Modern rap is a lot closer to basketball’s scoring system than that of soccer. Each point is less individually relevant than the legacy it can add up to with 75 more shots, as long as most of them sink. The limelight’s half-life is much shorter, but its field of view is more cluttered and overwhelmed, so there’s less penalty for whiffing on one project as long as one song from the next one goes viral. In this way, the situation encourages cranking out as much similar music as possible while the short span of attention you’ve lucked out on lasts.
Some older rappers have had no problem adapting to these circumstances. Future, ever the workhorse, released one EP, seven mixtapes, one reissued album, four studio albums, and one motion picture soundtrack from 2015 to the end of 2018. That’s ridiculously prolific, but not so extraneous for today’s hip-hop world: In fact, it sets the tone of urgency and maximalism with which nearly all releases are burdened with.
In a time where the vehicles of communication so explicitly define the content communicated through them, anything that prevails in spite of the rigid prescribed formula is inherently interesting: How’d you get here at all?
Black Thought is not a 2018 rapper. He’s not even a 2008 rapper. Odds are, your only familiarity with the large, bearded man named Tariq Trotter are his role in The Roots, acting as their lead MC since their inception in 1987. Despite the band’s historic influence on hip-hop and Trotter’s generational skills, his name recognition is pretty poor for the man I’m about to laud as the greatest rapper you’ve never heard of.
Maybe it has something to do with him never dropping an album. No, seriously: Never. Trotter’s lyrics are never removed from the context of the band, so his individual skills are less widely known.
That’s not true anymore.
First came Streams of Thought, Vol. 1. Released June 1st of 2018, the 17 minutes spread across five tracks feature Trotter spitting with the best of them — No, literally, the best of them: Old-school beatmaking juggernaut 9th Wonder produces four out of the five tracks. It’s a testament to Trotter’s lyricism and gravitas that he essentially dwarfs the legend’s contributions into more of an afterthought. (Who produced this one? Oh shit 9th?! I forgot!). Trotter is dominant without being ostentatious or making any legacy-claiming declarations. His self-assured, technically rigorous verses come without hooks or breathers, more dense with entendre and reference than any 17 minutes should reasonably be able to muster.
Streams of Thought, Vol. 2 arrived shortly afterwards in November, bringing more of the same in the best possible way. Trotter returns with similarly legendary producer Salaam Remi, who lays down the smooth, soulful 23 minutes split into nine tracks. Remi’s production is reminiscent of The Roots’ live instrumentations, putting Trotter right at home among the chunky drums and jazzy clarinet trills.
From there, he unleashes another chronicle of incisive, multisyllabic rhymes that cover everything from braggadocio to cultural examination. Trotter folds his years of experience and culture into refined, vivid narratives with an old grandfather’s wisdom that never preaches, condescends, or misunderstands. It’s like if the old man across the street was remarkably perceptive, lyrically gymnastic and also… really cool?
I really wanted to write a full ten pages about each of these releases independently, but for a number of practical reasons, I’ve had to exercise restraint there. Incredibly, these two remarkable projects are still not the most noteworthy, incredible thing Tariq Trotter accomplished in 2018. Nor are they the real reason I wrote this.
Before both of these releases (technically in mid-December 2017, but ehhh come on — work with me here), Trotter showed up to Ciroc Studios in New York. And this went down.
Funkmaster Flex is a big name in hip-hop. His radio show, Hot 97.1, was the first in New York to feature hip-hop, and his prominence in the culture has only increased since. Rappers perform on a lot of radio shows, but the Funk Flex freestyle is a particularly big deal. When you show up to 97.1, everyone expects the heat, so you’d better come with it.
Trotter, an OG’s OG, understands the situation well. He comes with it.
The video starts, and Flex runs through his brief hype-man routine: “FUNK FLEX. CIROC STUDIOS. HOT 97.” and so on. (Flex basically speaks in all caps. To relieve your eyes and my editor’s headaches, just holler his words in your head from here on.) Then, the introduction: “Black Thought is here. You know what we do in this position. Ciroc Studios. We here. Let’s go, [DJ].” Trotter is silent, no “Wassup New York”s or “Ayo”s. He’s got nothing to say; not yet. Flex’s DJ spins up a Mobb Deep instrumental. Black Thought takes two beats to get the feel. Then: “Uh-”
It’s not until ten minutes and more than two thousand words later that he finally stops. It’s truly ridiculous in a way that can only appreciated firsthand, but to summarize, Trotter doesn’t stutter, stumble or take a breather once, delivering bar after bar after bar of intricate, multilayered lyricism as the beads of sweat form underneath his brimmed hat. Honestly, do yourself a favor and just listen for yourself. Words will only get me so far.
