Listening to Chance The Rapper’s new mixtape, Coloring Book, you’re likely to notice two things. First, on the opening track, All We Got, you’ll see that he and Kanye pick up exactly where Ultralight Beam left off. Second, you’ll notice that Chance The Rapper is often Chance The Singer, which, oddly enough, doesn’t seem strange. While it was once unconventional for rappers to also sing, the singing rapper has become a staple in hip hop.
At The Come Up Show we’ve noticed that several new artists have swapped spitting bars for soaring melodies during their rise to fame. Take Bryson Tiller as an example, before dropping Don’t, Tiller used to primarily be a rapper, however, when pressed on his position as a rapper or an R&B artist during a Hot 97 interview, he said that he is an R&B artist.
We’ve brought this trend up with several emerging artists and the general consensus is that new rappers have to sing in order to be appealing. But this new style isn’t just for the new school; lots of veteran rappers – Birdman excluded – have incorporated more melody into their style. Even Classified – who is now an anomaly for not singing – said although he doesn’t sing, he would if he could. With the younger generation and established veterans taking note, it’s clear that this new style is more than just a passing wave.
But where did all these singing rappers come from? According to Drake, we can thank him for being “the first person to successfully sing and rap.” And even though it’s easy to label singing rappers as “The Drake Effect,” I’m not so sure that he’s the first. So let’s just hold off on thanking Drake now, because if we go back, back when you could get a platinum plaque without no melody, we can find several artists who were successfully singing and rapping.
Bursting onto the scene with The Fugees in 1994, Lauryn Hill rapped circles around Wyclef Jean and Pras. More than that, she sang with such power and emotion that she stole focus on any song she appeared on. Lauryn’s vocals were so strong that, unlike most rappers who rely heavily on Auto-Tune and post-production edits, she was able to put out an amazing live, and primarily-sung, MTV Unplugged album.
Even though Ms. Hill has been largely absent from hip hop in recent years, her influence is still felt. It’s surely impossible for any artist who sings and raps to claim they weren’t influenced by her. More than anybody else, Lauryn Hill showed that, in rare cases, the best lyricists can craft the best melodies.
Best Rap Verse: Ready or Not – The Fugees.
Best Vocal: Mystery of Iniquity.
“OutKast landed, Three Thou’ was ill; like a male version, of Lauryn Hill.” – JAY Z on “A Star Is Born.”
Like Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000 did more than just add melody to his raps. He delivered purely-sung songs that were strong enough on their own to not need his, or Big Boi’s, rapping. Case and point: I guarantee that there are tons of people who can sing the entire chorus of Hey Ya and not know who Big Boi is. Unlike Lauryn. Hill, Andre 3000 is not necessarily a great singer; but that doesn’t matter. He showed that if you want to rap and sing you just have to do it with confidence. Undeniably, Andre 3000 paved the way for rappers without the best voices to be experimental with their vocals, and his influence is still strong – looking at you, Chance.
Personally, I’m glad that hip hop seems to be moving away from guest vocalists, in favor of less technically skilled rappers singing their own hooks. I hope we feel this way forever… Forever ever? Forever, ever.
Best Rap Verse: Da Art of Storytelling Pt. 2
Best Vocal: Ms. Jackson.
Ja Rule & 50 Cent
Moving away, far away, from the Lauryn Hills and Andre 3000s of the world, I’m going to talk about Ja “Are-you-Ellie?” Rule. Although Ja Rule is now seen as a bit of a joke, there was a time when he successfully rapped and “successfully” sang. Ja’s reign as a reputable force in Hip hop was abruptly ended by 50 Cent who targeted Ja Rule for his style of sing-rap. Unfortunately for Ja, this criticism came at when the world was so infatuated with 50’s apparent immortality, that we all accepted the notion that singing was only for the “Wankstas” of the world. With less than nine shots from 50, Ja (and Ashanti by association) became a laughing stock.
