You may have noticed that the mainstream media have a habit of labelling any African-American musician who doesn’t wear a suit as a ‘rapper’ by default (Chris Brown being the first example that comes to mind). But by the same token, don’t the new breed of Auto-tune harmonisers such as Fetty Wap, Young Thug, and Future deserve to be labelled as something other than just rappers? Sure, they do occasionally connect words together that rhyme, but that’s been happening in songwriting since day dot.
This is not some attempt to have these dudes ‘cast out’ of hip-hop, by any means. They’re out there doing their thing and a lot of people are loving their music. But to label what these are doing as either rap or R&B seems to be doing them a disservice. Many would automatically put them in the trap category, but that doesn’t seem any more accurate beyond describing the general production style – there is very little about this sound and a Young Jeezy or Lil’ Jon record that sounds the same, outside of some percussion.
What these three vocalists are doing is a natural progression of Lil’ Wayne’s early Auto-Tune work, where he realised the potential of the process to distort, reconfigure, and add a whole new layer of possibilities to the normal range of expression available through human vocal cords. Although they are technically different technologies, the Vocoder (which was originally developed as way of sending coded messages during the WWII) has been widely used in pop music since the seventies from everyone from Pink Floyd to Kraftwerk to Phil Collins, and has been recently utilised by Daft Punk on singles such as ‘Get Lucky’.
Also of note is the Talkbox, which has a similar effect on vocals but is actually a plastic tube that you put into your mouth while singing and is controlled with a keyboard or foot pedal, as heard in Zapp’s ‘More Bounce To The Ounce,’ Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer‘ and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Sensual Seduction‘. Clearly, we all love the shit out of robotic voices in music. Ever since Cher set it off by making her clearly Auto-Tuned vocals the focus of ‘Believe’ in 1998, it’s become a go-to for musical challenged celebrities such as Paris Hilton as well as an instrument for the likes of T-Pain and Kanye West. But as I mentioned earlier, it was Wayne who really kicked open the door to use this audio plug-in as part of the performance, rather than just a tool to iron out the flaws.
In an amusing moment of failed hubris, Jay Z attempted to declare the ‘Death of Autotune’ but the kids were like, ‘Nah’. In today’s ultra-emotive musical landscape, tough talk alone no longer cuts it. What Future, Fetty, and Thug are bringing to the table is that rare combination of vulnerability, arrogance, and zero fucks given that their fans can connect to, in many ways a distilled version of what Drake delivers but minus the calculated bad dancing. The tricky part is figuring out what to call this burgeoning new combination of hip-hop, trap, and soul. Strap-Hop? Neo-Troul? Emo-Drill?
Regardless of whatever dumb name we come up with, the fact remains that these gentlemen can wear as many silly hats and women’s slim-fit jeans as they want, since they have about as much connection to Mobb Deep’s Hell On Earth album as Celine Dion at this point. They seem to be doing just fine carving out their own niche and I can safely say that hearing the likes of ‘Trap Queen’ and DS2 doesn’t upset me as a life-long rap addict whatsoever. I’m genuinely interested in where this will end up, and would much rather listen to these stream-of-consciousness style vocalists than any ‘modern R&B’ or anything involving Tyga.
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