What Ever Happened to Pop-Rap?

What Ever Happened to Pop-Rap?

Pop-rap’s past, present and future collided at the American Music Awards in 2012, when three bastions of hip-hop breeziness took the stage in a cultural moment dislocated from time. Beaming with excitement, Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am — best known for helming the group’s early 2000s party cuts (“Let’s Get It Started”) and mild forays into social consciousness (“Where Is the Love?”) — introduced a mash-up between his spiritual predecessor and successor: MC Hammer injecting his 1991 hit “2 Legit 2 Quit” into Psy’s then-recent, billion-streamed international smash, “Gangnam Style.” Sure, the performance itself felt like a viral-bait stunt. But the concept was intriguing. In five minutes, the AMAs underlined just how far pop-rap had evolved.

MC Hammer didn’t invent pop-rap — he just magnified what people loved (and loathed) about it: the sing-along choruses, the squeaky-clean lyrics and an overall brightness in sound and image. Parents horrified by the profanity of 2 Live Crew’s Banned in the U.S.A.the first album to feature the now-signature “Parental Advisory” sticker — didn’t have to worry about Hammer’s harmless flexing on “U Can’t Touch This” or the Christian devotion within “Pray.” Those songs appear on his second major-label record, 1990’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em, which carried on the lighthearted lineage of artists like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who won the Grammys’ first Best Rap Performance award for 1988’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” For a brief period, Hammer was hip-hop’s love-to-hate-him king, described by Rolling Stone as “America’s most popular rapper.”

Part of a crop of similarly toned hits including Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” Hammer’s tidal wave of success opened the floodgates for other pop-rap touchstones: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s dance-floor ode “Good Vibrations,” the tweenage boasts of Kris Kross’ “Jump,” Skee-Lo’s relatable self-deprecation on “I Wish.” Even rappers with a bit more edge, if not exactly street cred, were reveling in this more melodic, mainstream-oriented strain of rap. If parents overlooked the obvious sexual overtones of Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.” and focused on the silky call-and-response chorus, they found a perfect boombox soundtrack for their summer barbecues. After some light radio editing, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” was tailor-made to be boomed through NBA arenas during time-outs. Coolio fused the gritty themes of gangsta rap with a playful G-funk bounce on “Fantastic Voyage.”

Pop-rap’s influence still lingers in the 21st century, though the genre’s parameters aren’t as clearly defined. The Black Eyed Peas were the most obvious practitioners, wringing out every ounce of campiness from will.i.am’s party-guy lyrics. But in 2020, hip-hop and pop have essentially fused into a new form of pop music altogether. It’s no longer novel for a rapper to pipe in a vocal hook, or to sing one themselves (with or without Auto-Tune). When Rae Sremmurd declared themselves “Black Beatles” on that hypnotic 2016 hit, it was a prescient description. As record sales prove, the Next Great Pop Band doesn’t have to play a guitar or drum kit — just ask K-pop megastars BTS, who paid homage to the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan breakthrough on Colbert, and whose genre blend continues to feature plenty of hip-hop.

Even if the term “pop-rap” feels anachronistic in 2020, the label conjures a distinctly clean, Hammer-flavored form of hip-hop that feels extinct. Profanity is an almost inextricable element of modern rap, a part of its speech on par with nouns and verbs. Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” the No. 9 entry on Billboard’s 2019 year-end chart, is fairly light on curse words, but it still boasts over a dozen. We either have to readjust our definition of “family-friendly” rap or dig deeper for it.

Some mainstream rappers have gone “clean” in their lyrics for either religious purposes or general wokeness. Christian rapper Lecrae’s 2014 LP, Anomaly, topped the Billboard 200 and gospel charts. And given Kanye West’s recent shift to gospel-rap, it’s possible these two worlds will continue to intersect. Other prominent emcees, like Common and Rapsody, are guided by a sense of virtue. They explore serious social issues in their music, and while the mood isn’t always “kid-friendly” in the textbook sense, they rap with a rare level of wisdom that can serve to enrich a far-ranging audience.

It’s likely no rapper has appealed to a wider demographic of people with one song than Lil Nas X. But is it even a rap song? And is he even a rapper? Lil Nas X dominated last year’s Billboard singles charts with the remix of “Old Town Road,” a fusion of rap swagger, a country hook, a Billy Ray Cyrus cameo and a banjo sampled from a Nine Inch Nails song. The track transcended genre but also age — when a retooled version appeared on the children’s music compilation Kidz Bop, hardly a lyric was changed.

In May 2019, Lil Nas X dropped by a small Ohio elementary school to surprise the students with a rendition of “Old Town.” In an expression of unfiltered joy, the children lost their shit — err, minds — and screamed along to every word.

Ryan Reed is a Knoxville-based writer, editor, professor and record collector with regular bylines at Rolling StoneRelixUltimate Classic Rock and Revolver. He’s also contributed to BillboardPitchforkStereogumEsquire and Salon, among other outlets.

Image: MC Hammer on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1990. Credit: Paul Natkin/Wire Image.

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