The claim that hip-hop is dead is a stupid one, but taking a close look at today’s musical landscape makes it look more stupid than ever. The slump in radio play and sales continues as it has for years, but hip-hop as a sound is in some ways more culturally ubiquitous today than it has been since the early 1990s. Sure, we don’t hear ASAP Rocky on whatever today’s equivalent of In Living Color may be, but I strongly doubt that the dude who cornered me one Saturday night in order to gab about Clams Casino would have done to same for DJ Paul and Juicy J in ‘06.
With this new trending popularity, however, comes problems of critical interpretation. This summer’s monstrous TNGHT EP was well received because it deserved it, laying down earth-shuddering beats that were as balanced and spare as they were huge. The duo, however, garnered attention at first because of their premise, the final meeting of two sounds that just seemed to be meant for each other: the pounding digital anthems of the recent trap rap revolution and the equally pounding, adrenaline hungry EDM.
It would be tempting to view Main Attrakionz affiliate Ryan Hemsworth’s new EP in the same light. Rap samples and mechanically skittering drums abound. The release pulls samples from Max B’s “Why You Do That” to Gucci and Waka’s “15th and the 1st”. It is, however, important to point out that despite the use of these sounds, the music reads nothing like either of those songs. It doesn’t even really sound like cloud rap. Sure, much of Last Words is a little swollen and woozy, but never enough to mirror the sweeping clouds of someone like Clams Casino. In the end, the release lands squarely in the influence of dance music. Dance and hip-hop music have run parallel to each other for decades, sharing sounds and aesthetics without ever being very structurally compatible. A sudden cosmopolitan awareness on the part of producers does not make the genres any easier to mix. Neither Last Words nor TNGHT EP can really ever be both genres at the same time.
Luckily, Hemsworth has a talent for making both. Last Words is a beneficial product of the current critical norm, showing an open but rooted musical attitude that takes cues from a wide palette. Simultaneously drowsy, thick, and twee, the EP could not have been made in any other time but 2012. All incidental elements are used for new purposes. An Elliott Smith sample on “Colour & Movement” becomes a sing song trance mantra while trap rap high hats are used for texture rather than impact. If I must make a comparison to hip-hop, the most apt would be the similarly eclectic Noah “40” Shebib. He’s a more emotional producer by far, but both value the atmospheric, the epic, and the esoteric over the immediately impactful. While Last Words never quite coheres into a singular, penetrating sound, it’s an excellent sampling of what’s possibly in store.