Eminem’s surprise 2018 album “Kamikaze” took the hip-hop world by storm. On tracks like “The Ringer,” he criticized “mumble rappers,” saying “I heard your mumblin’ but it’s jumbled in mumbo-jumbo / The era that I’m from will pummel you, that’s what it’s coming to.” Obviously no stranger to controversy — or rebelling against what is popular at the moment — Eminem repeats a point made by plenty of established “old heads” — the newer generation’s emphasis on melody and flow is taking away from the kind of lyrical craft that has always defined the best rappers. These critiques have some merit, but they’re largely sour grapes from artists who feel hip-hop has passed them by.
From 2 Live Crew to Digital Underground to Gucci Mane, many artists throughout hip-hop history have put vibe and rhythm ahead of lyrical complexity. A.D. Carson, assistant professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South, even sees similarities between the Sugarhill Gang and mumble rappers.
“Scooby-dee-bop bee-bop scooby-doo is not a sensical statement,” Carson said.
A more complex understanding of the history of hip-hop reveals a misplaced nostalgia for a time when the music was centered around lyricism. Yes, Eminem is perhaps the most commercially successful artist in rap history, but that has more to do with his race and his ability to capture the zeitgeist than with his rhyming. Artists who prioritize being “lit” over lyricism are nothing new.
In addition, there is something to be said for simplicity in music. There’s no reason to waste time explicating your feelings when a hard beat and some simple lyrics will do. In this way, mumble rap and punk rock are kin — both rebelling against conceptual excesses by boiling songs down to their emotional essence.
There certainly is no distinct political ethos to mumble rap. “It would seem … that they are doing a very punk thing or a very hip-hop thing when they say we’re not going to do the thing our elders did,” Carson said.
Arnav Boppudi, a third-year College student and artist, also drew parallels between the two movements.
“Punk kids, they’re outcasts,” Boppudi said. “I feel like a lot of these Soundcloud artists and people who are on Soundcloud looking for music are outcasts too.”
Despite mumble rap’s commercial viability, there’s a definite countercultural element to it. Lil Uzi Vert, for example, is described by his Spotify account as a “rapper who grew up on the beats of Marilyn Manson and Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak.” Uzi’s emo aesthetic, gruff yelping vocals and bubblegum pop beats are groundbreaking for hip-hop.
In a genre that tends to prize rhythm, flow and lyricism, Uzi’s attention to melody exemplifies the divide between “mumble rappers” and old-school artists. Carson compared him to Tupac, the ultimate sacred cow of old heads.
“We hear [Tupac] rail against De La Soul in the same way that you might hear Lil Uzi Vert say ‘I’m not gonna rap to one of them old beats,” Carson said. “Some might say that that’s sacrilegious to compare Lil Uzi Vert and Tupac. But I think it’s a fair comparison in the way people treat the things they’re doing in pop culture.”
Lil Uzi Vert may not have the same outsize impact on hip-hop that Tupac did, but he is pushing the genre forward in a similar way.
Uzi Vert is also a fine example of the limitations of the term mumble rap. His music, which draws so heavily from rock artists like Manson, has too many diverse features to be pigeonholed into one genre — particularly one with a derogatory connotation like mumble rap. Because mumble rap is a term applied to this style by outsiders, it becomes problematic.
“It’s weird that folks who are outside of the culture categorize what it’s going to be called,” Carson said. “I think it’s meant to call those people something that is derogatory, and then what happens is that people transform it and make it into … a banner they fly proudly.”
Although Lil Uzi Vert has identified himself as a mumble rapper, he likely does so in order to reclaim that term from those who mean it derogatorily.
All this isn’t to say that lyricism isn’t important in hip-hop. It certainly is, and some rap artists will always carry that torch. But the artists who diss mumble rappers seem unaware that many of the same complaints about the new ways musicians are doing things were lobbed at their generation.
“This is history rhyming with itself,” Carson said.
When hip-hop was a new art form, many in the musical establishment discounted it as not being real music, and now people like Eminem are falling into the same trap. Those who redefine the creative boundaries of music provoke reaction because what is new and disruptive will always irritate those who represent the status quo. By taking care to introduce historical context and consider artists on their own terms, the musical community can grow and become more inclusive.