by Paul Stokes
Photography by Spencer Wells
At the turn of the century, rap music was only in the middle of its meteoric rise to mainstream prominence, with paradigm-shifting artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West yet to take center stage. Rap—more than ever—was about success, fame, money and sex. As much as it brought together a community of passionate listeners, there was, and still is, an inescapable sense of alienation to in the themes and perspectives that had become a cornerstone of music.
Some listeners, like Andreas Towers (CAS ’20), relate to rap music through mutual struggle.
“We all struggle with different things, and music is a good outlet of expression for that,” she said.
Yet, over the years this has led to an increasingly large disconnect between artists and parts of their audiences. Sophie Sachar (COM ’20) agreed that sometimes rap can seem inaccessible.
Many casual or even serious listeners may have a difficult time relating to the rap music they hear on the radio. It is easy to appreciate that The Weeknd earned a typical year’s salary in a week, but also nearly impossible to relate. Abby Lebet (COM ’20) agreed with these observations, saying that the “glorification of drugs, money, and women” made it difficult to relate to her favorite rap music—even if she still enjoys it.
Out of this alienation, however, artists like Open Mike Eagle have emerged. Raised in Chicago during the ’80s and ’90s, he is considered one of the creators of a new sub-genre of hip-hop; one based on quirk, complexity, and identity. Open Mike Eagle coined the term “art-rap” and, in doing so, gave this genre a name. Since then, more art-rap artists have risen to fame, including Busdriver, Billy Woods, Elucid and Milo.
Right now, even if many people may have not yet noticed, art-rap is establishing itself as a powerful and unique form of expression. By remaining true to the spirit of community and self-empowerment that defines rap, but simultaneously expanding the definitions of both community and power, art-rap has opened new doors for the statements a rap record piece can make.
Take an artist like Milo, for example. Milo—whose real name is Rory Ferreira– made waves in 2011 after releasing his first project. This was mostly because of how unorthodox he was, both in terms of style and substance. Milo raps with a pseudo-spoken-word flow about various subjects, from existential philosophy and death to Diablo III message boards. In his early work, Ferreira destroyed the social boundaries many rappers have built around themselves, creating a rare space for misfits within hip-hop fandom.
As his work progressed, Ferreira’s perspective remained the same. On his newest album So the Flies Don’t Come, Ferreira has zeroed in on race relations, a topic that has always been central to rap. By tackling race relations through his unique and insightful lens, he redefines what it means to thrive as a black man in a white man’s system.
By using the genre to its fullest, Ferreira brings new answers to old questions and delivers these answers to new audiences without sacrificing integrity or identity. Therein lies the power of art-rap. The genre connects artists to their roots, while simultaneously giving them a platform to expand the scope of their cultural expression, or as Ferreira puts it, to begin “preaching black aesthetic gospel.”
Art-rap has been working its way into the cannon of modern rap for over a decade now, but as the old guard passes the torch to new artists it seems more likely than ever that the genre is on the cusp of mainstream success. However, it hasn’t lost any of the magic that brought it to this point. In fact, the genre has more to say now than it ever has—don’t be surprised if more people start to turn their heads and listen.