Joe Coscarelli's new book is essential reading on Atlanta's emergence as a major force in contemporary cultural production. But if trap is a winning formula for popular music, what does that say about culture today?
Migos agrees with me: Culture is a set of conventions. When the group was asked why they named their first album Culture, Offset explained, “Migos is the culture.” Quavo clarified, “Where all this [hip-hop] culture is coming from — all this freestyle, all this triplet flow, all these repetitive hooks — we have to station that. We had to put an address on it.” Migos’s idiosyncratic lyrical style ended up providing rap with a new set of stylistic rules, and the group's subsequent success helped establish their hometown, the once-“discounted, demeaned and overlooked” Atlanta, as a new global center of pop culture.
New York Times pop music reporter Joe Coscarelli’s excellent new book Rap Capital: an Atlanta Story explains exactly how this happened. Rap Capital is a rich ethnography of Atlanta hip-hop, documenting a people in a specific place and time, their struggles and aspirations, their predilections and addictions. Rather than writing a linear history of trap’s top stars, Coscarelli fleshes out the entire Atlanta ecosystem that gave birth to the genre: the rappers, the producers, the radio promoters, the money guys, the strip clubs, the low-income housing, the drug dealers, the lawyers, and the legal authorities. Most skillfully, Rap Capital doesn't just tell the superhero origin stories of Lil Baby and Migos but follows two rappers who never blew up, Marlo (RIP) and Lil Reek, thus reminding us that there's never a full-proof formula for winning the pop culture lottery.
Rap Capital is an essential case study of cultural production in the 21st century, which leads us to a bigger question, what kind of culture is being made in Atlanta? Trap is extremely successful by most standard measures. Atlanta rap dominates the streaming services, and hits like “Bad and Boujee” will long stand as the metonymic sounds of the 2010s. Trap has forever altered the sound of hip-hop, re-establishing Miami Bass’s old-school 808 kicks and ticky hi-hats as the core ingredients for contemporary beats. Critic and musician Kit Mackintosh, in his book Neon Screams, argues that trap’s auto-tuned vocals and highly-synthesized beats should be understood as our century's most vibrant futurist innovation.
Atlanta rap may be “fun [and] freeing” for both fans and artists, but in reading the subtext in Rap Capital, it's also easy to understand trap as an unabashed hyper-capitalist form of art. I wince at my own shrill Marxist sloganeering in using the word "hyper-capitalist," but I don't know how else to describe the fact that trap is a cultural form only created on the presupposition that it will be a lucrative and legal means of business activity. Trap is not a vanguard artistic movement, nor a true folk culture born far from the marketplace. Unlike most pop music histories, Rap Capital doesn't tell the heroic story of young artists fighting established gatekeepers to win recognition for the genius of their stylistic innovations. Besides Outkast, Atlanta’s hip-hop history is a story of brazen cultural profiteering. Jermaine Dupri achieved the city’s first national hit, “Jump,” after discovering two well-dressed kids at the mall and transforming them into the backward-clothes-wearing rap duo, Kris Kross. Producers recruited many of today's top Atlanta rappers in a similar way. Since fans are “obsessed with authenticity — not to mention the production and sale of drugs, with everything that life-style afforded,” local industry kingpins sought out the city's best-known street hustlers and convinced them to rap, regardless of whether they have any “innate ability or interest.”
Past generations of street kids didn’t take the bait: "Rapping used to be corny." But as rap music became big business, Lil Baby and Marlo jumped from the streets into the recording booth, using their illicit piles of cash as startup capital for their new entertainment careers. The best passages of Rap Capital show how the entire production style of trap works around getting music out of neophyte rappers who rarely come in to the studio with full lyric sheets on loose-leafs. In many cases, they get into the booth and chant random phrases (“Raindrops / drop tops”) and playing back the bits that sound right. Engineers then lift and shift the best phrases until it resembles a song. Quality Control’s J Rich said about early Baby sessions: “He'd freestyle all the way through, four or five times, then I would put the song together word by word.”
