In today’s diverse, Internet-governed music industry, it’s hard to corner the market. Unless, of course, you’re armed with the history-making prowess of Billie Eilish. As she transitioned from adolescence to adulthood, the Californian’s debut LP When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? swept the major categories at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Before that, she was enshrined as the first artist born in the 2000s to capture a number one album.
Conceived alongside her polymathic brother Finneas, Eilish’s music strikes a subversive balance that’s marked her out as a force for change. But in her opinion, she’s simply staying the course on individuality. “This whole time I’ve been getting this one sentence, like, I’m a rule-breaker,” she told Vogue. “I’m flattered that people think that, but it’s like, where, though? What rule did I break? The rule about making classic pop music and dressing like a girly girl?”
From aesthetics to aural textures, Eilish has regularly torn up the blueprint, and one key tenet of her appeal is the wide-lens approach to influence. Just as Gen Z has largely abolished cultural tribalism, Eilish culls inspiration from sources as diverse as The Office and Irish soul songstress Biig Piig. But if there’s any recurring thread that she’s pulled from, it’s the expansive world of hip-hop.
Like everything else, Eilish’s love for the genre arrived in prodigious fashion. Speaking to XXL in August of last year, she cited Donald Glover’s rap alter-ego Childish Gambino as her point-of-entry to a culture that she’s been infatuated with since the age of 11. “It was one album, which is Camp. I remember sitting on the corner of my bed and ‘Heartbeat’ came on and I was like, whoa… I just felt like I had been completely missing a world… I really was like, Oh, shit. This is what I’ve been missing. This is what I like.”
That said, this wasn’t the only instance of overlap between her early listening habits and her recent career. On top of reimagining “Hotline Bling” as a plaintive ukulele ballad, Eilish has acknowledged Drake and Weezy’s “The Motto” as her “favorite song ever” and has also paid homage to Gambino by covering “III.Telegraph Ave” for SiriusXM. Veering from the often-macabre world that fans experience though her material, the decision to cover hip-hop artists rather than pop stars that are conventionally riper for adaptation not only speaks to what she identifies with as a fan, but what kind of artist she wants to be.
Beyond these tributes, Billie’s love of hip-hop is felt on a compositional level. No stranger to sewing together disparate worlds in his own right, James Blake was entranced by Billie’s debut due to its similarities to Kanye West’s own post-genre masterpiece. “It was one of the most interestingly produced things I’ve heard since Yeezus, which I think was some influence,” he told Variety.
Although Billie has kept schtum on Kanye’s impact, she’s been forthcoming about how the structural advances of hip-hop have bled directly into her output. In fact, even Billie’s Song of the Year-winning “Bad Guy” is inextricably linked to her studious enjoyment of the genre. In a Rolling Stone interview that chronicled its creation, Billie acknowledged two of TDE and Dreamville’s finest for introducing her to a clever misdirection: “I had been inspired by this song called ‘Never’ by JID and ‘Stuck In The Mud’ by Isaiah Rashad that kind of stop for like five seconds and then start this new song that’s shorter. I thought it was so interesting.”
Prone to incorporating a wide array of non-traditional techniques and dissonant tones into her music, this admission was unsurprising. After all, the deconstructive, abstractly-minded streak that runs through her art shares more DNA with modern hip-hop than anyone on the frontlines of pop. Harboring a deep appreciation for the maudlin that belies her vibrant public persona, that darkness is in keeping with her ties to South Florida’s hip-hop hotbed. Since the age of 15, Billie had championed the late XXXTentaction, describing him to OnesToWatch as “a terrifying person, but he’s the coolest.”
Undeterred by the divisiveness that surrounded the rapper, she refused to be “shamed” for mourning him, and has spoken at length about the mentorship he offered. Throughout his posthumously prolonged career, fans saw XXX as a sonic dissident that wore his heart on his sleeve and remolded rebellion in his own haunting image. Naturally, as an artist who has spearheaded her own wave, Billie would gravitate towards those who share these sensibilities — and she has found no shortage within hip-hop.
Consequently, she endorses the bombastic Ski Mask the Slump God whenever possible. During a 2018 appearance on Beats1, Billie described Ski’s idiosyncratic “Catch Me Outside” as “one of the best songs I’ve heard in my life.” She continued: “Everything about what comes out of him as a human is so much realer than so much music right now.”
Crossing over to Raider Klan territory, Billie maintains a fruitful friendship with Denzel Curry that led to him opening on her US tour. Awed by Zeltron and insistent that he’s “on another planet,” Denzel’s “Sirens” is currently the only hip-hop track to bear her entrancing vocals.
Drawn towards those who lead with authenticity and stray from convention, our understanding of what she values in hip-hop goes some way to explaining the controversial remarks in her recent Vogue cover story. “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story,” she said of her habit of adopting alter egos. “There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got my AK-47… I’m like, what? You don’t have a gun. And ‘all my bitches.’ I’m like, which bitches? That’s posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.”
Introduced to the hip-hop world in the iTunes era and without the faintest shred of gatekeeping, her comments hint to a lapse in comprehension of what’s naturally afforded to her as a songwriter, and the artistic license that’s historically been withheld from rappers. “Rappers are human and eat, shit and bleed and cry just like you,” said The LOX’s Styles P of her perception on hip-hop’s embellishments. “Stop putting us on such a high pedestal because you feel we should or shouldn’t do something.”
The product of a cultural disconnect, Billie’s naïvete arises from the fact that hip-hop has always been part of her wider musical ecosystem, rather than existing in a vacuum. And, rightly or wrongly, Billie’s view on the matter adds up when you consider that her hip-hop touchstones have made careers out of rejecting the genre’s more stereotypical imaging.
Ever since a friend introduced her to “Tamale,” Billie has held a deep-seated love for Tyler, the Creator. In the same vein as how Donald Glover felt ostracized by being “the only black kid at a Sufjan concert” on CAMP, Tyler has always been the outlier, and even cast aspersions about the underlying meaning behind IGOR’s distinction as Best Hip-Hop Album at the Grammys.
In the wake of the record’s release earlier this year, Tyler chatted with Zane Lowe and, among other things, sung Billie’s praises. “I think [her album]’s sick. I like her,” he enthused. “I just want her to keep doing her goddamn thing. I really wanna work with her. I don’t know what the fuck we would make, even if it don’t come out, if it’s trash, I just wanna see.” Unsurprisingly, Eilish responded in kind, claiming: “I would be nothing without you Tyler. Everyone knows that!”
Candid and honest about his impact, this is emblematic of not just hip-hop and its leading lights’ ubiquity in her own life, but the world in general. “Everyone needs to give hip-hop credit,” Eilish said in March of 2019. “Whatever you’re doing, you’ve been influenced by hip-hop.”
Yet just as Tyler and Gambino view imaginary lines in the sand as constrictive, Billie collages sounds in a way that is intrinsically hers. Crucial to both her worldview an outlook towards creativity, hip-hop has played an instrumental role in emboldening the young singer/songwriter to be daring, unyielding, and defy easy classification at every turn. Or, in Tyler’s words, “keep doing her goddamn thing.”
As she informed The New York Times, her artistry — hip-hop indebted or not — will strive to retain the lessons her musical heroes instilled in her and work from the broadest palette possible. “I don’t want to be in a pop world, I don’t want to be in the alternative world, the hip-hop world or the R&B world. I want it to be like ‘what kind of music do you listen to?’ Billie Eilish kind of music, you know? The other kind.”