For much of the 21st century, Atlanta has been the center of the hip-hop universe. That begins with not only Outkast, but also rappers like T.I., Jeezy, and Gucci Mane, who rose to fame and great influence in the 2000s. The past decade saw a new crop of superstars spring up from the city—the story of 2010s rap can’t be told without mentioning Migos, Young Thug, and Future (and later, Lil Baby and Gunna).
But lately, the scene has been in a bit of flux. Migos appears to be no more, with Quavo and Takeoff releasing an album without Offset this month. And most notably, Young Thug and Gunna sit in a Fulton County jail awaiting trial on RICO charges, with authorities saying their YSL record label operated as a gang. While signs of the Old Atlanta still linger—Future scored an unexpected hit this year with his Drake and Tems team-up “Wait for U,” and Lil Yachty has gone viral for the recent loosie “Poland”—the city doesn’t seem to be quite the same rap hub it was even four year ago.
This week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show surveys that landscape. To discuss these topics, Charles Holmes invited on Joe Coscarelli, a New York Times reporter and author of the new book Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story.
Below is an excerpt of their conversation looking at why the next generation of Atlanta rappers hasn’t popped off like the previous ones and what the YSL indictments mean for other artists.
Charles Holmes: If I look at the Billboard Hot 100, the highest-charting Atlanta rapper is Future. Now, Future is an OG at this point. He’s been in the game so long. When we’re talking about rappers at that level—the Migos, Lil Baby, Future, Thug, Gunna—they haven’t been producing as much recently. And I don’t know if that’s because the popping rappers are staying on top longer, where Future had a streak of kind of so-so albums. It only takes one album this year, a Drake and Tems song, for people to be like, “All right, Future’s back.” Same thing with Migos. It just takes a little bit of energy to be like, “All right, well, there’s drama now.” No matter what the sales say, people want to know about what the drama is. Reading your book, I was like, damn. There’s not that next generation at least breaking nationally like it was. It felt like every six months, there was a new rapper breaking.
Joe Coscarelli: I think we’re seeing that in rap, and that’s where we pay most attention. But you’re seeing it across genres and even across culture. Who’s the new class of directors? Where’s the next Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino? Those guys aren’t happening. In pop, it’s the same thing. New stars, I mean, the charts have been so stagnant this year all across the board. Bad Bunny and Morgan Wallen are just coasting to the title belt. There’s not—
Holmes: There’s no Olivia Rodrigo this year, and pop has had that problem too.
Coscarelli: And there was only one Olivia Rodrigo last year or the year before that. I think audiences are so fragmented at the moment, and the stars that were from the previous generation are hanging on so tight. The Drakes of the world. Again, are Drake and Future making the best music of their careers? Definitely not. Even having the biggest hits of their careers? Still probably not. Although this Tems song, I thought that was a bomb when I heard it. And yet, I’ve heard it on the radio 30,000 times since then.
Holmes: I hear it in New York so much. And I’m like, “Guys, this is the song that we’re anointing?” I’m like, “At least put on ‘Munch.’”
Coscarelli: I know, it’s so strange. But I think there’s this weird stagnancy, and I really think it’s post-pandemic a bit that people don’t ... The albums that came out from the big stars this year didn’t really hit. There’s no underground that’s really bubbling up, with the exception of drill in every single city, which is having a hard time crossing over for obvious reasons. And I really do think it was going to be Gunna, and Thug, and YSL. I think it was going to be their time on top. It was really looking like that. Thug had two no. 1 albums last year, counting the compilation. Gunna, I thought, had hit a ceiling and then pushed through it with his latest album. And there really is a vacuum right now. I think, to me, Playboi Carti is the Atlanta rapper of the moment. He’s doing the most and influencing the most people, and the shows are insane, but it’s Playboi Carti. He doesn’t put out proper albums or even mix tapes.
Holmes: He’s old at this point, to me. I know that’s crazy to say, but I’m like ...
Coscarelli: It’s true.
Holmes: I was listening to Playboi Carti when I was just first moving to New York and I’m just like, he’s in that upper echelon of rappers to me at that point.
Coscarelli: But watching the leaks take off and seeing the cult status that he’s developed, that’s a real thing to me. And my guess would be that, unless drill takes over Atlanta, which there is some of that, there’s quite a bit of that, I’m thinking of someone like Anti Da Menace. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention there or Baby Drill. That stuff is bubbling. But I’m going to bet on a post–Playboi Carti return of rage culture, sort of experimentalist like crazy plug beats, I don’t know, with some punk-rock energy.
