By: Ellis Keipper
Future’s newest album, I Never Liked You, is exemplary of both trap’s biggest problems and the last hope there is for saving the genre. In the last few years, the genre has taken a serious decline due to greedy record labels, lazy artists, and what can only be described as a natural decline that happens regularly to every genre at some point. First, we need to explore the roots of the genre.
Trap music is a subgenre of hip-hop music that has dominated the music industry for almost a decade at this point. Many credit the genre’s birth to T.I. with the release of his 2003 album Trap Muzik. Despite this, many elements that we now mainly associate with trap music can be traced back to the late 80s and early 90s. Characterized by heavy bass, repetitive lyrics, and piercing hi-hats, trap music is essentially the south’s reaction to gangster rap. The name trap music comes from the name southern rappers use to describe the houses in which they would make and sell drugs– trap houses. This was the reasoning T.I. used behind the naming of his album. Unknowingly, he had just coined a term that would become incredibly important for the projection of hip-hop for the next 20 years.
As years went on, rappers like Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, Yo Gotti, and many more joined the movement putting their own respective spins on the infantile genre. Many artists from this era (especially Gucci Mane) associate with a very DIY aesthetic, suggesting that they are still living in the trap. In 2010, the genre experienced its second major innovation. At the time, many older rap fans accused the genre of being too simplistic and less lyrically complex. Most trap artists attempted to find holes in this argument except for one. In 2010, Waka Flocka Flame released his debut album, Flockaveli. Instead of making excuses for why the genre is simplistic, Flocka broke down every barrier of stigma surrounding it. Backed by Lex Luger’s production, every word uttered on this album was bold, relentless, and influential as hell. Everything that came out after this album within the genre sounded like a direct successor of this. It wasn’t until 5 years later that trap music would receive arguably the biggest change in the entire genre.
Over the years following Waka Flocka’s debut album, many of trap’s future legends made a name for themselves. Chicago joined the movement with the explosive success of Chief Keef’s I Don’t Like. New York put itself on the map with the rise of A$AP Mob. Regardless, Atlanta still reigned supreme as the genre’s main hub with artists like Rich Homie Quan and Migos. But there were three artists from Atlanta who changed everything: Young Thug, Future, and Metro Boomin. By 2015, they had already cemented themselves in the genre with the release of projects like Tha Tour, Pt. 1 and Honest respectively. Despite this, neither had yet to reach their full potential. In April 2015, Young Thug released Barter 6. Many recognize this as Thug fully realizing the creative potential of what his music could sound like. This album contains a lot of dark beats that trickle down your spine and give you goosebumps all over. The vocals on the other hand are weird– like really weird. Not to mention, the lyrics are equally as weird and hilarious. Thug is famously one of the most creative lyricists in trap, and this album is a perfect example of that. There are lyrics like, “If cops pull up, I put that crack in my crack” and a 14-second skrt adlib on the song Halftime. With this album, Thug found his sound as an artist and spread his influence on most trap artists that would come out in the following years.
But, even this couldn’t compare to what Future was about to come out with the same year. In July 2015, Future released DS2. This album is where I believe the genre peaked and started its best era. From its very first lyrics on the intro track, I Thought It Was A Drought, (if you know you know) this album sounds different from everything that precedes it. With help primarily from Metro Boomin, this album is dark, moody, and brooding. Within the last year, Future had released 3 classic mixtapes but never released something that had album quality. Coming in at only 13 tracks on its original version, this album is concise and consistent. It gives its listener non-stop energy for every track without skipping a beat. In my opinion, this is the greatest trap album of all time. With the combined influence of DS2 and Barter 6, the next three years would become the golden age for trap.
Up to this point, I have omitted SoundCloud from this article. I won’t go into the history of the platform because that is deserving of an article of its own. But, at this point in the rise of trap, the streaming service became crucial to the projection of the genre. The gist of it is, the app allows users to upload and stream music for free which removes many expenses that come with selling music. This model made it incredibly easy for smaller artists to gain a platform without a big budget or having to grind for years. The culture of rap music that spawned on the platform is another thing that is deserving of its own article. Essentially, most of the biggest stars in the genre came up on this platform. Notably, XXL’s freshman list in 2016– which highlighted the biggest up-and-comers of the genre from that year– contained almost exclusively artists that gained their entire platform on Soundcloud. Using the blueprints laid out by Future and Young Thug, artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, 21 Savage, and many many more dominated the genre. Between 2015 and 2017, it was hard to find duds in trap music. Unfortunately, every good thing has to come to an end.
There are a few points on this timeline that I can rigidly point to and say contributed to the decline of the genre. Others have blurrier lines. The first moment I can definitely say contributed to the decline is the release of Migos’s Culture ii. The problem isn’t the actual contents of the album because there are some good songs on this album. It’s not the fact that it is 24 tracks long. Coming straight off the heels of their classic 2017 album Culture, Migos, for whatever reason, decided to ruin the insane grasp they had on the industry. I don’t think I know a single person who has listened to this project in full. It’s too bloated. Unfortunately, this is something that wouldn’t stop with Migos. At this point, most trap albums went from being 10-13 consistent high-quality songs to 17-25 inconsistent low-quality songs.
The next thing to contribute to the decline of trap is one of those blurry lines. Many of the newer artists to come out within the genre sound boring and uninspired. There are many that I could name. But, there are three in particular that are the most important in this movement: Lil Baby, Dababy, and Gunna. These three rappers have gained star status since their rise in 2018 and have only digressed in quality since then. Many of the projects they drop nowadays contain many of the same features and producers and often have tracklists of more than 20 tracks. Despite their status in the industry, I find little to nothing unique or interesting about any of them.
The third point I’d like to make about the decline of trap music is the deluxe album trend. In 2020, amidst a new pandemic, people were hungry for new music from Lil Uzi Vert. At this point, it had been 3 years since we had gotten a new album from him. Throughout the course of these three years, Uzi had been teasing the release of an album he called Eternal Atake. Since he wasn’t actually dropping any music, this time saw a lot of Uzi’s songs leak onto the internet. Many of these leaks became fan favorites. In March 2020, Uzi finally released the long-awaited album, and to everyone’s surprise, it contained none of the leaked songs. A week later, Uzi decided to release the deluxe version of the album which doubled it in size and many of the fan favorite leaks finally came to streaming services. This kind of rollout for the album was something that only really worked for Uzi since it had been so long since he dropped music and there was more music that the fans wanted. Regardless, it didn’t take other rappers long to figure out that they could do this too. Nowadays in trap, every album’s deluxe version comes out within 2 weeks of the original version and usually doubles the size of the album with content that is usually worse than the original album. This is a trend that 2 years later has yet to slow down.
This brings me back to Future’s newest album. Yes, the original cut of the album is 17 tracks long. Yes, the deluxe version came out 3 days later. Yes, it has the same features that every other trap album that out right now has. But, despite the odds stacked against it, this is the most inspired Future has sounded in years. Throughout the entire course of this timeline since 2017, Future has followed the downward projection of the genre pretty closely. This album contains some of the best music I’ve heard from Future since 2017. Regardless, I don’t see this album breathing new life into the genre. This is all to say that, yes, the golden age of trap is over. The best work from our legends is now behind them. But, this is something that is ok. Because, while traditional trap music has been on a downward spiral, other styles of the genre are making way for themselves to reign supreme. Particularly, the rage movement in trap, characterized by artists like Playboi Carti, Yeat, and Ken Car$on, has a strong grasp on Tik Tok and I could very well see it taking over the genre in the next few years.