By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson
Is there really a war on happy rap? Not exactly. I’d argue there is an ongoing love-hate relationship looming over Hip-Hop Atlanta and Hip-Hop New York.
Enter Miles McCollum, aka Lil Yachty. Like many of his predecessors in Southern rap, he is the scapegoat for the times. In a series of interviews, conversations, and viral videos I have witnessed up-top hip-hoppers damn near crucify the 19-year old “happy trapper” in the name of “preserving” hip-hop.
The most recent example was a heated exchange between McCollum and “Pump It Up” rapper and former “Love and Hip-Hop New York” reality show star Joe Budden. On “Everyday Struggle,” the online show he hosts with DJ Akademiks, Budden challenged McCollum on a few topics, including how happy the red-headed pop star is right now and how his music reflects a feel-good party vibe for his fans to enjoy.
Why is this a problem? Didn’t hip-hop start out as party music to shake off the psychological strains brought on from racial and economic oppression? We didn’t get social commentary in raps until 1982. But I digress…
Blogs and online zines had a field day critiquing this 30-minute exchange. Like many of us, I was introduced to the interview through an edited video of Yachty telling Budden to “chiiiillll…,” as if to say, “Dude, don’t come ’cross this table on me. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Budden was out of line. He bombarded the young’n with what I thought were personal questions about his label business. After watching the full video and reading the perspectives of popular bloggers and music journalists, I took the critique of the McCollum/Budden interaction a step further. I wondered if Budden was frustrated by Lil Yachty proclaiming his right to happiness, or if this was another example of a long-simmering frustration against the music and culture pushed out of Atlanta.
Their back-and-forth is the latest and most obvious case where we see lines crossed and blurred, signaling a subtle tension between hip-hoppers in different geographic regions that might matter more than any conflict between rappers of different generations.
The love-hate relationship between the creatives from New York and Atlanta isn't a new one.
Lil Jon went through it in 2003 as crunk culture rose to stardom. Remember his Eastside Boyz? They caught all types of hell for having names like (Big) Sam and (Lil) Bo. Then, there was D4L and the taste-the-rainbow-flavor of such snap songs as their chart-topping "Laffy Taffy." They got laughed at and criticized, too. And who can forget the infamous Source Awards ceremony of 1995 that introduced Outkast to the rest of the world, as they were booed by rappers from outside the South.
Two dudes from Atlanta literally forced the compass to tilt towards a city dripping in social, political, and cultural capital, as NPR Music writer Rodney Carmichael put it.
Surely, Atlanta has had its share of identity challenges. Some are self-inflicted. However, the children of the city who have cultivated location-specific trap sounds and ideologies have historically been laughed at, mocked, and simultaneously documented by various media who have no real stake in Southern (hip-hop) culture.
Any music born out of Atlanta with no clear NYC influence is often met with criticism from self-proclaimed gatekeepers of all things hip-hop. The proliferation of trap has done nothing else but turned these sentiments on their head – particularly since most of these purists have long followed a New York-centric master narrative for describing, and therefore judging, what hip-hop is and where it comes from. As I continued to watch the video, I found myself asking myself if this interview was really about Yachty or if it was yet another opportunity to pounce on the hip-hop coming out of the South. Yachty was simply an easy target. I’d argue it is mostly the latter.
First, he's nineteen. Second, he comes from a family of artistic and creative privilege. His father and grandfather are both well-known photojournalists. Third, he was raised in a middle-class suburban environment. He ain't never sold no dope or shot nobody, and his happy, fun, party-centric music reflects it. Lastly, he made a song, put it on SoundCloud, it blew up, and caught the attention of Kanye West and management at Quality Control Music (QC). Kanye hired Yachty as a model in the 2015 Yeezy Season fashion show at Madison Square Garden. QC signed Yachty, took him to Capitol Records, and the rest is fantastical history. He has endorsement deals with Sprite and Target, and has been named creative director for the fashion brand Nautica. He, along with Migos and others, were fashion staples at this year's Met Ball, and one week from today, he will release his first studio album, “Teenage Emotions.” The most important word here is "teenage."
