In the 1990s, especially, flow was everything. Hip-hop had not yet fully embraced R&B, and liquidity and inventiveness were prized — how you rapped was as important as what you rapped about. The full absorption of melody into the genre in the 2000s and early 2010s de-emphasized complexity. And lately, there has been a growing move away from melody, heard in rappers like 21 Savage, and also in the rising generation of SoundCloud rappers, who rhyme, or sometimes scream, in punk-like bursts.
Much of the time, 21 Savage feels decidedly anti-flow — he sounds as if he were laying bricks atop a flower bed. That resistance to the genre’s longstanding norms feels disorienting — not a new paradigm but a provocative one. And it is the opposite of the approach taken by, say, his fellow Atlanta star Young Thug, who is pure flow, though not in the golden-age, New York-centric sense of the term. Young Thug’s contribution has been to detach syllables from words, sounds from syllables; 21 Savage’s is to snarl, then disappear.
He has one contemporary, though, in the continuing unraveling of hip-hop’s flow patterns: Playboi Carti, another Atlanta rapper with an unorthodox approach to piecing words together into something that approximates verses. Their methods are complementary: 21 Savage starts lines but doesn’t see a need to finish them, and Playboi Carti picks and chooses which parts of a line he wants to show up for, often seemingly at random.
Playboi Carti’s self-titled major-label debut album, which was released in April, is erratic, sometimes transfixingly so. It spawned “Magnolia,” one of the summer’s undeniable hits, a song that feels less rapped than accidentally mentioned. “No. 9” feels like pure free association, with a pattern — word, space, word, space, and so on — that’s either elegantly minimal, or cheekily underfed.
Thanks to punchy rappers like Migos and woozy shriekers like Lil Uzi Vert, ad-libs — interjections, echoes, barks — have become as essential to hip-hop as the main lyrics. They serve as palate cleansers and easy points of reference and engagement.
Playboi Carti’s album takes hip-hop’s ad-lib era to its logical extreme — everything sounds like an ad-lib, even the main lyrics. (One internet user isolated all of the album’s true ad-libs into a stand-alone track that runs 15 minutes.) With everything so detached, narrative is almost nonexistent: Some tracks, like “Lookin,” throb with a chaotic jaggedness that calls to mind Karlheinz Stockhausen’s tape-splicing experiments. In hip-hop, flow has long been a skill but also an ordering system. In hip-hop’s next wave, though, it’s hard to know what’s up or down, front or back.
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