You have likely heard of the term “mumble rap,” and even if you have not heard of the term, you have definitely heard the music. The YouTube comments under many classic rap songs would lead you to believe that “mumble rap” is some sort of malignant tumor, hellbent on destroying the sacred hip-hop of the past. The truth is quite the opposite—mumble rap has enriched hip-hop much, much more than it has harmed it.
What we know as “mumble rap,” “SoundCloud rap,” or “melodic rap” is actually too diverse to be pigeonholed into just one category. The one unifying factor is the emphasis on melody, emotion, and effects like auto-tune, rather than on the lyricism associated with rappers of old. Mumble rap, just like more “traditional” hip-hop, can be uplifting, tragic, and fun. It is a fresh take on hip-hop, a new way for artists (overwhelmingly young people of colour) to express themselves. Artists commonly labeled as mumble rappers include Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Future, and Young Thug.
Unfortunately, this new style has been met with harsh criticism from the “old guard” of the hip-hop culture. Eminem, a legendary figure in hip-hop, took aim at mumble rappers on his track “The Ringer,” rapping, “I heard your mumbling but it’s jumbled in mumbo-jumbo.”
Funkmaster Flex, the host of the tenured Hot 97 radio station, declared that “mumble rappers are finished” while insulting stereotypical mumble rappers Bow Wow and Lil Yachty. Even back in 2009, Jay-Z railed against auto-tune on a track called—wait for it—”Death of Auto-Tune” (Clearly, auto-tune outlived its prognosis).
It’s not hard to see why the old guard is so upset about mumble rap. Older generations have always been resistant to whatever young people are doing. Thousands of years ago, even Aristotle complained about how young people “think they know everything.” To artists like Eminem, “mumble rap” is an insult to the culture of hip-hop that they helped form. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Mumble rap isn’t degeneration—it’s evolution.
What we see in mumble rap is music that pushes the boundaries of a genre. The melodies and emotions associated with it allow artists to express themselves sincerely and powerfully. Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” is a prime example of this, a depressing breakup song with undertones of suicidal ideation. When he croons, “I might blow my brains out” and sings, “All my friends are dead / Push me to the edge,” it’s an emotional experience that would be impossible under the restrictions of “old-school” hip-hop. There is also a surprising amount of introspection in mumble rap: Future’s “Perkys Calling” is a tragedy about his losing battle with addiction. He laments how all of his material wealth means nothing to him under the shadow of hard drugs, all while slurring as if he had taken the drugs right before recording. It’s terrifying, but you can’t help but nod your head to the beat.
That being said, mumble rap is not just rappers singing about life gone wrong—it is also often good music to lift one’s spirits. Playboi Carti’s music is not terribly deep, with most of his lyrics being “Huh?” and “What?”, but there is something hypnotic about Carti’s simplicity that drives any crowd into a frenzy. Young Thug and Gunna’s triumphant anthem “Hot” can make anyone feel on top of the world, even though they likely cannot understand half of what is being said. Simply put, playing 21 Savage at a party will get a much more positive reception than playing some Pete Rock deep cuts.
We should not stifle the creativity of this new wave of hip-hop. They are pushing the envelope in ways that musicians of the past never could have imagined. It is true: mumble rap is new, and new things can often be scary. But just because Migos exists does not mean that Tupac and Biggie stopped existing. If mumble rap is not your cup of tea, simply change the channel, and let the new generation have their music.
And if you are really that concerned about not being able to understand them, just Google the lyrics.