The hiphopification of pop: hip hop aesthetics in mainstream popular music

This is the script of a paper I gave at the Royal Musical Association 58th Annual Conference, hosted by the University of Durham, on 8 September 2022.


Introduction

Hip hop is the most popular genre of music in the United States, with a comparable lead in the UK and Europe. Since the mid-2010s, Nielsen Music, MRC Data, and Billboard have recorded hip hop above rock (which includes metal) and pop for sales and streams,[1] attesting to its status as a market leader among popular music genres. By 2018, hip hop boasted over a third of all music played in the U.S. using on-demand streaming services: three in every eight songs. Stark figures like these demonstrate the striking popularity of hip hop in the West and the Global North, and call into question the popular nature of pop.

Elizabeth Eva Leach’s definition of popular music sees it as ‘popular because it is produced and/or consumed appreciatively by the general populace – the people’.[2] Tara Brabazon also uses popularity as a defining feature of popular music, that which spreads beyond local audiences.[3] Ted Gracyk, however, sees popular music generally defined by a contrastive relationship with art music: popular music is predominantly associated with accessibility, whereas classical music retains a limited audience through its inherent elitism.[4] Examining twentieth-century popular music genres, David Brackett notes the complexity of the word mainstream, an industry term aiming to market ‘toward the largest, most heterogeneous audience possible’ although frequently in fact targeting ‘an unstated default audience’:[5] white, wealthy, urban. Others have recognised the changing nature of popular music, with Kelefa Sanneh recently claiming that ‘in the 2010s […] hip hop was popular music, with everything else either a subgenre or variant of it, or a quirky alternative to it’.[6] Listening to the mainstream pop charts today, and seeing the sales and streaming figures, his claim is hard to dismiss. Sanneh continues: ‘you might look at the chart and see that just about all the most popular songs […] were hip-hop, or hip-hop-ish’.[7] So not only is hip hop one of the most popular musics consumed by contemporary audiences, but pop – formerly a distinct genre – is itself highly influenced by hip hop sounds and styles. It’s this idea of mainstream pop embracing hip hop aesthetics, and becoming hip-hop-ish, that this paper interrogates. To what extent has pop been hiphopified?

Style and genre

Pop’s borrowings from hip hop may operate on different levels that complicate typical musicological distinctions. I generally align with Allan Moore’s division between style and genre,[8] while recognising that musical and social matters cannot be so easily disentangled. Megan Lavengood’s work is a useful guide, associating genre with complex sociological phenomena and styles as something deployed musically.[9] At the same time, I recognise vernacular elisions between the two, such that in everyday discourse they often become essentially interchangeable for both cultural and sonic aspects of music. Simply put, genre refers to dynamics and relations that are more easily understood from a sociological point of view, and style remains a deeply culturally-embedded frame but helps focus attention on musical gestures, decisions, acts, values, and norms.

With this approach, we can see pop and hip hop marked as distinct genres and styles, and historically this distinction has been more clear-cut. Plucking examples almost at random, a Public Enemy is clearly hip hop for it eschews singing, prioritises layers of sampled material, looping beats, nuanced uses of noise, lengthy verses, and complex political poetic lyrics. Most of Cher’s solo music is easily understood as pop, with catchy sung vocals, verse-chorus alternation, conventional pop harmony, and a clear production soundscape. These stylistic features also inform market decision-making and industry reporting on pop and hip hop as genres: formerly they demarcated different areas of a record store, and now they serve as metadata tags in the digital music landscape. Overt crossover efforts complicate the picture, but at least are obvious in their combination of hip hop lyricism, rhythmic complexity, and timbral subtlety with pop’s chord sequences, sung melodies, and verse-chorus structures. Undoubtedly as hip hop has commercialised it has embraced many pop conventions, which may partly explain its immense popularity today. But I want to dig in to the inverse relationship, especially an overlooked tendency for pop to borrow stylistically from hip hop.

Ariana Grande

Let’s listen to and watch ‘7 rings’ by Ariana Grande, one of the world’s leading pop stars, who is rarely thought of as a hip hop artist.

