Bucking a southern trend, Memphis rap stays in its lane

“Hip-Hop” is almost a four-letter word within certain pockets of the rap world. As a catchall term, “rap” is shorter, more concise, and carries less of the historical burden of its hyphenated brother. “Hip-hop” might suggest roots, but it can also suggest mainstream appeal and compromise. “Rap,” on the other hand, can be blunt, direct, and divisive—a different claim to authenticity.

Earlier this year, Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta made a song called “Hip-Hopper,” where he boasted: “You ain't bout that action, you ain't no gangsta / You ain't never been in the field, field, fields /Nigga you a rat, if the laws come and get you right now / Nigga you'll squeal, squeal, squeal.” To close the chorus he simply stated, “I do not fuck with no Hip-Hopper.” He even includes an adlib shout of “Rappers!” in case the listener wasn’t clear on his stance.

For decades, rappers have searched for new ways to chastise their peers for a perceived lack of authenticity. This time, however, the calling-out feels ironic, given the song’s guest verse. Lil Yatchy, the teenage Atlanta viral phenom with adorable red braids, joins Blac Youngsta on “Hip-Hopper,” rapping: “Skinny, but she might cost you a penny / All of these bitches be mouses like Minnie / Not many niggas hangin' 'round me that's real real deal / Most of theses niggas gon’ squeal oh God.”

Yo Gotti in 2009. Photo by Bob Tilden

These lyrics feel off, especially when one remembers that earlier this year, Yatchy appeared alongside Canadian pop queen Carly Rae Jepsen in a Target ad remaking the classic hip-hop song “It Takes Two.” Youngsta claims to not fuck with “Hip-Hoppers” and yet Yachty, with his mainstream appeal and throw-backs to golden era hip-hop, is given prime real estate on the track.

Still, Blac Youngsta’s claimed worldview is not an unfamiliar one among rappers from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. The city’s rap history goes back decades, but in recent years, the Memphis scene has become newly interesting because of a conservative streak that has risen up in the city’s music.

Whereas other southern rap has cornered new markets with crossover appeal and mainstream success, Memphis rap stays in its lane. In cities like Atlanta, southern rap’s cultural capital, there’s been a rise in flash, glamour, and style. Memphis ain’t doing any of that.

The biggest star out of Memphis, Yo Gotti, exemplifies this. Rapping since the mid-1990s, his style has changed along with the decades. He borrowed from No Limit Records in the ‘90s and from Atlanta street rap in the 2000s, but in the 2010s he’s locked into a street-wise gangster persona.

Yo Gotti in Memphis at the 2016 Beale Street Music Festival. Photo by Jakerybu

That’s the mold that’s shaped his most recent musical progeny, Blac Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo, who both double down on the gangster tropes. Along with another Memphis rapper, Young Dolph, they use a blunt lyrical delivery mixed with blues- and trap- indebted production to sell their narratives of street dealers turned millionaires. Gangster platitudes served not with a wink, but a scowl.

This approach feels remote, and also fresh, because so much of southern rap abandoned that mode as it sought wider and wider appeal. Atlanta’s biggest acts this decade include Future, Migos, and Young Thug. In terms of lyrics, there is little that separates all of these rappers from their Memphis counterparts. But it’s the way they market themselves that creates a fissure.

Last year, Young Thug appeared in a Calvin Klein ad. Migos can be found in magazines like The Fader and GQ, and Future scored a deal with Reebok. The endorsement deals and commercial opportunities speak to these artists’ success, but also reveal a desire to be embraced by the mainstream. Memphis isn’t trying for that.

It’s not like Memphis is unfamiliar with the mainstream. Before this latest wave of Memphis rappers, the city’s biggest star was Juicy J, who emerged from the group Three 6 Mafia. The rap collective started in the early ‘90s and were known for a vicious, even slightly demonic, horror-themed rap music that eventually scored a few hits in the 2000s.

 DJ Paul and Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia. Photo by Jay West

But their biggest moment is still their surprising 2006 Oscar victory for their song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” from the movie Hustle and Flow. That moment gave a taste of stardom to Three 6 Mafia and particularly Juicy J, who rode it to a number of hit singles and mixtapes earlier this decade.

But beyond that, dreams of pop stardom have typically missed excellent Memphis artists. Recognizing this, Memphis rappers today do not even try to fit themselves into the commercial pipeline, aim for major label deals, or pursue focus-grouped ad campaigns. If they can make it well enough as independents, why start to divide up those checks?

The result is a conservative streak in the way Memphis rap skips crossover appeal and instead turns out music that is almost proud of its bluntness. Earlier this year, Moneybagg Yo put out a mixtape called Heartless, which clearly took inspiration from the Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates, who found tremendous success mixing street grit with emotional vulnerability.

Heartless, as the name implies, deliberately skips the vulnerability and misses on the open introspection. Instead, it repeats tales of getting money, women, and material possessions with a workmanlike grind. Moneybagg Yo does approach romantic relationships on the tracks “No Love” and “Nonchalant.” But the closest he gets to vulnerable is in the latter song, when he repeatedly raps, “I was like mmhhh whatever.” Hard to better verbalize a shoulder shrug.

The same matter-of-factness carries Young Dolph’s latest album, Bulletproof, released earlier this month. The album was inspired by a late February shooting that Dolph emerged from unharmed, and it exists as his own statement of resilience. The ten songs center around the shooting, with the rapper boasting that he’s okay and that he’ll continue to live his life unchanged by that single moment.

Young Dolph outside a studio session with Nashville's Bug Diddy. Photo by Zach Boisjoly

This resolve echoes Moneybagg Yo’s blunt refusal of vulnerability. Here too, events that for many might cause deep self-reflection inspire little introspection. Going one step further than a verbal shrug, the titles of Bulletproof’s first five songs, taken together, are: “100 Shots In Charlotte But I’m Bulletproof So Fuk’em That’s How I Feel,” in case one wants to read between the very thick lines.

By avoiding both pop shallowness and deeper introspection, Memphis rappers speak directly to an audience that doesn’t expect them to code-switch for other markets. The position isn’t one of uninspired soullessness, but being true to a time, place, and aesthetic.

There’s something conservative about this, but also defiant. Instead of trying to make themselves universally appealing, Memphis rappers are giving listeners the choice of meeting them on their ground or not. None of them appear concerned about who they might lose along the way.