How East Coast Rappers Ruled Summer 2017
By Fully Embracing The South
Cardi B, French Montana, & Lil Uzi Vert’s songs of the summer owe little to their hometowns.
For the last five years, the East Coast has experienced a growing trend. From 2011-2016, up-and-coming artists became breakout stars by creating major hits; A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag,” Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga,” Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” Desiigner’s “Panda,” and Young M.A’s “Ooouuu.” Although all those artists hail from the Tri-State area, all of those songs are approximations of regional sub genres—Houston’s “chopped and screwed,” Chicago’s “drill,” and Atlanta’s “trap”—repackaged for worldwide consumption. Those songs would go platinum multiple times over, rule the Billboard charts, and/or net each rapper a lucrative record deal. The path those artists took used to be the exception, but it’s now the rule.
For many Northeast rappers the path to success and a shot at sustainability lies in synthesizing the modern sounds, flows, and influences of more popular geographical areas and, by extension, bypassing the past in pursuit of the future. Established veterans like JAY-Z can experiment, but newcomers trying to make a name for themselves follow the blueprint Hov helped create with the success of geographically borderless hits like “Big Pimpin’.” In short, the key to becoming a successful East Coast or New York rapper is to abandon any semblance of a traditional “East Coast” or “New York sound.”
As New York institutions like Hot 97 have had to watch rappers like Future, Migos, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake lap their Northeastern counterparts in spins and accolades, the frequency of gatekeepers of a certain age asking “Is New York back?” has become absurd. When Fat Joe was asked about it in early August on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club, he gave a spirited response defending his hometown but saying, “It’s adapting. Everybody wanna do that boom, bap, ba-boom-ba-boom bap. That ain’t it.” The Bronx rapper—whose 2016 song “All The Way Up” was one of the biggest hits of his 25-year career—went on to praise Cardi B and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and added, “Music moved on…Music is always evolving and you gotta transform.”
Fat Joe is right. For all of their critical acclaim New York acts with creative ties to the ’90s like Joey Bada$$, RATKING, and Your Old Droog get, the music and the audience have moved on and the artists who make the money moves have transformed and evolved their sound. As Cardi told Fader earlier this year, “You gotta follow the trends, it is what it is. At the end of the day, you need to be with what sells.”
East Coast artists dominating the charts has everything to do with what artists were willing to embrace. Cardi B, French Montana, and Lil Uzi Vert can all lay claim to “song of the summer” contenders both critically and commercially. Their respective songs, “Bodak Yellow,” “Unforgettable,” and “XO TOUR Llif3,” are disparate and expansive in their influences. They also point to an underlying pattern that feels fully realized after years of incubation and tinkering.
This August marked the 44th anniversary of the Bronx party that birthed hip-hop. In the same month, three rappers from the Bronx—Cardi, French, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie—have songs in the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100. French’s “Unforgettable” is certified double Platinum, A Boogie’s “Drowning” went Platinum, and Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow” holds the honor of being the highest-charting single by a female rapper since Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” in 2014. Not to be outdone, Queens veteran Nicki Minaj is also sitting pretty at No. 24 after lending a verse to Memphis rapper Yo Gotti for his latest hit, “Rake It Up.” But the acclaim and inspiration of each song has little to no connection culturally or sonically to the birthplace of hip-hop. The reason “Bodak Yellow,” “Unforgettable,” and “Drowning,” are sitting at No. 3, No. 4, and No. 41 respectively, has more to do with each one embracing the musical palettes of the moment—trap, dancehall, southern flows—than anything from the Big Apple.
Besides all the lead artists being from the Bronx, those three songs have another thing in common: A southern rapper features or influences each one. Florida’s Kodak Black has a guest verse on “Drowning,” and Cardi B famously interpolates Kodak’s “No Flockin” flow on “Bodak Yellow.” A large part of the success of “Unforgettable” lies with the undeniable hook from Mississippi’s Swae Lee. Lastly, none of the songs have beats from New York producers. Jangan Berhenti Mencintaiku and 1Mind, the producer collective behind “Unforgettable,” are from Ontario and Indianapolis. J. White Did It, who created “Bodak Yellow,” is from Dallas. Jahaan Sweet, one-half of the team that produced “Drowning,” is from Florida. The records work because of this confluence of culture.
Philadelphia is experiencing a moment too, though to a lesser degree. Meek Mill regained his critical and commercial footing with Wins & Losses—debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and selling 102,000 album-equivalent units in its first week. The guests on Wins & Losses read as a who’s who of southern rap: Young Thug, Future, Quavo, Yo Gotti, and Rick Ross. Meanwhile, PnB Rock anchors the hook of Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci’s “Everyday We Lit,” which sits at No. 36. Rock and Lucci’s auto-tuned back and forth on the hook owes more to the melodic trappings of Atlanta than it does Philadelphia.
However, it’s Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3” that has put one of Philadelphia’s own on the cusp of becoming a national star. “XO TOUR Llif3” is triple Platinum, peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, has over 200 million views on YouTube, and has been on the charts for 20 weeks. Pop punk melodies, trap inspired flows, and TM88 and JW Lucas’s alien-like production position “XO TOUR Llif3” well outside the cultural and sonic parameters of traditional Philadelphia rap fare. However, it does speak to how the trends of New York have started to flow downstream. Lil Uzi Vert, Meek Mill, and PnB Rock are all flourishing in a city that traditionally struggles to keep multiple rappers afloat at a time by embracing the cadences, production, and features primarily from Atlanta.
With each passing year, stagnant regional lines dissolve further into obsolescence. For many rappers, embracing regional sounds has become a major key in their come-up—Cardi, Boogie, and Uzi were all relatively unknown to mainstream audiences just two years ago. Even before “Unforgettable,” French Montana got a boost being closely associated with southern rappers like Rick Ross and Lil Wayne. The summer of 2017 feels like a breakthrough because many East Coast artists have scored hits by letting the present, and not the past, define them.