From its humble beginnings in the Bronx nearly five decades ago, hip hop has grown from a counter-cultural form of artistic expression into a staple of the mainstream music industry and top 40 charts. Despite this commercial success and exceptional growth, a battle has emerged in recent years over the soul and future of hip hop due to the polarizing influence of a relatively new sub-genre called “mumble rap”.
What is mumble rap?
Mumble rap is a derogatory term for a sub-genre of hip hop that has emerged over the last decade to become one of its most popular forms.1 While debate remains over how it should be defined, this article will attempt to delineate the characteristics of mumble rap by exploring its lyrics, content, composition, beat and culture (see table).
“This is mumble rap: the most lamentable parts of hip hop – the misogyny, the abject materialism and the violence – delivered without any of its poetry, wit or intellect.”
In mumble rap’s lyrics, we find the main source of contention between it and traditional forms of hip hop. Indeed, the derogatory usage of “mumble” points us to the sub-genre’s most distinguishing characteristic : a notable lack of emphasis on lyrics – particularly in comparison to alternative forms of hip hop.2 Whereas lyrical skill has historically been paramount to an MC’s credibility and success, mumble rap deviates from this by placing limited importance on lyrics and instead emphasizing “flow” and melody.
The rhymes used are always simple and often repetitive. While an artist might not actually mumble, it is common to loosen pronunciation of the key rhyming words – particularly by slurring, trailing off or through the use of voice altering effects such as Auto-Tune. Rhymes might rely heavily on the use of, e.g., “ays”, “yeahs”, “uhs” and “oohs”, with performers liberally applying ad-libs over the lyrics in order to compensate for their limited lyrical quality and depth.
Due to the reduced prominence of lyrics within mumble rap, the song’s hook usually becomes central to its appeal. Since songs usually consist of only one or two 16-bar verses (i.e., the bare minimum of lyrics under the standard hip hop format), they typically begin with the hook so as to expand on the minimal amount of lyrical content provided. This further adds to the repetitiveness of the song and makes it uncommon for tracks to notably exceed 3 minutes in duration.
In terms of lyrical content, mumble rap maintains some consistency with standard hip hop themes – though this is unfortunately with respect to the more regrettable aspects of hip hop. Misogyny is rampant in mumble rap and it is almost impossible to find an example that doesn’t include at least several bars glorifying sexual conquests and objectifying women (in a way that is surprisingly not criticized very much in this post-me-too world). Money and materialism are similarly major themes. While violence is certainly present, it is arguably less central than in other strands of hip hop [and is often being espoused by teenagers who seem to be acting out fantasies of violence rather than recounting past experiences (reminiscent of what we might find in an adolescent video game addict who has lost touch with reality)].
Drugs too remain an important topic, but in a distinctly different manner than traditionally observed. Whereas traditional hip hop has centered on the cultural and social aspects of crack dealing and addiction, mumble rap is more focused on the glorification of drug consumption and its associated lifestyle. Emphasis is typically on synthetic party drugs (e.g., molly and cocaine) and prescription drugs (such as opioids). The drug “lean”3 is ubiquitous, with rappers regularly seen carrying a disposable cup designed to insinuate that he is consuming the drug.4
– Loose rhyming
– “Ays”, “Yeahs”
|– Emphasis on flow
– Centrality of hook
– 1 to 2 short verses
|– Drugs (lean,
party drugs, Rx drugs)
– Women, sex
– Money, materials
|– heavy bass
– Trap snares
|– Names (Lil, young)
– Hair (braids, colored)
– Face tattoos
– Bright colored clothing
– Drugs, parties
This emphasis on drugs is also one of the defining cultural elements that characterizes mumble rap. Although claims of violence by the genre’s protagonists are less credible, it is entirely believable that mumble rappers boasting about drug usage are speaking from experience.5
The drug culture surrounding mumble rap also helps to explain part of its allure. Influenced by the rap subgenre of “Trap”, it is common for mumble rap beats to be characterized by heavy bass, snares and double- or triple-time hi-hats that make it popular in clubs or at parties. In such settings, listeners may be under the influence of the same drugs being referenced in the songs. These factors, in turn, probably help explain the reduced emphasis on lyrics: people on drugs looking to dance and have a good time are probably less interested in dissecting a song’s deeper meaning. That’s cool.
Beyond drugs, a number of additional common cultural elements can be observed. For reasons that no one seems able to explain, there is a high degree of overlap in the stage names used, with many mumble rappers adopting some derivation of “Lil” or “Young” in their name.6 A distinct sense of fashion can also be identified: artist’s often have face tattoos and braided hair that may be dyed in the same bright colors commonly found in their stylish clothing.7
To illustrate, let’s have a look at the wildly popular 2017 song “Gucci Gang” by the prominent Miami mumble rapper Lil Pump.
