Hip to the game: Is 2018 the year of Canadian hip-hop or more “Despacitos”?

Hip to the game

Is 2018 the year of Canadian hip-hop or more “Despacitos”?


By the end of 2017, it was clear that hip-hop had come a long way since the 1980s. In just 30 years, the genre has evolved from drawing widespread scorn from politicians and the criminal justice system, to dominating mainstream music. Last year, Billboard’s year-end “Hot 100” chart featured nine hip-hop songs in the top 20.

Hip-hop’s ascension as de facto pop music has piqued the attention of leading acts in other genres, such as “afrobeat” and “EDM” exemplified in Drake’s collaboration with WizKid and Calvin Harris’s chart-topping album Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. With so much international and cross-genre collaboration in North American hip-hop, one has to wonder what sound will dominate airwaves in 2018.

Two years ago, Rihanna’s use of Carribbean-inspired dancehall melodies and incorporation of island patios into her hit song “Work”, set of a chain reaction in hip-hop that would define that year’s sound. Drake would follow-up his feature in “Work” by incorporating both afrobeat and dancehall beats and lyrics into his anthem “One Dance”, as well as “Controlla” and “Too Good”.

Both artists – who were heavily criticized for superficially Americanizing African and Caribbean music, much like Bieber was this year for jumping on “Despacito” – nonetheless opened the door for increased collaboration between the so-called mother continent and its vast diaspora.

Other artists, such as PartyNextDoor and Tory Lanez, two Torontonians of Caribbean descent, incorporated dancehall into their hits “Not Nice” and “Say It”, while Kranium’s “Nobody has to Know”, which featured versatile American rapper Ty Dolla Sign, remains one of the year’s top rap-reggae collaborations.

Illustration by Janice Callangan

Last year, North American hip-hop was also invaded by an island, albeit a far less sunny one. Grime, the rough-and-tumble hip-hop permeating out of the UK went mainstream, with MCs like Giggs, Skepta and Stormzy becoming notable across the Atlantic.

Stormzy couldn’t have released his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer at a better time, with two continents on the grime train. For Giggs and Skepta, their notability was achieved by collaborating on three songs in Drake’s More Life. Skepta would close out the year with the release of “Ghost Ride”, a non-album playlist featuring ASAP Rocky and up-and-coming ASAP Nast.

Predicting what country or sound will influence American hip-hop next is no easy task. However, one thing that is near certain is that it will have to be in English. While many American rappers hopped on French and non-English tracks over the years, the inverse is unlikely to work stateside.

Canadian hip-hop is uniquely positioned to repeat its strong 2015 south of the border, which saw PartyNextDoor, Tory Lanez and The Weeknd breakout. As for who might be able to replicate those artists’ rise to US stardom, NAV and Jazz Cartier seem like good bets. NAV has already collaborated with the likes of 21 Savage, Gucci Mane Lil’ Uzi Vert and Metro Boomin – who executively produced his debut album, Perfect Timing.

Another unforgettable pillar of the music landscape was the advent of “Despacito” and the juggernaut potential English/Spanish melees have in the US. “Despacito” took off when Justin Bieber’s English verse was added to the song, the unspoken requirement for it to be played on Canadian and non-Spanish American radio. The last time a Spanish/English song made it to #1 in the U.S. was the “Macarena” in 1996.

Despacito was originally released in January 2017 and the remix with Bieber that April. On the other hand, the original “Macarena” was released in 1993, two years before the English/Spanish version dropped in 1995. There are clear benefits to having Spanish-only songs, such as many Spanish-speaking populations throughout the Americas and Europe not speaking English.

However, if English verses from popular hip-hop and R&B singers can be added to Hispanic anthems as quickly or quicker than Bieber was added to “Despacito”, not understanding three quarters of your favorite song could become the new normal.

Whatever city, nation or sound ends up dominating hip-hop in 2018, they can rest assured it won’t be easy to remain on top. Infatuation with afrobeat and dancehall soared and crashed in 2016, and I’m betting grime won’t rise to the same heights it did in 2017.

Listeners are constantly looking for new sounds beyond MCs and singers that are already established, a desire that has blessed us with Lil’ Uzi Vert and cursed us with XXXTENTACION.

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