New York hip-hop style, including sparse, grimy beats and rough and rugged rhymes, continued to set the standard for what was considered "real" rap into the early 2000s. Soon, though, New York began to face real challengers to its claim on the center of the hip-hop universe. Today, anyone who denies the spectacular regional variation in quality American hip-hop is living in the past. And perhaps the most surprising development in hip-hop's evolution is the triumph of "the South" as hip-hop hegemon. The influence of giants like Scarface and Outkast is complemented by the overdue respect now paid to Southern veterans like UGK, 8ball, and MJG, and the recent commercial viability of Lil Wayne, T.I., Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, and others.
However, the seeds of the South's undoing are starting to bloom. An oversized bed of regional pride is fertile ground for malignant growth, as weeds of "Southern" celebration choke out the smaller, fantastically unique, and local vegetation that nourished hip-hop for the past decade. As books by Roni Sarig and Ben Westhoff point out, what makes Southern rap so significant is not the idea of "the South." It's the local flavor of innovations like New Orleans bounce, Miami bass, and Houston's chopped-and-screwed sound. Even within specific southern cities, hip-hop cultures are widely divergent. Chopped-and-screwed music is just one shred of Houston hip-hop, and Atlanta is perhaps the prime example of Southern diversity: Outkast's evolution from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to ATLiens and beyond is entirely different from Lil Jon's commitment to crunk and Gucci Mane's leisurely swag and trap music.
The more the South is celebrated as a monolith, though, the more meaningless it becomes. When "Southern" rather than local identity becomes primary, rappers forget themselves and churn out records that sound like they could have been written by a Northern city-slicker. "The South" becomes synonymous with hackneyed forms of consumption, and "country folk" are identified by their love of soul food and Cadillacs rather than their multifaceted musical imagination.
K.R.I.T.'s Live from the Underground, for instance, begins with a two-minute intro that sounds ripped from an Outkast album, as K.R.I.T. offers a spoken word performance about perseverance and keeping the faith over a space-age beat. The two songs that then follow, "Live From the Underground" and "Cool 2 B Southern," are purposeful attempts to establish K.R.I.T.'s origins. But the hook from each describes a scene that seems to exist in every Southern rap album that hits iTunes. On "Live From the Underground" K.R.I.T. raps:
Pushin rhymes underground like moonshine
With jump like juke joints
Ridin' like old 'lacs [Cadillacs]
Down like four flats
Shine like gold grills
Curls and chrome rims
Bitch you know what it is
I'm live from the Underground
And "Cool 2 Be Southern" echoes:
I'm talkin' 'bout the dirty South, folks with he grills in mouth (We make it cool to be Southern)
Everybody wanna ball nowadays, but don't nobody wanna get paid (We make it cool to be Southern)
Get down if you wanna, crackin seals' blowin' some marijuana (We make it cool to be Southern)
Return of forever all day, them country people feel what I say (We make it cool to be southern)"
Perhaps listeners (like me) who are frustrated with this definition of "Southern" culture just don't know what it's like to be "country." But Nelly (St. Louis), Lil Jon (Atlanta), and Ol' Dirty Bastard (New York) took gold and diamond studded teeth to the mainstream years ago, and Dre and Snoop (Los Angeles) were smoking and low-riding on chrome rims in the early 1990s. There must be more to "the South" than dental work, candy-painted cars, and no-frills liquor, because if not, the South includes the West Coast, Midwest, and Northeast.