That’s the thing that’s so cool about Atlanta is somebody always pops up to fill the void. Think of how many times in our lifetimes as rap ends, it seemed like, “Oh, Atlanta was over.” And then there’s always a next thing. So I’m really eager to see what that is. I think you’re right that we don’t know. It’s not clear at this moment what the next wave is because all of those guys, you’re right, they’re either graduating into irrelevance or they’re graduating into this sort of stagnancy of being an A-list rapper.
Holmes: We talked about two things that I think are happening with existential threats to the city’s music scene, which is just the acts getting older, maturing. Streaming, maturing, where I just think that what was once a gold rush is now … country music has caught up, pop music has caught up. It’s not just rappers who are realizing you can flood the market anymore. It’s country artists too.
But I also think one thing too is just the laws. I do think Young Thug and YSL’s RICO cases kind of put a shadow over the city. Even reading your book, I’m like, “Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of rap crews are scared because it was an open wild west on Instagram, on TikTok, of flaunting not only the money and the cash, the lifestyle.”
Coscarelli: It’s time to chill out. Yeah, and it’s not even just the YSL stuff, like the YFN indictment, which is the flip side of the YSL coin. That’s the same beef. That happened a year or so prior. That’s Lucci and his whole crew. They might not have been as relevant at the moment, but that affects the rap world too. And then you had Drug Rich gang get taken down more recently. There’s some up-and-coming rappers in that crew. Henchmen, another Atlanta crew, has a target on its head. And the DA’s office has said they’re investigating them.
I think you’re right. The risk of this music and this culture being so closely tied in with street life and needing that money, needing that credibility. It comes with risks. And, like you’re saying, the social media aspect of it has gotten so nuts. There’s so much on Instagram, so much on YouTube. The cops see everything at this point. You can’t hide your Instagram from the police, and they are targeting rappers. Whether the rappers are making themselves easy targets is another conversation.
Holmes: I mean, also, talking about all this stuff, I’ve always had this theory about Atlanta and reading your book was something that I’m like, “Oh no, this is actually what happened,” which is that a constant cycle of success, implosion, and then reinvention is part of Atlanta’s success in the 21st century. It seems like we forget that all the time, but no, I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen it happen with Jeezy, Gucci, T.I, now with Thug. I’ve seen it happen with Migos two or three times at this point where it’s just like, this is actually, maybe, what makes it such a successful scene is that, to your point earlier, there’s always going to be someone to fill the vacuum.
No one is ever too big because one part of your book, you’re like, Lil’ Baby’s success comes so fast that in two years he goes from someone who doesn’t even know how to rap to putting on people like Rylo and 42 Dugg and now being the rapper that’s like, “OK, I have my own mini label on top of a label that I’m signed to that’s signed to another label.”
Coscarelli: And on and on and on. Yeah.
Holmes: And that’s what I think is so interesting about this book is that part of the allure is the implosion. Part of the allure is it never lasts forever. And no one, P, Marlo, whoever it was, none of them ever seemed afraid of that. It seemed like this was just kind of a mirror or a reflection of what the street is like. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up, you’re down.
Coscarelli: Even think back to what allowed Migos and QC to happen, it was Gucci going to jail. I don’t know if you get Migos and the success of Quality Control, even Young Thug. Gucci was so chaotic at that moment, but he was really at his peak in terms of attention share. You think of the ice-cream-cone era, all those mixtapes coming out, the World War mixtape series. That was really happening. And then, like you said, there’s this implosion, and all of these guys who were around Brick Squad, whether you’re talking about 1017 Thug, or Migos doing their sort of bootcamp in Gucci’s studios, and that allows the path, the space for them.
And then the other aspect of it is that they all know each other. They all grew up together, they all collaborated. So when someone like Gucci, who’s really the king of the jungle at the moment when he is held up, when he’s in prison, P, who grew up with him, can go and say, “I’m going to start a label. How about I take the Migos and make something out of that since you’re not able to at the moment.” And then you have someone like Coach K who’s seen it all before, and he gets involved and there’s synergy. That’s a music scene.
It’s all these people overlapping and knowing each other and knowing what makes each other tick. Borrowing from the sound, Zaytoven being Gucci’s producer and becoming Migos’s producer. It’s passed along, and you see that again with Future coming from the Dungeon Family. People don’t even think about that very often. It’s a trivia fact that he started there, but he knows people, and they all know each other. In these moments, where there is a vacuum, other people can be lifted up by the same network.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the full episode here and follow The Ringer Music Show on Spotify.
Host: Charles Holmes
Guest: Joe Coscarelli
Producers: Justin Sayles and Jade Whaley