Last week, the fastest-rising addition to Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart was neither a rap song, nor a hot song. It had been released just a week prior, and there was rapping. But Buck 22’s “Achy Breaky 2” — a literal sequel to Billy Ray Cyrus’s hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” featuring Miley’s 52-year-old dad on the hook — bears none of the hallmarks of the genre. It is, however, remarkable in that it is remarkably bad: Built upon that massively successful 1992 country-pop hit, it is outfitted with peun-peun EDM lasers and bass drops, hollow drum programming, cynical lyrics, and the sub-Timbaland grumble-raps of Buck 22. Oh, and an incessant whistling, straight from the lips of a succubus. In less than a week, the song shot to no. 11 on the Hot Rap Songs chart. Its Larry King–and-alien-Playmate-starring video has logged 7.3 million YouTube views in less than two weeks. “Achy Breaky 2” is emblematic of a genre in disrepair. It is an abomination, or, at least, a practical joke inflicted upon an unwitting public. And they love it.
Damon Elliott, the seasoned producer and songwriter who performs as Buck 22, has had a long career working with artists like Pink, Destiny’s Child, and Keyshia Cole. He’s also the son of Dionne Warwick and jazz drummer Bill Elliott. The Buck 22 project is a new and strange one for the 40-year-old Elliott, who has worked mostly in R&B-pop, but also with Willie Nelson and on the score for films like The Lincoln Lawyer. Until now, he has been a music-industry gadfly, rustling projects together and swinging his production stick at any piñata that crosses his path. Sometimes he whiffs. But sometimes he strikes it cleanly, as with his 2001 Grammy-winning reboot of “Lady Marmalade,” with Pink, Mya, Lil’ Kim, and Christina Aguilera, for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. With “Achy Breaky 2,” he’s busted the thing open.
Elliott is not shy about his intentions with the song: “Next to BRC,1 up on TMZ / Got everybody wonderin’ who I am,” he raps. Elliott says he’s at the forefront of a “new revolution of Country Music mixed with Hip-Hop,” which is not entirely true. From Cowboy Troy to Nelly-and–Tim McGraw duets, the groaning parody of T-Swift to Bubba Sparxxx’s extraordinary “Deliverance,” these genre cross-pollinations are far from new. In fact, trend pieces about such confabs have been pinging around the offices of peg-hungry editors for more than a decade. This is different. Buck 22 has arrived at a time when rap is more vulnerable than ever to interlopers and synthesists eager to run their sound through the Vitamix of popular music with such speed and force it’s impossible to determine the ingredients. “Achy Breaky 2” is a copy of a copy of a Xerox of a guy’s ass. It’s juvenile, and we’ve seen it before. But the quickness with which it grew makes me wonder whether it’s more than a novelty song. If you’ve heard Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber” — and seeing as it is spending its 20th consecutive week on the Hot 100, you probably have — you know that propulsive, empty, country-influenced pop-rap is one of the most powerful forces in commercial radio. Mike Will Made It and Miley Cyrus’s “23” does the same work, as does Florida Georgia Line’s Nelly-featuring remix for “Cruise.” A little twang. A harmonica or banjo signifier. An A-B-A-B verse structure. A wink, and a nod. Here is your rap now.2
Rap has been the viewfinder through which other genres have been looking for nearly 20 years. The same way the Rolling Stones used Chuck Berry and Chicago blues as a vector for their English grind, Justin Timberlake integrated Pharrell and Timbaland’s Virginia swerve to become the biggest white pop star of the millennium. Without hip-hop, there is no JT. Or Rihanna. Or Beyoncé. Or Miley or Katy Perry. Likewise Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Skrillex, Lorde, Imagine Dragons, and more. The pace, the rhythm, and the vernacular of rap has codified the system these artists operate in. Rap energy is pop energy. But what is happening now is the opposite: Actual new rap songs are ceaselessly weighing down the genre itself with the junky detritus of other styles.
