It’s a trend that, to some, started with Jay-Z’s ode to New York City, “Empire State of Mind.” And yet it’s actually a trend that has been around much longer: Artists hearkening back to their hometowns for song lyrics and music videos. However, the next generation of rappers is doing more than just spitting verses about their old stomping grounds: They’re taking them over.
The newest group of rappers isn’t just talking about the cities they’re from, they’re making those cities a part of their image. Sure, Jay-Z called out NYC with an open love letter, and Wiz Khalifa basically wrote the theme song for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2010-2011 football season with “Black and Yellow,” but these rappers aren’t owning the image of the city the way their younger counterparts are.
Mac Miller, who recently released his debut album Blue Slide Park, is a Pittsburgh-based rapper, and the Pennsylvania blood is very obviously flowing through his veins. Miller did get his start under Wiz, but he’s gone to the Pittsburgh masses to build him up. He’s currently signed with Rostrum Records, a Pitt-based label. Songs off Blue Sky Park include “PA Nights,” an obvious shout-out to his home state, as well as “English Lane” and “Party on Fifth Ave.” – both references to real places from his hometown. The lead single for the album, “Frick Park Market,” includes lyrics such as “From Pittsburgh/Smoke papers or a swisher.” He’s not just referencing his hometown; it’s the whole reason he’s rapping in the first place.
Miller isn’t the only one, either. You probably heard “Gucci Gucci” three thousand more times than you wanted to over this summer, and you can thank Oakland-native Kreayshawn for that. Kreayshawn is another rapper who has more than gone to her roots for success. “Gucci Gucci” has lyrics talking about representing Oakland, and throughout the video, she throws up her “O” hands. Kreayshawn and her “mob” built their following in Oakland and cultivated their careers there. Meanwhile, across the country and along the east coast, Sam Adams was doing something very similar.
Adams was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he, too, got his start by playing to the home crowd and building a following in Massachusetts. In one interview with a local newspaper, Adams said, “If I didn’t grow up in Cambridge, I would never have rhythm. My time in Cambridge shaped everything.” His first EP, released in 2010, was aptly titled Boston’s Boy. His initial claim to fame came from remixing Asher Roth’s single “I Love College,” although Adams actually went to college and majored in political science while playing soccer (still along the coast, namely at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut). Boston’s Boyalso featured a direct head nod to Boston with “Fly Planes Over Boston,” featuring another up-and-comer at the time – Curren$y.
However, this conversation is incomplete if I don’t mention Cleveland’s Machine Gun Kelly. Perhaps more than anyone else mentioned, MGK has created a career in his hometown – although in this case, Cleveland is actually the rapper’s adopted hometown (he moved here when he was 14). If you were at the Mike Posner show at the MAC Center in September, you might have seen a sample of what it is MGK has created. His surprise appearance generated more energy than anything Posner had done up to that point, and his every mention of Northeast Ohio got the crowd going.
Beyond the local appearances, MGK also went so far as to write a song called “Cleveland,” and it is, in my opinion, even more of a love letter than Jay’s song to NYC. Lyrics here include “I’m so Cleveland it’s a god damn shame,” and “Anybody sayin’ Cleveland’s dead, fuck ya’ll.” While he may not be the wordsmith that Jay-Z is (also debatable, of course), the Cleveland pride is dripping off every word – dripping enough that the Cleveland Cavaliers use this song during their games (granted, they may not be having any games for a while, but when they were actually playing games, this song was also getting played!).
The point here, though, is not that you need to listen to rappers just because they represent their hometown or even because they represent and sing about your hometown. You don’t even need to listen to rap music, as far as I’m concerned. What I am saying, though, is that these rappers are doing something that more musicians need to do.
These rappers are taking their love of their city/hometown and making it into a movement. People get excited when their local favorite pops up – much like the crowd at the MAC Center when MGK happened to appear on stage. They’re using the cities they’ve inhabited not just as home bases or fodder for songs, but they’re making them a part of their respective movements, and I truly believe that this is a great thing. Sometimes, it’s nice to have an artist or a movement that is localized. It’s great to every now and then just get that community feeling, a feeling that you and those people around you are the only ones who know just what it is you’re experiencing.
And, let’s be honest, Cleveland is in need of some much needed public relations assistance. If it’s going to take Machine Gun Kelly dancing around Shaker Heights High School in his music video to generate that kind of positive image, then so be it. It’s at least a start, especially for a city with a music business that has slowly been crumbling and dying.
Machine Gun Kelly, Kreayshawn, Mac Miller, Sam Adams – they’ve all managed to start on solid footing by planting their feet firmly on the grounds of their home cities and states. More artists need to get on this bandwagon, especially right now. With the economy falling apart, why not send some love back to the place you love? There are plenty of artists who should take note.