It took some years for Atlanta to find its own voice in hip hop amid the dominance of the country’s rival coasts. Even the headmasters of the Atlanta school of rap, Outkast, borrowed styles from its LA and NYC deans before it branched out on its own,* ultimately crafting an arguably more evolving and vibrant hip hop scene than any place in the country.
Of course, hip hop is but an extension of other Black music traditions, and early on, part of what led to the West Coast’s unique sound was the influence of funk music. And funk music influenced Outkast. Outkast’s Aquemini, the classic, phenomenal follow up to the group’s debut stands right at the intersection of when Atlanta was still embracing this adopted Cali sound and New York flows, yet separating itself with an Southern aesthetic and sending the clear message that the “South had something to say.” And say it we have. Whether spoken in crunk, trap, snap, straight giberrish (lookin at you Wayne), screwed or chopped, we’ve not only been talking but have gotten other people in the conversation.
Thinking about where Atlanta came from (i.e. boos at the Source awards), it’s fascinating to see the current state of hip hop: swaggering, syrupy melodies, drawls and inflected accents, and simplistic dance (and stripper friendly) lyricism infiltrate the style of rappers everywhere from D.C to Chicago to L.A to Toronto (I wonder who that could be). I made a mental note of this countrifriedication of hip hop before (i.e how Wale blew up after his decidedly more southun collabo and flow on Waka Flocka’s “No Hands”) but it was in listening to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.a.ad city that it hit home. And in some sort of strange twist, the album was an example of the west coast borrowing southern shit that we borrowed from the west coast.
Lamar’s vivid concept album very much reminded me of Outkast’s penchant for storytelling– his track “The Art of Storytelling” clearly served to shout out his predecessors. There’s a laid back groove throughout the first half or so and an authenticity replete with religious references and old folks’ wisdom that, when you put it all together, feel like straight country shit.
However, while ample parts of m.a.a.d city may transport you to late 90s Outkast greatness, those grooves could very well be attributed to Dr. Dre’s mid 90s funk happy production, which in turn borrowed from the South’s own George Clinton. Without a doubt, the Southern influences of the album are merely a feature of a body of work that takes bits of pieces of hip hop from all over (and other Black musical traditions) and laces it throughout. It’s Lamar’s very ability to transcend regions that has won him tri-coastal devotees.
So until Outkast comes out with another banger, since Tupac can only come back in hologram form, and who knows what Kanye’s life is about anymore, Kendrick is a worthy mantle bearer to keep hip hop alive and feed us this melting pot of multi-region goodness.
* Insert continuation of my corny school metaphor here, with some cliche about the students becoming the teachers.