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The South Got Something To Say: A Celebration Of Southern Rap (2015-2019)

 (Joelle Avelino for NPR)
(Joelle Avelino for NPR)

At the 1995 Source Awards, André 3000 issued a proclamation, or a prophecy: "The South got something to say." Inspired by his words, this list represents some of the most impactful songs, albums and mixtapes by Southern rappers. It was assembled by a team, led by Briana Younger, of Southern critics, scholars and writers representing the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia.

We offer this list not as an authoritative canon but as an enthusiastic celebration that recenters the South's role as a creative center of hip-hop and presents the region for all that it has been and given to us.


2015
(Ear Drummer Records)

Birthed from the collaborative minds of EarDrummers, Mike WiLL Made-It's in-house production team, the Mississippi hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd's euphoric aura informed their zealous approach to their debut SremmLife, positioning themselves as ones to watch in Atlanta's dominance of contemporary hip-hop. Despite their youthful attitude, the duo's rockstar persona was criticized by hip-hop traditionalists who saw the pair's music as lacking artistic merit, yet their ability to express jovial innocence at the strip club breathed life into the genre. Their presence was a welcome refresher; in a field brimming with rappers competing for the title of king of their cities, Rae Sremmurd just wanted to have a "good-f******-time." Their singles were tailored to achieve viral status on social media through visual and lyrical content that lent itself to memes, captions on Instagram and short videos on platforms such as Vine and Snapchat. Despite earning their popularity in Atlanta, the Tupelo brothers are an addition to Mississippi's hip-hop legacy. —Taylor Crumpton


Future's 2015 run was so great that everything after it has really just been the garnish placed on top of an already exceptionally prepared meal. Everything he touched that year turned to gold (starting with January's Beast Mode), and the culmination of that victory lap is "March Madness," a song that doesn't feel right unless you recite it with your arms outstretched and your face directed at the sky. It's a song tailor-made for celebration. On the hook, Future has everything you need for a good time: a cup full of his potion of choice (dirty soda in this case), mashing the gas on the highway and the lingering reminder that he and his inner circle have been solid from day one in spite of the foolishness they've had to endure over the years. Though maybe not to a T, many people's greatest nights incorporate some semblance of this combination, even down to reminiscing on how you've always run with the right people. With such euphoric and infectious energy — thanks in large part to producer Tarentino's exhilarating synth hits, bell peals and rolling 808s — it's a wonder that the song's highest position was in the top 10 of Billboard's Bubbling Under Hot 100 list. The lack of chart-measurable "success" only adds to its lore; the most valuable accounts of its impact will be those of the people who were in the streets, the clubs and festival grounds during its reign. —Lawrence Burney


(300 Entertainment)

We often speak of the voice as its own kind of instrument, but in the case of Young Thug, it's several. It squawks and squeaks and yelps and trills, and sometimes, it's just a voice, slightly higher in pitch, adrift in a sea of other melodic vessels. The music that Thugger was releasing right when he was beginning to break out — songs like "Extacy Pill," "Stoner," "Danny Glover," "Treasure" or basically anytime he was near Peewee Longway — features him at his most unmoored. But Barter 6 marks a pivotal moment in his career, finally on the other side of label troubles, as he was trying to figure out how exactly to wield his not-so-secret weapon.

There's something that sounds radical about the way Thugger plays with the sonics of rapping — even when he's more measured. Where many of his peers seem to be trying for intimidation or indifference, he leans into emoting with an intrinsic understanding that drama exists in the higher registers. The contrast he achieves on songs like "Check" or "Never Had It" lends them a defined vitality; on "Can't Tell," one the album's standouts, his frenzied warbles make even Boosie's voice sound restrained by comparison. None of this comes at the sacrifice of technique, though. His animated cadences and sneakily shrewd lyricism (see: "Halftime") exist in service to an intriguing total package.

