What it takes to make it in hip-hop’s new capital
Nayvadius Wilburn, a 38-year-old Atlantan who performs under the name Future, is one of the great musicians of the 21st century. Future is often classified as a rapper, but he is really an all-purpose vocalist, a man who sings, chants, rasps, yelps, and growls, frequently through Auto-Tune. In Future’s music, that vocal-processing software becomes less a melodic device than a textural one, blurring the boundaries between human and machine, embodiment and alienation. He makes songs about women, drugs, cars, guns—not exactly groundbreaking subject matter—but much of his work is tinged with self-loathing and low-grade dread, reveling in hedonism and excess while warily staring down the existential emptiness of the morning after, if not the night itself. That Future’s music does all of this and manages to be hugely successful—his latest full-length release, I Never Liked You, was the eighth album of his career to top the Billboard charts—makes him even more remarkable.
Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.
Future’s music also showcases the current hallmarks of the southern-born, Atlanta-dominated subgenre of hip-hop known as trap, which now permeate nearly every corner of popular music: rattling digitized hi-hats; booming sub-bass; keyboards forging lush, woozily surreal harmonic backdrops and melodic lines. Auto-Tune itself is a tool that’s been prevalent within hip-hop for about 15 years, key to the experimentations of Lil Wayne (New Orleans) and Kanye West (Chicago), and one that has been voraciously adopted by many Atlanta rappers besides Future. It’s used, for example, in music as disparate as the spacey avant-gardism of Young Thug and the earworm Top 40 smashes of Lil Nas X.
Much of the hip-hop that has emerged from Atlanta in the past decade-plus has charted fresh directions for the genre. The music’s essence is incantatory, rather than marked by the quasi-cinematic storytelling that largely defined rap of the 1980s and ’90s. Atlanta trap typically feels more oriented toward song than speech, a notable swerve for a genre that was often characterized (and disparaged) in its early decades as spoken music. It also largely departs from using samples in favor of deploying immense libraries of keyboard sounds. These rappers function as curators of atmosphere more than as ornate wordsmiths, and the entrancing and elliptical musical effects have a way of stirring distinctive, and new, emotional responses. To use a word of our moment, Atlanta hip-hop is about vibes.
Joe Coscarelli’s Rap Capital: An Atlanta Story is an unusual distillation of this moment, one that Atlanta and its music continue to define. Coscarelli is a pop-music reporter for The New York Times, and his book reflects nearly a decade of reporting on the city’s hip-hop scene. But it’s not really a history of Atlanta’s emergence as a hub of rap, and doesn’t try to be one. Readers hoping for a beat-by-beat account of how the city became the epicenter of 21st-century hip-hop—tracing the lineage from TLC and OutKast through Ludacris, Young Jeezy, T.I., and Gucci Mane, and culminating with Future and his contemporaries—will have to keep waiting.
Coscarelli follows several overlapping but contrasting stories in the city’s musical universe as they unfold. The bulk of the book takes place from 2013 to 2020, and tracks six main characters—three solo artists and one group, and two executives. In 2013, Kevin Lee, better known as Coach K, and Pierre Thomas, who goes by P, co-founded Quality Control Music, one of the most successful labels of the past decade. Two of the four performers are megastars—the wildly successful and influential trio known as Migos, and Lil Baby, whose music often feels like a blockbuster amalgam of forebears such as Gucci Mane, Young Thug, and Future. The other two, a veteran street hustler named Marlo and a teenager named Lil Reek, are up-and-comers. Marlo is signed to Quality Control but is considered one of the label’s most volatile prospects. Reek is pure dreamy ambition, a recent high-school graduate with an unspecified medical condition that affects his growth. “Including the bubbled white soles of his designer sneakers, Reek would’ve needed his toes to top five feet, and a three-digit weight seemed like a stretch,” Coscarelli writes. “At eighteen, he looked closer to ten years old than twenty.”
Read: Migos the pioneers
This music-biz story is about haves and have-nots, and the yawning chasm between the spoils of stardom and the devastations of foundering. It’s also about the porous borders between the civilian world and the underworld, between legality and illegality: For all of these men, in very different ways, “making it” in music is intertwined with the lures of a street life that promises its own, even more precarious path to riches.
