The South Got Something to Say: Dispelling the Term “Mumble Rap”

Written By: SP

Being a rap fan is a fickle affair.  The genre, and hair color, changes rapidly.  If you’re old enough, you’ve witnessed its malleability, at times morphing so quickly and drastically that the pace feels like, for younger millennials, we’ve aged out of certain sounds–too young to have experienced the era of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G in full, yet too old to enjoy new and upcoming artists via Soundcloud.  However, what has remained consistent is the critique that usually comes from prior generations. Music fans who grew up on soul, shunned gangsta rap; early 90s Hip-Hop fans criticized the early aughts and ringtone era; and now “mumble rap” is volunteering as tribute as the current generation’s scapegoat.  History teaches us that the further something strays from tradition, the more misguided it is.  But if the critique of “mumble rap” could be condensed into a life truth, it’s that tradition has its limitations.

Southern Accents Versus Mumbling

Coined in 2016 by Northeastern artists and media outlets, the term “mumble rap” is used to describe rappers who, well, mumble over beats apparently.  I use the word “apparently” because often the artists, who this loosely defined subgenre targets, are not mumbling, but slurring their words and/or breaking their vowels, which makes sense.  Many artists who are considered mumble rappers are from the South (Future, Gucci Mane, Migos, 21 Savage, Young Dolph, Lil Yachty, etc.). This begs the question, is it mumbling, or is it difficult to understand their accent? The latter question is also valid considering the slurring of words and vowel breaking that hinges on Southern accents.  But to use “mumbling” and Southern accents as interchangeable is troublesome.  Especially when accents, Southern accents in particular, have a long storied history of serving as a cue for regional stereotypes.

Because “mumble rap” is so loosely defined, similar to “trap,” it’s a vague category that encompasses rappers with such drastic styles and flows they’re incomparable (21 Savage and Lil Yachty, for example).  Not only used to describe rappers who “mumble,” the term has evolved into a pejorative statement meant to describe artists who stray from lyricism.  When in fact its not lyricism that these said artists are straying from, its “traditional” lyricism.  In this context, “traditional lyricism” is a style and cadence ridden with metaphors, complex storytelling, and rhyme schemes: a direct descendent of early New York rap.  As the birthplace of Hip-Hop, New York and the style it birthed is regarded with adoration, but as fans of the genre, it's imperative that adoration doesn’t become elitism.  The latter produces a biased attachment that dismisses anything that’s not “traditional” or traditional-adjacent (Outkast, J.Cole, etc.) from the pantheon of rap excellence. In doing so, who the genre connects with becomes limited.  Any bias or school of thought that helps to draw those limits is the antithesis of what Hip-Hop is supposed to be–a connecting point.

Eradicating Rap’s Limits

As easy as it is to view the past with a rose-colored lens, in order to truly asses from a standpoint that’s as much accurate as it is open, it’s imperative to not let the nostalgia of tradition limit us or the art itself.  Pushing those limits can manifest itself in different ways, but allowing Southern artists to use phrasing that may be less technical, but more accessible to eradicate hip hop’s limits and who it connects with is a good start.  Mumble rap achieves what eludes traditional rap – simple and visceral responses, particularly in trap music where the production often paints pain in sound.

Witty word play is always appreciated and valued.  But simple word phrasing and lyricism are not mutually exclusive.  However, complexity and accessibility sometimes are. I rather the genre serve many versus a select few.  Particularly during a time where so many of us need music as a vessel for healing, or a safe space for cognitive dissonance.  If rap can meet people where they are, it behooves the genre to stretch its limits and archaic school of thought so that it reaches its fans in the South, where people typically bear the brunt of society’s ills first; the same ills that rap veterans champion to be priority in lyrics.    

Do You Listen to Music or Do You Skim Through It?

With exceptions, Southern rap is rounded pronunciation and trunk shaking.  It’s a union of pain, vulnerability, and perseverance that complements the reality of the South.  There’s bounce, there’s frustration, the grills, the slurring of words that may make sentences indiscernible to an untrained ear.  But it's valid and it reaches a fan base that sees themselves in the music.  For young kids in Atlanta, Future *is* their Pac.  Not because of his radio singles alone that critics too often focus heavily on, but it’s the full body of his work that prompts periods of introspection and therapy sessions.  Mumbling didn’t bring those fans to Future, but vulnerability and truth did however.  The radio may have you think otherwise where simpler and catchier hooks are widespread.  In a time where streams and Top 40 charts reign in the absence of album sales, unfortunately full projects are often skimmed through, if even listened to at all, leaving critics to believe the direction of rap has turned towards a good time over substance.  Southern rappers stand as a corrective to both: many who are viewed as culprits of mumble rap.

Furthermore, the term “mumble rap” signifies the South’s decade(s) long fight for legitimacy. In Migos’ grandeur, Future’s testimonies, 21 Savage’s commentary, the dark tones in Metro Boomin’s production, all unveil an arc of progress, letdowns, setbacks, and fleeting hope.  Their rhymes are simple, but are still imbued with purpose. The radio singles that gave way to them being referred to as “mumble rap,” is a plead to be a part of the broader conversation in Hip-Hop where their themes are consistent with the same themes found in the lyrics of “traditional” rap.   

Change is Inevitable

For years there’s been a fear that “traditional” lyricism will soon evaporate into the Souncloud abyss, or that kids will forever be negatively impacted by rhymes about material possessions, violence, and women.  It’s a long tradition of art imitating life and systemic inequalities that hip-hop did not create. This isn’t a call to action to defend all who are considered “mumble rappers.” No region is exempt from producing rappers that Hip-Hop could do without, however, it is a plea to be mindful of who we consider worthy of that earlier mentioned “pantheon of rap excellence,” and what biases we subconsciously employ when doing so.  Is it one that disproportionately dismisses a region that’s been critical to the culture’s growth? And are we at a point where we reduce a style or flow as illegitimate because of elongated vowel sounds? No matter how difficult to discern, the South still has something to say.