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The Big Apple’s B.I.G vacuum: How New York is reviving rap after its ‘90s heyday

New York City has been home to some of the most influential rappers since the "golden age" of hip-hop in the early 1990s.
New York City has been home to some of the most influential rappers since the "golden age" of hip-hop in the early 1990s.

There is no way to adequately explain what happened in the 1990s in New York. Rap, just getting its footing as a genre, exploded into a beautiful and raging fire. The English language was torn apart, reconstructed and repurposed dozens of times by dozens of titans. Each act was a character in a sprawling tapestry.

Over half of Billboard’s list of “Best Rappers of All Time,” published in 2015, hail from New York. There were the Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, two of the most ambitious and talented rap groups ever. Solo acts like Nas, Lauryn Hill, JAY Z, Rakim and Big L are undisputed legends and will be remembered for millennia. But, above them all towered the emperor, The Notorious B.I.G.

Biggie was a unifying force. His unequivocal swagger and lyrical dexterity was complemented by the most commanding voice of any rapper. He respected nothing, but was revered by all, a lion in a field of shrew. He was simply above, in a way that no longer exists, because on March 9, 1997, he was gunned down in Los Angeles.

He had no heir apparent, so New York rap was thrown into a dark age. The Wu continued to develop, and individual members continued successful solo careers and dropped classic tapes but lost the urgency that fraternity had gained them. JAY Z was locked into a Sisyphean cycle of critical acclamation and abhorrence. New York was, quite honestly, lost. The fire of the 1990s had lost its primary fuel source, and as it dwindled, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta each took their turns as rap’s capital.

It has now been over 22 years since Biggie’s death. Surely a city as prominent as New York would have made a full musical recovery by now and is once again dictating the sounds and styles of the whole game. Right?

Wrong. New York will never again be what it was for rap in the 1990s, when it was the genre’s largely undisputed epicenter. What it became is a land without law, without form. That legendary decade’s skeleton shrinks continuously, and those who refuse to abandon it are crushed and forgotten.

Joey Bada$$, the Flatbush Zombies, A$AP Rocky, Action Bronson and pretty much every name in New York started their careers by trying to resurrect the 1990s golden age of “boom-bap.” The form of boom-bap rap, named after its thundering bass and snare work, was pioneered and used to miraculous effect back then, but today, it sounds as dated as the gated reverb of the 1980s.

Further, lyricism has fallen out of favor. So the practiced, intellectual poetry that flooded the island is no longer viable, due to the modern dogma that prohibits songs longer than two minutes and ignores lyrics ill suited to being repurposed into Twitter bios.

Invariably, artists in the beginning of the 2010s were criticized for being either too New York (Bronson), or not New York enough (Rocky). Each realized, either with the aid of substances (namely LSD) or without, that they needed to evolve. Rocky went fully experimental, with his blatantly titled 2018 album “Testing,” the Zombies grew out of their acid obsession and ventured into trap, Joey Bada$$ more fully embodied Nas in his preachy but undeniably inspired sagas of street life, and Action Bronson now has three of four TV shows.

The stage is set for a Roaring ‘20s in New York. There was a nuclear explosion in the late ‘90s, the 2000s dealt with the fallout and the 2010s began to rebuild after so many years of desolation. In the last five years, emerging New York rappers have been trying a chameleonic strategy. 

Every subgenre of rap is now produced in the city, from 22Gz’s warmongering adaptation of Chief Keef’s Chicago drill, to JPEGMAFIA’s industrial revolution, making music that sounds like 40 different beats were spliced into one, with lyrics about anime and Macaulay Culkin. No matter the style of rap, an islander has nearly mastered it but is struggling to burst into the light.

An excitingly original style has escaped the island recently, pioneered by MIKE and Medhane. Their beats are disorienting, sounding wet somehow, like a live band played them in a studio located at the bottom of the Hudson River. The lyrics recall MF Doom in their seemingly careless but actually practiced delivery, and in their wondrous economy. Listening to this music is either a form of therapy (due to their personal and devastating subject matter) or an exercise in appreciation of how much information can be conveyed through rap. This style was scalped and brought into popular knowledge by Earl Sweatshirt, who collaborated with MIKE frequently to create his 2018 album “Some Rap Songs.”

The fallout from the ‘90s seeped into every orifice of the Big Apple, and its effects are demonstrating themselves more with each passing day. Radiation sickness has already killed the weak, and now we are beginning to hear the tremors, indicating how close Godzilla is to surfacing.

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