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If you walk down the street of any major city and open your ears to the cars driving by, there’s a good chance that the music roaring out of the windows will feature an immediately recognizable formula: rattling, synthetic hi-hats, speaker-cone-devastating sub-bass, and 808 kick samples all rolling on top of one another in tight rhythmic uniform. Upon closer listen, orchestrally swelling MIDI strings and catchy diatonic piano melodies frequently follow suit, also.
That is the sound of what people basically refer to as trap music.
For the purposes of this article, we’re actually only covering “trap rap” and not the remix-centric phenomenon of EDM that is also known as trap, although that genre also features tons of aesthetic similarities. But whether you’re listening to lyrical heroes like Kendrick Lamar or polarizing newcomers like Lil Yachty, hip-hop is fixated on trap. And it’s been like this for a minute now.
The genre was popularized in the American South in the ’90s having allegedly originated in Atlanta, Georgia’s explosive rap scene, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. I know I’m not alone every time I think, “How is this still going on?” so let’s unpack this question.
At this point, the formula has become almost comically predictable: Open with an ambient intro that encompasses the song’s main theme, build the groove with some vocal booth ad-libs and producer drops, then open up the beat track. Now, throw in a handful of “uuhhs!”s and “whats!” and dive into your first verse. Producers seem perfectly content to allow this sound to proliferate as is — but what’s keeping this repetitive formula from getting old?
Well, firstly, it just works. I guess the old saying holds true: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Dark or light subject matter, eery or uplifting key signatures, it’s all a party. But there’s more to it than just that. Here’s my take.
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It’s a platform for the hook, and everything else is secondary.
By now, you’ve probably heard of the term “mumble rapper.” Artists like Young Thug, Future, and Lil Uzi Vert are among those thrown into this category. Essentially, the term refers to artists who, rather than rapping clearly with little or no vocals effects — like Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur, for example — will opt to use effects like Auto-Tune, digital reverb, and delay, and shout unintelligible lyrics.
But it doesn’t really matter because the beat leaves so much space open for vocals to fill in, it’s basically designed to be a pedestal for the hook to shine. Who needs lyrics, anyway?
If you’re not the most naturally gifted emcee, trap music gives you a platform to rap regardless. Because effects like Auto-Tune and reverb enhance the sonic capabilities of most voices, with a decent hook and a bit of DAW production wherewithal, the rest will fall into place.
Newcomers are welcome.
Tons of people criticize rappers who lean heavily on this formula, such as Migos. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the formula’s ability to produce hit songs like “Bad & Boujee,” “XO TOUR Llif3,” and “Mask Off” — even if it is just an elongated trend.
Would someone like Lil Yachty have been able to make a name for himself during the era of Nas and Mobb Deep? That’s debatable, but probably not.
But does the accessibility of the trap beat, with its veritable low level of entry tech-wise, allow newcomers to enter the scene and offer their own creative spin on the genre more easily, even without displaying traditional rap talents? Definitely.
Lyrical artists benefit from it, too.
Trap isn’t all mumble. Critically acclaimed lyricists (and poets) like Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole have both dabbled in production making use of trap beats. Songs like Lamar’s “DNA.” and Cole’s “Neighbors” both showcase lyrical dexterity alongside those rattling hi-hats and that sub-heavy synth bass.
It opens these artists up to more Southern listeners, and it makes their songs easier to incorporate next to other mainstream hip-hop jams on the radio right now. Not that Kendrick Lamar needs help getting on the radio, specifically, but producing, and really, mixing to a reference aesthetic in general helps your sound fit into more radio playlists. The trap beat was built for the club, but that doesn’t mean it can’t sit next to poetry!
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Unfortunately, it’s often the case that rappers who write introspective, dense, and lyrically complex music don’t achieve the same level of mainstream success as simpler rappers like Drake or Big Sean. But with the use of a trap beat, there’s a greater appeal to fans from across the hip-hop spectrum.
The trap frame makes it sound relevant and catchy, even if the hook isn’t about sex or turning up.
Bright or dark, minor or major, it’s a party.
Trap is buoyed by upbeat electronic percussion — so, whether you’re working with dark, pensive minor chords or uplifting, joyous major sounds, it’s going to be a party. For example, Future’s “F*ck Up Some Commas” is built around a cinematic, minor piano melody with eerie strings and ominous sound effects. The overall mood and tone is brooding and downright spooky. But with a booming trap beat in the center of it all, and Future’s braggadocios rapping and flow, it feels like a party.
On the other hand, Post Malone’s breakout hit, “White Iverson,” features bright, cathedral chords and sunny strings. But it’s just as much of a party track as “F*ck Up Some Commas.” If anything, it’s less of a turn-up anthem. Trap has terrific mainstream appeal because there’s always this underlying element of fun, a beat to dance to, and a rhythm for letting loose. You can play it in your car en route to the club, and listen to the same song inside!
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Trap lends itself to other genres.
Hip-hop is the most popular genre of music utilizing trap at this moment, but it’s not new, and electronic producers such as Flosstradamus, Diplo, TNGHT, and RL Grime have been capitalizing on its crossover with EDM for years. It shows up in pop tunes from the likes of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey. And of course, you could whip up a trap remix of pretty much anything and make it sound dope.
Conclusion: Yup, trap is here to stay.
Whether you’re a fan of socially conscious hip-hop, club bangers, EDM, or Top 40 pop, chances are you’re going to be hearing a lot of trap beats. The simplistic, dynamic formula leaves room for an eclectic range of expression to flourish. And like anything good in music, certain people are going to abuse it, sure — but those who do it right, with taste and creativity, will find a way to keep the trap formula unique and refreshing while paying homage to its Southern roots.
In other words:
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