Atlanta rap duo Earthgang sports eclectic attire and raps fantastical lyrics that ping-pong around in the brain long after initial listen. Its members — Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot — joined forces as a creative pair while attending high school in 2008. They cram in an absurd number of words-per-minute against funky, Southern-fried hip-hop beats. Do those details sound like they describe another duo you've heard before?
After a decade of performing and releasing heralded projects such as Royalty, Earthgang — signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint — has become as closely associated with its own adored output as it has comparisons to André 3000 and Big Boi of the legendary Outkast. It's an understandable juxtaposition: Besides the two acts' shared Atlanta origins and paired-up presentation, they both subvert audience expectations and veer away from so-called traditional hip-hop sounds.
However, major side-eye has been cast in the direction of those who've drawn parallels between this pair of pairs.
Last year, eternally controversial online personality YesJulz took to Twitter to share her opinion: "Earthgang is like the OutKast of this generation only with two Andre’s. I’m so here for it," she wrote. "& don’t fuckin @ me."
Naturally, the @'s rolled in.
Commenters argued there is only one Outkast and only one Earthgang, so quit mentioning them in the same breath all the time. The Washington Post called a comparison between the two acts “too convenient,” and Pitchfork declared the association was “an unfair one.”
Whether the comparison is accurate or not, the tweet and subsequent social media hellfire reveal an insight into the way we talk about music today. Comparisons, although sometimes seen as annoying in the eyes of artists and devoted fans, help new listeners. When it comes to navigating the supersaturated streaming landscape, pointing out similarities among artists makes it easier for consumers to get an idea of what they can expect once they press play. It’s the same reason labels corral seemingly disparate music under all-encompassing genre umbrellas.
But with more music available more easily than ever before, genre classifications have come to signify less and less. As up-and-coming artists continue to bring mix their myriad influences in unexpected ways, it has become increasing difficult to categorize contemporary music in a single, convenient bracket. Rather, as the "Fans Also Like" tab on Spotify illustrates, many listeners have resorted to finding new music by seeking out artists that sound alike and ignoring genre demarcation; put simply, rather than flipping through a singular "hip-hop" rack at a record store, listeners are seeking out who sounds the most like Kendrick Lamar or Mick Jenkins.
And in this age of unexpected collaborations — see Earthgang's team-up with Tokimonsta — that search could lead down any number of rabbit holes.
The Outkast and Earthgang association is not the first time controversy has been stewed by comparisons between older acts and new artists. (Rock purists have dubbed the band Greta Van Fleet a Led Zeppelin rip-off, and it seems like the bandmates have been asked about it every week of their career.) It’s natural for listeners to align artists with one another: The human brain can’t help but draw connections and classify. It just so happens that citing genres may not not be useful as it once was in describing an artist's sound.
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Streaming will only continue to change the way music is discussed among fans and the way it's marketed to them. Apps such as Spotify and Apple Music provide suggested playlists that are generated from a user's listening habits. Genre labeling still exists on these platforms, but it's not the main focus for users; it's a cynical, overstated take, but the newer generation connects with specific brands. Individual artists or bands easily fit into that paradigm. Genres? Not so much.
Distilling music’s magic into words is a challenge. We can use genres and descriptive terms, but sometimes the easiest way to provide shorthand for an artist’s sound is by naming a widely known predecessor. When describing a largely unknown act, marketers will grab an audience's attention much faster by providing context for that act's sound vis-à-vis a more famous group or the preexisting soundscape. Contrary to the way overly plugged-in music geeks behave, not everyone is well-versed in the sub-sub-subgenres filling today’s music sphere. Comparing artists to one another should not be seen as a point of contention but a simpler means for music fans to discuss their passions. And when we find accessible ways to talk about music, it benefits artists looking to build a following as well as the prospective fans who might've glazed over a new band were it not for easily understood comparisons.
As for Earthgang, there are far, far worse things to be compared to than the greatest hip-hop duo that ever did it.