Culturally, Lil Pump checks all the boxes: clad in bright colors, his hair is braided and dyed bright prink and green while his face is adorned with several face tattoos. As he emerges from his sports car after pulling into “Gucci Gang High”, we see him brandishing a paper cup in one hand (insinuating that he is drinking lean) and a blunt in the other. Drugs remain a central element throughout the video, with others at the fictional school also consuming lean and Lil Pump carrying giant bags of marijuana.
The song begins with Lil Pump regurgitating a number of ad-libs (yeah, ooh, brrrp, ooh), before going directly into the hook (which he repeats twice). Note the repetitiveness and simplicity in its rhymes (Ad-libs in parenthesis):
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang (Gucci gang)
Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang (Gucci gang)
Spend three racks on a new chain (Yeah)
My bitch love do cocaine, ooh (Ooh)
I fuck a bitch, I forgot her name (Brr, yuh)
I can’t buy a bitch no wedding ring (Ooh)
Rather go and buy Balmains (Brr)
From here, the song moves into its first and only verse. It is standard mumble rap, comprised of very simplistic lyrics that could arguably be rendered by anyone with a limited education and/or command of the English language.8
My lean cost more than your rent, ooh (It do)
Your momma still live in a tent, yuh (Brr)
Still slangin’ dope in the ‘jects, huh? (Yeah)
Me and my grandma take meds, ooh (Huh?)
None of this shit be new to me (Nope)
Fuckin’ my teacher, call it tutory (Yuh)
Bought some red bottoms, cost hella G’s (Huh?)
Fuck your airline, fuck your company (Fuck it!)
Bitch, your breath smell like some cigarettes (Cigarettes)
I’d rather fuck a bitch from the projects (Yuh)
They kicked me out the plane off a Percocet (Brr)
Now Lil Pump flyin’ private jet (Yuh)
Everybody scream, “Fuck WestJet” (Fuck ’em)
Lil Pump still sell that meth (Yuh)
Hunnid on my wrist, sippin’ on Tech (Brr)
Fuck a lil’ bitch, make her pussy wet (What?)
Ignoring that I’ve never heard of someone’s mother living in a tent, let’s recap what Lil Pump does here.
1. He begins his verse ingeniously coming up with the rhyme of “rent” and “tent”.
2. From here, he goes to “jects” (as in “projects”) and “meds”, which do not rhyme with each other or with the fire combination of “rent” and “tent” already laid down.
3. This is just a warm-up, however, for the serious lyrics to come as Lil Pump then bursts through the walls of previously understood human limits by rhyming “me”, (the made up word) “tutory”, “g” and “company”.
4. He concludes by bringing us to our knees with the complex rhymes of “cigarette”, “project”, “Percocet”, “jet”, “Westjet”, “meth”, “tech” and “wet”.
5. Having fully satisfied us, he decides that no additional bars are necessary and closes out the song by again repeating the hook twice. In total, he has spit 16 bars and produced a song that barely eclipses two minutes in duration.9
In case the sarcasm is lost on you, let’s be clear: this is extremely simple, superficial and stupid. As a narrative and in terms of content, this verse brings in many of the standard elements of mumble rap. He boasts about women he sleeps with, the material items that he possesses and the drugs that he consumes: all while displaying a total lack of lyrical skill or intellectual curiosity.
This is mumble rap: the most lamentable parts of hip hop – the misogyny, the abject materialism and the violence – delivered without any of its poetry, wit or intellect. I’m not joking when I assert that anyone could put together this rhyme – even a Donald Trump-supporting illiterate like Lil Pump (Skrrt!).
For comparison, let’s juxtapose Lil Pump with the great Black Thought and his legendary freestyle performed on Funkmaster Flex several months after Gucci Gang was released.
Thought goes off on a 10-minute, one-take stream of consciousness, where he references, inter alia, Cain, Abel, Caesar, Brutus, Jesus, Judas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Tigris and Euphrates, Sharia Law, Henry Kissinger, Buzz Bissinger, Kafka, the Fleur-de-lis (in reference to slavery), Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Henrietta Lacks, Nat Turner, Hamlet’s Yorick and Horatio, Einstein, Shakespeare, Voltaire and Tesla (while also directing a diss towards mumble rap at around 3:50). Notably absent is any degree of misogyny. Drugs, when mentioned, are identified as a scourge that has plagued the African-American community (including his own mother). Lyrically, this transcendent rhyme from Black Thought marks the poetic, artistic and intellectual heights of which hip hop (and humanity) is capable. This is a verse that will someday be a part of a graduate seminar at an American university; and, yet, it has been viewed “only” 13 million times in comparison to the more than 1 billion (!) views for Gucci Gang. The world, my friends, is unjust.
Where did mumble rap originate?
