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From misheard lyrics to the new normal, mumble rap is here to stay

By Malavika Pradeep

Oct 10, 2021

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“Twenty Montana. Twenty Matana. Twenty Mytana,” chanted American rapper Future in his 2011 song titled ‘Tony Montana’. In interviews that followed, the rapper admitted to being highly intoxicated while recording the song. “I was saying ‘Taouny Mountayna’ ‘cause I couldn’t even open my mouth,” he claimed. Little did Future know that he would be changing the future—ba dum tss—of hip hop by birthing a controversial new subgenre. Introducing mumble rap, a form of rapping synonymous with ‘wait, what?’ and misheard lyric videos on YouTube.

What is mumble rap?

Coined by Wiz Khalifa five years after the genre bled into the industry, the term ‘mumble rap’ refers to a form of rapping—or arguably not rapping—where artists incoherently mumble a bunch of words together. Think Migos’ iconic 2016 bop ‘Bad and Boujee’. The song was a regular in clubs until 2018, where people even used to make words up just to sing along. In a way, it was the year’s ‘Despacito’—incoherently catchy, even though it was sung entirely in English.

Now, that definition of mumble rap is as neutral as they come. Also known as ‘emo rap’ and ‘SoundCloud rap’, the genre is widely criticised for its little to no emphasis on lyricism and lyrical quality. Several entries on platforms like Quora and Urban Dictionary echo these criticisms by questioning the very existence of mumble rap as a genre.

“They tend to slur their words in an unintelligible manner and call it music and art,” reads an entry on the latter, adding how you can understand every single word in normal rapping if you slow it down—in contrast to mumble rap where everything is gibberish, no matter what the speed. An overdose of adlibs in the genre is also not missed out on. As noted by The Conversation, mumble rappers tend to use the ‘aye’ flow, where they add words such as ‘yeah’, ‘aye’ and ‘uh’ to the start or end of their lines. The use of such adlibs add to the notion of supposed ‘cultural laziness’ the subgenre allegedly preaches.

This controversial reception of mumble rappers extends into the internal works of the music industry—where the term is often used as a label with derogatory connotations. On his album Kamikaze, Eminem criticised the genre by rapping away the lyrics “Hatata batata, why don’t we make a bunch of fukin’ songs about nothin’ and mumble ‘em… Shit is a circus, you clowns that are comin’ up.” His diss track ‘Killshot’, which was targeted at Machine Gun Kelly, also included a line where he pejoratively called MGK a “mumble rapper.”

“I don’t even consider that hip hop,” said Grandmaster Caz in an interview with Vlad TV. In another interview with the publication, Kool G Rap highlighted how the mass public has been “dumbed down.” “Part of rapping is being lyrical, being a wordsmith and slick with your wordplay, so how do you even achieve that if you’re mumbling your words intentionally?”

A reflection of contemporary times

When Desiigner dropped ‘Panda’, everyone mumbled along with him except for the “I got broads in Atlanta” and “skkkrrraa” parts of the 2016 banger. All of this was until the rapper made a Genius video dissecting the lines bar for bar. According to Billboard, this was when he carried the torch for mumble rappers everywhere, leading its ‘Hot 100’ chart for two consecutive weeks. Everyone was tuned into Desiigner’s success, even Kim Kardashian, who shared the decoding video across social media platforms herself.

Mumble rap style can be induced through three main factors. First up is its characterisable Southern drawl and pronunciation, which is often hard to comprehend. The continual intake of the drug ‘lean’ (a substance made with Codeine cough syrup, soda, and hard candy) can further slur their speech patterns while the placement of golden teeth grills add to the genre’s incoherence.

According to Stephen Niday, Genius’ head of lyrics, however, there have always been artists who were hard to understand, be it for the fact that they don’t fully enunciate all of their words or simply because they rap really fast. “It’s nothing new, so the process of transcribing and decoding lyrics isn’t any more difficult,” he said in the interview with Billboard. “A little bit different, sure, but definitely not any more difficult than it’s ever been before.”

While veterans in the industry continually express their concerns about the intelligence and speech capabilities of this new generation of rappers, the ones making the music are more than proud with their creations. In a viral video by Lil Pump, the rapper explained how he lives in his own world, far from criticisms. “I ain’t want none of that lyrical shit,” he proudly mumbled into his camera. “I just be having fun with what I do. Esskeetit.” With rappers like Future, Desiigner, Gucci Mane, Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert dubbed as mumble rappers by mainstream media, this collection of artists is undoubtedly owning the narrative despite what the ‘legends’ in the industry think.

At the time when Wiz Khalifa coined the term, he forecasted mumble rapping to be a temporary phase. “It’s cool for now, it’s going to evolve,” he said, punctuating the sentiment by explaining that if such rappers wanted longevity, they’d have to find another way to rhyme eventually. Given the amount of artists mumbling their way to the top, however, his forecast seems less plausible.

Art survives through evolution. Maybe lyricism was meant to take a hit in order to forge new paths and push boundaries of what rap is and who it’s for. In order to give the genre more room to grow and experiment, however, the criticisms and claims of what rap should be have to dial down a notch. And as Grandmaster Caz himself claimed a couple of years after alienating mumble rap from hip hop, “they’re a different generation, they do a different thing, they have a different agenda and their influences come from different places.”