Four years ago, Southern rap heroes UGK commanded listeners, without much discretion, to "Quit Hatin' the South." Nobody hates on the South now. From New Orleans' native son Lil Weezy to Rick Ross in Miami, many of today's most formidable hip-hop artists reside below the vaunted Mason-Dixon Line. Musically, Southern rap is often bombastic to the point of extravagance, splitting the difference between retro-futuristic funk, Miami bass, grimy Delta blues and various other sounds. You don't have to be a technical wiz to sound capable over these deliriously inspired tracks, but for the better part of a decade, Southern MCs, both noteworthy and not, have been the defining voice of hip-hop.
Last June, British rapper Giggs spoke of his affinity toward Southern rap in the pages of Spin; it was a testament to the music's far-reaching appeal. But has the South lost its edge?
That question may seem implausible, given the high volume of popular Southern rap. Still, compared to 2006 — when T.I.'s King, Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, Trae's Restless, Fiend's The Addiction: Hope Is Near, and Killer Mike's I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind elicited widespread enthusiasm — rap in the Deep South no longer feels all that compelling.
Part of the problem is circumstantial. The belt-tightening music industry has little revenue at its disposal, which means slick, expensive releases aren't made very often. It takes unthinkable muscle to fund a commercial rap album, so artists record on a budget. The result: music that sounds tinny, bland and Pro Tooled to death.
One would hope that Southern rappers could find a way around such a problem, but most settle for flaccid drums and monochromatic synthesizers. Not even truly gifted MCs are lost on this dilemma: Lil Wayne's hit "Right Above It" is an overcaffeinated mess with a big, obnoxious hook. Likewise, T.I.'s December album No Mercy had its charms, but lacked a significant hit and suffered from ill-fitting production by the Euro-trashy likes of Max Martin and Dr. Luke.
Young Jeezy, once the most promising and charismatic rapper in the underground, released The Recession to mass acclaim three years ago, but his subsequent endeavors have suffered diminished returns. His recent work isn't just dull; it reveals an artist who, embroiled in pointless feuds and label strife, lacks focus. Even sadder, Jeezy's on-again, off-again rival Gucci Mane was recently released from a psych ward, where he was admitted after pleading insanity for a series of arrests and probation violations.
Even the South's most reputable mainstream statesmen, it seems, have failed to weather the existing climate. Ludacris was everywhere in 2010, but his Battle of the Sexes is maybe the most perfunctory CD to come off the hip-hop assembly line in recent years. Houston-based Devin the Dude's Suite 420 and Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty fared better creatively, but went largely unheard due to poor promotion.
Of course, the caricature of Southern rap as lyrically deficient goon music is inaccurate. Not only are such artists as Big K.R.I.T. (Mississippi), G-Side and Yelawolf (Alabama), Pill and Playboy Tre (Atlanta) astonishing technicians, they are extraordinarily bright and have fully realized identities. Alas, it is the shallower end of the subgenre that routinely garners the most attention, like Waka Flocka Flame's narrowly focused Flockaveli.
In some ways the region has become a victim of its own success, just as the West Coast did 15 years ago following the death of Tupac and the subsequent crumbling of Death Row Records. The gangsta motif outgrew itself, and something similar is afoot on the Third Coast. The subgenre's mainstream ascension has left little room for progressive Southern artists who don't fit that prescribed bill. It's no coincidence that some of the region's most promising lyrical talent had to find meaningful industry co-signs elsewhere — from Jay-Z's signing of New Orleans native Jay Electronica and North Carolina native J. Cole to the much-needed fourth quarter assist Louisiana native Curren$y got from former Roc-A-Fella cofounder Dame Dash.
Meanwhile, the Southern artists who once pushed the envelope most provocatively — Missy Elliott, OutKast, Timbaland — are in stasis or semi-retirement. Which has given way to an unlikely renaissance in once-crumbling empires like New York and California. Throughout the country, we're seeing rappers who dare to amend the rules as hip-hop evolves past the insular aesthetic that propelled Southern MCs to the top of the charts. In New York, the streets are abuzz thanks to Skyzoo, Cory Gunz, Mickey Factz, and eloquent pothead Smoke DZA; in Los Angeles, the Odd Future's uncompromised performance art has won the group a vast cult following, while Kendrick Lamar is redefining what it means to be a rapper from Compton.
By comparison, the South seems peculiarly smug, as if brand association is enough to guarantee high sales and critical acclaim. The former lions of the subculture have reached a plateau and misplaced the sense of urgency that once impelled them to new creative heights. Hip-hop is a thriving entity, less regionalized and more cohesive than ever, but Southern artists will remain behind if they continue to gaze inward.