A change wasn’t going to come. By 2005, Aloe Blacc’s decade in hip-hop had begun to yield diminishing returns. Though the Orange County-raised rapper had earned underground respect, the genre increasingly favored flamboyant eccentrics like Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Avenues for expansion were scarce — especially for a USC graduate whose press biography touts a love of transcendentalism and French existentialism.
“I grew up break dancing and rapping, but hip-hop no longer spoke to me the way it had when I was younger. After years of rhyming thousands of words, I realized that I hadn’t really said much,” said the 31-year old, who had previously recorded as one half of the duo Emanon.
With megalithic personalities like 50 Cent, Eminem and West monopolizing the radio and the underground boom fizzling, there were few outlets for the sort of socially aware narratives that Blacc yearned to tell. At a crossroads, Blacc delved into the discographies of Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway and John Lennon. Gradually, his perspective diverged from writing raps to composing melodies.
Shortly after first testing his alluvial baritone on wax, Stones Throw label head Chris Manak, known in the beat world as Peanut Butter Wolf, heard one of Blacc’s silken performances. Instantly sold, he offered Blacc a contract for the 2006 full-length “Shine Through.”
Blacc’s not the only one blurring the line between singing and rapping. In fact, over the last decade, hip-hop has gradually shifted away from the asphalt assault of hard-core ‘90s rap toward more melodic, tuneful fare. Pharrell Williams’ rock/rap/R&B fusionists N.E.R.D. were at the vanguard, followed by Andre 3000 of Outkast and Gnarls Barkley’s Cee Lo Green (formerly of rap group Goodie Mob). Previously acclaimed for their rap skills, the latter two’s hybrid efforts, respectively, “Hey Ya” (2003) and “Crazy” (2005), respectively, became two of the ‘00s’ top-selling records.
Kanye West’s largely Auto-Tune crooned “808s and Heartbreak” paved the way for Drake and Kid Cudi, two of the most popular artists of Generation Y, who balance singing and rapping in equal measure. Even Lil Wayne, who boasted of being “the best rapper alive,” briefly abandoned the craft for this year’s much-maligned rock-rap Frankenstein, “Rebirth.”
No small label better signifies this shift than Stones Throw. Releasing contemporary jazz, soul and funk records, its output expanded to include anything with a deep groove.
“At first my distributor discouraged me, pointing out past rock labels that had put out hip-hop records and telling me why that wouldn’t work,” Manak said. “But lately, our biggest artists have been guys like Dam-Funk, Mayer Hawthorne and [Blacc], who have gotten attention without rapping. Hip-hop will never die, but the more traditional form of hip-hop has become very specialized.”
Unlike many of his peers, Manak anticipated the shift, adding that he’d even asked the influential late producer-rapper J Dilla to do an album with sung vocals. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” Manak said with a laugh.
But Manak has been rewarded for his foresight. Galvanized by the placement of the soulful zeitgeist-mainlining “I Need a Dollar” on the HBO series “How to Make It in America,” Blacc’s singing career has soared, especially in Europe, with his sophomore full-length, September’s “Good Things,” topping the charts in France and Belgium, and cracking the Top 10 in Germany.
Blacc’s artistic evolution was partly attributable to a value shift, but Mayer Hawthorne (born Andrew Cohen) arrived at his style by serendipity. A rapper, DJ and producer, he decided to sing because sampling other artists was prohibitively expensive. With the intent of using it for his own sample purposes, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-raised, L.A.-based artist recorded a rough demo, which made its way to the encyclopedic Manak, who initially thought the material was vintage Midwest soul. He learned otherwise, and offered Hawthorne a deal to release “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” as a single. Striving to split the difference between Smokey Robinson and J Dilla, the limited-edition 1,000-copy run sold out within 48 hours.
A decade after releasing his first record, last year’s acclaimed full-length “A Strange Arrangement” allowed Hawthorne to realize every artist’s dream: quitting his day job to pursue music. He’s since become a favorite of rappers including Ghostface Killah and Snoop Dogg.
“I still love rap as much as ever and always play it when I DJ,” Hawthorne said. “I moved to L.A. to make hip-hop and things took off in a different direction.”
The late Columbus, Ohio, singer-rapper Camu Tao’s “King of Hearts” saw posthumous release in August. Blending rap with Elvis Costello worship, wheezing ballads and manic electro-punk rock, the record served as an oddly fitting final release (via Fat Possum) for Definitive Jux, a seminal independent rap powerhouse that ceased operating in February.
“Most rappers take their craft so seriously that at a certain point it can become a crushing thing,” El-P, the label boss of Definitive Jux and executive producer of “King of Hearts” said. “For Camu, singing was totally freeing and fun — the opposite of where he was at with rap music.”
The ability to liberate oneself from traditional hip-hop expectations also propelled Gonjasufi. Currently based in the Mojave and blessed with a banshee wail that suggests Tom Waits had he been weaned on ‘90s boom-bap rap, the 32-year-old ex-yoga instructor born Sumach Ecks had bounced around the San Diego underground hip-hop scene for much of the late ‘90s and early 2000s before finally discovering his voice.
“A Sufi and a Killer” was released this year on the famously avant-garde British electronic label Warp. Earning critical raves for his unhinged eccentricity, Ecks’s evolution grew out of his desire to express himself in more forms.
“I switch back and forth. Right now, I’m in the middle of laying a rap album down, but tomorrow I might sing. It’s like a painter using different colors,” Gonjasufi said. “There’s nothing better than cats thinking I’m a singer and then killing them in a cipher, and then surprising everyone by turning around and harmonizing. It’s about throwing people off.”
Arguably nowhere in Los Angeles encapsulates the modern mélange better than the Low End Theory, a weekly event at Lincoln Heights’ Airliner that blurs the lines between hip-hop, dance music, R&B and tripped-out rock. Earlier this year, Nobody, one of the night’s four resident DJs, released “One For All Without Hesitation,” an album full of melancholy Auto-Tuned ballads.
This month he released “Bomb Zombies” in collaboration with Nocando, a project that riffs on the sound of contemporary rap. He also plays guitar in the psychedelic fusionists Blank Blue. The unclassifiable musician born Elvin Estela points out that with technology continually increasing the number of tools available to musicians, the ability to switch between styles is getting easier.
“The technology is what’s really empowering. Auto-Tune allows everyone to be the singer they want to be. People can use it to sound correct their voice, to add breathiness, to morph it in any way,” Estela said. “A lot of people in their early 30s came up on hip-hop and are looking for ways to combine it with other genres, in ways that haven’t yet been done. You don’t just have to do rap and R&B, you can mix it with neo-soul, or psychedelic rock, or blues. We all just want to push ourselves.”