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Hip-Hop Had a Surprising Secret Weapon in 2018: Acoustic Guitar

Guitar loops are the foundation of new singles from established stars like Travis Scott and the breakout year of Lil Baby & Gunna

Gunna, Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch

In 2018, guitar licks re-infiltrated hip-hop’s commercial power centers.

Getty Images (2); Shutterstock

For at least a decade now, rap beats have been getting fiercer every year. The biggest producers in the genre largely abandoned traditional acoustic instrumentation, instead embracing the abrasive potential of software. As Kanye West worked on his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he kept a note on his wall reading, “NO ACOUSTIC GUITAR IN THE STUDIO.” Producers like Lex Luger and Metro Boomin, who enjoyed dominant runs in the 2010s, took that approach to an extreme, constructing hulking beats that hit like jackhammers. The wave crested last year, as a new generation of fast-rising SoundCloud rappers earned record deals by meting out battering, rumbling, distorted sounds in 2-minute bursts. Concessions to melody seemed at best a distraction, if not a sign of weakness.

But in a bizarre about-face, soft guitar licks re-infiltrated hip-hop’s commercial power centers in 2018. Their ascendance was cemented this fall, when Lil Baby and Gunna‘s “Drip Too Hard” — which builds around a prominent guitar loop — became one of rap’s biggest hits (278 million streams since September). “Drip Too Hard” was still one of the most popular records in the country at the end of November, when Meek Mill’s guitar-first “Dangerous” completed a long climb to Number One at mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio. The same week, Travis Scott picked the second single from the juggernaut Astroworld: “Yosemite,” a collaboration with Gunna and Nav that also revolves around a circular guitar pattern.

Jae Brown, who works in both A&R and marketing for Motown and Capitol Records, ticks off other similar-sounding tracks. “Kodak Black’s ‘Calling My Spirit’ [released this month] — that’s one of my favorite songs right now,” he says. “The ‘Tik Tok’ record by 6ix9ine and [Lil] Baby [released in November]. You see guys like Yung Lan and the collective Working on Dying using it, like in Matt Ox’s ‘Zero Degrees’ [in October]. That sound is part of very big, very relevant records right now.”

Of course, the presence of guitars in hip-hop is not new. The genre’s origins in soul and funk samples ensured that riffs were an important part of hip-hop history — Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” which is commonly cited as the first Gold-certified single in rap, revolved around a slick guitar sample. “The genre’s always been influenced by guitar overall,” says George “Geo” Cook, who is director of operations, brand manager and program director for the Dallas rap station KKDA. “In the Eighties, you had Run-D.M.C.’s guitar-infused hit ‘Walk This Way.’ You had riffs in Arrested Development’s ‘Everyday People,’ Tupac’s ‘Thugz Mansion,’ Dr. Dre productions.”

But in the second half of the 2000s, that guitar sound became less fashionable. Soul samples were no longer an essential part of hip-hop’s mainstream. And advances in production programs and autotune meant that most of pop music moved away from a live-instrument foundation. Young producers enjoyed brief turns guiding rap — Mike Will Made-It, DJ Mustard — and guitars played no role in their signature formulas. Their success stemmed from the wall-buckling power of their programmed drums and bass lines. Guitars seemed flimsy in comparison.

KKDA’s Cook first noticed the return of the acoustic guitar when he heard “Go Flex,” a minor hit for Post Malone in 2016. Another strum-happy Post Malone single, “I Fall Apart,” debuted on the Hot 100 the following year. 2017 also saw the release of Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” the now-massive hit that samples acoustic guitar from Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” and XXXTentacion’s “Jocelyn Flores,” which is based around childlike, Guitar-101 licks.

But this year’s guitar-rap wave likely has a different source: Young Thug’s 2017 mixtape Beautiful Thugger Girls, which the rapper labelled his “singing album,” and some fans dubbed a country record thanks to Thug’s use of the phrase “yee haw.” On the album cover, the rapper perched on a bed with an acoustic guitar in his lap. Casual fans who knew Thug’s hits like “Danny Glover” and “Lifestyle” were surprised to hear him crooning over guitars and strings on the album opener; later, he sampled modern folkies Bright Eyes on “Me or Us.”

Beautiful Thugger Girls was not a commercial smash. Every one of Thug’s recent mixtapes — Slime Season 3, Jeffery, Super Slimey — has gone on to sell more copies. But Lil Baby, who went to school with Thug in Atlanta, and Gunna, who is signed to Thug’s label, appear to have perfected a version of the Beautiful Thugger Girls sound that’s more palatable for the mass market. Their instrumentals are zippier and less faux-folksy than Thug’s; the guitars tend to spring-out and recoil quickly. “You didn’t hear too many people rapping on beats with those type of guitars [in the past],” says Turbo, the producer who created many of Gunna’s biggest songs. “We bringin’ back the live sound,” adds Quay, the producer who works regularly with Lil Baby.

Though the resurgence of prominent guitar parts in hip-hop seems surprising at first, it makes sense when you consider that many young rappers are already strongly melody-focused. “When you rap like that, usually a piano or guitar is how you structure your song,” says Dallas Martin, SVP of A&R at Atlantic Records. “So a lot of people are using that to catch a good rhythm.” Martin signed the young rapper Roddy Ricch to Atlantic this year, and his currently rising single, “Every Season,” is also based around an acoustic guitar riff. It’s amassed nearly 30 million streams in less than two months.

The revival of guitars also makes sense as a minor backlash to last year’s SoundCloud rap eruption. Lil Pump, Smokepurp, 6ix9ine, Playboi Carti, Ski Mask the Slump God and Tay-K made brawling music that was largely averse to melody. But despite the rugged energy of those rappers’ hits, contrast works well in pop. “The juxtaposition of a romantic guitar riff against big, bruising 808s really entices people,” Capitol’s Brown says. That includes SoundCloud rappers themselves: 6ix9ine featured both Lil Baby and Gunna on his recent album. 

To the extent that this year’s wave of acoustic-loop beats have a regional base, it seems to be Atlanta. That’s home for Young Thug, Gunna, Lil Baby, Turbo and Quay, and also for Southside (Black’s “Calling My Spirit”), Yung Lan (“Tic Toc”) and Cassius Jay (“Every Season”). But a Georgia driver’s license is not a requirement for producers hoping to slip acoustic guitar loops into their songs. The “Yosemite” beat is the work of June James, based in Houston. And JD on tha Track, another producer riding the same wave, lives all the way in Valinhos, Brazil.

JD used to make beats that emulated the more severe sound of Chicago rappers like Lil Bibby, until he started hearing Lil Baby and Gunna records. “They came with the guitars,” the 21-year-old producer says. “I had to switch it up.” Earlier this year, he sent a beat to Lil Tjay, a rising rapper from the Bronx. The instrumental was gentle and melancholy, with drifting guitar lines during the verses. “We would be in the studio and every time [Lil Tjay] played that record, he said, ‘this is a hit,'” recalls Maria Arangio, the A&R at Columbia who signed the rapper.

Lil Tjay added verses and released the record as “Brothers;” the single quickly accumulated over seven million streams. It’s almost certain it will grow further: Since radio basically stops adding new songs in December, Columbia hasn’t even started promoting the song on the airwaves. The same goes for Atlantic with Ricch’s yet-to-be-promoted “Every Season,” while Scott’s “Yosemite” only breached the mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio chart this week, and in Dallas, Cook just moved “Drip Too Hard” into power rotation. “There’s a lane for that type of music to continue to catch more and more listeners,” Arangio says. The full impact won’t be felt until 2019; expect more strumming.

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