The Obsolescence of the Freestyle

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From necessary litmus test to tedious sideshow for ill-suited artists.

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Andre G | August 2, 2016

We’ve seen the videos: Desiigner and ILoveMakonnen fumbling with Tim Westwood. Lil Uzi Vert arguing with Ebro, then spitting some basic shit over a Kanye beat. Most recently, the 2016 XXL freshman freestyles dropped, and some of them weren’t particularly impressive. Lil Yachty’s in particular was outright bad. The day after it dropped, the people on my miniscule Facebook feed were unanimously insulting his lackluster bars. Perhaps the criticism is justified, but as I read the comments, I thought to myself: these people would probably get just as much momentary joy from a video of LeBron airballing Steph Curryesque pull-up threes—but we see how it turned out on the court, with all aspects of the game at play.

I probably lost a good amount of elitists after that last line, but for the remaining readers: I’m not comparing him to LeBron. I am no Yachty fan dying to get people to accept him. I don’t listen to much of his music, and I’m not 100% positive that he and the rest of his streetwear scene pandering ilk aren’t some elaborate Kanye-funded performance art piece about non-conformity. That said, I’m not going to be dense enough to pretend a freestyle is an adequate—or fair—display of what got him or Uzi or Desiigner their acclaim. Furthermore, I’m not going to channel old man Ebro and feel good about discrediting their place in Hip-Hop based on them faltering in an arena they aren’t suited for.

The freestyle is a venue for the lyrically inclined, for artists who are spellbounding with their words alone. Yachty, Uzi..Desiigner..they aren’t that. But they don’t have to be. Their music appeals to their fans because of the symbiotic relationship they have with their production, the entrancing, melodic experience their music provides, and the way they can rock a live show. Lil Uzi calls himself a rockstar, and he may be right. He’s at the head of a new wave of Hip-Hop leaning artists who are essentially the lead acts in a rotating Fruity Loops tribute band.

Trap and bounce artists rely on production moreso than any other Hip-Hop subgenres ever, which is why no one wants to hear them acapella rhyming or freestyling over incongruent beats. Leave that to Kendrick, or Cole, or Big Sean. In a past age, when the overwhelming majority of MCs prided themselves on delivering bars, the freestyle was a proper litmus test. It was in lockstep with what made the artists appealing. What’s the best way to enjoy an artist with bars? On a song with all bars! A Biggie freestyle could seamlessly fit into a “best of Frank White” mix because he was known for lyricism. Nowadays, playing Desiigner’s Westwood freestyle after “Panda” will cause the club to erupt—in a bad way. Asking Young Thug to rap about whatever you point to may make him pull out the dicks, bae.

Today, with entire scenes in which artists don’t put lyricism over all (how dare they?!?!), the freestyle has significantly less universal value. The days of Canibus, DMX and Nore rhyming for 40 minutes on Hot 97—with Pun trying to get upstairs to catch wreck–are over. Even Troy “restore the feeling in New York” Ave didn’t care enough to memorize his freestyle for Sway. Only recently has Hot 97 begun pressing young artists about their inability or unwillingness to freestyle. After enduring Ebro’s condescending barbs for the better part of 15 minutes in his interview, Yachty implied to Ebro that he was reticent to freestyle and just as likely to “flop” as rip the mic. Still, they put a beat on.

The entire interview was awkward, and their insistence on a freestyle was the worst part. The scene reeked of a dying medium pulling their final tattered trump card on a generation that’s passed them by and doesn’t need them. Ebro plays up his “old school elitist” schtick on the radio, but his move to Apple Music shows he sees the future. Too bad the traditionalists who buy into his act don’t.

These awkward freestyles—and ensuing “see?!” hysteria they engender–are just one tool elitists use in their never-ending mission to judge who’s “real Hip-Hop” based upon dated standards. Many Hip-Hop traditionalists refuse to accept that the craft of MCing just doesn’t have the same parameters in 2016, and media outlets continue to feed into their delusion—for whatever reason. Hopefully though, more artists will eventually go the route of Drake, who had one awful freestyle and never wasted anyone’s time again. Perhaps the lyrically un-inclined will follow the advice of Charlamagne Tha God, who implored Yachty on the Breakfast Club to do him and forget freestyling if it wasn’t his strong suit or what his fans love him for.

There are artists who can deliver in every facet of Hip-Hop from the club to the cipher, but they are the exception. It’s unfair to hold every artist to their standards, especially when guys like Uzi and Yachty readily admit they don’t have the skillsets necessary to flourish in a venue in which lyrical titans like Jadakiss, Fabolous and Joe Budden reign. The game is now rife with artists who –for better or worse—rely on dense production and top-notch engineering to achieve their sound. Their music blooms in a controlled atmosphere. Forcing those artists to freestyle—and gawking at their failure–is one more aspect of Hip-Hop elitism that needs to go the way of jean shorts.

After all, if lyricists like Slaughterhouse for instance can be forgiven for a reach like “The One” because its not their comfort zone, why do artists with bad freestyles have to be subject to melodramatic sky-is-falling video mashups with Tupac crying?

There has to be a better way for media outlets to exhibit the skills of artists like Yachty, Uzi or Desiigner. Perhaps they can post footage of their performances within their interview clips. Hopefully they figure out something. For now though, I’ll just pretend the person who coordinated these XXL freestyles is named Sharif and chuckle to myself when I think of Menace To Society. Ain’t nobody tryin to hear that shit!

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