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Now They Do What They Want

2016 was the year rap’s new generation made maddening, beautiful noise

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” — George Orwell, a really long time ago

The Oklahoma City Thunder had two of the best five players on the face of the planet last season. Kevin Durant was uncomplicatedly brilliant, while Russell Westbrook was brilliantly complicated, often infuriating, and out of place in this era of the NBA in which everything is broken down to its parts, quantified, and collated.

The Thunder couldn’t find a way to make it work. Durant left Westbrook and OKC for the land of automated Google buses and bearded white dudes making tacos. He joined a Golden State team on which people passed first, and a culture in which everyone was encouraged to hang out and do team-bonding shit on off-days. Durant found what he was looking for. I’m somewhere between Denial and Anger in my grieving process, but Westbrook has been over it. Much was made of how, less than a month after Durant’s departure, Westbrook was well past Acceptance, giddy at the prospect of having his own team.

How do I know this? I mean, come on: Once Durant was gone, Westbrook scream-sang Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want” in his car.

When the commercial for Westbrook’s new signature Nike shoe dropped on the opening night of the 2016–17 season, a goofy selfie video snowballed into a damn near full-on zeitgeist. The response to Westbrook Hitting Dem Folk with joyous abandon to an Uzi song on national television was pretty unambiguous: Russ is the captain now, we are Doing This, No Parents, KD Sucks.

“Do What I Want” is from Uzi’s The Perfect Luv Tape, his second 2016 release after the equally goo-goo-eyed Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World, and his third overall since breaking through with 2015’s Luv Is Rage. Thematically, all of his projects — with exception of his recent collaborative effort with Gucci Mane, 1017 vs. the World — center around love. While Frank Ocean dives into love’s elusiveness, its complexities, its bleary promise, Uzi is at ease circling around the idea, doodling in the margins, tearing pages out to pass Y/N notes. Sonically, Uzi is post-everything — post-trap, post-punk, post-irony, and “post-verbal,” too, I guess, if you’re one of those people who says that.

His music is also wasteful, sporadic, and occasionally vengeful, though it’s unclear who or what he’s mad at. It’s visceral but euphoric too — undisguised, vocal emotion — which makes it perfect for a commercial starring newly uncaged Westbrook.

In the same way that the Thunder guard hurtles around like a rock fired out of a slingshot, stacking triple-doubles at an unsustainable pace because he “just likes to win, brother,” Uzi’s approach to recording, which owes a lot to Gucci Mane’s prolific mid-2000s run, is similarly outré, but matter-of-fact. Bale hay while the sun is shining, strike while the iron’s hot. And if it’s not hot, strike that bitch anyway.

Uzi belongs to a new crop of young artists crumpling up rap classicism and pitching it into the trash. As much as this year has been a story about this group blowing up, it’s also been about their wanton disregard for what came before them, and dealing with the backlash that comes from making rap that doesn’t even so much as nod in the direction of pre–Lil Wayne hip-hop history.

Though this seems like a purposeful rebellion against the Oldheads, it’s not. Just as Russ walks the edge of oblivion in a sport that’s becoming more orderly and effective, Uzi and the Youngs are shrugging off a framework that doesn’t fit them. “I don’t pay ’em no mind, because I just want the bucks” isn’t just a one-off about groupies, nor is it an age-specific sentiment (“Top,” one of Uzi’s biggest hits, was produced by Don Cannon, who’s pushing 40). No, this is about ignoring a set of dated tenets that weren’t chiseled into stone tablets with whatever means you have at your disposal.

“In 1999 I was 7 years old and Toy Story 2 had just dropped you niggas really think I was worried about hip hop?” — Vince Staples, circa 2015, in a now-deleted tweet

Like Uzi, Lil Yachty makes deconstructed music that wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago. Hooks and bridges and verses run together in one big melodic, colorful glob of Laffy Taffy. And like Uzi, whether Yachty or his music will matter past next week is blurry, but the self-coronated King of the Teens doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in that, or in rap’s cornerstones. He laid it down pretty flat in an interview on Real 92.3 earlier this year:

Though his voice sounds — always, somehow– like he just shotgunned an entire jar of peanut butter, Yachty’s premise is correct. People aren’t doing headspins on cardboard or wearing Kangols anymore, and you only need to say whole words every now and then, if you feel like it. Rap is not the same as it was after school in the park, so what’s the point of trying to cram it back into a paradigm it’s already outgrown?

Another young rapper that felt the weight of history this year was Kodak Black, who claimed during his XXL Freshman interview that he was better than both Biggie and Pac. It was partially trolling, but regardless of intention, anyone who’s ever heard words rhymed together over a loop knows that it was a transgression of the highest order.

In rap, there’s a dire importance placed on respect of elders, which is at odds with the genre’s connate will towards youthful innovation. Young people carry things forward, refusing to be trivialized or sold short, and the old people demand reverence, not wanting to be obsolesced. So continues the eternal struggle over What’s Ruining Hip-Hop. Have you ever wanted to do something someone told you to do? What’s your knee-jerk response to not getting what you believe is your just due?

These arguments, over the death of lyricism, or Vince Staples opining that the ’90s are overrated, or Uzi’s refusal to freestyle over a sooty DJ Premier beat, don’t consider some very obvious things. Uzi counts Marilyn Manson and Paramore, not A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde, as influences. The first album he owned was by the Ying Yang Twins. Yachty sounds as though he heard 808s & Heartbreak and thought that’s what music is supposed to sound like. Of Uzi, Yachty, Staples, Kodak, and 21 Savage (who hisses about drinking codeine and murdering people over sparse horror movie scores), not a single one is over the age of 24, which means that life before YouTube or smartphones is … fuzzy.

In a 1993 interview, David Bowie said that rap would soon be the only genre pushing music forward, and that future has become the present, thanks, in big fucking part, to the internet.

The internet was an iceberg to the music industry’s Titanic, sinking just about everything that made it a profitable business while simultaneously destroying the entire concept of regionality. In the same way that I could Google masonry today and be (badly) laying brick by tomorrow afternoon, today’s artists don’t have to fuck around with an Emulator trying to grab a vocal vamp off of a record to discover drum sampling, or to accidentally scratch a record to learn about chops or breaks. You can stumble across an Ableton tutorial PDF, or a .zip file of Lex Luger drum kits, and be just as well off.

The leap from — to pick an arbitrary point in recent history — Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101 to Savage Mode was more of a seismic heave than the running jump between ’80s Bronx park jams and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum.” Back in Tribe’s day, tapes of raw source material literally had to travel by mail to get from one city to the next. It took Screw music a half-decade to get from the Southside of Houston to the Northern states. I’m pretty sure A$AP Rocky just typed “michael 5000 watts” into a search bar, and every result he could ever want was at his fingertips in a few tenths of a second. When everything is readily available, where you get things from seems less and less important.

Kodak, Uzi, and (to a lesser extent) Yachty being ahistorical is fine, because they’re making music that doesn’t sound like anything but itself. Rap fans are a traditionally fickle bunch, however. Would I extend the same goodwill if I thought their music was bad? Probably not. Will they still be around in five years’ time? How could anyone possibly know that?

More importantly: Who cares?