Remember when we first started hearing the term "mumble rap"? Initially it referred to rappers that had lyrics we couldn't easily understand. But lately it's an umbrella term used to often inaccurately describe a majority of the new artists. This "one size fits all" narrative has unfortunately ushered in a divide between some of the older participants in hiphop, and the youth trying to forge their path in the game. I personally think lumping everyone into this tag is dismissive, and ironically it reminds me of when my generation and peers got lumped into being strictly "backpack" rap fans, and underground MCs.
There's absolutely no problem with forming opinions about the type of music you like. But if you're a rapper, you're a student. And you should constantly study all styles of lyric based music so you can become a better overall songwriter. If your goal is to tour and develop a fanbase, you should especially study current styles that the youth are gravitating to. You don't have to emulate someone's style fully, but if you identify things that make a successful song work you can see where that meshes with your sound. Let's go over a few things I think all songwriters should take from the current "mumble rap" generation.
Recording Ideas Before Writing Them Down
Part of the energy and looseness of the "mumble rap" generation comes from being able to freestyle over cheap home studio setups and try out ideas. This isn't a completely new concept, but recording software and access to gear has made it more commonplace to skip paper and just record a line here or an adlib there. Piece by piece, you get a full track. To MCs and songwriters who really value their pen game, that idea can seem impossible. But you don't have to do a whole song that way. By just recording cadences, flows, patterns, or ad-libs direct from brain to software, you can stumble on something you wouldn't have on paper. You enter a heightened focus when you write, but you tap into a spiritual energy when you improv and freestyle straight to a recording. The next time you write a song, before you grab a pen, load up the beat in software and record a couple of tracks off of the top of your head. They don't have to be full verses, just get some skeletons and bits of the song down, then write in the real lyrics. You'll be surprised where it leads
Energetic Vocal Cadence
If mumble rap has taught anything it's that with the right tone and energy, you can make the simplest words carry a whole song. Hell, you can make illegible words carry a song if the energy behind what you say is right. The flip side rings true too. You can ruin an amazing verse by having a boring voice. Artists like Ski Mask the Slump God and xxxtentacion have such unique energy and vocal infliction that they pull you in before you know what on earth they're saying. It makes you want to listen again. In today's digital treasure chest of FX and unlimited recording takes, if you can't make your vocal exciting naturally then find a producer and an engineer that can work their magic.
If you've listened to lil Uzi Vert (yea)
You know his signature ad-lib (aye)
In fact lots of folks stole it (yea)
I bet it's in your head now (aye)
Annoying as this may be due to a million copycats, a constant catch phrase as an ad-lib works well if it's not corny. It gives the listener a familiar thing to sing and expect. It's one of the oldest branding tools ever really, getting people to hopefully repeat your catchy slogan. The youngins are all about this one but some of the most respected MCs use this trick too. Think about when you hear Pusha T say that "Yughck" after a bar. It works on you every time. Think of an ad-lib you're comfy with and use it on your next 10 tracks.
We're all blessed with unique voices. Some MCs like Nas and Scarface have a more iconic sound in their voice that allows them to rely on purely timbre and tone. Nas rarely sings or alters the pitch in his verses because the "gravel wrapped in velvet" quality of his voice is enough to make you want to hear more. But by playing with melody in your verses, even if just for a few bars, you add another weapon to your arsenal that can set you apart. It also gives people something to hum along as they try to remember your triple entendre, 30 metaphor bars. Melody is the first thing a person remembers in a pop song. Give your listeners melodic content to sync into. There's a reason Puff's simple ass melody in the "Hate Me Now" hook works. You can remember it waaaaaay before you have that Nas verse memorized.
Mumble rap and brevity go hand in hand. You can insert your own "That's because you can't listen to these fools too long" joke here now, I'll wait...... But the truth is, looking at some of Apple Music's long lasting rap singles shows a common thread. And it's a short thread. XO TOUR Lif3 is 3 minutes long. So is Magnolia by Playboi Carti. Look At Me by xxxtentacion is 2:30. Short song length is a traditional pop music trait that gives the listener the urge to play the track again. If you value your bars it can sometimes be hard to tell yourself to rap less, but remember some of the greats did it all the time. Look at MF Doom. Most of his elite records are less than 3 minutes long.
At the end of it all, the best writers study. The best MCs know all styles and can pick them apart with ease. That's why Biggie could do Notorious Thugs. Before you limit your growth, take some time and break down a few new records that you personally would label mumble rap and see if there is something redeeming in it that you can use in your next song.
SentZ is a Brooklyn raised writer and producer who hasn't been the same since his 1st Helio phone