Like many other forms of pop music, the trap production style relegates virtuosity (technical mastery) and artistry (striving towards originality) to secondary concerns. Virtuosity, artistry, and innovation may happen in trap, but not because of any communal obsession around their achievement. In Rap Capital, the beatmakers are mostly invisible laborers who fill the inboxes of label bosses with their latest instrumentals. Rappers record their material quickly and off-the-cuff. Migos bragged about spending a mere 20 minutes to write and record an entire song; the group’s DJ Durel, noted, “If they really take their time on it, they'll take forty or forty-five minutes.”
This shotgun recording method turned Lil Baby into an international pop star — but is Lil Baby a great rapper who moved the art form forward? Critics have been cold. Sheldon Pearce in Pitchfork summarized the complaints: Baby “doesn’t really have any charisma, or flavor, or personality” and his tracks often seem to be “working the same sample packs of synths, keys, hi-hats, and 808.” (A friend derided Baby as “Xanax Nelly.”) But do critics matter at all? Trap, says Coscarelli on the New York Times's Popcast, is not “made to be experienced sitting on your laptop or on the subway” but blasted at dance clubs and strip joints. And if audiences demand proximity to the streets rather than intricate poetry, trap is best made raw and untamed.
With craft a subsidiary virtue, the narrative of Rap Capital can often feel more focused on capital than rap. Migos's Culture II was not well regarded, but it successfully rolled out “with a merchandise collection at Bloomingdale's.” Almost every page of the book chronicles some form of conspicuous consumption, especially in the realm of cars: an orange Corvette, a Chrysler 300, a baby-blue Lamborghini, a Trackhawk Jeep, a Rolls-Royce Ghost, “a white Dodge Durango SUV with a digital dash and Hemi engine,” “a shimmering gold Mercedes-Benz E-Class convertible Cabriolet.” The city’s golden years apparently came during the height of the Black Mafia Family’s rule: “With dollar bills raining from the sky, it was like Freaknik on steroids, every night, if every car in traffic was a Lamborghini and there happened to be a Bengal tiger in the trunk, lounging with two strippers. And the tiger's teeth were made of gold.”
In a world where “money is the only fucking option” to escape "downward mobility, poverty, the streets," material exuberance is personal salvation. This is why luxury drip only further establishes trap's authenticity — a process that starts long before rappers make it big. Hip-hop, writes Coscarelli, is "an arena that necessitates flexing, showing off, being richer, better dressed and better appointed than the next guy. In most cases, you need both-to have struggled and to have overcome. But at the beginning stages of a career, the appearance of overcoming usually overlaps with the end of the struggle. In other words, you can't get on if you aren't already shining to some degree, even if the music you're making is a document of that struggle. It's faking it until you make it taken to an extreme." This hunger for luxury leaks into the lyrics as well. In “Versace,” Migos mentions the brand “nearly two hundred times — including thirty-six in the chorus alone, which featured no other words."
The rappers' personal circumstances may create widespread sympathy for their open lust for money, status, and luxury goods, but all taken together, it's hard to ignore the dystopian implications. American society systematically oppresses young Black men, only to dangle the self-commodification of their personal survival stories as the easiest way out. The lemonade-from-lemons view is that trap allows rappers to take the pain of the streets, “dress it up, drench it in melody and in bass, and then to monetize it” so they can “make the best of a bad hand.” But even for the most successful artists, self-commodification is a short-term play. Coscarelli argues, “The machine [is] always hungry for more Black exuberance, more Black pain. And thanks in part to the ongoing realities of the American underclass, the churn of fresher faces and voices with more urgent stories and pressing problems — not to mention updated packaging, slang and sounds — was constant, in line with the desire from listeners for whatever came next." And of course, constant replacement is always easier when virtuosity and artistry are secondary, the beats are conventional, the track makers are anonymous. An even harder kid's random phrases can also be put together word by word into the next hit.
But this is how trap works. To complain that trap prioritizes blitzkrieg production over craftsmanship, authenticity over artistic invention, and materialist accumulation over all other virtues is to complain that punk bands lack a decent string section. More important, we should accept that trap is popular because of these particular values. Traces of the trap ethos — immediacy, rawness, speed, and self-righteous avarice — power the most active cultural creators, whether social media strivers, Ponzi Jr. startup founders, and drop-shipping super chads. Like all great artistic movements, trap can proudly claim to have bent the arc of history towards itself — and its influence goes far beyond music.