Juice WRLD
Getty Images / Bennett Raglin

For decades, video games were treated on an uneven keel. Deemed escapism for socially impaired recluses, this stigma was reinforced by the media’s portrayal of gamers and asserted that no merit could be extracted from their titles. Despite millions still downplaying their enjoyment, the figures don’t lie, and reports show that the industry’s takings now dwarf that of music and movies combined.

After years of being maligned, video games are finally getting their due respect from mainstream outlets that recognize its artful status and, in many ways, there is commonality in its plight to hip-hop’s journey to prominence. Derided as pollutants of the youth’s impressionable minds or enlisted as sources for moral panic, these historically subcultural artforms now account for some of the most widely consumed creative work in the world.

With an audience that errs towards fanaticism, it’s no surprise that a new study from Whistle revealed that two thirds of Generation Z view video games as an integral part of their lives. In a comparative report from YPulse, 84% of Gen Z’ers and their marginally older millennial counterparts believed that it was cool to play video games and had dispensed with its nerdier connotations, while 71% were content to identify themselves as a ‘gamer.’ Now that Gen Z and millenials are positioned at the vanguard of hip-hop culture, it is only natural that this unabashed love for the virtual world would rears its head in their art.

Over the years, there’s been many attempts to intermingle the worlds of hip-hop and gaming with varying degrees of success. Comprised of surreal marketing ploys such as Wu symbol-shaped controllers and G-Unit waging virtual war in an unspecified Middle Eastern landscape, the common denominator in all these crossovers was considerable financial gain. Yet where their predecessors were more inclined to liaise with the gaming community if the price was right, their modern-day rap peers see the once pilloried leisure pursuit as an invaluable source of lyrical and aesthetic inspiration.

Spanning all the modern subsets from experimental to commercial, this assimilation has arisen in a myriad of ways that pay homage to hours of seemingly ‘misspent’ youth in virtually transmitted dimensions. In recent times, we’ve had JPEGMAFIA’s limited run of PS2 packaging/merch for Veteran, Quavo’s iced-out Aku Aku from Crash Bandicoot and, most notably, Juice WRLD’s cover art for Death Race For Love. Resembling the final boss battle of some dystopian RPG, the cover (and the accompanying visuals for “Hear Me Calling”) draw heavily from the Twisted Metal series and marks a natural progression for the Chicago-based artist. Shielded from hip-hop by his devout Christian mother, Jarad Higgins’ musical identity is indivisibly linked to his years of playing Guitar Hero and shredding the alt rock and punk-laden terrains of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. From enlisting the former’s instruments during his late night debut to commiserating over “GTA love, bitches wasted,” Juice is one of a generation of rappers that spent much of their youth in front of a screen rather than on the streets.

Considering that even a bastion of style such as A$AP Rocky is doling out Fortnite references and Nicki Minaj kickstarted her album campaign with a single that celebrated Street Fighter’s Chun-Li, it’s clear that Gen Z’s affinity for video games has placed the medium on a higher pedestal in hip-hop than ever before.

To clarify, rappers referencing video games is by no means a new phenomenon, but what has changed is the context and frequency of these references. In order to depict this reconfiguration, you needn’t look any further than one of the most iconic bars of all time. A quotable that’s endured through the generations, The Notorious B.I.G’s claim that “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, when I was dead broke man I couldn’t picture this” from “Juicy” is fundamentally different from how today’s MC’s approach the gaming world. For Biggie, the allusions to gaming consoles were used as status symbols that denoted the course-correction from a life of deprivation to the lap of luxury. In the late Brooklynite’s mind, having the disposable income to buy this top-of-the-line technology was more important than the games themselves, and he is no more of an avid fan than he is an interior design enthusiast on the next line.

On the whole, the life of clandestine deals on street corners that was once so prevalent is completely alien to Gen Z’s artists. Encapsulated in their beats, rhymes, and promotional material, a whole age group of gamers now occupy the lucrative space where the gangsters used to hold court, and it’s given way to a more joyfully untethered landscape that has its roots in their adolescence. In a bygone era, a rapper’s major label debut would be marketed in an austere color palette and see the artist flanked by bottles and scantily clad women. Yet in the teasers for Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, the Philadelphian was rendered in 8-bit form and tasked with making his way through a treacherous side-scroller that emulated classic SNES sides scrollers and platforms.

Raised by their screen’s blue-light emissions as much as they were by their iTunes library, it explains why many rappers’ gaming habits now play an indivisible role in their public personas and now engage with them on a near-subconscious level. While Vince Staples’ material is preoccupied with systemic injustices and gangbanging in his native Long Beach, his sardonic interviews have seen him discuss everything from Logic’s “mad aggressive playing style” to ambitions of creating his own title and admitting that “there was never a game that came out that I wanted that I didn’t get.” In between streams of Persona 4 & 5, Danny Brown has also made his intentions to segue into the video game industry known and tasked Black Room creator Cassie McQuarter to curate a luscious virtual world for his live set. Although both projects seem to be languishing in development hell, it’s worth noting that even a creative contrarian such as Kanye West isn’t impervious to video game culture, unveiling the trailer for a mobile title based on his mother’s ascent to heaven and tentatively titling a record Turbo Grafx 16.

In previous eras, producers may have sampled a loading menu from an N64 title and rappers would be none the wiser. Now, you have artists such as Lil Yachty and Drake that are not only incorporating video game soundtracks into tracks but are paid up members of E-sports squads or investing in them. For artists such as Ski Mask The Slump God, Post Malone, Flatbush Zombies, Rae Sremmurd, and self-proclaimed ‘Video Game Master’ Lil B, naming tracks after Dr. Eggman or Call Of Duty maps and hopping on a Twitch stream aren’t elaborately planned out PR moves but a natural manifestation of a life-long love affair with their consoles.

Some think pieces have argued that rappers have given video games a boost, but they overlook the fact that they helped mold these MCs into who they are and how they played an irrevocable role in their day-to-day lives. As emphatically described by KYLE, the transformative power of the controller helped them to break free of the monotony and to strive for bigger and better things:

“If you live in a little ass apartment that has four fuckin’ weak ass grey walls, it’s like you can just plug in this machine and get locked into this entire different person and entire different world.”

No longer perched at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, hip-hop’s Gen Z’ers and millennials have proved that the two worlds can coexist in perfect harmony, and will seemingly continue do so from here on out.

Words by Robert Blair
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