Street rap is becoming bigger and more saturated than ever. Today’s artists are encouraged to present themselves as close to the street as possible in their lyrics, videos, and on social media, but unfortunately, their efforts to placate bloodthirsty consumers are falling right into the cop’s playbook. Rap has long been a way for people to escape the streets and make legal money, but now police departments are preying on the notion that rappers are using their stature and finances to lead gang activity.
During Young Thug’s ill-fated bond hearing in June, Fulton County prosecutor Don Geary talked about an old traffic stop where a vehicle traveling behind Thug was “armed to the tee.” Thug had no guns or illegal items on him, but according to Geary, the rapper told Atlanta police during the stop that the people in the other car were his employees. So Geary later referenced lyrics about Thug “traveling with snipers” to sell the state’s theory that he’s the leader of a YSL gang, and the people in the other car were the crew’s “snipers.” They connected his fictional lyrics to his real life in a way that’s setting a dangerous precedent for all rappers.
Rapping about “having snipers” is a long-running trope that few rap listeners take literally. Lil Tecca rhymed “shooters doing what I say so, because they’re on bankroll” on “Never Left,” years after a viral clip emerged where he was comically adamant that “I don’t have no straps for nobody.” Thug admitted in a pre-fame Reddit AMA session, “I make a product for a certain audience and I’m good at it,” and “I do this because I have a certain skill set that now allows me to get paid without the threat of doing federal time.” But now, the state is attempting to give him time, and they’re using his skillset against him.
Gangsta rap, street rap, or whatever else one wants to call it, is no longer counterculture; it’s the fulcrum of rap, which is the nucleus of modern pop culture. 50 Cent rose to superstardom galvanizing the public with his nine shots to 11-times platinum origin story. Lil Wayne became the biggest rapper in the world unabashedly rapping about Blood ties. Today, Lil Baby, NBA Youngboy, 21 Savage, and Lil Durk are chart-topping, headlining rappers who get into that street talk with the best of them. The Eagles made Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” the soundtrack of their 2017 Super Bowl run, even with lyrics like, “If you ain’t about that murder game, then pussy nigga shut up.” Cardi B can rap “all of my opps get mixed with the grabba” at night and hold court on Good Morning America the next morning. Drake is the only pop star in history who consistently raps about having shooters. There are hoards of examples of artists with violent lyrics being mainstream in a way that wasn’t as common in the ‘90s.
As 50 himself rapped, “America got a thing for this gangsta shit.” The subgenre has been able to assimilate further into pop culture for a variety of reasons. Artists like 50 Cent, Nelly, and Lil Wayne (and later Durk, Future and Lil Baby) went platinum with catchy, melodic music that captured the collective public in a manner that The Chronic’s lush G-Funk once did. Snoop Dogg has said that part of the album’s creative approach hinged on taking melodies from classic songs and turning them into some G-shit. “Many Men” would have still been a street classic if 50 dryly recited the hook. But the melody is what caught the attention of the masses, including Tom Brady, who posted a video of himself playing it while prepping for the 2019 AFC Championship Game. The hook sounded so good to sing that you pretended you had opps just to do so. And top-selling acts have continued to employ that simple edict on 2010s classics like Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa,” Future’s “Stick Talk,” or Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party.” There are hundreds of artists merging rap with crooning these days—and some of them aren’t talking about love.