Lee and Thomas exemplify the divide. Lee grew up in Indianapolis, but fell in love with Atlanta and its growing hip-hop scene during an early-’90s visit to Freaknik, an annual spring-break festival that had been created for students at Spelman and other nearby historically Black colleges and universities a decade earlier. He later relocated to Atlanta to pursue a career as a music manager, and in the early 2000s signed Jay Wayne Jenkins, soon known to the world as Young Jeezy. The association with the multiplatinum Jeezy, one of the artists most responsible for pulling Atlanta trap into the musical mainstream, launched Lee’s career. It was Jeezy who nicknamed him Coach K, a nod to Duke’s legendary (and extremely un-hip-hop) basketball coach.
Thomas’s route to success is a gritty contrast to Lee’s more conventional rise. In his own telling, Thomas began selling crack cocaine at age 10, and ultimately became a millionaire by way of the streets. He used part of that wealth to build a recording studio, and around 2013 approached Lee, eager to establish himself in music and leave the drug game behind. Lee, who was looking to start a label of his own, recognized that Thomas’s street cred and financial means would be valuable assets, and Quality Control was born.
Even the most successful artists who appear in Rap Capital know the push and pull of desiring aboveboard success and gravitating toward dangerous opportunities. Lil Baby served time in a maximum-security prison on a drug charge prior to fully dedicating himself to music. When Migos first rocketed to fame, in 2013, one member of the group, Offset, was incarcerated for a probation violation stemming from a theft conviction.
Read: What incarcerated rappers can teach America
The journeys of these thriving Atlanta executives and musicians, like those of successful hip-hop artists who started out on the streets of poor Black neighborhoods in other cities, are compelling. As Jeezy’s great line from “Thug Motivation 101” puts it, “I’m what the streets made me: a product of my environment / Took what the streets gave me: product in my environment.” Still, they are essentially variations on the rags-to-riches yarns that have drawn people to show business for as long as that business has existed. Far more revelatory—and more representative, though rarely written about—are odysseys like Marlo’s and Lil Reek’s.
For both, music indeed beckons as a way out of bleak circumstances, but the two of them confront multiple and eventually insurmountable obstacles—some of their own making, others outside their control. Marlo, who is living a perilous but lucrative life as a drug dealer even as he pursues a rap career, faces the challenge of extricating himself from his underworld ties. That he is also openly addicted to Percocet, caught in the throes of the national opioid epidemic, which has ravaged Black Atlanta, only adds to his troubles. “The connections between chronic self-medication and the traumas of racism and poverty that touched nearly everyone he knew,” Coscarelli writes, “were almost too obvious to remark upon at length.” Marlo is haunted by something like commitment anxiety, an inability—and at times an unwillingness—to give his art the attention it needs. Relentless focus and grueling work are essential (if not sufficient) for a shot at success in the ruthless popular-music world, the cutting edge of which has long been dominated by young, hungry, and obsessively myopic people, most of whom have also enjoyed some helping of sheer luck.
Lil Reek appears to be this sort of person, minus the luck; his struggles expose just how merciless the winnowing process is, and how readily circumstances can derail even a promising trajectory. Reek first rises to prominence via cameos in videos by more established rappers, such as Fetty Wap and Lil Baby, before releasing his own debut single, “Rock Out,” in 2018. “Rock Out” premieres on the popular WorldStarHipHop site and surpasses 1 million views. That is enough to attract major-label interest, and Reek soon signs a $350,000 deal with Republic Records.
From then on, almost nothing goes right. The deal is short-term, guaranteeing Reek a single Republic release and providing the label with an option to extend the deal based on how that release performs. Reek’s single “Door Swing” receives minimal promotion (the contract evidently included nothing more than that), and he and Republic part ways. The $350,000 doesn’t end up going very far in the hands of a teenager trying to help support his family while also spending in the “fake it ’til you make it” mode endemic to aspiring music stars. Soon the money is gone, and he’s facing added responsibilities, among them caring for his younger brother and sister, whom Reek refers to as “my kids.”