That was ‘7 rings’, Grammy-nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance. To summarise a few hip hop borrowings: the introduction features audio of overhead helicopters and police sirens, a hip hop staple with associations of police surveillance; sections of a monotone vocal, clearly pitched, but rap-like in its articulation; prominent trap drums – clicky hats, powerful bass drums and clappy snares – alongside other digital artifacts; African American Vernacular English pronunciation; and the rap vocal production, featuring layering, ad-libs, vocal samples and filtering. These features are affordances of hip hop to my ears, but will not be universal. Building on Allan Moore’s work on style and tone-setting, Kai Arne Hansen uses the term ‘sonic styling’ to refer to musical hearings that shape listener expectation and interpretation: ‘The sonic styling of the artist not only prepares listeners for how to respond to a singer’s vocal performance, or the style of a track, but also shapes audiences’ responses to the artist’s persona more broadly […] an artist’s sonic styling is key to how they are perceived, being integral to how listeners interpret meaning in musical or audiovisual texts’.[10] The Rodgers and Hammerstein/Sound of Music interpolation aside – perhaps its key connection to an earlier era of popular song, with all its cultural associations – ‘7 Rings’ is fully immersed in the style of trap music.

Jesse McCarthy writes that ‘trap’s relation to hip hop retains the construction of a song around bars and hooks, but the old-school chime and rhyme, the bounce and jazziness of Nineties production, is gone. Instead, empty corners space out patterns that oscillate between compression and distension’.[11] Trap features prominent low-frequency sustained bass, bright synths and melodic loops, texturally sparse middle frequencies, artificial-sounding percussion samples developed from drum machines, syncopated or dotted-rhythm kick drums, busy rattling hi-hats, voice layering, uninflected vocals, and distinctive triplet rhythms known as triplet flow Migos flow in the vocals.[12] Indeed, Ben Duinker notes the presence of triplet flow elsewhere on this Ariana Grande album, observing that ‘triplet flow-influenced singing has begun to make its way into mainstream popular music’[13].

Given the close multimodal relationship between sonic and visual media manifested in music video, it is also significant to point out how the visual aesthetics draw from hip hop culture.The video is set in a pink, glammed up trap house. The song title appears on the door in graffiti. Ariana Grande wears stylised tracksuits with oversized hoops, her deeply bronzed skin lit in shadowy pink and blue as she dances in a squat and sticks out her tongue. The set drips in celebrations of luxury, from chandeliers to champagne.

‘7 Rings’ also notably uses slang and grammar from African American Vernacular English, which Samy Alim has described as the language of the hip hop nation.[14] Ariana Grande rap-sings negative concord constructions, uses the habitual be, and omits ‘to be’ – what sociolinguists of AAVE call a zero copula. This latter lyric strategically coincides with a cut to two Black women dancers. The hook was subject to particular controversy for imitating flow from other rap songs, most notably, and perhaps ironically, ‘Mine’ by Princess Nokia.

The song celebrates the cultural specificities of Black and Brown women’s hair: buying wigs, weaves, and extensions. As Byrd and Tharps (2014) describe, Black haircare practices developed in response to long-standing racist rhetoric and the politicisation of natural Black hair, and remains an important identity formation today[15]. So not only does Ariana Grande take the rhythm and the lyric from Princess Nokia, but she draws on this lineage of Black haircare without being subject to any of its violence or pressures – all the while boasting she can afford any hair she wants. As Princess Nokia wrote, ‘sounds about white’. More on this later.

Taylor Swift

Let’s jump now to Taylor Swift, whose earlier career features a notable stylistic shift from downhome country to earworm pop. Her song ‘Shake It Off’ prompted some claims of plagiarism: the hook phrase [‘players gonna play / haters gonna hate’] had precedents in both ‘Players Gon’ Play’ by 3LW and ‘Haters Gonna Hate’ by Jessie Braham. Note in particular the zero copula.

The ‘Shake It Off’ video also features Taylor Swift trying her hand at Black social dances such as twerking, often as a punchline to reinforce Taylor Swift’s white awkwardness and therefore the cultural Otherness of the hip hop based styles on video. Here’s the artist decked out in bling and leopard print gazing up voyeuristically at the shaking behinds of women of colour.

