It has been 20 years since the death of Tupac Shakur and close to as long since The Notorious B.I.G.s. However, it goes without saying that most of us recognize those names regardless of how long ago they vanished. That is because in the 20 or so years since the departure of these two stars, hip-hop has largely adapted into American culture at large.
Hip-hop albums have recently been nominated for the highest recognitions at the Grammy Awards, rappers have performed at the White House, and even with the National Symphony Orchestra, all achievements that Pac and Biggie would have never dreamed of. Yet while the culture has evolved, some of its most basic elements remain intact.
Among the classic elements that remain is the notion of “repping” your city. City-patriotism lies deep within the soul of hip-hop. From Jay Z and Nas in New York City (NYC), to NWA in Compton, hip-hop artists have historically carried their “scenes” with them. For hip-hop fans, this has meant asking the question of “where is the hottest hip-hop?”
The contemporary expansion of styles and flows make our initial inquiry difficult to answer. In places like Chicago, where Drill is counterpoised by the Soulful tradition of Twilite Tone, No ID and Kanye, a single scene can hardly be defined. The contrast in styles is so extreme that they can hardly be categorized within one scene. Beyond this, the movement of artists across the hip-hop map makes it hard to pin an artists to a city—a problem that was not as present in the era of geographic rivalries. Kanye, for example, is without a doubt a product of Chicago, however his recent work and his G. O. O. D. Music crew are a mostly Los Angeles based.
These difficulties in gaging the makeup of a city’s hip-hop scene force us to make a few distinctions in order to reach a conclusion. First, a crew’s influence on scene is larger than an individual act, thus crews based in geographic regions will be the main focus. Second, multiple scenes can exist within a city, but they have to be taken as seperate hip-hop products. Lastly, our comparison is only focused on the current “hot” acts, not the historic scenes and their contributions.
With these distinctions in mind, we can begin to dissect the “heavier” hip-hop scenes.
First on our list, which I rank as the fourth-hottest city, is the birthplace of hip-hop. NYC has continuously delivered talented MCs, producers, fashion setters and culture makers within hip-hop. A$AP Rocky and his Mob have continued this tradition releasing some of the most experimental, yet popular works lately. Beyond this, the Yamborghini Boys have remained at the vanguard of fashion. Pro Era, and their captain Joey Bada$$, have also maintained a steady production of works that are mixing classical themes with refreshing lyrics and beats.
Despite these accolades, NYC falls from the top simply because none of these acts have created enough groundbreaking projects. Unlike Nas, Jay Z, Wu-Tang and the other NYC titans, current New York artist have failed to release genre-shattering projects. Most of the contemporary supply of NYC hip-hop seems to always fall short from achieving the “critically-acclaimed” label.
Next on our hot spots of hip-hop list is the birthplace of OutKast. The great Atlanta (ATL) has undergone extreme change since the years of aggressive Dirty South Style Rap. Most notably, ATL reaches third because of consolidation and popularization of Trap music. While the success of this subgenera cannot be attributed just contemporary artists, it is largely the work of acts like Future, 2 Chainz, Migos, Metro Boomin and Young Thug that have allowed for the great expansion of Trap. However, while ATL has become the mecca of Trap, there is not much else going on. “Mumble” as some call the hard-banging style from the A has caused quite a bit of controversy. Many “hip-hop heads” have even suggested that the emerging style of acts like 21 Savage and Lil Yachty cannot be called hip-hop.
The runner up on our list, and perhaps the most rapidly evolving scene, is Chicago. There is no doubt that the ‘Go has produced quality artists through the years, but to beat NY is a whole new high for the Windy City. The maturing of SaveMoney and the Social Experiment have revitalized the soulful, rhythmic and largely approachable style that put Kanye on the map a decade ago. Beyond this, the accession of Chance and Kanye to the top of pop culture has solidified the marketability of the style. Unfortunately of my beloved Chi, many of the artists making “waves” within the city are still too young. Mick Jenkins, Noname, Jamila Woods, Saba and the rest of the extremely talented Chicago artists remain shadows to the giants from the 606.
Topping all these great cities is none other than Los Angeles. The long time entertainment capital of the world also happens to be the place cooking up the best hip-hop. The simple mentioning of Top Dawg Entertainment puts LA high up on anyone’s list. King Kendrick’s assertion as the ruler of all of hip-hop doesn’t hurt either. Aside from Lamar and BlackHippy, Odd Future’s continuous offshoots have allowed LA’s hip-hop to expand enormously across endless markets. But beyond these established players, SoCal’s hungry acts have also begun to make noise. Artists like Vince Staples and Isaiah Rashad leave anything but high expectations for the future of the already sizzling LA scene.
Lastly, I would like to give some honorable mentions to scenes that are not all that established but that are worth noting. Toronto, home of the real Champaign Papi, has greatly extended its influence since the recent breakout of The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor and the other OVO pupils. However it is still not more than a place where people go seeking a feature. Houston too, has been actively reforming their hip-hop scene. Travis Scott, who is largely influenced by the ATL, is reforming the sound of H-Town away from UGK’s gangster-pimp bars and into a more psychedelic and party-friendly sound.