Rap is changing. Buck 22 is a pop flashbulb, but his instant, anonymous success is an indicator of a bloated and abused genre — that moment when commercial instinct overpowers all good taste. Think of rock’s freight train settling into the hair-metal holding station. Is rap outta control, as Erick Sermon once harrumphed? No, rap is a category. Its import as a lifestyle has been siphoned off one Macklemore at a time. It’s gone wider, and its purpose is shrinking. What has become the dominant form of American music — a sonic shift that started some 20 years ago — is becoming something new and more confusing with each passing “Achy Breaky 2.” Increasingly, rap consumers don’t identify with rap, they identify with consumption.
What does it mean for rap to enter an age of bloat? In times like this, a savior is often summoned by a desperate media. An avatar of a revolution perhaps, like punk, or grunge, or the rap-abetted new jack swing, which redefined R&B. I wouldn’t count on that here. Still, weirdos, aesthetes, and fundamentalists persist.3 Sometimes they even float down from the ether and into our weather system. Just one week before Buck 22’s incursion, another new song launched into the top 15 of the Hot Rap Songs chart. It’s called “Stoner” by Atlanta’s Young Thug, and it is a wonder. A sickly sweet pull of strawberry Laffy Taffy, the song showcases Thug not so much rapping as incanting from the Book of Wayne: Psalm 1, Chapter 2006.
Thugger Thugger, you
I want Michael Jackson laying, ohh
All on my cash out on it
I’m high as hell, I ain’t got no satellites on me
I told her bitch I feel like Fabo ,
I feel like Fabo, I feel like Fabo
I feel like Fabo, I feel like Fabo
I feel like Fabo, I feel just like Fabo
What do those words mean? They’re mostly a salute to Fabo, the great, underrated D4L front man and Atlanta bon vivant. But they’re also pure Thug, whose approach is physical. His vocals are violent. He is not a verbal tactician, but he is a stylist. His beloved and similarly growing “Danny Glover” has an even more addled and enrapturing quality — it feels like rappelling down a giant Styrofoam cup of lean. Buck 22 is an artist supported by the industry — Larry King and Billy Ray Cyrus cosigns, while bizarre, are hard to come by for any artist. Young Thug is also supported by conglomerates; he recently announced that he’s signed with Cash Money after rumors he was linked to Gucci Mane’s label. Some have speculated that “Stoner” has been bolstered on radio playlists and YouTube4 by a shadowy major record label, perhaps Atlantic Records. Now with Cash Money, he is officially a company man. But Thug still offers the illusion of independence, a rogue operative working the system like a speed bag.
There are others creating in the margins of industry, curiously mixing personal vision with mainstream modes of delivery. Last week, I talked with A$AP Nast of A$AP Mob, the New York crew that will release an EP, L.O.R.D., on RCA next week. Nast’s “Trillmatic” is a DeLorean ride straight to 1994, complete with a transporting Method Man guest verse, a woozy War sample, and the kind of snarling and chippy rhyming that defined a type of East Coast rap that was long ago both popular and respected. It was 20 years ago that Redman, Onyx, and Lords of the Underground were chart-topping artists, too. That moment is exactly what Nast is hoping to conjure, and the detail with which it’s executed is surreal. It is almost necrophilic.
“There wasn’t nobody better for the job,” says Nast, who is 23. “We were in the studio, reminiscing on the golden era … the Wu-Tangs, the Tribes, the Big Puns. We were trying to get back in touch with that. Honestly, I just want to put people back in that time. I want you to see a sunny day in New York. I’m trying to re-create that insight.”
A$AP Mob quickly assumed a reputation for fetishizing a particular kind of ’90s nostalgia, marked by leader A$AP Rocky’s nimble, cross-regional goulash and A$AP Ferg’s blustering, galumphing anthems. Both have achieved a polished version of success that’s become rarer as the rap star-machine has slowed. But Nast is less a character, more a channeler: “I’m very conscious of what’s going on in hip-hop today,” he says. “I follow it. But we don’t need to be that.”
Nast is not purely a traditionalist — he mentioned Kid Cudi and Animal Collective as primary influences on L.O.R.D. “Feel-good music,” he says by way of description. “‘Go out and have a time’ music, but also ‘sit in the house and think’ kind of music.”