In the spirit of idols like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, Thugger has begun cultivating his own generation of acolytes. Lil Keed and Gunna (and by extension Lil Baby) are in his immediate sphere of influence and signed to his YSL imprint, but there are also those like Lil Gotit and SahBabii, both of whom sound like some version of his handmade future. Young Thug has quickly become the center of his own creative galaxy, and Barter 6 is its Polaris. His elasticity is rap pushed to its outer limits for the better — a perfect synthesis of craft and imagination. —Briana Younger


(‎A1‎/Freebandz‎/Epic)

On the album commentary for Dirty Sprite 2 aka DS2, Future explained his reasoning behind the title: "Me being at a position in my life where the momentum is so great, I feel like my momentum is a high right now," he said. "To be able to capitalize off that is like a metaphor." Before you can appreciate the aforementioned high that led to DS2, it's important to understand the misstep that came before it. Back in 2014, Future dropped his sophomore major label project, Honest, which compared to its predecessor (Pluto) was a step backwards. The album was an uneven hodgepodge of mostly sappy love jams ("I Be U," "I Won") mixed with hardcore, drug-infused street anthems ("Move That Dope," "Sh!t"). Even an André 3000 cameo ("Benz Friendz") couldn't hide the simple fact: Future was all over the place, and not in a good way.

Everything changed over the course of the next year thanks to the release of three largely featureless album-quality mixtapes — Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights — between October 2014 and March 2015. Not since the mixtape Weezy days had there been a Southern rap artist who could boast releasing free music that was as good as or better than any of their major releases. If the mixtapes before it were any indication, DS2 Future was finding his voice and owning the lane for trap stars making questionable lifestyle choices while being honest about the fact they have no intention of being role models. Along for the ride were then up-and-coming Atlanta producers — Metro Boomin', 808 Mafia, Sonny Digital — who helped Future craft his sound.

Moody, introspective and unapologetically brash, DS2 brought hits for newcomers ("Where Ya At," "Stick Talk," "F*** Up Some Commas") and real-life drug-selling (and consuming) stories ("Blood On The Money," "Trap N*****," "The Percocet & Stripper Joint") for trap loyalists. All the while, the artist at the center of the album's universe never strayed too far out of orbit. Five years after its release, it's clear the next generation of Atlanta's trap stars — from Lil Baby and Gunna to Derez De'Shon and Young Nudy — took note. DS2 was Future doing things his way, and neither he nor the genre have looked back since. —Gavin Godfrey


2016
(Bread Winners' Association/Atlantic)

Kevin Gates never settles. On his major label debut album, Islah, the Arabic word for "improvement" or "reform," he turns the struggle to better oneself into a sprawling personal odyssey. Fueled by an intense drive, he drills into himself and excavates all the thoughts, insights and regrets he believes might bring him closer to clarity. Whereas most rappers would use their debut as a proving ground, Gates hops from trap anthems to emo ballads to bluesy come-ons in service of self-examination. Islah does not introduce Kevin Gates; it provides a sliver of on-ramp into his world and dares listeners to brake. Kevin Gates is both an unapologetic maximalist and a lover of form and grace. He'll cram words into thick, intricate arrangements in one moment, then pull back to make space for a catchy, singalong hook the next. That attention to arrangement furthers the album's candid themes of self-exploration, as Gates oscillates between menace and sweetness, threats and apologies, kisses and curses. There's no central narrative to his journey, no fixed destination, and that's the point. His vision of rap is entirely self-guided and independent, unconcerned with proving himself to anyone but himself. Southern rappers have long extolled independence in the form of artistic autonomy and financial self-reliance, but through Gates it took on a spiritual dimension. Really, really. —Stephen Kearse


(Savage and Metro Boomin)

Growing up around East Atlanta, 21 Savage has Gucci Mane to thank for showing him how to transition from shootouts to street hits. But unlike Migos and Young Thug, who inherited Gucci's sense of play, 21 landed on an anti-hero stance — sly one moment and sinister the next. On Savage Mode, he calcified that image to chilling effect.

