Has Rap Become Too Predictable? | Highsnobiety

In less than a decade, Travis Scott has more than affirmed himself as one of the world’s most popular rappers. Since releasing the viral hit “Antidote” in 2015, La Flame’s career has seen a meteoric rise. With his own Cactus Jack Records music label, a super successful partnership with Nike, and the launch of his ASTROWORLD festival, Scott seems unstoppable — and an experiment from NYC-based creative agency space150 has only served to verify his influence.

Earlier this year, the company unveiled Travis Bott: an AI musician modeled on the rapper that both looks and sounds eerily like him. “All of his music is different song to song, but it’s always unmistakably Travis’ music,” says Ned Lampert, the company’s executive creative director. “So, because of his distinctness, we felt like he was the right artist to attempt to replicate.”

The team fed the AI the real rapper’s song lyrics and programmed it to produce rhyming couplets, before recruiting an artist to record the 1,000-plus lines that the machine generated. In order to mimic his music, Lampert explains that they transcribed Scott’s tracks into MIDI — a form of communication that allows digital music to be understood across various hardware and software. The result is the song “Jack Park Canny Dope Man,” which sees the AI spit bars like: “I don’t really wanna fuck your party food.” Although largely nonsensical, the effect is a mellifluous pastiche of Scott’s work — perhaps suggesting that the rapper’s oeuvre isn’t as diverse as expected.

In fact, this supposed lack of inventiveness from rappers has repeatedly become a hot topic on social media. Around 2010, Twitter users started to jump on the #tweetlike hashtag, which intentionally made a mockery of modern-day hip-hop artists. “#TweetLikeASAP pretty mutha fucka that pop tags, trillest mutha fucka that dont brag, I wear polo, I got four hoes and that turn up, my logo” read one tweet posted in 2013. “I aint trying to invent sex, just create orgasms. While they at the drawing board, Im making ur body spasm. #TweetLikeLudacris,” jibed another from 2014. This penchant to poke fun at the allegedly cliché nature of the genre has shown no signs of slowing down – parody accounts like @RapLikelilWayne and @StuffDrakeDoes have existed for years and are still going strong, with 11.8k and 126.2k followers respectively. The “Dear Diary” Drake meme and “Future Sending Exes Texts” meme are more recent manifestations of the trend, proving that there are multiple ways to show how seemingly easy it is to adopt a rapper’s lyrical likeness.

Taking this practice a step further, a handful of creatives have gained popularity online for purposefully attempting to capture rappers’ distinct styles. Musician Justin Bernardez is one such example, and he’s accrued over 174K followers on Twitter and 344K followers on Instagram for his “How to make an X song” franchise of DIY videos. In just 60 seconds, Bernardez imitates his chosen artist by creating a recognizable beat, throwing in some typical lyrics and making use of the selected rapper’s go-to ad-libs. The result is always a track that could likely pass as an original (if it weren’t for Bernardez’ vocals, of course).

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The musicians’ ability to capture the essence of the rappers he highlights in such a concise way perhaps indicates that the process is simple and formulaic — but Bernardez warns against the belief that simulating today’s hip-hop artists is child’s play. “Every single artist I’ve done has their own niche and talent. It took me years to do what I can now do in minutes — just like the artists I make videos about,” he tells Highsnobiety. He goes on to argue that ad-libs are the true focal point from a production angle, and that their use really injects freshness into the genre: “In my opinion, ad-libs are one of the most important factors in modern hip-hop. These days, a lot of rappers have very similar beats because they have the same producer — unique ad-libs really differentiate [rappers] from one another.”

Bernardez’ observations ring especially true when analyzing mumble rap, the emergent subgenre that’s centered around trap beats reinforced with signature ad-libs. Within the hip-hop community, the scene has frequently been criticized for sounding homogenous. Back in 2014, Snoop Dogg called out mumble rap proponents Future and Migos by claiming that “all them niggas sound the same,” before mockingly illustrating their rap style. Snoop is joined by the likes of fellow rappers J. Cole and Eminem (and broadcaster Joe Budden) in the belief that this newer form of rap is unimaginative in comparison to old-school-style, lyrical-based hip-hop.

However, Paul A. Edwards, author of How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC, thinks it’s restrictive to undermine the creativity of mumble rap in this way. “The actual idea of mumbling on a track and having a whole scene around that was pretty experimental when it first happened because it broke with what had been valued within the genre before,” he explains. In a sense, mumble rap can be credited with proving how transformative ad-libs have and will always be to the genre. “Migos aren’t the most lyrical rappers, but the fact that I can instantly note their unique selling point as short phrases across their songs is proving that, in a lot of cases, having a distinct sound helps,” music journalist Nicolas Tyrell tells us.

Exhibiting individual flair is perhaps the secret to success within hip-hop in general. In stark contrast to mainstream pop, which has traditionally favored conformity, hip-hop fans have always preferred those who have been able to engineer an identifiable, recurrent sound. “Drake, for example, is known for his laid-back melodies and emotional rap — basically, the ego-driven self-reflection which makes him quotable for social media,” Tyrell muses. From the Beastie Boys to Missy Elliott to JAY-Z, those who harbor an instantly recognizable quality have been able to reach icon status and foster long-lasting careers — somewhat proving that familiarity and predictability aren’t one and the same.

Arguably, a rapper’s uniqueness really comes to the fore within the context of rap beef, an arena largely defined by its unpredictability. Since the genre’s inception, hip-hop feuds have long served as an opportunity for rappers to flex their skill set — whether by going head-to-head in a freestyle battle or having to construct targeted diss tracks, often with a quick turnaround. The long-running back-and-forth between LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee started in the ’80s, and it gave rise to career-defining tracks such as “Jack the Ripper” and “How Ya Like Me Now.” Similarly, the more recent Drake vs Pusha T clash set social media ablaze with talks of each rappers’ cutting lyricism. “In battle rapping, there isn’t usually the pressure to have a hooky chorus or a danceable beat, or to follow current mainstream trends as much. So, techniques and styles can develop in a different way,” explains Edwards. In a sense, then, this format in particular provides rappers with the opportunity to show how experimental they can truly be.

Overall, the Travis Bott project was met with bemused praise across social media. “The fact that if this was on the radio I wouldn’t be able to tell a difference is kinda scary,” writes one YouTube commenter. Despite the AI bearing an uncanny resemblance to Scott, Lampert is keen to outline key setbacks from the experiment. “While we can auto-tune vocals to match minor key melodies put to beats, there’s still an element we can’t recreate that is entirely Travis Scott — AI isn’t going to replicate people’s taste or style or curatorial abilities.”

Although modern hip-hop may ostensibly seem less varied than earlier iterations of the genre, this emphasis on individualism has been a constant from the very beginning. At times, it makes rappers susceptible to being the butt of the joke, but in an oversaturated field, being memorable isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “In a good way, hip-hop is made to be catchy,” Lampert proclaims. In that sense, then, modern hip-hop isn’t too predictable at all – in fact, it’s lit.