No kings? Twin Cities hip hop's bold new era
The signs had been there for months, but it was only as 2013 neared its end that they became fully unavoidable. It was then, at the beginning of December, that Rhymesayers announced its latest signing -- and its first local one in what seemed like ages -- in the form of Prof. The Jameson-swilling problem child entered with his normal bravado, in an obscenity-laced video that featured a dig at Macklemore and came with the all-important blessing of Slug, who made his own cameo.
They could dress it up however they liked, but the subtext was clear: The rap game in the Twin Cities has changed dramatically, and even the mighty Rhymesayers is moving with the times.
Long before the news of Prof's signing had been made official, it was another up-and-coming rapper, Lizzo, who had blazed a trail through the local music community. It started in the summer of 2012, when the Detroit- and Houston-reared MC dropped her first single as a member of the female hip-hop trio, the Chalice, and went into instant rotation on local radio. From there, the group won that year's Picked to Click contest -- and then, in an unprecedented feat for rappers, Lizzo repeated as the winner in 2013, this time as a solo artist.
Certainly, the time was ripe for someone with the star quality of Lizzo. Twin Cities hip hop, while fertile, had been ruled for too long by a handful of the same people. Familiar voices within Rhymesayers' stable of artists and also the Doomtree crew formed the gold standard. While you can chart progress within those acts -- new collaborations, new experimentation with sound -- there have been a lot of hungry MCs eager to emerge alongside the established greats. These other factions of the community flourished below the surface, but none really challenged the status quo.
But Lizzo is a very different proposition. She's a far cry from the "conscious" or "backpack" rapper that has historically been the Minnesota archetype (and the sometime butt of Prof's jokes), a smart and insightful lyricist who doesn't concern herself with political rhetoric or philosophical discourse. Those things are embedded in her storytelling, sure, but she doesn't shy away from the glitz and glamour of hip hop culture, either -- rather, she uses them to augment her raw talents as a performer. She sings a lot too.
In fact, Lizzo's greatest appeal lies in her force of personality. She is this state's first bona-fide diva -- a strong, confident woman in the vein of Beyonce or Missy Elliott, who prides herself on her style and her sex appeal. In other words, her music is fun, but it's not just a party; a crucial part of that fun is that the girls (or GRRL PRTY, if you will) can have as much fun as the boys, without feeling embarrassed, and without having to do so on the boys' terms.
If anything, the boys have had to catch up with Lizzo. Her debut album, LIZZOBANGERS, was produced by Doomtree beat-master Lazerbeak, but this was no mere cop to the crew. A rapper she may be, but Lizzo's roots are imbued with rock, prog, and plenty of other diverse influences. As a sonic piece, LIZZOBANGERS is ambitious, following her lead as she explores her prodigious skills -- through slow jams, club bangers, and earsplitting noise -- rather than the other way around.
At this stage, Lizzo is more than just the hottest rapper in the Twin Cities; she's the hottest musician in Minnesota, period. (And her performance Friday at the Current's Birthday Party has been sold out for a while now.) But in and of itself, her success doesn't necessarily constitute a trend in local hip hop so much as it proves her own inimitable appeal. And that's where Prof comes in.
While Lizzo is an outsider who made the Twin Cities her own, Prof is a native who's operated as an outsider of his own styling, having never conformed to the norms of the local scene. Stylistically, he couldn't be much further removed from Lizzo, with a persona that's often crass and crude, full of vulgarities, and proud of its trashy predilections, pregnant women and all. But as an exception to the rule, Prof forms the perfect counterpart to Lizzo: he's defiantly lowbrow, the "anti-conscious" rapper.
That Rhymesayers has opted to sign an artist like Prof is significant enough, a clear break from their usual partnerships. But what's most fascinating is that Prof made it happen on his own terms: not exactly radio-friendly, he's too offensive to have gained a mandate from local media. (Lest we forget, the Chalice was first championed by the Current). Yet it's impossible to ignore the grassroots following he's built, which means he has no trouble selling out the Mainroom. If we need any evidence that the listening public is ready for something different, then look no further than Prof.
As a pair, Lizzo and Prof have helped haul Minnesota into this decade of hip hop. Yet, already an even odder future may be here, in the form of a 20-year old rapper named Allan Kingdom. Though he's released a handful of EPs and a full-length, it was only with a remix of Polica's "Chain My Name" and a series of high-profile opening concert slots that Kingdom seemed to show up on local radars. And he exists mostly outside of the local establishment, something of a loner who, like Lizzo, has been taken under the wing of Totally Gross National Product, rather than a traditional hip-hip label.
Photo by Erik Hess
Kingdom's music is even further out there from any of his counterparts, as though it flows directly from the wellspring of his imagination. Sometimes proggy, sometimes ambient, the songs unfold like dreamscapes, immersed in the louche stylings of Frank Ocean -- a world (so far) removed from the beats of Ant or Lazerbeak. Lyrically, Kingdom has a unique vocabulary that bears a strong influence from Kid Cudi and to a lesser extent Drake, eschewing political and social references from abstractions of himself and his psyche. He can equate his mic skills to dealing drugs at one moment, and in the next, confess, "I always feel mediocre/You make me feel like a man."
When Kingdom performs at First Avenue's Best New Bands showcase on January 30, his already ascendant trajectory will be in front of the largest audience of his career.
And so Twin Cities hip hop finds itself hurtling in at least three distinctly different directions, each a fresh and fascinating divergence from years' past. It has been much too long since a local rapper enjoyed some truly breakout success beyond our borders, and in truth, that requires a special talent. Lizzo and Prof have won half the battle, each enjoying accolades as far afield as L.A. and London -- and in the former's case, even props from Lena Dunham (which must count for something, right?). And Kingdom's made some serious in-roads in New York, where his management is based. Before long, they will not be the only ones.
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