Kenny Mason, Jean Dawson, and why Sonic Uniqueness is Necessary in the Hip-hop Industry

Donovan Michel

Earlier this year, Atlanta artist Kenny Mason released his debut album, “Angelic 

Hoodrat,” a very sonically engaging project comprised of lyrical, emotional raps, soulful, crooning hooks, alternative-sounding instrumentation, and a percussive blend of trap, boom-bap, and alternative genres. The fourteen tracks explore Mason’s experiences through a diverse variety of textures and emotions, leading the listener on a dramatic sonic journey, one highly unique in an environment where most albums are simply assortments of songs that each identically represent the artist’s motivations: repetitive; lacking in dynamics or innovation. 

Similarly, hip-hop/alternative artist Jean Dawson released his second album, “Pixel Bath,” in October. The thirteen-track effort presents a level of innovation and genre expansion on par with “Angelic Hoodrat,” and goes far beyond the usual boundaries of hip-hop. Sonically consisting of many emo, alternative melodies and hooks, while mixing in skillful raps, mellow love songs, and a track mostly written in Spanish, the project is unlike any other. 

These genre-bending, unconventional, skillfully innovative works propose an approach to the hip-hop industry that I find necessary for the genre to remain interesting and to maintain the heart of what hip-hop has historically been, as the music industry makes a key shift that threatens the integrity of that heart. To put this idea into more specific terms, music interests have significantly adjusted in recent years, away from pop and toward hip-hop, to the point that the hip-hop genre now dominates the top charts, far from the pop industry-dominated top charts and radio play of the early 2010s and earlier. While I am glad to see a decrease in popularity of the over-polished, soulless, formulaic entity that pop music is (though Ariana Grande remains atop the charts), there is a downside to hip-hop’s overtaking of the music industry. After sonic innovators of hip-hop like Metro Boomin, Young Thug, and Travis Scott rose to industry-wide prominence in the mid-2010s, ushering in a new era of hip-hop, and Internet Money after them, the genre, or at least its most successful participants, has become somewhat stale and formulaic. 

With low success from any artists, members of a genre are forced to innovate and create their own sounds, but with universal hip-hop idols to replicate, the vast majority of vocalists, producers, and engineers in hip-hop have fallen into the pattern of simply replicating the sounds that the genre’s idols pioneered years ago. This pattern is obviously dangerous, as it inevitably leads down a path toward over-processed, factory-made entertainment, something that the hip-hop genre has been historically far from, due to its lack of industry-wide popularity. While there is certainly a level of nuance within the genre of mainstream hip-hop and are plenty of creative individuals behind the art, it is undeniable that the top tier of hip-hop has become increasingly homogenous, with artists like Lil Baby, Gunna, and Lil Mosey pushing for essentially the same sound, and others creating a very sonically repetitive and lyrically indistinguishable genre. With most of the top artists using the same producers and imitating each other, the genre cannot possibly proceed on that path to any positive end. 

The only way out of this pattern of autotuned brag raps over identical guitar or synth melodies and Spinz or Zaytoven 808s is to support the sonic innovators of the genre. While the most successful tier of hip-hop artists fails to progress or innovate beyond the dominant sound of the genre, artists like Mason and Dawson push the boundaries of the genre, utilize producers that nearly no other artists do, incorporate sounds and themes that are relatively unknown to the mainstream, and create art that encourages more creativity in the music world, and we, consumers, have the power to create success for these innovative artists by supporting them. Even without this motivation to maintain the integrity of the hip-hop genre, Mason and Dawson are worth listening to purely for the musical skill they each possess.

WY student and theater sound man Mark Mulcrone ‘21, says, “Sonic uniqueness is arguably the driving force behind the entire music industry today, as most pop music draws from hip hop. Without hip-hop’s innovations the entire music industry would be stale and unoriginal. I agree that sonic uniqueness is very important, and that it is good artists are still out there practicing it.”

WY student and famed music producer Ronald Jamieson, ‘21, says “I agree that Hip-Hop is becoming more homogenous in its execution of hit songs. However, I do believe it is almost hopeless to expect the majority of Hip-Hop listeners to respect innovative artists on a mainstream level. There are very few mainstream artists like the Tyler The Creator’s who manage to have long lasting mainstream success by morphing Hip-Hop into a new form of its former self. I do believe the public has the ability to move the taste of music further but at the end of the day, it will take multiple renditions of a Kenny Mason to really get people’s attention. Who knows, though, maybe the public will start to lose its focus with the repetitive mainstream.”

Former WY student and Texas resident Peter Lyday, ‘21, says “I think sampling in hip hop is a super big part of the music, especially when you can find older stuff as inspiration for loops and beats. But when artists don’t add their own spin to samples/music they borrow or they model their sound from someone still actively making music then their sound isn’t unique and music isn’t being innovated and propelled into new genres.”

Kenny Mason