Revisiting the Trapumentary
Updated: Apr 29, 2019
“Everything’s commercial and it’s pop now. Trap drums is the shit that’s hot now.”
– J.Cole, “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)
I was a freshman in college when I realized that trap music had taken over. I’ve been curious as to how and why ever since. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The 808 and hi-hat drum kits that have come to dominate the mainstream as a one-size-fits-all guide to lazy pop instrumentation came from a place, from a need. I explored this topic for my capstone-broadcasting project four years ago in a thirty minute radio segment I dubbed The Trapumentary. Things haven’t gotten any better, and trap music has only gotten more popular. This piece will explore why and how trap music has exploded in popularity.
It is very common in the history of music for a new musical idea to be created within one culture and disseminate around the globe. That has been happening as long as music has existed. This is seen when the Ariana Grandes, the G-Eazys, and the Drakes record over trap beats. Trap, having originated in Atlanta, Georgia influences the aforementioned artists only aesthetically. Take Ariana’s “7 Rings,” Drake’s “Gyalchester,” or G-Eazy’s “You Got Me”. What all of these songs have in common other than their beats is the lack of lyrical substance. Additionally, neither artist is from Atlanta. A trap-pop song more promotes a party scene than anything else.
The trap beat, characterized primarily by the combination of 808’s and high-hats, is also used in advertising. Trap beats are used to sell everything from shoes to sandwiches. I also found this anti-smoking PSA that uses trap music, which feels a little less exploitative than the attempts of Adidas and Arby’s to get the youth on their side. In Atlanta, one can visit the Trap Music Museum, whose mission focuses on how and why the music has disseminated cross-culturally. According to TheSource.com, “The trap Music Museum isn’t just about the music but also about the culture that it inspires.” T.I. and Antwanette McLaughlin, along with a team of 30-50 people, re-purposed an old warehouse in The Bluff, a crime-ridden, low-income community on Atlanta’s west side, into a three-dimensional, interactive installations that bring the eerie-sounding hip-hop subgenre and its grim subject matter popularized by T.I., Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Migos, Pusha T, and Rick Ross to life.
The 808 and hi-hat trend has reached the tipping point because it is easily replicable. Aside from the replicable instrumentation, having a lack of sentimentality also helps. According to Carl Wilson, “sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic to sin” (348), which speaks to how the more generic the lyricism in a trap song, the easier it is to market and listen to.
J. Cole’s “G.O.M.D.” does a great job at pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of listening to and creating such music. The first verse of said track listens much like a club banger whose subject matter diverges little from pussy and violence. The first verse is ambiguous party speak while the second is a quasi-sensitive tale of heartbreak.
Immediately before he gets into the second half of the diptych, Jermaine says “this is the part that the thugs skip,” which speaks to how his sincerity shouldn’t be interpreted as admirably as the behavior laid out in the first verse. The “thugs” Jermaine refers to are hard individuals who do not understand the value of love when it comes to personal affection and attachment. His thugs just want hard-hitting music with content they can relate to, such as drugs, violence, and money.
Before the release of J.Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Kendrick’s “i” was the only contemporary rap song on the radio that encouraged people to love, excluding a handful of Macklemore’s painfully “woke” cuts. Instead of singing about love, most of the popular contemporary rappers choose to rap and “sing” about being turnt up. This impacts upon radio’s musical selection and mainstream culture, which are both becoming over-saturated with music that has a negative influence, or even no meaning. This is a trend that artists such as J.Cole and Vince Staples seek to call out. The funny thing is if you aren’t actively listening to their lyrics, the records sound like little more than trap jumpers.
Cole’s further action to raise awareness of this trend was seen on his 2018 album KOD, which is speculated to be an acronym for Kids on Drugs, King Overdose, or Kill our Demons. Songs from the album such as “The Cut Off” and “Motiv8” are borderline satirical.
The gutting irony of Vince Staples’ FM! is found in the stark contrast between Vince's narration of death and the project's welcoming, warm radio conceit. Vince gives the listeners what they want, but on his own terms. When asked why he seemed to be withdrawing from the public eye, Vince replied, "because I stopped caring when my homies started dying.”
Four years ago, I sat down with Vince after a Denver show on Colfax. I asked him if he had any elements of the trap present in his songs, to which he said:
“I would hope not. I try to stay as true to where I come from as possible. That is a sound that belongs to Atlanta, Georgia, or just the south in general, but mostly Atlanta, Georgia. I feel like a lot of people that ran with their style or their approach to music without giving them appropriate credit.”
A trap, in the nonmusical sense (for now) is a stratagem for catching or tricking an unwary person. Picture a bear in a trap. If it tries to remove itself from the metal claws, he will likely just tear off fur and flesh in a futile effort. If the bear accepts the trap for what it is, he’ll have plenty opportunity to maul the human responsible for placing the trap, thus removing himself from the trap’s temperate nature. Of course, the bear is missing a paw now, but he remembers where, how, and why he lost it. He remembers the trap well, because it changed him...for the worse. Now I am no hunter, but I know for a fact that there is an element of trickery and deception on the hunters end. The same goes for trap in its musical sense. Escape and/or relief from a trap is difficult, because there is a subtle yet inherit desire to stay there. If you’re someone who enjoys a specific type of intoxicant, why would you not want to be among other users, where there is little to no judgment taking place? Anything is comfortable if you do it long enough, including nothing at all.
The music grants the listener permission to have another drink, take another hit, and essentially gives them the subtle go-ahead needed to continue intoxicating. Trap music serves to supplement the lifestyle. Wanting to emulate the behavior in the lyrics can have adverse effects. According to Stanford alum and Musical Psychologist Dr. Elaine Brown:
“In terms of this kind of music if people are using an intoxicant and listening to this music and these lyrics and kind of validating what’s in those lyrics when they’re on the intoxicant, then that whole state of mind will be more influential the next time they’re on that intoxicant.”