Flex, a usually excitable audience, is silent almost the entire time as he witnesses Trotter absolutely melt the mic with the focus and seriousness of a college student watching their math professor move to lesson three on five-dimensional math. Throughout, the famed radio host who’s seen countless rappers freestyle live remains enraptured. I reacted much the same.
Rap finds itself at a crossroads these days. There’s not much music left solidly in the mainstream that resembles pre-millennial definitions of hip-hop. This change is a symptom of a shifting in the criteria for rap’s litmus test of realness. Street cred, lyricism, and geography, once defining factors in a rapper’s legitimacy, are less relevant than things like production, name recognition, and what I call Meme Leverage. When people start out bumping “Gucci Gang” ironically because it’s funny to laugh at and end up unironically enjoying the music in the process. Lil Pump is still famous (for the time being) not because he’s good at rapping, but because he’s good at leveraging his fifteen minutes of attention into more than fifteen, a skill perhaps just as important these days.
The Gucci Gang Era of rap (though not an established era, you know exactly what I mean) emerged fast and dense. Music is just easier to make and distribute with computers and social media and all that, so everyone caught on to and contributed to rising trends at breakneck speed. Such violent change can make it easy to forget what preceded it, and there’s so much Gucci Gang music that it dominates the view.
Don’t confuse the view for the landscape, though. Old-school lyricism is extant in its influence on current heavyweights (Kendrick Lamar) and electric newcomers (JID) alike. And in some rare cases, it literally lives on in the same people it was once carried in. Trotter, now forty-six, later said to Rolling Stone: “I think people had almost […] given up hope that someone out there was still around doing it the way we had done it.” His own recent music is living proof that “the way” it’s been done is far from dead.
Trotter’s solo emergence is not born of necessity or opportunism, like the fifteenth KISS reunion tour probably will be. Coming from any other rapper, you’d think the words were written with something to prove, or an axe to grind. But Trotter has nothing left to prove to anyone; he hasn’t for a long while. Rather, he’s emerged as a service to the game, a reminder that lyricism is not only far from dead, but in the case of Black Thought, it might actually still be getting better.
Part of me hopes that the game gets the message. Lyrical prowess like Trotter’s is rare — even generational. All talent needs inspiration and role models to look up to, emulate, and one day ultimately surpass. There is no better gold standard for old-school tried-and-true lyricism than the discography of Black Thought, and no one better to learn from than the greats. I would love to see a generation of rappers inspired by Black Thought to take the mic and contribute their verses.
And part of me also hopes they don’t. Maybe then Trotter will have to drop yet another solo album or five, just to really hammer the point home. You wouldn’t hear me complaining.
Hip-hop is a vastly diverse genre with more than enough room for multiple styles. Just because “Mumble Rap” is popular right now doesn’t mean that it’s succeeding at the expense of other styles. We can have our Gucci Gang rap and our OG New York rap and our experimental ethnosynthcore rap (very much hoping that’s a real thing). It’s less about what’s “dead” and more about what’s underappreciated.
With a growing chronological divide between the era of New York 80s rap and the present, there are less vehicles for those inspirations and influences to trickle down into the creative spaces occupied by modern young musicians. These vehicles can be trusted elders who show you their dusty old vinyls, a throwback joint that finds its way to the radio, or ten-minute freestyle clinics from 46-year old rappers.
Timeless relevance is a (or maybe the) hallmark of great art. Shakespeare (yes, I’m going there) is taught and talked about to this day not because getting kidnapped by pirates after your mother remarries your father’s brother is a relatable thing, but because the more abstract themes of revenge, loss, and mortality still are. Questions like “To be or not to be” still lack satisfactory answers. The more a piece of art can speak truth of the human condition, the longer it lasts.
Trotter, at forty-six years old, has completely defied every expectation of longevity in rap. He’s able to do so because his work touches on subjects greater than the immediate time period they’re from. In his Hot 97.1 freestyle, Trotter rhymes: “I’ve been having visions of Nat Turner holding his master’s head / like Yorick and Horatio in Hamlet / Smackin’ it like a tennis racket, underhanded.” By invoking the timeless themes of loss, vengeance, and liberation in conversation about the plight of modern rap (and culture at large), Tariq Trotter shows how these struggles are not unique to us and our time, and that through art, we can use our history to understand the present and the present to understand our history and future.
To quote the same freestyle once more: “People hated on how sophisticated my taste is / then I pulled up on these mothafuckas in a spaceship.” Trotter truly did pull up on 2018 with the exact swagger and dominance encapsulated in these two lines. However distant Black Thought may seem, it’s clear he’s only ever a short spaceship’s ride from the center of attention. And for such superhuman bars, anything less than a spaceship would be underwhelming.