Between the pop squalor of Pitbull and the time-frozen curiosity of A$AP Nast lies rap’s red meat — the hard commodity of the industry, unchanging and ever present, often from the South or the West. This week kicks off a steady stream of albums in this vein: Today comes Schoolboy Q’s5 major-label debut, Oxymoron. Next week is Mastermind, the sixth album from Rick Ross. Then L.O.R.D., followed by Young Money: Rise of an Empire, a Drake and Nicki Minaj–fronted compilation from Lil Wayne’s label that is apparently inadvertently (or advertently?) doubling as a marketing tool for the 300 sequel. These are the first-quarter clearinghouse releases of the major labels, ledger-fillers.6
March 18 brings the most interesting release of the spring in My Krazy Life, the debut from YG. He is all curriculum vitae: The Compton rapper has a massive hit in “My N—-,” produced by the ascendant DJ Mustard, as well as the imprimatur of Jeezy. He’s been touted as the first West Coast MC signed to Def Jam since Warren G.7 YG isn’t a terribly compelling rapper, lyrically speaking,8 but he is pugnacious, and after sniffing around the edges of fame for at least five years, and repping for L.A.’s Tree Top Piru Bloods, he’s building a loyal fan base and a deep Rolodex. His is an old-fashioned attempt at star-making — a confident, patient brick-building. Right producer, right mentor, right label, right single worked at radio, right remix.
“My N—- (Remix)” is one of the best rap records of the young year, but aside from Mustard’s sproingy bounce, it says almost nothing about what rap is right now, where it’s going, what it means. Crew records come, crew records go. Likewise, another anonymously massive Mustard-produced single, Kid Ink’s “Show Me.”9
Last year, rap was defined by its weight in stardom — erratic transgression from Kanye West, corporatized smooth from Jay Z, clenched-teeth formalism from Eminem, wounded braggadocio from Drake. The artists that excited on the periphery — Chance the Rapper, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ka, Migos — didn’t feel like stars so much as equal parts signal and noise from an alien planet, unconcerned with pop success. The number of high-anticipation star projects is significantly lower this year. And while rap’s middle class — J. Cole, 2 Chainz, B.o.B, Big Sean,10 Wale — do everything they can to step on each other’s heads, precious few have taken the next step.
There are Kendrick Lamar, valorized “real” rapper, and Macklemore, supposed pale-faced imitator and Grammy thief. Whether you buy the narrative peddled about them, or are a fan, both are rap’s best hope for new superstardom. They already seem as big as the genre itself. There are figures like Chief Keef, too, a human thunderbolt of charisma and self-destructiveness. His odds are worse, and yet more intriguing. He could be gone by this time next year, or he could be positioned at the head of a new beast. There is also, of course, Nicki Minaj, who seems to understand that rap credibility and pop centrality are equally important — the minute she leans too heavily on one, she will tilt. After scorching appearances on the “My N—-” and “Danny Glover” remixes and her song “Lookin Ass,” I expect a candy-colored single soon. No one is more talented, or more culturally overwhelming. She can change the trajectory of the genre with one commanding moment. Nicki’s also her own worst enemy as an artist. She has watched too many short-lived rap careers — particularly those of female artists — burn up and fade away. Nicki Minaj won’t make that mistake. Rap’s worse off for it.
Perhaps 2014’s best chance for an artist who can change the scope and shape of rap is Future, a crooning MC who fancies himself an astronaut of love. His 2012 album, Pluto, is one of the more strange pop successes in recent rap history, mixing decaying Auto-Tuned odes to the universe with aggressive Hadouken raps. Future is the cousin of Dungeon Family architect Rico Wade and apprenticed under Rocko, Gucci Mane, and other hale Atlanta figures. He has legacy, but he doesn’t really have a musical forebear. He easily glides from his fiancée Ciara’s slink-soul to pump-up hard-rap burners with Lil Wayne and astrophysical sonnets with Miley. His latest song, essentially a street single for his new album, Honest, is “Move That Dope.” Fast, possessed, dexterous, malevolent, funny, endless — it is the raw rap of my dreams. But I know well enough that a song like “Move That Dope” is no conquering hero. It’s a strategic noisemaker; enough spins and it’s New Year’s Day. Then what?
More of “Achy Breaky 2,” most likely. Which means rap is without a custodian — it’s a ghost ship, piloted by the swaying waters of What’s Hot. A genre can withstand only so many novelty songs before it becomes a novelty.