiled down into a jagged concentrate. Broadly speaking, drill shifted from trap’s focus on the cocaine trade, instead adopting a more nihilistic worldview of guns, sets, retribution, and True Religion jeans. And like Atlanta, the Chicago sound, as much as there is one, is equally a product of both the producers and the rappers themselves. In both cities, producers have become almost as visible as the MC’s, slapping their names onto the opening notes of songs like a clothing tag. Where Chicago has Young Chop, Atlanta has Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made It, Zaytoven, and London on Da Track.
From the jump, the rap industry has been atomized into different scenes, regional fiefdoms with largely distinct sounds, jargon, and identities. Of course, as with any attempt at classification, there are exceptions, cross-pollination, and outliers. But rap, perhaps more than other forms of popular music, has always had very identifiable geographic subsets.
New York, rap’s fertile crescent, for instance, has long been associated with a grimy, gritty, “hard” sound, prizing bravado and wordplay. Of course this is a grotesque oversimplification, and this sort of idiotic reductivism is part of what can start beef. New York media, unfortunately, is full of insufferable hiphop “purists”, which like purists in any other arena are the sort of backwards-looking asswipes who cluck at every new development beyond whatever happened when they were 17. These are the knuckleheads who whined about A$AP Rocky, because he was a New York dude with a Houston sound.
Texas is the Australia of American rap, with similar DNA but following a different evolutionary path, populating a landscape where the seats of your box Chevy are perpetually sticky from Gulf humidity. I’m not going to get into all that here, other than to say somewhere in the haze of the past there’s a common ancestor with L.A. rap. The City of Angels, it seems, is a world of swap meets, sticky green, and bad traffic. Whatever your opinion of gangsterism, there’s no denying that L.A. has left some huge footprints on popular music, certainly (perhaps unfairly) more so than their neighbors to the north in the Bay area.
There are pockets of rap all over the country (so many of which I just don’t have the room to talk about here), and the view from 20,000 feet shows us regional trends born of environmental and cultural peculiarities. How then, to explain the Minneapolis scene? Personally I’ve always been turned off by Twin Cities hip hop, finding it self-consciously wordy, too clever by half, maudlin, and largely humorless. It seems like the kind of place where MC’s comb through the fossils of rap in a lab coat, preparing for a lecture. Against this predisposition, it was with surprise and great pleasure that I stumbled across Lizzo.
Admittedly, I’m no MPLS rap expert, but to my ignorant ears, Lizzo seems like a truly modern rap star: a quiver of different flows, panoply of influences, and a heady mix of party anthems, socially conscious lyrics, braggadocio, and humility. She seems disconnected from geography without being disconnected from personality in a way we haven’t seen much. She’s not so much a product of where she’s from as who she is. I love the regional flavors of rap, but sometimes it’s nice to have a record that sits on the shelf by itself.
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