During the late 80s, my Uncle Ike would play old Blues records on his Bushwick, Brooklyn stoop. Most times, I wasn’t able to make out the lyrics to those songs he played; he always had to translate them for me. One day, after getting frustrated with me for having turned his vibe session into a 60-minute interview, my Uncle Ike told me: “You don’t listen to the Blues, you feel it!” Since then, I’ve sort of turned off my brain when listening to Blues music, and I’ve been enjoying the feeling ever sense.
What’s perhaps most ironic, looking back on those days with my Uncle on his stoop, is that I get the same sort of advice from people who are connoisseurs of hip-hop’s latest incarnation of “mumble rap.” Once Wiz Khalifa coined the term “mumble rap”, the phrase has become a constant topic for hip-hop listeners. What many consider mumble rap is merely a re-incarnation of trap music, and much like blues music the subgenre, originated from the South. The southern drawl is aurally enhanced through auto-tune to indecipherable levels of pronunciation. The genre tends to focus heavily on melody and rhythm, but blues music carries that same harmonic quality.
Trap music, mumble rap, or whatever new name listeners ascribe to this brand of music, is really a son—or a not so distant relative—of Blues. And like Blues, consumers of Future-rap have disregarded their inability to understand exactly what the artist says, in order to feel the music, in order to jump into the vibe of songs. Both genres, attracts listeners through the ability to easily sing along with the song melody. This intrinsic quality grants fans the opportunity to shout, scream, and emote along with the performer. The same emotion my uncle released from wailing out Howling Wolf lyrics, is the same emotion a 16 year-old lets out when they sing along to any Migo’s song.
When Blues music hit, people were kind of unsure what to make of it. They certainly couldn’t make out what the artist was saying. This inability to decipher the artist was, in large part, a consequence of the drugs popular Blues artists took. Indeed, both mumble rap and Blues share a turn-up culture. In fact, drugs are a prominent theme in both genres of music, and the drugs themselves produce the mumblin’ listeners hear. Most Blues musicians were also hard to understand because of their Southern dialects—nowhere else in the world did people speak quite like Black southerners. The Southern drawl found in early blues music is actually the English language spoken with African pronunciation. In the same way, Future and his mini-me Desiigner, are part of a tradition that originated in the South. They, like the earliest Blues players, speak with a Southern dialect that, under normal circumstances, takes a bit of work to understand.
To make Blues, W.C. Handy, the so-called father of Blues, took the songs of poor black folk in Mississippi and refined them with a little churchiness and a bit of Southern talk. Under the minor keys so emblematic of Black church music, Handy and his Blues descendants would say words like “ya’ll.” However, under the influence of alcohol, “ya’ll” turned into a sort of y-ha. Sometimes it turned into something even more indecipherable. These linguistic patterns were Slaves’ interpretations of the English language. Under normal circumstances, Southern speech was hard to understand, but when musicians were drunk, words were just a series of drawls and mumbles.
Blues enthusiasts speak of the emotional release that comes from listening to blues. By the same token, a similar feeling is expressed by fans of Lil Yachty, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert. This group receives a hefty load of criticism; critics claim that it has dumbed down Southern rap with unintelligible verses—but, respectfully, who knew exactly what James Brown was saying! The Godfather of Soul’s vague verbal styling was also linked to the guttural expressions of Blues music. Part of the brilliance of Blues is to muddy the clarity between understanding and lyrics; the point is to muddy the language so that those outside of Blues circle don’t know what’s been said.
However far-fetched it seems, there’s a clear musical path that leads to 21 Savage. On the technical side repetition is structural commonality with both styles. The chants repeated in Desiigner’s “Tiimmy Turner” or Migo’s “Handsome and Wealthy” have a rhythmic vocal delivery that drive listeners into a call and response tradition that was birthed in Mississippi juke joints. The impact of slave field hollers that progressed through African-American music appears in the call and response interaction between audience and the artist in both mumble rap and Blues.
Both genres develop safe space for artist to address issues and purge the emotions associated with them. The turn up in mumble rap taps into a similar energy as Blues, because of the focus of emotion over thought. For those who find themselves at odds attempting to rationalize, a rapper rambling over sparse 808 drums, remember the point of both styles of music was not to make sense of the madness, but to provide a break from it.