By Deanna Costa
This month focuses on contemporary country-rap. It’s high time we take note of a fledgling genre on the verge of mass popularity.
This month’s fresh releases scene started with a big bang: the Internet and music worlds colliding. As I’ve stated in previously, attempts to make country-rap into successful genre usually end up as corny, white-washed messes. These kind of pitiful tracks typically come from country stars attempting to broaden their audience, or from corporate record companies pushing more sales. (Here’s looking at you, Florida Georgia Line.)
So what happens when an artist from the other side of the aisle steps into the rodeo; when a rapper attempts a single with a little twang to it? A truly wonderful blend of both worlds is born. We first saw this in 1998 when Mo Thugs (featuring hip-hop legends from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, plus a few friends of the collective) put out the western-inspired single “Ghetto Cowboy.”
Some solid collaborations have popped up over the years, but this genre hit awesome again when Nelly schooled Tim McGraw in the art of R&B on the 2004 hit “All in My Head.” The trend has been growing, slowly. One would think that given the greed in the music business today, there would have been a more determined scramble to sign Hip-Hop or R&B artists that can pull off the tricky crossover maneuver.
Enter Lil Nas X, a young rapper-singer/songwriter who generated a small following on Twitter as an internet personality and one man meme machine. His single “Old Town Road” was self-published in December of last year, but skyrocketed in popularity in early April when Billy Ray Cyrus picked up the little-known track and remixed it with an additional verse.
The new version of the song, titled “Old Town Road – Remix (Feat. Billy Ray Cyrus),” is a perfect example of what this budding genre can become. Cyrus doesn’t try to steal the show; he builds on the great foundation Lil Nas X initially created. He has also been consistently going to bat for the young artist, who has been systematically snubbed by the country world since the remix’s inception.
This long introduction serves as a precursor to this month’s list because I’d like to hone in on contemporary country-rap. After watching someone who was barely known just a month ago skyrocket his way to festivals around the US, it’s high time we take note of a fledgling genre on the verge of mass popularity. In today’s social media-driven age, the viral turned musical success of Lil Nas X will undoubtedly become an inspiration for copy cats across America’s heartland. Here’s a few who look promising — and a couple who just sound silly.
Bubba Sparxxx — “Country Folks”
While this single is about six years old, an article on country-rap can’t omit a reference to Bubba Sparxxx. He was big (for a time) in the early 2000’s for the club hit “Miss New Booty,” which is pure Hip-Hop. On the track “Country Folks,” Bubba returns to his roots and pays homage to his humble hometown. The verses explore similarities between country and rap cultures, with Bubba praising the community that supported him, providing descriptions of the resilient, family-loving nature of rural people. An industry veteran by 2013, he has expertly structured the track. A hook featuring Colt Ford & Danny Boone is catchy, albeit a bit repetitive. The traditions of the Dirty South has become sacred in rap, but they are also admired by a large group of artists who haven’t been afraid to step over to the country side. Bubba Sparxxx is a prime example of the hybrid benefits that can come when rappers experiment with a Nashville style.
Lil Tracy & Lil Uzi Vert — “Like a Farmer”
This collaboration was released in late 2018; it is equal parts country-rap and country-parody. In an interview with Genius, Lil Tracy recalls that the songwriting process for this track was largely impromptu. Like many rappers, he started with a beat, but decided to hunt for something a little different than his usual style. He had an undetermined idea in mind for a twangy trap song. Once in the booth, listening to a country beat, he claims the lyrics flowed out of him. He was attempting a Bubba Sparxxx effect; fusing a typical rapper persona with a farmer character he created on the spot. Both Lil Tracy and Lil Uzi Vert have thick southern accents on the track; a bit of exaggerated acting on Vert’s part. Tracy, a Virginia native, didn’t need to fake his voice, though his drawl is not as prominent on other songs. Interestingly, Lil Tracy was relatively obscure on the scene before the release of “Like a Farmer.” His hits “White Wine” and “This Year” were not well known enough to be recognized with a Genius lyric video, despite many fans frustratedly commenting that this track was not his best. A pattern in which country-rap songs are appreciated for their musical qualities and their subtle humor seems to be emerging.
Upchurch — “Rolling Stoned”
Many critic have argued that Nashville executives, dedicated to keeping country music “pure,” are projecting their racist views on what they believe the genre was and should be. These dissenters point out myriaid influences that have shaped modern country: Pop, Blues, Rock, EDM, Folk, and Caribbean/Tropical music. So it is revealing that media outlets like Billboard would turn their noses up to Lil Nas X’s success, yet embrace the self-proclaimed comic-rapper-musician Upchurch. His 2015 EP Cheatham County, along with his 2016 full-length albums Heart of America and Chicken Willie, reached Billboard’s Top 30 Country Albums chart.
“Rolling Stoned” holds up as a superior country-rap, a stand-out track compared to some of his other (worse) songs. The title pretty well tells the story: the singer is rolling around a rural area high on marijuana. Because THC is actively being legalized in more states, and subsequently becoming more socially acceptable, country folk are beginning to feel free to admit they use the drug. Upchurch’s intriguing talent is to layer country crooning over rap-reminiscent beats — though he isn’t the best out there. No doubt more artists will attempt to follow his footsteps up the charts. Signs are that the powers-that-be in country will not be able stop an infusion of diversity.
Deanna Costa is a recent graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism with a focus on Magazine Design. During her time at BU, she covered local concerts for on-campus publications in multiple formats. Outside of writing, she routinely interviewed artists and reviewed albums live on her weekly radio show, DJ-ed on campus events, and held the Studio Productions Director position in 2017. Currently, she is a full-time administrative assistant, a freelance music journalist, and a podcast co-host alongside her husband.