After the release of the subsequent album reputation, Taylor Swift was lauded for expanding her sound: she looked further afield for sonic inspiration, and found it in the form of hip hop. Here’s a clip of ‘Ready For It…’, which features her singing with a rap-like enunciation, AAVE grammar, and Black slang.

Here she backs off on the zero copula but the ‘gonna’ contracts further. Jeremy Orosz points out that this convention of ‘artists using grammatical features of AAVE veers dangerously close to minstrelsy’, referencing a tradition of “blackvoice” whereby white performers adopt an impression of Black American vocalists.[16] The next track, End Game, includes a feature from bona fide trap pioneer Future, albeit on a more loose, boom-bap inspired production, and ‘Call It What You Want To’ from the same album fizzes with the busy synthetic hats Burton identifies as a hallmark of trap beats. 

The white performance of sonic Blackness

The sounds and vocal performance styles I’ve highlighted here not only derive from hip hop and trap but they are a form of sonic Blackness.[17] Similarly to Nina Sun Eidsheim’s work, Jennifer Stoever analytical frame, the sonic color line, ‘produces, codes, and polices racial difference through the ear, enabling us to hear race as well as see it. It is a socially constructed boundary that racially codes sonic phenomena such as vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones’.[18] Listening serves as a process by which ‘particular sounds are identified, exaggerated, and “matched” to racialized bodies’.[19] Greg Tate explains how ‘the aura and global appeal of hip-hop lie in […] its perceived Blackness (hip, stylish, youthful, alienated, rebellious, sensual)’,[20] which motivate white aesthetic borrowings.

Now it’s not that hip hop is a monoracial culture, as a history of white rappers shows. But there are different ways by which white artists can represent themselves while deploying Black musical and cultural practices. For instance, the Beastie Boys’ use of their New York Jewish accents, rather than mimicking their Black colleagues, exemplified their authentic immersion in hip hop[21]. But the borrowings that have given rise to the terms Blackcent, Blackvoice, Blacksound serve to address a form of linguistic and sonic minstrelsy.

White artists, as Jeremy Orosz points out, ‘have greater liberty to become stylistic chameleons than do their black counterparts’.[22] They are able to inhabit and perform Blackness without embodying it and living with the discrimination and violence that being Black entails. Instead, we can observe white artists’, in this case white womens’, ‘interest in, and appropriation of, black culture as [a] sign of their radical chic. Intimacy with that “nasty” blackness good white girls stay away from is what they seek’.[23] The use of AAVE shares a similarly appealing quality, as ‘linguistic commodification translates into tremendous fame and fortune for a white body performing blackness’.[24] Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift deploying these features to produce ‘edgy’ work thereby reiterates a colonial and imperial dynamic of white representation of the cultural lives of people of colour for the pleasure of white audiences. With hip hop firmly entangled with Western social values of cool, youth, and exciting Otherness, white pop artists can therefore benefit both in terms of cultural capital and economic gains by taking from hip hop.

I’ll quote from Maha Ikram Cherid at length: by appropriating the sound and styles of hip hop, artists like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift ‘extract from its position in the North American cultural imagination the marketable and palatable parts of Black identity, without having to endure the systemic oppression that shapes it. In short, they benefit from blackness without ever having to give up the privilege of being White. As most other forms of appropriation, this causes harm to both individual Black creators, as their own work and craft is co-opted, and Black people as a collective, through the reproduction of racial hierarchies and power dynamics’.[25]

Such borrowings are thoroughly a facet of white privilege, demonstrating how white hegemony approaches Black cultural practices as resources freely open for exploitation. Ariana Grande ceding 90% of the ‘7 rings’ songwriting credits to Rodgers and Hammerstein exemplifies the concentration of power by whites over the legal and economic dynamics of the record industry, as well as a flawed framework based solely on vocal melody and lyric. A single digit percentage will be shared by Grande’s Black female co-songwriters, and next to nothing for the bedroom producers that originated the trap sound in underserved Black Southern communities. Taylor Swift’s subsequent progression to nu-folk and Ariana Grande’s recent shift towards dance-pop mark their exits from hip hop. This positions the culture as something disposable that can be dipped into, extracted from for personal profit and career development, then ‘matured away’ from or perhaps more problematically still ‘cleaned up’. Here we see how the two artists ‘adopt aspects of African American culture when and how it is advantageous to do so, while ignoring all of what it means to be non-white in a culture that privileges whiteness. By extension, whites shed such behaviors when it suits them, and have no traces of their foray into blackness attached to them. Whites do not suffer the oppression of systemic racism […] but rather benefit from its strictures and structures’.[26]