I believe Yachty is the lowest hanging fruit for those with a subconscious frustration against a Southern geographic community that, over the last two decades, has produced leaders in the transglobal export of hip-hop culture. These leaders nurtured a millennial generation that is maintaining the position.
“I’m a big fan of self-deprecation,” Budden condescendingly remarked when Yachty responded to DJ Akademiks’ question about gaining access to the Met Ball.
“You gotta be somebody,” Yachty joked. Akademiks got the joke. Budden didn’t, which was his first mistake.
Hip-hop isn’t a culture built on undervaluing oneself. It’s a culture designed around the authentic celebration of self and others. Budden clearly wanted to set the tone of the conversation and put Yachty “in his place.” Yachty just nodded nonchalantly, said, “Oh, OK,” and continued to drink whatever was in his white coffee cup. At several points, Budden damn near jumps ’cross the table on Lil Boat. Why? Because the Atlanta-based rapper did not answer Budden’s questions the way Budden thought he should.
New York arrogance or OG concern?
As far as I’m concerned, Yachty is “keepin’ it real.” Is this not the most policed ideal of the culture? Anything other than gets one shamed out of the culture, right?
The geographic disconnect forces hip-hop as a global culture to wallow in an ongoing identity crisis that it should long since have passed. Questions about how one practices and performs the cultural lifestyle are typically measured against a jaded authenticity rubric that polices realness according to "standards." You must know the history, the date when Biggie released “Ready to Die,” who Lauryn Hill was talking about in "Ex Factor," or how long it took Tupac to write “Me Against the World.” Oh, and I forgot about the expectation that every rapper should be able to freestyle on the spot! (Commences to the eye roll.)
These are unrealistic expectations to place on a culture whose primary ideal is knowledge of self. So, how much of a hypocrite does one become when interrogating, for example, the album cover of Yachty’s “Teenage Emotions,” which celebrates inclusion based strictly on being yourself. Wasn't it the fake-fake that got Vanilla Ice and Iggy Azalea tossed out the culture? So, why is there such aggression toward young men who, for better or worse, are performing their authentic selves. Yachty is happy. Is happy not something African-American, first-gen hip hoppers want passed down, along with the success, money, opportunity, and ability to provide for their families?
I wonder what the conversation would have consisted of if Lil Boat was out here rhyming ’bout gun violence, how much lean he consumed, or "how many bitches he screwed" on tour. Would he be authentic then? Would the Joe Buddens of hip-hop be happy then? I think not.
I can hear it now.
The Joe Buddens: What do you want from hip-hop?
The Yachtys: I want to be happy.
The Joe Buddens: Happy??? You Southerners are always showing teeth. There's no happy in hip-hop.
Of course, the saga will continue, and Lil Yachty has unjustly become the fall guy for all things wrong with hip-hop right now. The issue no one wants to discuss is still the geographic disconnection — the 20-year "civil war" between Northern heads and Southern trappers.
I am reminded of the eloquent words of the late Pimp C: “This ain't no fuckin’ hip-hop records. These country rap tunes.”
Pimp C, half of the Texas hip-hop duo UGK, spoke these words in 2001 on a song called "Let Me See It," from the album “Dirty Money.” When that record was released, Southern hip-hop was gaining ground in the race for industry notoriety. Two years later, TI dropped “24s,” Lil Jon was the King of Crunk, and Jeezy was the “Snowman.” The South was on top.
New York rappers like Joe Budden were forced to pivot when the world began celebrating our “country rap tunes.” Their disdain hasn't gotten them anywhere. Nor, evidently, has it gone away. But you have to respect Yachty, who — even while enjoying transglobal success — feels the need to engage in what I would classify as futile conversations.
The issue ain't Yachty. Just like the issue wasn't Lil Jon 15 years ago.