“Rain drop. Drop top. Smokin’ on cookie in the hotbox.”
So begins Bad and Boujee, an excellent song from Atlanta rap duo Migos that is about nothing.
To be particular, the song is actually about “making money and spending time with women who have expensive taste” (thanks, Rap Genius) but realistically, the subject matter is entirely inconsequential to why Bad and Boujee occupies #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The dearth of subject doesn’t mean by any stretch the song is bad. Offset’s chorus is intoxicatingly catchy and their handle on the triplet flow is untouchable. Metro Boomin could probably make a great beat while scuba diving and the bubbly Quavo oozes charisma.
Never the less, this song is about nothing.
Hip-hop has never been more ubiquitous in pop culture and strangely, it owes a great debt to songs of that seemingly spurn all conventions of the genre: thematically empty vessels that focus on aesthetic appeal, innovative sounds and creative musical directions.
Bad and Boujee is the latest incarnation of that series, but the family tree is adding branches by the month: Panda, Black Beatles, Broccoli are all smash hits of the same genealogy whilst iSpy, You Was Right, I Ain’t Hiding and X flesh out the sound taking over the genre.
None of the big hits succeeded conventionally. Panda had circulated for months without any buzz until Kanye West sampled the song on Pt. 2. Black Beatles went unnoticed before the viral Mannequin Challenge. Broccoli is just really, really goofy. Migos were popular, but their profile multiplied tenfold when Donald Glover praised Bad and Boujee at the Golden Globes.
No one could have forecast the enduring success of any of these songs, but here we are. So how did songs about nothing come into vogue?
The oft cited explanation is the considerable power of memes. Some would lump the aforementioned artists in with Bobby Shmurda, Silento and those who slingshot up the charts with a viral hit.
However, meme-fuelled chart-toppers tend to disappear as soon as their one hit does. This group has some staying power: Black Beatles architects Rae Sremmurd have nine Top 100 songs from two albums. Migos have drawn credible comparisons to the Beatles. Even Desiigner followed up Panda with New English, a good-not-great project that has kept him relevant a year later.
A better explanation for this explosion of demand for songs like Bad and Boujee lies in the grim, combative political climate of the United States and beyond. Battered from a bruising eighteen months of divisive campaigning and widespread discontent, fun rap songs that don’t require much thought to engage hold unprecedented allure. Artists like Migos are accessible, apolitical and provide an appealing alternative universe of wealth and glory to substitute for whatever the real world is now.
Those ingredients have always been in commercial hits but never before has hip-hop so transparently embraced these toothless apolitical earworms.
To examine how quickly the landscape shifted, cast an eye back to the Best Rap Album field at the 2014 Grammys. Of the five nominees – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same – only Drake’s project could be objectively categorised as ‘not political’.
This year, the nominees all offer more escapism than they do commentary. In 2013, Kanye West was performing Black Skinhead on Saturday Night Live. In 2016, his most inflammatory lyrics centred around defending Bill Cosby and claiming to be the catalyst for Taylor Swift’s fame.
Outside of the Grammys, the trend of de-politicisation in commercial rap is even more palpable. Budding critical darlings like Young Thug, 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty and Kodak Black are all incredibly talented, but never stray close to anything resembling politics.
That reticence doesn’t detract from their utility as artists, but it distinguishes them from their predecessors. The runaway success of songs like Bad and Boujee suggests a shift in what hip-hop means to the masses: a fun genre that can be political, rather than a political genre that can be fun. It evolved beyond the radical protest of Public Enemy, the sneering Beastie Boys, the confrontational Death Row Records. Kanye, Jay Z, Drake and Eminem remain the genre’s biggest names, but after two decades of domination the genre is set for another creative revolution.
Bad and Boujee helps crystalise what the next wave looks like. It’s the spritely new guard, armed with a breezy lust for life and a sound that demolishes the traditions of hip-hop. In an all-engulfing political nightmare, acts like Migos offer momentary respite that is clearly resonating with a massive audience. Fleeting as it may be, art that does that is worth its weight in gold.