The Rise of Meme Culture in Rap

Mateus takes a look at the ever growing 'meme culture' present in today's Hip Hop

In April of this year, Kanye West released the track ‘Lift Yourself’. The lyrics “Poopy-di-scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” soon became an internet meme. Kanye, a well-established musician with well over a decade of work up his sleeve, just risked humiliating himself for the sake of a comedic throwaway track. But maybe this ‘reckless decision’ is more calculated than we think…

Kanye’s viral nature on social media can be traced back to his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards. In late 2013, he appeared on radio show Sway In The Morning, and his passionate exclamation “You ain’t got the answers, Sway!” quickly gained traction as a meme.

Soon Kanye West became seen more and more as an unhinged, yet wildly entertaining, individual.

He further enhanced this appeal by declaring himself to be a ‘God’, and in 2018 claiming that he and Donald Trump share a ‘dragon energy’, creating more public discussion. Conveniently, this happened right before his album release cycle began.

Kanye tapped into a new absurd section of the public spotlight, and although he seems mentally a bit off-the-rails, I do think he grasps the workings of celebrity culture, and the theory that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Therefore it wasn’t too shocking when, a couple of months ago, Kanye West dropped the music video for the song ‘I Love It’, which he recorded with Lil Pump. The ridiculous lyrics and video soon becoming viral memes.

“There’s a self-aware yet persistent nature to their ludicrousness”

Pump, one of the children of the SoundCloud ‘mumble rap’ generation, has built his career largely out of short and aggressively comical songs, with his outrageous lyrics serving as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to attract more attention. There’s a self-aware yet persistent nature to their ludicrousness.

Though only properly mainstream now, the origins of ‘meme rap’ can be traced back years, the most important source being Lil B. From wearing a woman’s dress in interviews to having hilarious song names such as ‘I’m Miley Cyrus’, B has been cited by many modern SoundCloud rappers as a huge influence.

This incorporation of ‘trolling’ in building an individual’s brand can be seen prominently nowadays in New York rapper 6ix9ine. Initially, his rainbow-coloured hair, wild tattoos and shouting style of rap was laughed at and seen as a joke.

Regardless, he soon escalated the charts and became almost universally known.

His strange appearance and abrasive songs, with their intoxicating blend of humour and violence, tapped into the conscience, and market, of his young fans.

6ix9ine has even mocked his own fame, explaining how though he may put zero effort into his lyrics, his records still sell.

His purposely comedic posts on social media only furthered his appeal, and soon he had formed his own catchphrases, which have become huge publicity generators, such as “STOOPID”, now the name of a song feauting Bobby Shmurda, yet another individual whose career has been kept alive because of his enduring exposure in memes.

These viral ‘meme’ videos are also often converted into very effective promotional resources. Drake, for example, made good use of the viral trend of comedian Shiggy’s dance challenge to his song ‘In My Feelings’, which not only put the track on the map, but also saved Drake’s public image from a recent feud with Pusha-T. Rappers are now intentionally using these meme-able videos to generate more media attention and general anticipation for their to-be-released songs: such was the case for Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘New Patek’ and Kodak Black’s ‘ZEZE’.

“There are some dangers to this often cartoonish wave”

Since hip-hop is now arguably the most popular mainstream music genre, its listeners are becoming ever younger, and it makes sense that these artists, with their unique styles and looks, will appeal to this new market.

There are some dangers to this often cartoonish wave: J. Cole notes in his song ‘1985’ that these kids might grow with a distorted image of what rap fundamentally is, and what its general message consist of, be it political, social or otherwise.

Ironically, this song, along with J. Cole’s decision to meet Lil Pump and mention 6ix9ine on Twitter, helped gain a new, younger following for the veteran rapper. Lil Pump soon changed his mocking catchphrase of ‘F*ck J. Cole’ to ‘F*ck Russ’, referring to another more serious rapper who is often subject to internet scrutiny.

Many artists have capitalised on the commercial viability of viral comedy-based marketing, and are now making a fortune. But as Cole notes in his song, this might mean a short-term success. Once this trend washes over, once these kids grow up, the music may be forgotten, and several rappers along with it.

I recently had the chance to see Lil Pump perform live, and though the show was short-lived, it was an unforgettable experience. An adrenaline rush, chaotic and liberating, filled with moshpits and comradery from fellow fans. Pump, like 6ix9ine, or any of the other rappers within this new framework, should not be dismissed as ‘talentless’.

The reason why older rappers are collaborating with these ‘meme rappers’ is because they have their own, individually recognisable sound and appeal. Although they can often be held back by their destructive actions and their repercussions, they have helped rejuvenate hip-hop, understanding the art of the performance, and creating an exhilarating atmosphere with their simplistic yet exciting music.

“However filled with conflict and rivalries, hip-hop can come together as a community and embrace its various different styles and attitudes”

This punk-esque revival of the genre has injected a renewed energy into it, an exciting breath of fresh air: new sounds, and an ability to not take oneself too seriously, hence its obsession with memes and comedy.

In essence, the fact that a Kanye West can collaborate with a Lil Pump, or 50 Cent can collaborate with 6ix9ine should not be frowned upon: it should be celebrated. It shows that however filled with conflict and rivalries, hip-hop can come together as a community and embrace its various different styles and attitudes, however outlandish they may seem, and this is perhaps the only way that it can move forward as a genre and a culture into the future.

Mateus de Sá

Featured Image courtesy of U2Soul via Flickr.

Image use licence here.

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