The brash but insanely successful world of Atlanta’s trap scene

Hip hop has always had an uneasy relationship with the deep south. On the one hand the South’s large urban African-American population should make it a natural heartland for the music. But for some reason, the South has never quite achieved parity with the scenes on the East and West coast. Southern rappers have long complained of an anti-southern bias which ignores rappers from the lower half of the Mason-Dixon Line. Although some artists do command a high level of respect, such as UGK or Geto Boys, generally there aren’t many Southerners who are listed amongst the “greats” of the genre. Despite this snobbery, however, it is undeniable that perhaps the most successful city in hip hop’s current era is in the South. Atlanta has produced a roster of acts who rank amongst the biggest stars in rap at the moment. The city’s scene is unapologetically brash and obsessed with drugs and money. Lyricism often seems to take a back seat to auto-tuned hooks and dope boy boasting. But love it or hate it there’s no denying its popularity. Rappers like Young Thug, Future and Migos may not have the sharpest lines, or the deepest content, but the fact is they’re dominating hip hop at the moment.

Atlanta has long produced its own brand of aggressive gangsta rap. “Trap music” takes its name from the slang term for a house where drugs are sold and its origins date back to the early 90s with groups like UGK from Texas. As the name would suggest, Trap resolves heavily around stories about the drugs trade and lurid descriptions of the money and violence that comes with it.

Although it can’t claim sole ownership of the genre, it was Atlanta that really led the way for Trap’s entry into the mainstream. Atlanta natives TI, Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy achieved international success in the early to mid 2000s. Records like TI’s Trap Musik and Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 demonstrated that Trap had the potential to appeal far beyond Atlanta. Their musical descendants have enjoyed similar meteoric success. Rich Homie Quan’s and Young Thug’s video for “Lifestyle” has well over 161 million views. Fellow Atlanta trap star Future’s recent album Dirty Sprite 2 looks set to become one of the biggest success stories of the year. Other acts from the city like the group Migos have built large followings. The Trap era is upon us.

Trap’s appeal is a bit of a mystery. It emerged from a city that hasn’t traditionally been a rap capitol. True, no one can deny Atlanta hasn’t had its fair share of notable talents, Outkast and Ludacris to name two of the biggest. But traditionally it’s not on the same level as New York or LA when it comes to hip hop’s cultural meccas. Historically, it might support one big artist but not take a whole scene to a worldwide stage.

Additionally, at first glance, it’s not the most accessible kind of scene. The lyrics are heavy on Southern slang, insider references to the city and talk about the particular nature of the drug trade in Georgia. For outsiders, it should all seem a bit perplexing and unfamiliar.

The scene is also subject to frequent criticism from those who do not like the Atlanta’s Trap scene’s take on hip hop. Trap is regularly accused of dumbing down hip hop music, of willingly appealing to the lowest common denominator and glorifying the dope boy image without offering any meaningful commentary on the problems that facilitate it.

It’s true that lyricism doesn’t seem to be a particularly integral part of the scene. The actual words rappers use seem almost incidental to the general vibe they put across in their music. Migos’s break out hit “Versace,” a celebratory tribute to the fashion label, consists mostly of the group chanting the brand’s name over and over again. Young Thug often seems less to be rapping than making a series of indecipherable sounds. Parts of his verses on Lifestyle sound like a very drunk man falling down a hole and trying to put his thoughts into something that sounds close to language but isn’t.

When a full, understandable verse does appear, the content very rarely variates from the main core themes; having a lot of money, buying lavish things, fucking, selling dope and threatening enemies with death. Where today’s Trap differs from the outlaw mentality of UGK or even TI and Jeezy is that their seems to be less focus on the actual rhymes and more on beats and hooks. Additionally while artists like UGK offered an unvarnished, warts an all portrait of the life of a hustler, today’s trap often goes into full fantasy territory. Migos’s Versace video features the group living it up in a mansion surrounded by supermodels walking leopards.

These objections have done nothing to slow Atlanta Trap’s rise though. Along with catapulting a team of Atlanta rappers to the forefront of hip hop, the sound has also had a wider impact on music as a whole. The trap style has been eagerly adopted by mainstream artists. Both Rihanna and Miley Cyrus have worked with Mike Will Made It, one of the Trap scenes foremost producers.

And it’s this factor that perhaps explains Trap’s success. It’s catchy and it plays well in a club and on radio. The fact that the verses can be sub-nursery rhyme standard lyrically doesn’t matter because it’s appealing to demographics who don’t care about those things anyway. Trap is pretty clearly not music that was ever intended to offer an introspective look at the human condition. It’s party music that offers base you can dance to and choruses you can chant to when you’re 10 shots in.

To be fair, there is something about all the flak that Trap catches that seems a little unfair. For one, the strongest criticism comes from people who just don’t seem to like the fact that music has moved on; suburban rap nerds with a preference for 90s boom bap (that would be me) or faded rappers who don’t want to accept that scenes they were part of have changed. Alongside that, the expectation that black artists have to conform to certain subject matter seems ridiculous. Black rappers and singers who don’t express approved “positive” messages seem to face harsher judgement than their white peers. No one’s riding Jamie XX for writing crowd-pleasing dance songs instead of addressing the bedroom tax. Plenty of critically acclaimed indie bands don’t have any profound messages about the state of the world. Self-expression shouldn’t be dictated by other people’s views.

But at the same it’s disappointing that such a successful strand of hip hop has so little to say (although a cynic might comment it’s partly the reason for that success). There must be some room in amongst all the club anthems and cruising soundtracks for something a bit deeper. Occasionally there’s glimpses of that. Future is a Trap artist whose music strikes a strange, slightly sad tone. There’s the same bravado and extravagance but there’s a hint towards an emptiness behind it all. He has enough of a unique sound to make him stand out against the countless other dope boy archetypes. But ultimately one Trap artist often blends into another in terms of content and style. Unfortunately too many of the scene’s stars and up and comers are happy staying in the same narrow lane.

Hopefully, as Atlanta’s rap scene evolves, artists will be more willing to take risks and find their own voices rather than follow the tired Trap formula. At the same time, as long as that formula keeps paying the big rewards, it’s hard to imagine it’s going anywhere soon.

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