Kid Ink And The Future Of Hip-Hop

Jan 10 2014, 12:18pm CST | by

Kid Ink And The Future Of Hip-Hop

I came upon Kid Ink’s My Own Lane by accident, or more accurately, through an experiment: the plan was to take one of 2014′s first major label releases and analyze what, if anything, it said about changing trends in the world of pop. My Own Lane dropped three days ago, on January 7th, so it fit the bill.

Now, some full disclosure: Before listening to My Own Lane, I knew nothing of Kid Ink. You could see this as a hindrance—how could anyone analyze anything without knowing the context?—but in this case, ignorance just might have proven advantageous: I might not know Kid Ink, but I do have a working knowledge his contemporaries; a lack of preconceived notions makes contextualizing the artist a more objective exploit.

So let’s take a look at contemporary Hip Hop: the last three years have seen some stark changes—last summer alone saw two broad artistic statements by stalwart artists: on the one hand, Jay Z returned to a simpler 90’s orientation with Magna Carta Holy Grail; on the other, the mad genius Kanye West succumbed even farther to his own madness (or genius, depending on how you look it at) with the brash and unexpectedly cerebral Yeezus, its production choices filled with stark contrasts and odd-ball choices, its lyrics bringing the art of the rap simile to a new, over-the-top level.

The last few years also saw influence coming from underground wellsprings—Odd Future broke out not only into the mainstream, but into the rarified pages of the New Yorker; one of its members, Frank Ocean, released a record that helped put a much-needed bullet in the head of any singer who phoned in his autotuned vocal over a boring old chord progression (Drake, I can thank you never).

Also, we saw the main stream acceptance of Macklemore, and the themes of acceptance he espoused himself in songs like “Same Love”.

Of course, this is a reductive view. Many more artists played a part in shaping middle-of-the-road Hip-Hop. But my reduction serves a point: these artists defined the sonic palette of the year that was—the year that gave Beyonce confidence to abandon a song half way through and follow it in a completely different direction; the year that gave Kid Ink the space to figure out which lane he should be cruising in.

For My Own Lane is a mess of an album, weaving in and out of sub-genres like a drunk driver tackling the 405 at three in the morning. It comes off enjoyably frenetic in some places and laboriously dull in others, but that’s not the point. What’s interesting about My Own Lane is how, exactly, it has digested its influences, and how it signals sonic changes for 2014.

Let’s start with what’s absent: gone are the stagnant, teenybopper harmonies that have dominated Hip-Hop ever since T.I. drawled “you could have whatever you like” over the same chords as Avril Levigne’s “Complicated”. Instead, Kid Ink’s producers have been given more room to be harmonically creative, fashioning dynamic chord movement within songs like “I Don’t Care” or “No Option”.

Likewise, the ubiquitous four on the floor rhythms a rapper like Pitbull favors are gone—except for when they are cleverly inverted: “My System” sports the familiar dancehall pounding, but puts that constant beat on the snare, rather than the kick, subverting the whole song from a dance to a march.

It’s not the only such inversion. In contrast to the governing philosophy of giving the chorus your all, “Star Player” does the opposite, dropping nearly everything but the voice and a threadbare drum pattern. A song like “Bad Ass” seems to dialogue with an earlier version of itself—one minute we’re assaulted with the dirty south 808s, the next the beat goes foggier, skinnier. It’s a move Kanye could appreciate—he issued his own back-and-forth between styles in “On Sight.”

Throughout the album, we see the influences of the last three years literally fading into the background: the tubular bell-like synths Stargate peppered all over “Black and Yellow” and Kayne lent to “N*ggas in Paris” do indeed appear, but in phasey, ghostly ways—flanged, drenched in reverb, lowered in volume. It’s as if we’re listening to the past becoming the past in real time.

So what of the future? What does this album say about that? The answer lies not just in the blending of sub-genres, or the exploration of fresher harmonies, or the willingness to change the direction of a tune mid course (as in “More than a King”, which goes from Dirty South to NYC rainy day Hip-Hop in three and a half minutes). The answer lies predominantly in the architecture of My Own Lane’s production.

Not long ago, the sonic necessities of Hip-Hop used to be so rigid that they elicited something like derision amongst the pro-audio community. Common belief held that Hip-Hop mixing was simple: crank up the sub-bass, push the vocals all the way forward, and damn everything else to hell.

Do a quick search on a pro-audio forum like Gearslutz and you’ll easily find threads entitled “engineers don’t get respect in Hip-Hop” and blanket statements like “Hip-Hop is like fast food. 9 out of 10 artists don’t care about anything technical.”

But with this record, we see that a new aural paradigm for Hip-Hop production has been established, and firmly too: beats have been allowed to become thinner (both in frequency and in stereo-scope). They’re now much less predictable as well. The sparseness of recent mid-tempo Hip-Hop seems to have gone out of fashion here—the producers have packed all sorts of goodies into the peripheries of your headphones: staccato pops of autotuned vocals distorted into resembling electric guitars (“Iz U Down”); guitars themselves processed out of recognition and panned hard left, occasionally blurring into reverse (“No Miracles”). Indeed, affected guitars—as opposed to the ironic guitars of a song like Lil Wayne’s “Prom Queen”—are making a comeback in this music.

All of this points to a new freedom for producers of Hip-Hop and R&B. If My Own Lane  proves anything, it’s that the constraints are loosening. They’re still there of course—I’m guessing no one will have a mainstream hit sampling Conlon Nancarrow any time soon—but in 2014 there is more room than ever before for  risk in the mainstream. It might just be thanks to you, the listener. Keep doing your job, and more interesting music will follow.

Source: Forbes Business


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