During the Grammy Awards this year, international artists Adele, Gotye, Mumford and Sons and Paul McCartney won some of the most prestigious awards. In fact, Adele’s 21 was the best selling album of 2012 and Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know” was the year’s most popular single. This is as good an example as any that the music industry is now truly international. Since the end of the ‘80s, America had overtaken Britain as the leading exporter of famous, genre-defining bands and the popularity of British artists in America had largely dried up. Between 1962 and 1990 British Artists achieved 164 Billboard No. 1 singles, however, there have been only 20 in the two decades since.
In the last couple of years, though, the popularity of artists like Leona Lewis, Adele and Mumford & Sons have reestablished a more even distribution in the shared tastes of listeners either side of the pond. Rap, and hip-hop in general, is the most obvious genre that defies this trend. Artists like Jay-Z and Eminem have been as successful and as acclaimed in Britain as in America but the same cannot be said for recent leading names in British rap like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and The Streets. I don’t particularly favor either American or British rap, and I think a lot of Brits would say the same. There are, of course, some differences between the two and I think that the most obvious one, accent, is the predominant reason that British rap has never found main-stream success in America.
I’ve noticed that because of the different accent and pronunciations in British rap, it probably has worse “flow”, which is defined as “the rhythms and rhymes”of a hip-hop song’s lyrics and how they interact. The more pronounced syllables and the harshness of the British accent make a lot of it sound less controlled and it often seems a little rushed. I do not think this is a bad thing, it just makes British rap seem technically out of line with some views on what makes a rapper successful. Interestingly, the French language naturally seems to have excellent “flow” whereas German rap falls on the opposite side of the spectrum. British rap has adapted to its linguistic features; the ‘grime’ genre of hip-hop, which has been overwhelmingly popular over the past few years, relies on 8, 16 or 32 bar verses with a low bassline frequency. The use of background music in a lot of popular rap is also becoming more reliant on faster paced electronic beats—a perfect example of this is Dizzee Rascal’s song “Bonkers”, which topped British charts for several weeks in 2009 yet never broke into the Billboard Top 100. This song was actually produced with Armand Van Helden and relied more on pop hooks than Rascal’s previous work in an effort for more mainstream global success, which it never achieved.
If I ask anyone at Princeton to imitate a British accent, they immediately put on a posh accent, the kind spoken by characters in Downton Abbey and Harry Potter. Unsurprisingly, in the same way Tupac does not sound like he summers in Nantucket, British rappers sound nothing like Violet Crawley or Severus Snape. Consequently, the voices on Brit-rap tracks sound highly unfamiliar and a lot of the language used is colloquial slang that will make any song feel even more unusual. These things do not affect genres like folk-rock, soul, and pop as much because singing takes away some distinct features of accents. In comparison, the fast paced rhythm and vocals in rap music make it harder to understand. So, even though in an interview Adele sounds very similar to someone like Mike Skinner (of The Streets), songs like “Someone Like You” sound distinctly less alien to an American listener than The Streets’ classic, “Fit But You Know It”. Skinner uses a slow paced, conversational style in his raps and tries to display some honest truths about the banalities of every day life, which are quite specific to a British upbringing. In fact, it is incredibly rare to hear British rappers talk about fast cars and champagne. A lot of it focuses on the ‘where I’ve come from’ narrative of the artist’s life. Of course this is not unique to British rappers at all, but by its very nature, the details filling raps about the struggle for success in Britain will not be familiar to Americans. I think that because of its global success and the world’s general exposure to America and its culture, the ‘where I’ve come from’ stories of American rappers are actually familiar to international listeners too.
Another problem that British rappers face in achieving transatlantic success is that rap in America is already so prolific and is constantly evolving within its home market. The success of bands like Mumford and Sons and One Direction have filled less popular market niches. There have been only a handful of successful American folk or pop boy bands in recent years. The same cannot be said for rap artists. Because of this, it does not make sense for American record labels to invest large quantities of time and money in successful British rappers whose different styles will not seem like actual rap. This means that British artists who really want to make it in America face the problem that if they try and imitate American convention, they will fall short. However, if they pursue their own styles, history suggests that these will not become part of the American hip-hop genre, but will instead be ignored because of their difference to what American hip-hop sounds like. As much as I enjoy British rap, I really don’t think British artists will ever be as successful in America as their counterparts in other genres. Even if a song is good hip-hop, the culture gap will always make it sound a little weird and unfamiliar to ever be accepted as equivalent to its American counterpart.