The Year's Most Acclaimed Hip-Hop Artists Transcended Backpack Pasts

Categories: Pazz & Jop

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Louisa Bertman

"In this season, the man of goodwill will wear his heart up his sleeve, not on it." —W.H. Auden

"Wu-Tang forever." —Drake

There are only so many ways to conceal your backpack past. You can auto-tune your voice to sound like an answering machine or submerge it in a chopped-and-screwed solution. You can brag about bargain-hunting for Gucci goggles and geriatric cruise wear. You can coo sad falsettos about sexting the wrong contact. After all, styles and sounds are mutable, but memories of adolescent music obsessions live forever.

See also: Drake's New Album Reviewed Using Sex and the City GIFs

But for the first time since the "lyrical spiritual miracle" became a long way to say "boring," popular rappers are copping to tastes once considered commercial and critical kryptonite. 2013 was the year when the Jansport bonfire outside the abandoned shell of Fat Beats was finally extinguished. Scratch a snapback and odds are you'll find DNA from the Jurassic 5 and Fondle 'Em era.

It's been a decade since Kanye West branded himself the only "backpacker with a Benz." The description was part subversive and part self-serving, but ultimately helped obliterate ideological divides between underground and mainstream. West's ascent dovetailed with other "Tear down this wall" moments, including Jay Z rocking MTV Unplugged with The Roots and Rawkus Records selling to MCA. It meant millions of dollars for some, diaspora for others.

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View this year's full Village Voice Pazz & Jop music critics' poll.

By the latter half of the last decade, the backpack had transformed from a symbol of creative resistance to something ripe for slander. What was once a place to stash aerosol cans, a Walkman, and weapons became a symbol of Screw-faced purity. What's clear today is that hip-hop is governed by the laws of popular opinion defined by Arthur Schopenhauer: "If [the pendulum] goes past the center of gravity of one side, it must go a like distance on the other; and it's only after a certain time that it finds the true point at which it can remain at rest."

Translation: the "Young Jeezy is a genius" think pieces were the natural corrective to the "real hip-hop" manifestos of the previous era. And only after those extremes achieved equilibrium could it seem natural for Lupe Fiasco and Chief Keef to earn songwriting credits on Yeezus, the year's most revered and polarizing hip-hop album.

No matter how many croissants or Kardashians are summoned to Kanye's Parisian loft, there's inevitably a pair of dirty Timberlands and a Louis Vuitton backpack stashed in some auxiliary closet. Love letters to Le Corbusier lamps coincide with New York Times tangents that he's the reincarnation of bomb-the-system-while-eating-barbecue-tofu early '00s rap duo Dead Prez—even if Jay Z is the one going vegan.

Examine the rap game's other most valorized artist of 2013. Drake might borrow flows from Atlanta carnival-couture trappers Migos, but he spent the first half of Nothing Was the Same worshipping Wu-Tang like Ghostface Killah had given him a tennis court for his birthday. The cosign that allowed him to break through came from Cash Money, a label despised by most original backpackers. But the mixtape that directly preceded his fame featured multiple guest spots from members of Little Brother, whose Minstrel Show was a manual for mid-'00s backpackers.

There's Kendrick Lamar, whose earliest mixtapes hijacked J Dilla and Wu-Tang beats as readily as Jay Z and Lil Wayne instrumentals. Frequently hailed as the verse of the year, "Control" ignited memories of Kurupt and Canibus disses. The backpack austerity was so severe that Lamar even boasted about eschewing designer clothes for white T-shirts and Nike Cortezes.

See also: Wu Tang Clan Merch > Yeezus Tour Merch


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17 comments
sabzi
sabzi

@prometheusbrown LOL all our comments about this are getting embedded on the VV site makin me look like a troll. no hate Jeff. u write coo.

sabzi
sabzi

@prometheusbrown i like the article and simultaneously feel like slapping the guy that wrote it

sabzi
sabzi

@prometheusbrown "In a pairing that once would have caused 1,000 incense sticks to spontaneously combust" hahaha.

prometheusbrown
prometheusbrown

article hints at lines being blurred from the jump towards the end/ w LA references but that shit was up & down the whole coast forever

prometheusbrown
prometheusbrown

it's true tho the ppl who most decried "backpack" rap were ppl who went too hard that direction then tried to compensate for their corniness

sabzi
sabzi

@prometheusbrown indeed. good insights but late? and also, who is the intended audience of this piece? *rubs chin*

prometheusbrown
prometheusbrown

meanwhile, those of us who really grew up in this shit and didn't "discover" it in college or whatever never made such distinctions

prometheusbrown
prometheusbrown

for us, rap shit was never "backpack" or "street" or "underground" or "mainstream" - it was always only "dope" or "wack"

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