Last fall, actress Tracee Ellis Ross had a viral hit on her hands when she posted Vines of her attempts at rapping along with Rich Gang's 'Lifestyle', a song that peaked at number eight on the American pop chart. Furrowing her brow, straining her voice and fumbling to stay on-beat, her inability to keep up with the lyrics was clear, even with them written out in front of her. Put any rap lyrics in front of people who are unfamiliar with the genre, and they'll have similar struggles, but the reason Ross' videos took off was due to their universal quality-- nobody, not even devoted fans, could decipher what Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, the track's two vocalists, were saying.

Similar experiments were conducted by hip-hop sites Complex and HotNewHipHop, who both took to the largely rap-literate streets of New York City to quiz pedestrians about Thugger's garbled lyrics. One could argue that residents of Atlanta (his and Quan's home city), would be better at deciphering their Southern drawls, but the participants' extreme levels of misinterpretation suggests that Georgians would fare only slightly better.

Despite these clear signs that lyrics weren't what made 'Lifestyle' a crossover hit, the song (and its performers) is far from alone in the world of hip-hop that is simultaneously popular and unintelligible. Though Young Thug surely represents the zenith of enunciation-optional sing-rapping, contemporaries such as Future, Migos, Rae Sremmurd, iLoveMakonnen (and older artists such as Lil Wayne, Thug's first, second and third-favorite rapper) have longtime rap devotees scratching their heads and wondering, "why is this better than artists who are saying something?" Of course, having no idea what rappers are rapping is nothing new. Along with the aforementioned untrained ears, factors contributing to this phenomenon also include forebears such as The Wu-Tang Clan's famously unhinged outlier Ol Dirty Bastard and Weezy F. Baby, patron saint of exposing the English language's elasticity.

Wayne came up young in an era when playful lyrical ignorance had yet to catch up to hip-hop's then-rapidly-expanding garishness. The overly serious era of 2Pacs and Biggie Smallses had given way to their more jesterly collaborators Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy, but lyrics and subject matter were still doused in thick coats of gangster exteriors and rhyming couplets. Enter Wayne, who may have well been rapping in Iambic Pentameter in his prime, but emerged by popularizing the term "bling bling" -- the first of many shorthand devices that soon spread from his vocal booth at Cash Money Records and into hallways of high schools across the country.

Perhaps the most telling of his freestyle-derived habits was the "oops, I meant..." crutch (a structure around which Young Thug later based an entire verse), in which he'd bend one word's pronunciation to the extent that it was unrecognizable and required the equivalent of a lyrical footnote For example, from the song 'You Ain't Got Nuthin'': "Got paper like a fax machine, asaneen/Damn I mean asinine." He would already be liberally swapping vowel sounds, but sometimes an explanation for the listeners was necessary.

Today, this Wayneian trick has been so baked into certain casseroles of hip-hop that it can be foregone entirely. With the main perpetrator of this certainly being Young Thug, his listeners are left to ponder the "oops, he meant" part on their own (as in his "Pack that bitch down like sardanes" line from 'Ball'). As SPIN's Dan Weiss wrote in his article crowning Thug 2014's "rapper of the year", "There's meaning [in his lyrics] but stopping to explain it would only slow him down." This creates a sort of inside joke, and is only one of the many methods modern rappers use to befuddle old heads who like their rappers in storyteller mode and their punchlines immediate. Repetition, which used to be thought of as the bane of otherwise verbose rappers, is now often explored in interesting ways. Take Ty Dolla $ign's 'Familiar', which has a hook that showcases the word's many interpretations (domestic, familial, physical), or Que's 'Time', which uses its title in nearly every way possible ("times" square, Face "time", "time" bomb, etc.). Two other methods, auto-tune and reliance on cadence rather than linear narratives (like Migos' hyper speed triplet flows), are more stylistic than linguistic, but still act to further obscure rappers' words.

All of this is particularly infuriating to people who grew up with '80s and/or '90s hip-hop, because the quickly-rapped, comprehensible lyrics are what initially set the genre apart from others. Being able to cram as many words as possible into a 4 minute long song was a new occurrence, and so we got a generation indoctrinated with the pseudo-intellectual, heady "Bomb atomically, Socrates philosophies"-style verses of the age. Nowadays, this style is often derogatorily referred to as "lyrical spiritual miracle" rap, which pokes fun at the pretentious-but-often-meaningless bars that rappers from this era would often recite. Although it has given way to less "intelligent" music in the mainstream, lots of "lyrical spiritual miracle" rap still exists, as hip-hop as a genre has broadened considerably in the last decade.

Young Thug.
Photo courtesy of the Artist.

This debate posing "intellectual" hip-hop as the savior of the genre recently resurfaced around the release of J. Cole's new album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Around the time of its release, Cole's intensely devoted fans began popularizing the belief that if you weren't a fan of the album, you just didn't "understand" the lyrics and themes at play, because, as one Twitter user put it, he "makes music for intelligent minds." Hilariously enough, another user began screenshotting particularly banal passages from the album (sample: "I wish a nigga would, boy you can't out-smart me/I let you feel like you the shit, but boy you can't out-fart me") and sarcastically calling them "phd level bars," "ivy league bars," etc. At times, Cole was the antithesis of Dan Weiss' aforementioned observation about Young Thug, as he frequently stopped to explain what he meant, thus achieving the lame combination of seeming like he was talking down to his listeners and sounding awkward as hell. It's clear that Cole, and others like him, relate to their listeners on a level that Young Thug just can't, but assuming that this is because of more profound or intellectual content is just pompous on the part of his listeners.

