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 previously, efforts to make country-rap songs 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 the mark again when Nelly schooled Tim McGraw in the art of R&B on the 2004 hit “All in My Head.” The trend has been steadily growing, albiet 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 2019 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 that Lil Nas X initially created. He has also been consistently going to bat for the young artist, whose rise has seen systematic snubs 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 shortlist of who looks promising — including a couple of tracks that just sound silly.
Bubba Sparxxx — “Country Folks”
While this single is about six years old, an article on country-rap wouldn’t be complete without a reference to Bubba Sparxxx. He was big in the early 2000’s for the club hit “Miss New Booty,” which is more representative of his typical non-country style. 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: Bubba praises 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 this track. The hook featuring Colt Ford & Danny Boone is catchy, albeit a bit repetitive. The traditions of the Dirty South have become sacred in rap, but they are also admired by a large group of artists who aren’t afraid to step over to the country side. Bubba Sparxxx is a prime example of the hybrid benefits that come from rappers experimenting 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 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 on one that was a little different from his usual style. Immediately upon hearing the unique rhythm, he was struck with an idea for a twangy trap song. Once in the booth, listening to the country beat with Lil Uzi Vert, he claims the lyrics flowed out of him. He was attempting a Bubba Sparxxx effect; fusing a typical rapper persona with a gangster farmer character he created on the spot. Both Lil Tracy and Lil Uzi Vert have thick southern accents on the track, which is a bit of exaggerated acting by Vert, being a proud Philadelphian artist. 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 at large 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 commenting with frustration that this track was not his best. A pattern in which country-rap songs are appreciated (and subsequently going viral) for their musical qualities mixed with subtle humor seems to be emerging.
Upchurch — “Rolling Stoned”
Many critics have argued that Nashville executives, dedicated to keeping country music “pure,” are projecting their racist views onto what they believe the genre was and should continue to be. These anti-executive dissenters point out myriad influences that are shaping 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, all 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 in his truck, 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 that they use the drug. (Anyone who grew up in most rural areas of the country themselves would know that the connection between their small towns and Mary Jane is longstanding, despite the apparent shock by some.) Upchurch’s intriguing talent comes in when he layers country crooning over rap-reminiscent beats — though he certainly isn’t the best out there. No doubt more (better) artists will attempt to follow his footsteps up the charts. Signs are that the powers-that-be in Nashville will not be able stop the infusion of diversity that is coming for them.
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.