In general, 21 seems uninterested in the lyrical or storytelling flourishes that would otherwise impress fans. (That's especially true of the double-platinum "X," featuring Future and gleaming images of Rollies.) He doesn't often retrace the past events that led to his stickup raps, but when he does, he rarely dwells for an entire verse, showing how swift that loss of innocence can be ("Seventh grade, I got caught with a pistol / Sent me to Pantherville / Eighth grade, started playin' football / then I was like f*** the field," he raps in "No Heart"). Throughout, his voice, though lowered, audibly creaks like old floorboards. Miasmas of reverbs and cold suspense, fully produced by Metro Boomin, surround that voice like a fog. Listening feels like hearing 21's innermost thoughts as he navigates a part of Atlanta where gang affiliations are loose but the violence reverberates regardless. Even during "Ocean Drive," a scenic dream sequence of a conclusion, his mind wanders back to painful memories: "Seen my n***** in a hearse, I Stevie Wonder-ed why / Retaliation, let 'em spark like it's the Fourth of July." Initially, 21 didn't understand how his steely-eyed demeanor would lend itself to virality — like when he interrupted DJ Vlad's question about that tattoo seemingly shaped like a cross ("Issa knife") or when his very image on ESPN's Highly Questionable sparked jokes about him holding Gotham City hostage. By now, though, he should understand that half the reason people laughed was because of the indelible impression Savage Mode made first. —Christina Lee


(Courtesy of the artist)

When we ask what the South has to say, we should ask Mississippi, the sonic and substantive basis of all hip-hop, first. The Black folks in that state over generations developed what the late geographer Clyde Woods called a "blues epistemology." It is this way of viewing, hearing, moving through and changing this world that brought us this far. Dear Silas' debut album is a speculative Mississippi remembrance, archive and longing in the blues tradition, one at home with fellow Jackson native Kiese Laymon's first novel, Long Division, and Meridian's Big K.R.I.T.'s Cadillactica. Explicitly linking the past and future, the album traverses a Mississippi childhood that is playful, full and free, quite distinct from but in places eerily reminiscent of civil rights activist Anne Moody's.

The album's most popular song, "Gullah Gullah Island," though widely known, still requires another recital of its importance. Calling up the theme of the Nickelodeon show of the same name about a Gullah/Geechee family, the song conjures a mystical free Black world, free of white violence and thus overflowing with complex Black love; maybe Tulsa or Rosewood before the massacres, Key and Peele's Negrotown, Black Panther's Wakanda, or Jackson or Atlanta or Memphis after the abolition of the carceral state. Children's voices chanting for play and sun and freedom call and respond to Dear Silas's incisive trap chant: "Gullah Gullah Island, n****! Gullah Gullah Island, bih!" The beat's melodic core is comprised of two measures of minor key eighth notes that remind us that even in our imaginations, these spaces are under threat and necessitate the kind of defending that Black life in the white supremacist trap always does. Still, there is a tremendous lineage of Mississippi dreaming and imagination on this album that can take us to a new blues future far beyond what we can currently imagine. —Zandria F. Robinson


2017

Playboi Carti is more host than rapper. His verses and flows, rapped in spurts and dotted with ad-libs, melt into instrumentals like butter into bread. South Carolina producer Pi'erre Bourne, the leader of a vanguard of producers making trap music more supple and psychedelic, is the perfect partner for Carti's spare style. As Bourne's beat strobes, flickers and shimmers, Carti embraces the warmth, his voice bobbing and floating like the innards of a lava lamp. Compared to the brashness of crunk, the bounce of snap music or the bombast of trap, "Magnolia" emphasizes vibe. It's a club hit sublimated into soothing vapor. The single arrived in the middle of internecine arguments over whether newer strains of rap — disparaged as mumble rap — were rap at all, but felt worlds away from that debate. It's absolutely rap, and the song even obliquely nods to the rap royalty of New Orleans' famed Magnolia projects. That said, it's also reminiscent of a magnolia tree: pretty, poised, indifferent. You don't have to be the focus of the party when you're its pulse. —Stephen Kearse