The hiphopification of pop is not, as Tricia Rose lampooned, the invasion of some threatening Black presence on Western cultural development.[27] Rather, it continues a trend that has run the entire history of Western imperialism: white extraction, representation, and commercialisation of cultural materials from exoticised and Othered communities. It is the white adoption of hip hop’s Black cultural cool for multicultural, young, mass audiences. From the pinnacle of pop, Ariana Grande flaunted her white privilege to do just this: I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.


References

[1] Nielsen Music, ‘Mid-Year Report U.S. 2017’ (The Nielsen Company, 2017), https://training.nielsen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/music-us-mid-year-report-2017.pdf; Nielsen Music / MRC Data, ‘Midyear Report U.S. 2020’ (Nielsen Music / MRC Data, 2021); MRC Data / Billboard, ‘Year-End Report U.S. 2021’ (MRC Data / Billboard, 2022).

[2] Elizabeth Eva Leach, ‘Popular Music’, in An Introduction to Music Studies, ed. J. P. E. Harper-Scott and Jim Samson, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 188, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511801167.014.

[3] Tara Brabazon, Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories (London: SAGE, 2012), 3, https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446251409.

[4] Theodore Gracyk, ‘Popular Music’, in The Oxford Handbook of Western Music and Philosophy, ed. Tomás McAuley et al. (Oxford University Press, 2020), 546, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199367313.013.30.

[5] David Brackett, Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016), 38.

[6] Kelefa Sanneh, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Canongate Books, 2021).

[7] Sanneh.

[8] Allan F. Moore, ‘Categorical Conventions in Music Discourse: Style and Genre’, Music & Letters 82, no. 3 (January 2001): 432–42.

[9] Megan Lavengood, ‘Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3’, in On Popular Music and Its Unruly Entanglements, ed. Nick Braae and Kai Arne Hansen, Pop Music, Culture and Identity (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 209–34, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18099-7_11.

[10] Kai Arne Hansen, Pop Masculinities: The Politics of Gender in Twenty-First Century Popular Music (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 84.

[11] Jesse McCarthy, ‘Notes on Trap’, N+1, no. 32 (2018), https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-32/essays/notes-on-trap/.

[12] J. A. Burton, Posthuman Rap (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 83–87.

[13] Ben Duinker, ‘Good Things Come in Threes: Triplet Flow in Recent Hip-Hop Music’, Popular Music 38, no. 3 (October 2019): 28, https://doi.org/10.1017/S026114301900028X.

[14] H. S. Alim, Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

[15] Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Revised edition (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2014).

[16] Jeremy Orosz, ‘“Straight Outta Nashville”: Allusions to Hip Hop in Contemporary Country Music’, Popular Music and Society 44, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 56, https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2019.1652794.

[17] Nina Sun Eidsheim, ‘Marian Anderson and “Sonic Blackness” in American Opera’, American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 641–71, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2011.0045; Burton, Posthuman Rap, 71, 93.

[18] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 11.

[19] Stoever, The Sonic Color Line.

[20] Greg Tate, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 4.

[21] M. Hess, Is Hip Hop Dead?: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Most Wanted Music (Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 2007), 112–122.

[22] Orosz, ‘“Straight Outta Nashville”’, 55.

[23] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press, 1992), 157.

[24] Maeve Eberhardt and Kara Freeman, ‘“First Things First, I’m the Realest”: Linguistic Appropriation, White Privilege, and the Hip-Hop Persona of Iggy Azalea’, Journal of Sociolinguistics 19, no. 3 (2015): 309, https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12128.

[25] Maha Ikram Cherid, ‘“Ain’t Got Enough Money to Pay Me Respect”: Blackfishing, Cultural Appropriation, and the Commodification of Blackness’, Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 14 July 2021, 363, https://doi.org/10.1177/15327086211029357.

[26] Eberhardt and Freeman, ‘“First Things First, I’m the Realest”’, 321.

[27] T. Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 130.

Leave a comment