Given that so much writing about influential pop music is, by definition, a winners’ history, Reek’s experience is especially instructive. Because his lone hit was released when he was a high schooler, he doesn’t have much of a local following to fall back on. In Atlanta, the distinctive physical venue for hip-hop isn’t the hallowed park jam or freestyle cypher of old, or even a traditional concert. Instead, it’s strip clubs: Records that will become some of the biggest hits in the country are quality-tested at locations like Onyx and the legendary Magic City, the latter of which Coscarelli describes as “Atlanta’s Disneyland of ass.” But to get spins at such places, you need backers and connections, a network Reek mostly lacks. That means relying on the whims of the web and social media, where Reek can only hope lightning strikes twice.
To read Rap Capital as Marlo and Reek veer downward is to have a sense of entering uncharted territory. More than once I felt the effects of the glaring power imbalance between the well-regarded, white New York Times reporter and the ever more desperate Marlo and Lil Reek, for whom a journalist’s attention offers hope but also means exposure of a painful sort; readers may find aspects of this dynamic uncomfortable. Yet Coscarelli brings empathetic detail to his coverage of those who continue to struggle, not just winners; he’s alert to a deeply entrenched pattern of young, frequently poor, overwhelmingly Black musicians being taken advantage of by an industry that has long seen those artists solely as fonts of talent and revenue, only to promptly turn away when one or both appear to run dry.
Rap Capital offers a look at a music world in a time of uncertainty, taking vivid note of new avenues for old forms of exploitation. In the nearly quarter century since the MP3 and Napster cratered the record industry, the music business has again found its way to steady growth, with the rise of streaming and an expansive landscape of digital-media platforms through which to sell its star artists.
As a vibrant and remarkably fertile musical breeding ground, Atlanta has played an outsize role in this turnaround. The city’s sprawl—its disorienting geographical distinctions and fuzzy borders—is mirrored in its music scene, which has proved conducive to a thriving contemporary recording industry. Artists are fiercely connected to their own blocks and neighborhoods, but musical collaboration often occurs in the ether, via hard drives, cloud servers, and email attachments. The untethered portability of the process enables output that can be astonishingly prolific: At various points in their career, the Migos trio—as well as Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Future, and other Atlanta luminaries—has been renowned for releasing music at a relentless pace. In the streaming era, a red-hot artist embracing this fire-hose model of production can promise untold hours’ worth of plays on Spotify or Apple Music.
And yet this approach has also fit snugly into the extreme “What have you done for me lately?” logic of the pop-music business, a logic that devalues artists and their art alike, as Lil Reek’s experience dramatizes. In an earlier era, a $350,000 deal might have indicated an actual investment, been a sign of belief in a young artist’s talent; now it’s a mere bet, and a feckless one. For Republic, which is owned by Universal Music Group, such a sum is nothing. When “Door Swing” failed to match the popularity of Reek’s previous single—one made without the assistance of any label—he was once again out in the cold. “To the label, which had offered him nothing in the way of artistic development, he would only ever be a rounding error,” Coscarelli writes. For Reek, the backing was everything, until it wasn’t, and he found himself on his own again.
By the end of Rap Capital, it’s clear that the winners aren’t insulated from the churn either. In 2020, Migos sued their attorney, who also happened to represent their label, Quality Control, claiming that he had cheated them out of millions by manipulating the trio into signing a predatory contract. The same cloud-based world that makes prodigious creativity possible also begets murky arrangements between labels and streaming platforms, leaving even top musicians feeling bitter about the deals they’ve struck. From a certain angle, Rap Capital tells a story that’s a lot older than rap, and maybe as old as capital.
It’s worth noting that the suit, which was ultimately settled out of court, was filed when Migos’s voluminous output had slowed and their music had dipped in popularity, and when the coronavirus pandemic had shut down live performances for the foreseeable future—both reminders that, as Marlo and Lil Reek learned the much harder way, an unforgivingly rapacious recording industry is only part of the picture. The music business can be fickle and unfair, but so is the world.
This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “The Trap.”