(DefJam)

On Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, 2 Chainz is still the comedic presence of his in-demand feature verses. In "Big Amount," his idea of courtship is, "Walk in the zoo and said, 'Pick a fur'"; on "It's a Vibe," his almost-groaners still come off like dad jokes ("Gas in a Ziploc, now that's loud and clear"). Being this consistently delightful is how he found bigger success as a solo artist after being part of Playaz Circle (see "Duffle Bag Boy"). But with this album, he pulls off an even bigger feat: turning that attention to detail toward the sort of introspection that defined its follow-up. He grounds his random spurts of humor in flashbacks to life before Playaz Circle, as a dealer for clients like Lil Wayne when drug trafficker Big Meech still roamed free. There are mental images of "Gucci flip flops with the corns and bunions" ("Riverdale Road") and Waffle House visits: "Patty melt with the hash browns / tryna avoid all the pat-downs" ("Big Amount"). And he interrupts "Bailan"'s depiction of the jet-setting life with a confession during which he doesn't dare raise his voice ("Mama, I shot me a man / please go hide the gun").

Throughout, 2 Chainz is trying to square his gritty past life with the glittering present, and the album's production underscores the stark contrast between these before-and-after images — from "Trap Check"'s almost-vintage samples of Jeezy's "Get Ya Mind Right" and T.I.'s "ASAP" to lounge affair "It's a Vibe"'s powerhouse R&B trio of Jhené Aiko, Trey Songz and Ty Dolla $ign. Even before Ariana Grande's "7 Rings" video lifted its pink trap house iconography, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music became the past decade's most thorough explanation of the cultural tension spelled out in the title — trap music's hard realities as aspiration to the masses. —Christina Lee


(AI YoungBoy)

At the top of the 2010s, as social media became woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, youth in various corners of the world started to gain more autonomy with respect to the ability to broadcast their realities without being filtered through the mainstream machine. It was a far cry from the perpetually bedazzled, Viacom-reality-show-filtered existence of youth culture in the '90s and 2000s. Instead of teen artists like Lil Bow Wow, whose music mostly centered around schoolyard love stories and jewelry fashioned after Disney characters, we got Chief Keef: a kid whose music reflected what he engaged with on a daily basis on the South Side of Chicago. It was a reality that the majority of his consumers could not relate to, but it intoxicated the public for that very same reason. And because of his success, label execs started to comb through the country for kids of the same ilk — for better and for worse.

A few years later, a 16-year-old from Baton Rouge named NBA YoungBoy showed flashes of becoming the "next" Keef due to the conviction and vivid nature of his music that soundtracked a similar life nearly 1,000 miles south. After a few promising projects that circulated on mixtape-hosting sites, Youngboy released AI YoungBoy in the summer of 2017. On it, he exhibited a complexity that isn't typically attributed to 17-year-olds. Fresh home from a six-month stint in prison for attempted murder, YoungBoy's urgency to get his s*** together — for himself and for his family's future — was palpable throughout. He rapped about the constant burden of carrying around lifelong trauma, but he also asserted his gift for turning those unfortunate circumstances into a brighter future. While the majority of his teenage peers like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty and Trippie Redd were making light-hearted bangers, YoungBoy was rapping for his life. And when listening, you'd be hard pressed to not have that high-stakes approach rub off on you. Three years later, that appeal has bubbled over and youth across the country are dashing to YouTube to hear new YoungBoy music, making him one of the platform's most powerful artists in the music space. —Lawrence Burney


2018
(Wolfpack/Quality Control/Motown)

Lil Baby carries the torch of several generations of trap rap. His limber, melodic flows and slick style of lyricism is the sound of the 2010s reaching its peak commercial potential at the intersection of its creative possibilities. Harder Than Ever captures the Atlanta rapper at the precipice — there's an audible hunger and yet something undeniable about his manner; his writing makes every song feel like it could be a hit. Then you remember that he'd only been seriously rapping for about a year to that point, and he stuns all over again.