This notion, of course has always been a worrisome part of hip-hop and rap culture for it’s many cynics. The amount of rap songs that place intoxicants in a positive light is seemingly endless. Many of them are hard to consider being “trap songs”. There are songs across all genres about how neat certain intoxicants are. Anyone who has ever heard the slightest mention of alcohol in a country song knows what I am talking about. The music justifies the action. The more people approve of the music being played, the tighter the trap becomes, thus making escape or relief nearly impossible. And we wonder why it is now the peak trend in top forty radio.
Vice News’ Welcome to the Trap does a good job of showing the horrors in which audiences tend to subconsciously glorify. Another example of this is Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools”, or Andre Nickatina’s “A Yo”, songs in which both artists address the hypocrisy by making impersonal horrors sound desirable over trap beats. To be trapped is to be stagnant, complacent. The question Vice proposed was that maybe there wasn’t another option for trap artists in Atlanta. The doors and windows of the houses where they’d record were all heavily locked, effectively trapping the individuals inside. This is where trap music got its start: in the gritty reality of drugs and gang violence.
It was very foolish of me to attempt to revisit the Trapumentary without including personal experiences. The proper nouns “Fort Leisure” “Fort Loser” and “Snort Lewis” only helped to solidify the argument that you can become trapped on this campus— without even realizing the effect outside and inside forces have on you. I would find myself making substantial progress on this project—but whenever the ideas and information ceased to flow how I wanted them to—I’d hit a wall. More than often I’d find myself walking my sorry ass to the student union, withdrawing money from the ATM, going back to my dormitory, and purchasing marijuana from a student who lives a total of eleven steps across the hall from me, and eventually smoking it.
Dr. Elaine Brown told me:
“So, if you were high and you talked about some negative ideas with people when you were high, then you might not think about it very much when you’re weren’t on the drug, but when you got back on the drug that same pattern within the brain would be present and so that would be more available to memory and more influential on you when you’re back in that same state.“ In other words, the trap music helps to legitimize the intoxicating.
While initially conducting interviews for the Trapumentary, Vince Staples told me:
“I don’t really listen to much music, bro. You’ll never just catch me sitting down listening to music—It doesn’t do what it does for other people for me. I like to think. To me it’s just a distraction from life... in a good way. I’ve never had any distractions from life. I’ve never been drunk, never done a drug, never taken a sip of alcohol. I’ve never looked for the distractions in life.”
After replaying that audio, it just sort of clicked. I’ve been attracted to being trapped long before the music came along to help justify it. We yearn for abnormality. It’s one thing to be locked on the couch playing video games, but if you can smoke bowls while playing music that justifies your actions (or lack there of), it becomes increasingly easier to become entrapped in that routine—which serves as nothing more than a distraction from life. If you’re like me, and feel like a dummy while you listen to the musings of trap songs, it’s because you’ve committed yourself to complacency— while the music provides the only outside opinion you want to hear. You’re stuck, stagnant—trapped.
This leads me to think of the term “classical conditioning”. It is when a condition stimulus, say, a song, leads to a reflexive response. Classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring one. It's important to note that classical conditioning involves placing a neutral signal before a naturally occurring reflex. In Pavlov's classic experiment with dogs, the neutral signal was the sound of a tone and the naturally occurring reflex was salivating in response to food. By associating the neutral stimulus with the environmental stimulus (presenting of food), the sound of the tone alone could produce the salivation response.
In this case, the environmental stimulus is the trap music. The reflexive response is to crack open another bottle, roll another joint up, and to ultimately just continue on partying for the sake of doing so. Hear the music... give in to the urge to intoxicate. Rinse and repeat.
In the age where ignorance is bliss, this thought pattern, moreover this easily obtainable method of escapism, makes perfect sense. It’s effortless. Sure, there is much rap music that speaks to socio-economic and racial disparities, but that stuff is just plainly not as fun to turn up to. You’re not going to hear Open Mike Eagle rap about how hard it is to make money as an artist at the party or on top 40 radio. You wont here Aesop Rock evaluating the anti-human nature of the 9-5 work day over the commercial airwaves or at the frat house. There is a reason Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” was released as the single from DAMN. That track still dominates commercial radio today, opposed to say, any less generic song on that record. “XXX”, for instance, is concerned with regulating firearms, but we’re not trying to listen to that right now, man.
The same goes for Brother Ali and deM atlaS poignantly rapping about masturbation and porn addiction on ”The Bitten Apple” and “By Myslf”, respectively. We’d rather hear about the artist’s successful sexual conquests, thank you very much. We’re here for an escape from reality, bro, not to listen to the truly messy, depressing nature of it.
The reality is that we’d rather listen to rap music that doesn’t challenge what we already know and expect from the genre. We’re not trying to listen to the lyrics. As the saying goes, we’re here for a good time, not a long time.
Brown, Elaine. In-Person Interview. November, 2015.
Wilson, Carl. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. New York: Continuum, 2007. 120-134
Andre Nickatina featuring San Quinn. Conversation With a Devil. Filmore Coleman Records. 2003.
Brother Ali. All The Beauty in This Whole Life. Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2017.
deM atlaS. mF deM. Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2016.
Daniel, A. Christopher. The Black Woman Who Helped Turn Trap music Into a Musesum. Black Enterprise. https://www.blackenterprise.com/trap-music- museum-atlanta/. March 18, 2019.
J. Cole. 2014 Forest Hills Drive., KOD. Roc Nation, 2014. 2018.
Kendrick Lamar. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City., DAMN. Aftermath/Interscope, 2012., 2018.
Staples, Vince. In-Person Interview. December, 2015.