After looking at his extensive resume of hits, it seems fair to say that any TV Donald Glover touches turns to gold. His new show Atlanta is now officially a bona fide success with the recent announcement of FX renewing the show for a second season a mere three episodes in.
The show follows Glover as Earn, a struggling artist looking to find success amidst the title city’s rich and illustrious hip-hop music scene. And though it is fictitious, it draws upon numerous real-world examples of both Glover’s life and Atlanta’s music culture.
In case anyone needs a refresher, the ATL does indeed have one of the most important hip-hop histories of any city in the world. To keep you prepped for the rest of the show’s first season, here is a brief history of the city’s scene told through the most essential albums it produced.
Arrested Development–‘3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…’ (1992)
In 1992, hip-hop was all about the world of the gangster. This was after all the year that Dr. Dre released The Chronic, the textbook guide to gangsta rap. So when Arrested Development burst onto the scene with a record filled with self-love, spirituality and harmony, it was a true game-changer. It became a stark alternative to the sounds and themes filling up the East and West coasts, and it marked the true arrival of Southern hip-hop onto the scene.
Goodie Mob–‘Soul Food’ (1995)
What Arrested Development gave birth to, Goodie Mob cleaned up nicely and pushed into the world of the mainstream. The quartet of Big Gipp, Khujo, T-Mo and Cee-Lo Green (yes, that Cee-Lo Green) presented with Soul Food the most concise collection of Southern rap yet. Which is to say that this record combines evocative nostalgia with socially-conscious urgency, tales of Thanksgiving with the family and the need for reflection and meditation to prevent violence. And it just happened to coin the term “Dirty South” along the way.
After finding enormous success with their previous record ATLiens, a futurist hallucination of their hometown, the pressure was on going in to the next OutKast album. The result proved to be Aquemini, a marriage of the duo’s cosmic-rap aesthetic with traditionally Southern instrumentation, all wrapped up in their most lyrically profound statements yet. Their heritage is addressed in “Rosa Parks,” the perils of drug addiction in the gangster life are writ large in Biblical form in “Da Art of Storytellin” and “Liberation” is an eight-minute odyssey through every Southern musical style. It’s epic, to say the least.
Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz–‘Kings of Crunk’ (2002)
Being ‘crunk,’ defined as being “chronic and drunk” and the style of hip-hop being built on repeatedly shouted phrases, was far from a new concept for the Atlanta community, and certainly not to the genre’s poster boy Lil Jon. His previous albums Get Crunk, Who U Wit and We Still Crunk!! are proof enough of that. But Kings of Crunk did what no one was expecting, least of all Lil Jon: catapult both he and the subgenre into the pop culture stratosphere, from the window to the wall, all thanks to a ditty called “Get Low.”
T.I.–‘Trap Muzik’ (2003)
Long before he was making Top 40 hits with Rihanna, T.I. was busy building a reputation for himself as the ‘King of the South.’ And he staked his greatest claim for the title with Trap Muzik, an album that served as the definitive statement of just what the hell a ‘trap’ was and what goes on in one for those that didn’t know. And in T.I.’s world, the trap is a place to do a shit load of cocaine. He made no apologies for his hard lifestyle, and inevitably seduced the world into buying into it with tracks like “Rubber Band Man” and the Aretha Franklin-sampling “Let’s Get Away.”
If we consider Atlanta’s hip-hop scene thus far as one slow climb to becoming the counterpoint of mainstream consciousness, then Usher’s Confessions is the apex of the pyramid. This was the biggest album of 2004 and lead single “Yeah!” was the biggest song of 2004, one of the biggest of the decade. It exemplifies the most maximal form of crunk production seen yet, but what made it special was the union of this sound with Usher’s classically smooth R&B style of vocals. “Yeah!” is the moment where the sound of the ATL truly became transcendent.
Young Jeezy–‘Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101’ (2005)
Trap also found a moment of enlightenment just a year later in the form of Young Jeezy, a rapper who up to this point was mostly characterized by his raspy voice and his drug hustle. For his debut album, Jeezy flipped the script, making it clear in his opening lines that the homespun nature of Southern rap and the sonics of trap just got a razor edge. “I used to hit the kitchen lights, cockroaches er’where/Now I hit the kitchen lights, there’s marble floors er’where,” he spits on the album’s opening title track, and shit just gets realer from there.
Soulja Boy–‘Souljaboytellem.com’ (2007)
And now that the ATL sound is front and center, where does it go next? How does it evolve? By creating the next great dance craze of course. Anyone remotely around a public education system in 2007 should have coursing waves of nostalgia involving cranking dat at the first mention of Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em, an Atlanta upstart who would go on to revolutionize the use of ‘Superman’ as a verb one does to a hoe and give streetwear brand BAPE a serious shoutout. But all lyrical whimsy aside, his debut record Souljaboytellem.com is a shining early example of mixing reggae influence into chart-topping, club-ready smashes. The Dirty South would never be the same.
Gucci Mane–‘The State Vs. Radric Davis’ (2009)
It is difficult to pick but one example of Gucci Mane’s contributions to Atlanta hip-hop; the man has more full-length efforts than any handful of artists combined. But this 2009 gem truly stands out as a combination of everything going down in the South at the time. It demonstrates Gucci’s uncanny ability for curation,to combine figures of the past and rising stars of the current and corral them into his singular sound of the new Atlanta. And for a genre that began through mindfulness and acceptance, Gucci made it clear in tracks like “Lemonade” that excess and bombast were back on the menu.
Waka Flocka Flame–‘Flockaveli’ (2010)
And speaking of putting bombast back on the menu, enter Waka Flocka Flame and the album Flockaveli. In one fell swoop, Flocka obliterated the attitudes and sonics of early 2000s Atlanta. Gone are the R&B crossovers and playful flirts with hoes, all of them are replaced here by the fury and venom of hardcore life on the streets. “Better jump the line, or we gonna turn the parking lot into Columbine” he seethes on highlight “Fuck the Club Up.” And the way he spits, it does not sound like a simple metaphor.
Killer Mike–‘R.A.P. Music’ (2012)
To call R.A.P. Music a homecoming would be something of a slight on Killer Mike, who is about as OG as it gets in Atlanta hip-hop. The man made his debut on an OutKast record for Pete’s sake. Yet there is an undeniable quality of king-making at work on this album, which saw Mike pair up with Brooklyn producer extraordinaire El-P. The result is an album that points the newfound sounds of darkness and anger in the genre towards highly specific targets like the failure of Reagan’s criminal policies, police brutality and corporate monopolies. Take note, this is how you make a political record.
Heavy lies the head which wears the crown, and no further could that Shakespeare quote be exemplified than with Future, a rapper who holds the responsibility of shaping the sound of his hometown as a heavy burden. DS2 in particular is an album that demonstrates this quality, building on darkness and despair and not pointing it out in rage but holding it in, dwelling on it. A song like “Groupies” for instance, holds all the familiar signs of a classic Atlanta track, but it has now been twisted into the stuff of gangsta nightmares.
Young Thug–‘JEFFERY’ (2016)
And where is ATL hip-hop heading next? It seems like the best person to turn to would be Young Thug, who may be the most progressive, forward-thinking rapper in recent memory. Do we have any other members of the hip-hop scene who would extol the virtues of wearing a dress and eliminating gender? His long-awaited album from this year, JEFFERY, continues to exemplify the sounds of the immediate now, weaving influences as diverse as dancehall and radio-ready pop into the tropes of the Atlanta sound.
For related music features, check out our exploration of the subgenre “Asian Trap.”