Baby's secret weapon is the combination of his voice, a woozy and raspy drawl, and his cadences which seem to wrap themselves around his beats. On songs like "Leaked" and "Southside," he commands the space by himself using primarily those qualities to imbue even the darkest production with bounce. Put him next to anyone — Drake, Offset, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, Gunna, who helped him find his voice — and his star only shines that much brighter.

Just this year, his album My Turn featured some of his most compelling music, and "The Bigger Picture," which made explicit the fuel to his fire, brought him to new audiences — to say nothing of the rappers who continue to line up to worship and be washed at the altar of Lil Baby. There are almost certainly still more peaks to come, and his long term impact remains to be seen, but in the two years since the release of Harder Than Ever, he has proven himself on par with the greats on whose shoulders he stands. —Briana Younger


(Grand Hustle/Cactus Jack)

By the time ASTROWORLD arrived, Travis Scott was far removed from his past life in Houston: preparing for new fatherhood while acclimating to Calabasas, one Jamba Juice order at a time. Yet, for all the titanic hits he had already, Scott still wanted recognition for the impact he'd had on peers and progenitors like Kanye West. After 2016's Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight wasn't nominated for a Grammy, he told Billboard, "This year I'm on a mission to be heard."

Scott demands as much on ASTROWORLD, a towering monument to the music that birthed him. He has nodded to his native Texas before, with his 2014 debut Rodeo and its mixtape prequel Days Before Rodeo, but this one was full embrace As early in the album as the second track, "Carousel," introduced by Dallas luminary Big Tuck before borrowing the Beastie Boys-sampling loop from his "Not a Stain on Me," Scott has already more thoroughly established how Texas hip-hop informed his own mind-warping mosh pit anthems than he has in any projects before. His tributes to Screwed Up Click (with sturdy lifts from Mike Dean) also explain the low-lit quality in his own music, like when "5% Tint" lumbers to a crawling sample of Goodie Mob's "Cell Therapy," also the basis for Lil Keke's winding "Peepin' in My Window" freestyle. "Rest in peace to Screw, tonight we take it slowly," Scott raps in his affecting tribute to the producer. There, he hints at how his avant-garde, melting-pot approach to production — bringing together Kid Cudi, James Blake and Stevie Wonder in one song, for instance — bears decades-long roots. Scott was eight years old when DJ Screw died in 2000. The year before, the original Astroworld, an amusement park that was also the center of Scott's universe, shut down. "It was a way of life — fantasies, imagination," he said. Similarly, there's no telling what ideas ASTROWORLD will spark. —Christina Lee


(Bbymutha)

Chattanooga's BbyMutha has been building a name for herself as a creative force (and all-around badass) for over five years and has amassed a cult following with her brutally honest lyrics about motherhood, mysticism and life as a young Black woman. She's a poet at heart, and her gift really shines on The Bastard Tape Vol 1. Released on Christmas Day 2018, the first Bastard Tape features the rapper at her best, navigating slinky head-boppers and being as raw as possible. She doesn't go for obvious features, but works with the people that she really believes in and wants to share her platform with — which includes Jay Dodd and TTBBY on "Flabbergasted" and Kindora on "Sleeping With The Enemy." On the standout "Sick," featuring Del-Vay, she delivers a bluesy joint about pissing off haters and being authentic while others exploit your lifestyle for attention. —Brooklyn White


2019
(Jamla/Roc Nation)

