The world of Southern rap can often appear like a self-contained universe, with its own accents, slang and sounds that seem wholly removed from the rest of hip-hop culture. It’s easy to overlook that the region has produced some of the genre’s strongest artists.
These days, that statement may be obvious: Lil Wayne is generally considered one of the most influential rappers of the past decade, while UGK’s Pimp C and Bun B are frequently cited on “Greatest of All Time” lists, showing that the years when the Dirty South was considered backward are long past.
Still, Houston rapper Scarface sounds very different from, say, New York rapper Rakim, to cite a comparable pioneer. The former speaks about his life through the art of storytelling, and when he battles other MCs, it’s through the prism of reality rap, and promises of street retribution. Meanwhile, Andre 3000 has an inimitable Atlanta tone he uses for rhymes that sound like extended proverbs, full of homespun wisdom, and sings in a charismatic trill that sounds like modern-day funk and blues.
And so it goes for this survey of Southern voices.
Juvenile rocks his vocals with an unerring sense of rhythm, a skill developed from his formative years in New Orleans’ bounce scene. Juicy J’s Memphis baritone embodies pure, thrilling menace. Devin the Dude has a languid delivery that slides easily from rapping to singing, and a subtle sense of wordplay. Gucci Mane is celebrated in some quarters, and woefully underrated in others. His wheezy, helium-like voice often distracts from his ability to cleverly match incongruous objects in a rhyme, a talent best displayed on the memorable single “Lemonade.” Meanwhile, T.I. has the ability to arrange simple, declarative words in poetic stanzas.
Killer Mike is a socio-political polemicist who sways and convinces with forceful passion. So does David Banner, but his voice is more stylized, with a heavy Mississippi accent and emphatic grunts. Big Boi often gets overlooked, owing to his partnership with the magnificent Andre 3000 in OutKast. But on his 2010 solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, he distinguished himself as a slickly effective spitter whose rhyme patterns could be dynamic and intricate. Rick Ross’ quantum leap from the repetitive chanter of Port of Miami to the erudite lyrical boss of Deeper Than Rap remains an impressive evolution. Ludacris’ reputation as a ribald jokester and punch-line master often results in him being unfairly neglected as one of the best in the business.
Finally, there’s Lil Boosie, whose sharp Baton Rouge “country” twang masks an admirable sense of neighborhood commitment and purpose. When we hear him, it’s clear that he hails from the bottom of the map.