The Year’s Most Acclaimed Hip-Hop Artists Transcended Backpack Pasts


“In this season, the man of goodwill will wear his heart up his sleeve, not on it.” —W.H. Auden

“Wu-Tang forever.” —Drake

There are only so many ways to conceal your backpack past. You can auto-tune your voice to sound like an answering machine or submerge it in a chopped-and-screwed solution. You can brag about bargain-hunting for Gucci goggles and geriatric cruise wear. You can coo sad falsettos about sexting the wrong contact. After all, styles and sounds are mutable, but memories of adolescent music obsessions live forever.

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But for the first time since the “lyrical spiritual miracle” became a long way to say “boring,” popular rappers are copping to tastes once considered commercial and critical kryptonite. 2013 was the year when the Jansport bonfire outside the abandoned shell of Fat Beats was finally extinguished. Scratch a snapback and odds are you’ll find DNA from the Jurassic 5 and Fondle ‘Em era.

It’s been a decade since Kanye West branded himself the only “backpacker with a Benz.” The description was part subversive and part self-serving, but ultimately helped obliterate ideological divides between underground and mainstream. West’s ascent dovetailed with other “Tear down this wall” moments, including Jay Z rocking MTV Unplugged with The Roots and Rawkus Records selling to MCA. It meant millions of dollars for some, diaspora for others.

By the latter half of the last decade, the backpack had transformed from a symbol of creative resistance to something ripe for slander. What was once a place to stash aerosol cans, a Walkman, and weapons became a symbol of Screw-faced purity. What’s clear today is that hip-hop is governed by the laws of popular opinion defined by Arthur Schopenhauer: “If [the pendulum] goes past the center of gravity of one side, it must go a like distance on the other; and it’s only after a certain time that it finds the true point at which it can remain at rest.”

Translation: the “Young Jeezy is a genius” think pieces were the natural corrective to the “real hip-hop” manifestos of the previous era. And only after those extremes achieved equilibrium could it seem natural for Lupe Fiasco and Chief Keef to earn songwriting credits on Yeezus, the year’s most revered and polarizing hip-hop album.

No matter how many croissants or Kardashians are summoned to Kanye’s Parisian loft, there’s inevitably a pair of dirty Timberlands and a Louis Vuitton backpack stashed in some auxiliary closet. Love letters to Le Corbusier lamps coincide with New York Times tangents that he’s the reincarnation of bomb-the-system-while-eating-barbecue-tofu early ’00s rap duo Dead Prez—even if Jay Z is the one going vegan.

Examine the rap game’s other most valorized artist of 2013. Drake might borrow flows from Atlanta carnival-couture trappers Migos, but he spent the first half of Nothing Was the Same worshipping Wu-Tang like Ghostface Killah had given him a tennis court for his birthday. The cosign that allowed him to break through came from Cash Money, a label despised by most original backpackers. But the mixtape that directly preceded his fame featured multiple guest spots from members of Little Brother, whose Minstrel Show was a manual for mid-’00s backpackers.

There’s Kendrick Lamar, whose earliest mixtapes hijacked J Dilla and Wu-Tang beats as readily as Jay Z and Lil Wayne instrumentals. Frequently hailed as the verse of the year, “Control” ignited memories of Kurupt and Canibus disses. The backpack austerity was so severe that Lamar even boasted about eschewing designer clothes for white T-shirts and Nike Cortezes.

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Macklemore didn’t bother obscuring his heart, instead admitting to New York’s 105.1 FM, “I came up as a backpack rapper.” To hammer home the point, there’s a tour documentary of the Seattle rapper walking through Zurich asking people to pet a sock animal while wearing an haute backpack. His songs are sermons about frugality, materialism, and civil rights. The multi-platinum thrift shopper’s connection to the old underground was made explicit when he asked Talib Kweli — the underground era’s would-be Martin Luther — to tour with him.

The year’s best-selling rap album came from the bleached blond who initially made the underground do a 180. Eminem’s sequel to the Marshall Mathers LP was partially a hip-hop roots record, featuring Rick Rubin beats and gyres of syllable-packing rants ripe for the Rawkus revival. Detroit’s second most celebrated rapper, Danny Brown, split the difference between molly-wired grime and his St. Andrew’s underground roots.

After letting Nas down by sampling Paula Abdul, J Cole strapped on his satchel and sampled A Tribe Called Quest and Biggie on the gold-certified Born Sinner. The highest-rated rookie was 20-year-old Chicagoan Chance the Rapper, who lifted the same jazz loops as Q-Tip and Phife. Asked about his influences, Chance name-dropped subterranean griots Freestyle Fellowship as frequently as Kanye West. In a sign of the times, he shouted out an iPod Shuffle of Chicago music including juke, drill, jazz, and blues.

The semiotics were practically tagged to every MP3. Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era took a paint-by-numbers approach to ’90s boom-bap, while El-P and Killer Mike’s diamond-hard Run the Jewels record epitomized the blurred lines between regions and aesthetics. In a pairing that once would have caused 1,000 incense sticks to spontaneously combust, Mannie Fresh and the erstwhile Mos Def announced a partnership. The Roots raised their profile by playing on late-night network TV. Even Jurassic 5 reunited to massive Coachella crowds.

In Los Angeles, divisions were always murkier than popular perception: Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship ghostwrote for early N.W.A.; Kurupt regularly attended South Central open-mic mecca The Good Life; Ice Cube put on Del tha Funkee Homosapien. In 2012, Open Mike Eagle wrote a song called “Your Backpack Past,” in which he lampooned rappers for “growing out of Gang Starr and Wu-Tang” because “all the girls here only like Gucci Mane.” In 2013, LA Weekly called him “the hottest thing in indie rap.”

The three wise men of ratchet, Y.G., Ty$, and DJ Mustard, ran West Coast radio in 2013, but Odd Future reflected a more diverse range of taste, fusing Fairfax skate culture, chronic haze, and the experimental ideas incubated at Stones Throw. Tyler, the Creator spent 2011 shouting down Wu-Tang comparisons, but Earl Sweatshirt recruited the RZA for a hook on his 2013 debut album.

As for the Clan, they reunited for Coachella and Bonnaroo, but couldn’t get it together to release a new record honoring their 20th anniversary in November. Of course, there were plenty of others willing to put in work for them.

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