It’s 2018, and hip-hop production is as diverse as it’s ever been. “This Is America” by Childish Gambino demonstrates the genre’s lyrical and musical diversity, while underground names like female rapper Noname show a budding social and political conscience that squarely hits the zeitgeist. Elsewhere, trap and its variants show no signs of slowing, even as it undergoes various types of evolution; whether it’s Drake on the pop side, or the experimental vibe of XXXTentacion, whose tragic passing obscured an inspiring, though troubled talent.
Below are some of the most common or popular hip-hop production techniques and sounds that can be heard in 2018. The sounds below aren’t a complete picture of hip-hop as it is now, but a good sampling of its present sounds and future trends.
1. Trap: evolved
LA rapper Rico Nasty describes her style of hip-hop as “sugar trap.” And there is something sweetly melodic about her music, even though she is as vulgar as Nicki Minaj or any male emcee for that matter. The track “Why Oh Why,” which dropped this June, is an exemplar of this saccharine-tinged style of trap, though her new album Nasty is pretty sonically diverse.
XXXTentacion, who was gunned down recently in Florida, also made no bones about playing with the trap and rap formula. As XXXTentacion’s producer John Cunningham told XXL, to call the emcee a “rapper” wasn’t accurate, because he was interested in breaking down genres. This is apparent on the track “SAD!,” which blends trap, R&B, ambient, and experimental instrumentation and effects throughout the song.
While Cunningham’s laptop work shows trap being stretched genre-wise, Childish Gambino does it one better with the high production value of “This Is America.” On the back of an incendiary music video that functions as a layered and symbolic appraisal of American history and current events, Childish Gambino (comedian Donald Glover’s rap alter ego) starts the song with effervescent, almost folky hip-hop soul before going into a dark, droning, and rhythmic type of hip-hop that blends trap with the stylings of Kendrick Lamar.
Toward the end of the track, Childish Gambino deftly fuses the two styles. If any hip-hop track could be described as the equivalent to The Beatles “A Day In The Life,” it would be this song.
2. Gqom: what?
What is Gqom? Well, in its country of origin, South Africa, it’s still pretty obscure. Essentially a sort of dark, minimal, and heavy fusion of house music and hip-hop, it’s not only a genre but a production aesthetic.
In the UK, Gqom has infiltrated both the electronic music and hip-hop underground scenes. And recently it has even made inroads in the US with Gqom artists Distruction Boyz being nominated for a BET Award in the Best International category.
Three years ago, GCA004—the trio of Massive Q, Andile-, and Menchess of Durban, South Africa, where the genre began—got the attention of UK label Goon Club Allstars, which released their EP Rudeboyz. GCA004 and another Gqom artist, DJ Lag, also drew some attention from Hyperdub label head Steve Goodman (Kode9). So it’s been around for a minute, both in South Africa and the UK, but it’s just starting to turn heads beyond these territories.
3. Sample psychedelia
Much like J Dilla and Flying Lotus before him, rapper Quelle Chris explores a sort of sampledelic (or plunderphonic) style on his album Being You Is Great, I Should Be You More Often. On the track “Birthdaze,” producer Swarvy creates a trippy maelstrom of sampled horns, bells, and other assorted sounds atop a druggy bassline and drum beat. And with Quelle Chris’s almost stoner-like delivery, it’s as if a Nas or early Kanye West song is being turned inside out.
And then we have A$AP Rocky and UK grime artist Skepta’s collaborative “Praise the Lord,” which is in its own way a slice of sampled psychedelic hip-hop, much like A$AP Rocky’s brilliant sampled take on Moby’s “Porcelain” (with production by Division). The beat and bass are thick and warm, but the chords and timbres are full of sampled flutes and digitally synthesized notes. It’s like an minimalist reimagining of Boards of Canada mixed with The Avalanches. This fusion of US and UK hip-hop production is just what the world needs right now.
4. Dark and industrialized
Of the many acts to hit in 2017 and the first half of 2018, God Colony might be one of the strongest. An industrial hip-hop duo, God Colony dropped “SE16,” on which South London emcee Flohio made her big debut. While God Colony has been relatively silent since last year’s second collaboration with Flohio, for the track “Fights,” the emcee has kept rolling with the industrial hip-hop sound, especially on her new track “Bands.”
Another UK artist exploring this realm of sound is GAIKA. Unlike Flohio, GAIKA also channels dub and trip-hop, which gives his sound a 1990s flavor, but updated for the modern hip-hop fan. (Incidentally, GAIKI directed the dark and grainy music video for God Colony’s “SE16”.)
This brand of hip-hop is dark, hypnotic and aggressive, with occasional references to both US trap and UK grime. It also shares some sonic DNA with Sacramento-based experimental hip-hop band Death Grips, but with a more approachable sonic palette, like Kanye West’s Yeezus (itself influenced by Death Grips’ sound). God Colony and Flohio aren’t big yet, but the sound is incredibly current. Expect to hear more of this brand of industrial hip-hop moving forward, especially coming out of the UK.