As in the case of how to define mumble rap, there is limited consensus on its precise origins. With heavy influence from the hip hop sub-genre of Trap, mumble rap’s origins appear to be squarely rooted in the cultural and musical influences of the Southern United States – particularly Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami.10
Many of the sub-genre’s defining characteristics can be observed in a nascent form as early as 2008 in the song “Lollipop” from the New Orleans rapper Lil’ Wayne. Its video (embedded below) provides a blueprint for what would subsequently emerge: limited lyrical complexity, repetitiveness,11 emphasis on flow, and reliance on Auto-Tune. Even some of the defining cultural characteristics noted above appear to have been popularized by Lil Wayne: from the usage of “Lil” in the stage name, to the braids and face tattoos.
While Lil Wayne may have provided the blueprint for mumble rap, its foundation appears to have been laid by the rappers Future (Atlanta), Gucci Mane (Atlanta) and Chief Keef (Chicago).
Widely credited as the first mumble rap song, Future’s “Tony Montana” (2011)12 includes many characteristics of mumble rap. The song begins with a highly repetitive hook, where the two words “Tony Montana” are uttered almost ad nauseam through Auto-Tune.13 The song’s verses, meanwhile, place a clear emphasis on flow and are comprised of simplistic lyrics that often fail to rhyme (a fact that is compensated for by a more “mumbled” delivery and the presence of Auto-Tune).
Around the same time, fellow Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane was finding commercial success with his mumbled delivery and emphasis on drug consumption and misogyny. In his 2013 song “Breakfast”, we find a hook and verse from Gucci Mane that arguably lacks a single rhyme (despite the notable simplicity). This is really just a garbage song, with terrible rhymes, mumbled delivery, content that is utterly moronic (misogyny, materialism, drug consumption, violence), and a hook that sounds like a nursery rhyme.14
Despite their influence and obvious overlap, neither Future nor Gucci Mane satisfy all of the dimensions of mumble rap identified above. Rather, it is Chicago’s Chief Keef who deserves the ignominious distinction of being the first “mumble rapper”. As early as 2012, Keef was releasing tracks that contained all of the sub-genre’s core elements: a mumbled, garbled delivery that attempts to compensate for his inability to rhyme; reliance on Auto-Tune; very basic and repetitive lyrics; and an emphasis on party drugs/lean, misogyny, materialism and violence.
In Chief Keef’s almost emo-style of delivery on tracks such as “Citgo”, “Love No Thotties” and “That’s It”, we find an additional element that could be included within the sub-genre’s distinguishing features: that it is predominantly a product made for, and consumed by, children. These mumble rappers are really just hip hop versions of the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync. They are the realization of a 40-year journey that has seen hip hop branch into “hip pop”. (More on this in Part 2).
Not all mumble rap is as atrocious as the examples given here. While I don’t listen to this music by choice, I can see the allure for people at parties who may be on drugs and want to get their groove on. In such a context, I can wrap my head around an artist like Playboi Carti. Even if it doesn’t really resonate with me personally, I have respect for the modern manifestations of Southern drip that can be found in a group like Migos. I can, in turn, find the rockstar appeal of a charismatic artist like Lil Uzi Vert or Young Thug. But, I don’t have tolerance for this lazy garbage that demeans women and the craft of emceeing. So, in closing I will put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate that even an amateur like me has 10 times the lyrical talent of the most “gifted” mumble rapper.
- No one is really sure when or from whom the term originated, but its mainstream emergence appears to date from around 2014. “Soundcloud rap” is an often used alternative to describe the sub-genre given the importance of the online platform to its initial growth.
- Too much fixation has been placed on the usage of the term “mumble”, with many believing that this implies that a rapper must actually mumble in order to qualify as a member of the sub-genre. This is false. While “mumbling” is certainly a giveaway, it it is misleading to suggesting that this genre is populated only (or even predominantly) by artists who fail to sufficiency enunciate their words.
- lean is made from codeine cough syrup, soda and hard candy such as jolly ranchers
- Indeed, the lean cup is an important cultural element and one worth noting
- Indeed, many seem to have notable experience in consuming drugs, which would perhaps explain the limited complexity and coherence of their lyrics.
- examples include: Lil Baby, Lil Keed, Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Xan, Lil Yachti, NBA YoungBoy, Young Dolph, Young Thug
- These bright colors may also be conducive to the drug and party scene as it is somewhat reminiscent of what one observes at a rave (more on this in Part 2).
- both of which describe Lil Pump
- Suck on that god: it took you 6 whole days to create perfection; Lil Pump didn’t even need a commercial break.
- These southern roots may help explain – in part – the prevalence of “mumbling”, given the distinct colloquial dialects that are found in the region (and among a number of initial leaders of the movement).
- “mine” is the key rhyming word for 3 of the 4 lines in the opening verse
- filmed in the Dominican Republic for some reason, despite the fictional character of Tony Montana being Cuban (I guess any island inhabited by Spanish speaking people of mixed ethnicity was seen as close enough)
- Quite fittingly, there isn’t a single rhyme in the hook.
- Thanks, Gucci Mane, for your great contribution to society.