"I drew a line without showing my body / That's a skill," Rapsody swaggers on "Nina," opening last year's best hip-hop album. Her nod to fellow North Carolinian Nina Simone's cover of "Strange Fruit" would be trite filler in lesser hands than hers and producer 9th Wonder's, but here it sets the tone that history is about to be taught and made. The album's genesis, though, was "Aaliyah," its third track, affirming what's long been clear: Rapsody is one of the poets carrying the torch for the culture, not just the lyricism, of hip-hop. For too long, the fallen '90s R&B icon has been a haloed idol worshipped by those hankering for that beloved era's subtler, Quiet Storm sensuality and mystery. Rapsody's tribute, however, brings her back to Earth and celebrates why Aaliyah's (and her own) "tomboy" appeal endures ("I am who I am, I don't rock a disguise / To be more than a woman now comes with some tithes"). Again resisting the recycled archetype of the ingénue flaunting back shots for the spotlight, Rapsody's third album earns huge dividends, melding her singular songcraft with that of respected writers (Phil Collins, Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Björk) and hip-hop giants (Luther Campbell, GZA and Queen Latifah) alike, all of whose samples, hooks and verses intensify the spell this womanist masterpiece casts. Track after track, 9th paints landscapes pitch-perfect for the shapeshifting personae Rap inhabits to show living legends ("Oprah," "Serena," "Myrlie") and mythic ancestors ("Cleo," "Maya," "Afeni") love. Eve goads you to marvel at Black women's millennia-long, hardscrabble journey from throne ("Hatshepsut") to "de mule uh de world" ("Sojourner") and back again. Her lyrics' smoldering sage conjures vibes to unseat internalized racism that's forestalled our realization of a near-future rooted in Black economic autonomy. At the album's core is this timeless truth: Black women are far more than metaphorical objects to ogle. Their essence is mitochondrial, at once all communities' literal life source and the arbiter of global cultural innovation. —L. Lamar Wilson, Ph.D.


(PH/Loma Vista)

There's no place like home. A few years after leaving his hometown of Carol City, Miami for Los Angeles, Denzel Curry found himself homesick and recorded Zuu in honor of his birthplace. His relationship to Miami, a city whose contribution to hip-hop is criminally underrated, is intimate and capacious. Nostalgic without being retrograde, Zuu recasts Miami and its signature sights and sounds as Curry's personal touchstones, producing a compact yet bustling autobiography. There's a deft fluency to the way he navigates his hometown's history. Curry's sense of home is referential yet syncretic, weaving brash booty bass, slick coke rap, murky phonk and horny strip club jams into rich tapestries that are more than the sum of their parts. Curry doesn't just evoke South Florida's many lineages; he expands and connects them, super-charging himself in the process. Zuu features the most scenic and vivid songs of his career, his many strengths coalescing into performances that are as heartfelt as they are versant. During the recording of his previous album, he embraced freestyling, and on Zuu, that process amplifies the looseness and vitality of his songwriting. All day, every day, Miami shapes his worldview and his sense of self. —Stephen Kearse


Birthed in New Orleans, twerking is fundamental to Southern hip-hop culture — a physical expression of sexual freedom and a way for Black women to embrace the agency that's been stripped away due to centuries of marginalization. In theory, it's a visual representation of a liberated Black woman in motion. In practice, it's Megan Thee Stallion's commanding "Simon says put your hands on your hips, huh / Simon says put your hands on your knees, ayy / Simon says put your hands on your feet, ayy / Simon says bust it open like a freak, ayy."

Adored and objectified for her "stallion" frame — a Southern euphemism for tall and fine Black women with ass — the Houston rapper collaborated with Juicy J, one of the region's twerk anthem architects, for "Simon Says." Megan's lyrical style is an addition to an evolving body of hip-hop feminism in unison with lineages that stretch back to the likes of Diamond, Eve and Trina, whose musical contributions implicitly address misogynoir in hip-hop. She exists among a current generation of Black women rappers who have become dominant forces in contemporary hip-hop culture and will shape the genre's evolution. "Simon Says" represents the transformation of women's bodies as subject to women's bodies as speakers unto themselves. The old ways are dead. Let them be reborn in the image of a twerking Black woman from the South. —Taylor Crumpton

Copyright NPR 2020.

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