Someone unfamiliar with hip hop may read this and think that 50 Cent brought the demise of the singing rapper, but, in reality, he just made the style his own. If singing is really just for the Wankstas of the world then how do you explain 21 Questions? Nate Dogg isn’t the only one singing on that track, Curtis. No disrespect to 50, but you shouldn’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.
Best Rap Verse: Psycho – 50 Cent ft. Eminem.
Best Vocal: Hate It or Love It – The Game ft. 50 Cent.
While 50 Cent and Ja Rule were fighting for New York City supremacy, Nelly was establishing himself as a dominant artist for his ability to mix singing and rapping. Nelly always walked a bit of a fine line between singer and rapper and it worked for him. Is he predominantly singing on Hot in Herre, or is he rapping? What about Ride Wit Me? I don’t know, but I do know that, when I hear those songs I’m digging out the white Band-Aids. It was only when Nelly stepped over the fine line into purely singing territory that he struggled. As bad as Over and Over was, maybe it was only Just A Dream.
Best Rap Verse: Country Grammar.
Best Vocal: Ride Wit Me.
Perhaps the most divisive artist of our generation, Kanye’s venture into singing was met with more backlash than that George Bush comment. Maybe it was because Kanye’s previous production style relied so heavily on tactfully repurposing classic songs. Maybe it was because 808s-and-Heartbreak-Kanye sounding like a karaoke-version of T-Pain. Regardless, once the shock of Kanye’s reinvention wore off, most people were able to appreciate 808s and Heartbreak for the great album that it was. Like Andre 3000, Kanye showed that being a technically-talented singer isn’t that important. What matters more is finding a specific style and owning it, regardless of the backlash.
Despite Kanye’s confidence in his new style, he had one very notable critic in Jay Z. JAY Z famously opposed the reinvention of his protégé and made those thoughts public on D.O.A., when he rapped “my raps don’t have melodies” and accused other rappers of “T-Pain-ing too much.” Similar to how 50 Cent criticized Ja Rule for singing, Jay Z criticized Kanye. And like 50 Cent, JAY Z’s comments did nothing to slow the advance of singing rappers. Maybe JAY Z was just acting out over negative reviews of his Wonderwall performance.
Best Rap Verse: Gorgeous ft. Kid Cudi & Raekwon.
Best Vocal: Heartless.
Less than a full year after Jay Z announced the Death of Auto-Tune, Drake proved that Auto-Tune was still very much alive when he dropped Thank Me Later and started his ascension to 6ix God status. Five albums, and one N.B.A. All-Star Weekend, later, Drake has consistently shown that artists don’t need to be either a singer or a rapper. Although I disagree with Drake’s claim that he was the first to successfully sing and rap, it’s undeniable that he has removed some of the stigma surrounding singing rappers.
Beyond Drake, there a lot of incredibly talented rappers in the Toronto who also moonlight as singers. For example, Tory Lanez started out rapping on songs like Remembrance Day, before singing on tracks Say It and L.A. Confidential. Even though Drake and Tory Lanez are holding the majority of Toronto’s international spotlight, there are still notable local talents who are mixing melody and rap, like: J-Soul, Kayo, Ellis, and Jayd Ink.
When we sat down with Jayd Ink, we asked her how she felt about the rise of the singing rapper and what distinguishes one artist from another. While she welcomed the new trend because of its ability to challenge hip hop as an art form, she also offered some words of caution to rappers looking to become more melodic; specifically, “being a singer, you have to make sure you can sing.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Rappers who are incorporating more melody into their style need to be able to bring that same skill that we hear on SoundCloud to their live performances. After all, if you’re trying to emulate a sound that has strong ties to Lauryn Hill, you need to be able to back that up. Don’t forget, Lauryn was good enough to release an Unplugged record; if you’re going to sell yourself as a singer you have to be able to do a show without worrying about the technical glitches that can come from using live Auto-Tune.
And if you can’t sing then do as Classified does: don’t. Remember that the singing rapper style came from a handful of artists who were willing to push boundaries and be innovative. So, if that’s just not you, then don’t crank up the pitch correction just to gain popularity. Create your own sound and be the artist that’s mentioned first in these articles.