This pomposity reminds me of the sentiment present in much of the bloated, extravagant rock music of the mid-'70s, which eventually begat punk music as a direct response. Here you had prog-rock bands like Genesis making concept albums busting at the seams with heady lines like "The cheerleader waves her cyanide wand / There's a smell of peach blossom and bitter almond," and then The Ramones came along with "Hey ho, let's go." Now, I'd definitely posit that Peter Gabriel had much more going on in the lyrics department than J. Cole, and The Ramones possibly even less than the notoriously one-track-minded Migos, but the backlash that bratty punk rock lyrics initially got is very similar to what "non-intellectual" rappers face these days.

"One way that rappers' initially opaque punchlines and phraseology can be read is as a parallel to memes and online shorthand."

Unlike seemingly simplistic lyrics, the practice of artists making their lyrics unintelligible to the listener is a relatively new and novel one in the lyrics-driven genre of hip-hop, but it can't even be called a rarity in other genres, especially metal and punk. Whether due to distortion, screamed or shouted vocals, or even foreign language, lyrics in many other styles of music can often only be understood after viewing a lyrics sheet or scouring the web for transcriptions. Obviously, fans of black metal go into listening sessions expecting to understand far fewer lyrics than a fan of T.I. listening to his Young Thug collaboration for the first time, but believing that comprehension is the end-all-be-all of music listening values is a very limited (and limiting) phenomenon. In an article written with the purpose of explaining hip-hop to "rap haters", Complex's Alex Gale wrote, "If legibility was a requirement for good music, Bob Dylan, your favorite lo-fi indie rockers, and any music in a different language, from opera to salsa, would be in trouble." His words can, in turn, be flipped and used to explain to people who exclusively listen to rap why unintelligible lyrics aren't anything close to a rarity in the larger music world.

Rich Homie Quan.
Photo courtesy of the Artist.

A similar occurrence of large swathes of listeners lambasting vocalists for singing unintelligibly came when Nirvana first began hitting airwaves in the early '90s and rock audiences who were used to Bob Seger and Journey were presented with Kurt Cobain's throat-shredding singing.

He was, of course, nowhere near the first singer to distortedly scream, but like 'Lifestyle''s fluke of making it onto the charts, his presence heralded a new era of hand-wringing from traditionalist fans. Weird Al even based his parody of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on the frequent misconceptions of its lyrics. But in hindsight, even rock critics as old-school as Rolling Stone's David Fricke had to admit that they respected his approach: "A lot of what he wrote had to do with the sound of words and communicating something inside those words that wasn't necessarily a reflection of the spelling or the grammar." This can also be used to describe Young Thug, who rarely says anything deep, profound or revelatory, but does a top-notch job of conveying his emotions via his wildly varied methods of delivery. Sometimes, feeling art can be much more powerful than understanding it.

Just as Nirvana rose to popularity in a cultural moment that almost demanded their presence (increasingly bloated record companies, no rebellious "alternative" youth movement for around a decade, their perfect blend of pre-existing sounds from metal, punk and pop music), the popularity of comprehension-optional rap is also a product of its era. In addition to listeners growing bored with quasi-intellectual rappers who rely on accessible lyrics, modern culture and technology also factor into the equation.

One way that rappers' initially opaque punchlines and phraseology can be read is as a parallel to memes and online shorthand. Sometimes, the similarities are obvious, such as in 'Lifestyle', when Young Thug recites a line that Rich Homie Quan previously sang on YG's "My Nigga": "I'ma ride for my nigga, I'ma die for my nigga," and follows each line up by saying "Quan voice." This is exactly what many people on Twitter do when referencing a character or famous quote, albeit usually using asterisks or brackets to denote whose voice they're using (example: "*Yoda voice* That is why you fail"). To someone who doesn't use Twitter, Thugger's line would make little sense, even if read verbatim, but for Twitter-literate youth, it feels like they're sharing an inside joke with him. Other times, the references made just seem too obscure for most people to catch on the first listen -- like Thug's "Know I'm coming' back like them Boyz, no Shop" on 'Givenchy', reference to mid-2000s group Shop Boyz, who dropped one album and then disappeared. He and Quan also frequently drop quick references to Atlanta landmarks (for instance, the high school Quan attended) that can go over peoples' heads.

Ten years ago, most of the references in the above paragraph would be lost on me, but thanks to the increasing popularity and prevalence of lyrics sites, listeners are allowed to analyze rappers' words on a whole different level. I wouldn't go as far to say that Young Thug and his contemporaries are successful because of sites like Rap Genius, but the fact that the majority of popular hip-hop tracks are transcribed within hours certainly helps first-time listeners warm up to music they can't understand. Just like lyrics sheets have become intrinsic to certain genres (how else would we know that metal vocalists are some of the best poets out there?), lyrics sites developed alongside hip-hop, and are now an important accessory to fans.

Hip-hop has changed drastically over the course of its history. People usually focus on sounds, styles and regional trends as the signifiers of change, but the biggest change of the past few years is the way rappers actually rap. As this is closer to the actual core of the genre than any musical or stylistic accompaniment, we can now truly say that hip-hop is mutating to the point where we may have huge stylistic rifts between sub-genres in a few years, as are currently more visible in other, more widely mutated genres like "rock" and "electronic." As Fool's Gold Records founder and successful DJ A-Trak put it in a recent op-ed, 2014 was "a year that actually made us reexamine what rap is." Call me crazy, but I don't think that could be said about any other previous year.