With a little help from Lady Gaga, “Trap music” has migrated from Dirty South strip clubs to hip cosmopolitan dance floors. How real is that?
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
The contest winner—whose groggy vocals relied on a series of absurd hip-hop cliches (“posted in the trap strapped with the AK, aimin’ at your fitted cap,” “chopper in the chopper on the way to a sold out show,” etc.)—was announced, and an ambitious pitch-shifter discovered that the winning track’s vocals sounded remarkably similar to Lady Gaga herself.
The likely-Gaga song is just the latest evidence of the rising media profile of a pseudo-genre known as Trap. As more artists signal their general awareness of What People Talk About Online, “Trap” has been undergoing a series of these mainstreaming moments, further legitimizing it as a phenomenon.
Trap is good, and can bring artists and fans from different worlds together. Trap is bad because it trivializes serious issues stemming from the American "War on Drugs" and an accelerating prison population.
What Trap is, exactly, isn’t a settled question, although for proponents of Trap, it has a distinct lineage. (For the purposes of this piece, we’ll use the capital-letter Trap to refer to the nebulous musical genre, and the lower-case trap in all other instances, which you will see is a necessary delineation.) Trap’s arrival raises questions about the way we think about “genre” in 2012, and provokes important questions about how we tell narratives about music, particularly in an era where listeners are increasingly discussing music as if they were historians.
Ultimately, though, Trap is a fiction—a false umbrella-genre that attempts to unite two disparate styles of music with distinct audiences, to crowbar a particular evolution of club music into hip-hop’s lineage, and to grant it credibility under the guise of respecting the pioneers.
Browse the Internet for an understanding of Trap and you’ll find a pretty straightforward story: The genre was created by rappers like T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane, who were referencing a life of drug-dealing, and producers like DJ Toomp, Shawty Redd and Lex Luger, whose aggressive production framed the intensely dark subject matter.
DJs and producers working primarily in the dance world, interested in pushing the boundaries of music and introducing their audiences to new sounds (or other similarly high-minded motives), started building upon the developments of these innovators, adapting their sound for a whiter, less-rap-oriented rave crowd.
There’s a bizarre tastelessness in Gaga’s ridiculous boasts about guns; she gets to feel “dangerous” without the accountability.
Then comes the controversy, and we’re all forced to choose sides: Trap is good, and can bring artists and fans from different worlds together. Trap is bad because it trivializes serious issues stemming from the American "War on Drugs" and an accelerating prison population.
The solution, argues the typical Trap history: trap music is fun, but listeners should be educated on the history of where the music comes from, and give respect to the innovators of the form, learning (via Google) about the pioneers (T.I.!), the sobering social contexts (drug dealers!), and the branded cultural trends (sizzurp!).
Recognizing that there is a very real context to rap’s casual glorification of street violence, that it isn’t simply an action movie set in the hood, is a Good Thing.
There’s a bizarre tastelessness in Gaga’s ridiculous boasts about guns; she gets to feel “dangerous” without the accountability. As listeners, we’d rather see Gaga show more sensitivity to the plight of the people living in America’s poor and violent communities. But even if she did, it still doesn’t really do much for those people. Ultimately, this vague empathy is selfish, a way of using historical understanding to assuage a partier’s guilt.
It is, in a literal sense, the place where drugs are sold, but could also imply something about the mentality of the people working there, or the nature of the work itself, or the hopelessness that propels people into those situations.
“Relax,” the thinking goes. “You know about the plight of the poor. Just vote Left and give props to the innovators. Now you can enjoy your whiskey and Red Bull without feeling bad about it. You can dance, or at the very least, wave your rapper-hands to the latest in progressive Trap music. How about some molly? I hear it’s better than coke.”
Though it may seem anathema in the Rap Genius era, the original meanings of “trap” in a hip-hop context are difficult to nail down because the term has always hinted at multiple meanings. It is, in a literal sense, the place where drugs are sold, but could also imply something about the mentality of the people working there, or the nature of the work itself, or the hopelessness that propels people into those situations.
An early high-profile mention of “the trap” occurs on Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious,” where Big Boi describes this complexity: "United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss/So now you back in the trap, just that, trapped/Go on and marinate on that for a minute."
Then, of course, there’s T.I.’s Trap Muzik LP, which looks at the trap from many different angles before concluding with standout track “Long Live Da Game,” bringing the album and its protagonist's life to an end in a hail of gunfire. For Tip, the trap isn’t a genre, but a real place as portrayed through art.
A place with real consequences.