Let’s take a minute to survey how far we’ve come in the past five years. In early 2009 a video spreads on…
Let’s take a minute to survey how far we’ve come in the past five years.
In early 2009 a video spreads on YouTube and MTV (still kind of a thing then) of a fresh-faced Toronto singer-rapper called Drake. That song, ‘Best I Ever Had’, still had its success deemed a ‘surprise’ despite its retrospectively conventional structure and flow. Kanye had just released 808s And Heartbreaks two months prior to lukewarm and, at times, confused critical reception.
Or go even further back. The Source Awards in 1995. East Coast-West Coast tensions had never been higher. Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight mugging New York off. Despite this, the award for Best Rap Album didn’t go to any artist from either of the US’ lateral poles, but to Outkast, the ‘oddball’ Southerners who collected their award amidst heckles, boos and brawls. This wasn’t boom-bap. The South had something to say, and its funk and its flow began to crack away at the then still strictly confined borders of the genre.
What does any of this have to do with iLoveMakonnen’s strangely genius 7-track self-titled EP? Quite a lot, as it would turn out.
In the 19 years since that fateful awards ceremony in Madison Square Gardens, when Andre and Big Boi proved once and for all the inherent pitfalls of dichotomy, hip hop has gone from perennial outsider genre embroiled constantly in its own drama, to arguably the fulcrum of modern pop music. There was never anything to suggest this as a certainty. Even in one of its earlier heydays, when Eminem and G-Unit had carved out a sizeable chunk of the post-millennial youth, hip hop was still stridently, often proudly, ‘other’.
One can point to Marshall Mathers’ whiteness; to Dre, Diddy and Jay Z’s business acumen; to Kanye’s non-stop quest to break new ground. All of those are major, but not definitive, reasons for what happened. What has truly distinguished hip hop in the post-internet era is its seemingly limitless ability to adapt and change. No other genre in the past five years has had both its core and its outer limits chopped up and redefined so many times. But while this tactic of omnivorousness has been the hallmark of the pop machine for at least the past fifty years, hip hop has elevated itself by latching onto one truth that pop through the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s often ignored – that what the public gravitates toward more than anything else is personalities. Increasingly it seems that the stranger and more out there, the better. And thus we get Kanye. We get Drake. We get Odd Future. We get Lil B. And, yes, we get iLoveMakonnen.
There’s nothing to marvel in the existence of ‘weird rap’. Hip hop is a genre that has had practitioners of increasingly varied shapes and forms working in its realms for three decades now, and it only took less than half that time before the weirdos got involved. What is undoubtedly remarkable, though, is to see the current immediacy of the weirdo’s mainstream acceptance. Drake appearing on ‘Club Goin Up on a Tuesday’ would be like Katy Perry adding a verse to a catchy but unknown number off an early Ariel Pink mixtape. The insane trajectory that iLoveMakonnen’s career has taken means he is no longer just in line for Rapper Most Likely To Say Schnitzel On A Hook – he appears just a year (maybe less) off from being a bona fide pop star. What’s interesting about iLoveMakonnen’s oft-professed ambition to own his own hotel and casino isn’t the massive scale of that ambition – any young entertainer worth his weight in salt has to have that outsized self-belief to achieve any kind of success these days – but the fact that it could just happen.
All of this goes some way to explaining iLoveMakonnen’s seemingly instant success and acceptance, but not the music itself. Formulated in the midst of a depression-riddled stint under house arrest after the accidental death of his best friend in 2007, his synth-hopped sound forms a tapestry across these seven tracks that becomes, by its end, wholly and completely his. He enlists the help of the current heavyweights of Atlantan production on each of these tracks. Metro Boomin, who has produced extensively for Future, Migos and Gucci Mane, provides many of the album’s most sumptuous beats, including soulful opener ‘Too Much’. Sonny Digital is responsible for iLoveMakonnen’s breakout drug dealing single ‘I Don’t Sell Molly No More’. The combination of the two forces proves the most lethal, though, on ‘Club Goin Up On Tuesday’, where the two provide a woozy soundscape over which iLoveMakonnen can draw the best song yet about midweek turn-ups.
iLoveMakonnen rejects the otherworldly sonic constructions of fellow Atlanta-native Future. By eschewing the in-vogue aesthetics of vocoders and pitch modulations, he draws attention to the imperfections and flaws of his voice, sonically mimetic of his all-on-display character and his honest dealings with the thematic concerns of his choice – usually relationship anxiety or the pitfalls of a hard and fast youth . Because of this, it manages to come across as somehow even more raw than Future’s signature stylings. On ‘Tonight’, ‘Meant To Be’ and ‘Sarah’ he namechecks specific loves, and while Brianna, Sarah and Shoshana have less chance of being tracked down and harassed than Courtney From Hooters On Peachtree, it still comes across as a type of honesty one-upmanship from the Atlanta local.
In a recent interview, iLoveMakonnen gave a hint to people aiming to pigeonhole him. Amidst his string of completely direct and to-the-point answers, he said: “I never thought ‘I’m gonna be a singer or producer or rapper’ or whatever people wanna say I’m doing right now”. He has absolutely no interest in defining himself, even while others try. It isn’t really singing. It isn’t really rapping. It isn’t just producing. But he has just signed to Drake’s OVO Sound and is currently working on releasing a bunch of songs with Miley Cyrus, one of which he hopes will go on to get a Grammy nomination. You can hate him, you can be confused by him or is success, but you really can’t ignore him. He’ll make sure of that.
The rest is there for you to hear.