Oliver Leader de Saxe discusses genre-blending following rumours about Kenrick Lamar’s upcoming rock-influence.
The anticipation’s been palpable following former Billboard editor Bill Werde’s tweets, proclaiming that rapper Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited fifth album may be coming in 2020. If Werde’s word is to be believed, the new album will have a strong rock-influence. This isn’t the first time Kendrick has blended genre. His 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly incorporated funk and jazz to produce one of the 2010s’ best records. Yet it’s indicative of a wider trend cropping up in popular music.
Of course, genre-blending is nothing new. The Beatles were infusing Indian classical into psychedelic rock over fifty years ago. Even rap-rock isn’t a novel concept; the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine were mixing aggressive rap with visceral heavy instrumentals back in the 90s. Yet it’s the increasing rate of genre-fusion and the way it’s entering the mainstream which is particularly notable. Looking over the Billboard Top 100 for each year, the increase in fully-fledged crossovers towards the end of the decade is noticeable.
The rise of genre-fusion in the mainstream is almost certainly related to the singular monogenre in popular culture
Take 2010. Unless you count Snoop Dogg cashing checks on Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ as the pinnacle of musical post-genre experimentation, the top ten are largely monolithic genre songs without a hint of external influence amongst them. And subsequent years tend to follow that pattern, with a few exceptions like LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ or Rude by ‘MAGIC!’
But there’s definitely a flashpoint for when genre-mixing became widely accepted: 2017. It was the year when ‘Despacito’ stormed the charts with its mixture of Latin and Pop, and the Chainsmokers teamed up with Coldplay to create the blandest pop-rock-EDM fusion imaginable; it was the year that essentially proved to big labels that blending genres wasn’t just a route to critical success, but financial success too. Without 2017, country-trap hit ‘Old Town Road’ likely wouldn’t have happened. However, the seeds for increased genre-blending had been planted long before that.
But for every gem comes a forgettable grime-pop hybrid from Ed Sheeran or a pop-trap track from upcoming SoundCloud rapper Lil [insert name here]
With music moving away from the physical medium to streaming services, and the sheer saturation of new music due via SoundCloud, Spotify and Bandcamp, musical success often lies in casting the largest net possible. No matter how high quality, niche music isn’t gonna make it into the most coveted of Spotify playlists. This explains why music is homogenising at an alarming rate. Look at the Billboard Hot Rock Songs of the decade list as a prime example. The top ten is filled pop-inflected radio hits from bands like Imagine Dragons or Twenty-One Pilots; songs like ‘Thunder’ or ‘Heathens’ which lack many defining elements of traditional music like distorted guitars.
A lot of people have seen these charts as evidence of the death of rock music, but I’d diagnose a different disease; the rock music hasn’t died, but to stay relevant has aligned itself more with more popular genres in the mainstream consciences. The rise of genre-fusion in the mainstream is almost certainly related to the singular monogenre in popular culture.
It’s a shame too. For every cynical by-committee hybrid, there’s one with genuine purpose. When Kayne West song samples King Crimson on ‘Power’, he not only re-appropriates rock for the black community, but uses it as basis for righteous anger against institutional racism. When Slowthai borrows from punk, he’s speaking the language of political counter-culture, and in doing so indicates grime is rightful descendent of punk. But for every gem comes a forgettable grime-pop hybrid from Ed Sheeran or a pop-trap track from upcoming SoundCloud rapper Lil [insert name here]. That being said, I wish Kendrick all the best with his endeavour. If anyone can bring an artistically fulfilling genre-blending to the masses, it’s the GOAT.