Earthgang and Outkast.
Back in March, we featured Earthgang’s album Mirrorland in our Indy Suggests section. The album finally dropped a couple weeks ago (apologies for saying it would drop “soon” in March…), and as predicted, it is a really impressive album. It is the group’s first studio album since signing to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records, so naturally it has attracted quite a bit of attention. A good chunk of that attention—and the reason Earthgang was trending on Twitter two weeks ago— can be attributed to a growing number of people making comparisons between Earthgang and another prolific Atlanta rap duo: Outkast.
At first glance, the comparison makes sense. Both duos hail from East Atlanta, embodying the musical norms of that space in their respective eras, while at the same time diverging stylistically in noticeable ways. As much as I hate the term, both can most likely be considered “conscious” rap groups. They both seem to put forth a distinctly extra-terrestrial image, rapping about aliens (think ATLiens) and coming from other planets. Olu and Andre 3000 both style themselves in some of the weirdest, dopest outfits in the rap game. When I think about my own discovery of Earthgang, I can distinctly remember first hearing wowgr8 (then known as doctur dot) rap on “Liquor Sto’” and thinking, “Damn, this guy sounds just like 3 stacks!” All that said, as I read through the tweets and articles surrounding this supposedly imperative debate comparing the two groups I couldn’t quite understand why people care so much.
Twitter, as it’s been known to do, was going wild as people were vehemently picking and defending sides. Some loved the comparison, others hated it. Many questioned whether it was even fair to make the comparison in the first place, rushing to defend Earthgang as their own artist, not just as copies of another more influential duo. XXL magazine, one of hip hop’s largest publications, even posted a Twitter poll: “ight, settle it. Yes for EarthGang being the next OutKast, no for them not”. Everyone from YesJulz (yes, you heard that right) to Big Boi himself had something to say. Earthgang would eventually take to Instagram to react, at once embracing the comparison but distancing themselves from it: “We’re blessed to stand on the shoulders of greatness and be a light for a NEW generation. To be compared to legends is a humbling honor. But know that we’re blazing our OWN path for the next ones out of Atlanta.” A thoughtful consideration of this chaotic, clickbait swarm of half-baked criticism must beg the question: is the comparison of artists a worthwhile endeavor, or does it merely put those artists in a box?
In music, and for some reason especially in rap, the Internet makes similar comparisons all the time. “Kendrick is the new Tupac,” “Ari Lennox is the new Erykah Badu,” “Frank Ocean is the new Prince.” The reason these comparisons are potentially problematic is not because of the comparison in and of itself, but rather because the people making them tend to do so haphazardly. No doubt, it can be really exciting and insightful drawing parallels between any two things, be it songs, politicians in their respective eras, or cambrian era fossils... We do it with everything. It’s a deeply psychological human tendency that, even if we tried, we wouldn’t be able to resist. Primordially satisfying as the inclination may be, it is important to recognize that making these parallels and sticking to them seriously affects how we conceptualize the ideas and people we compare. This becomes particularly relevant when discussing art. When we watch/listen to/ feel/experience a piece of art for the first time there should be as little as possible standing between us and a raw, unbiased and unspoiled interpretation. After that, and only after that, can we make thoughtful considerations of how that piece relates to its setting and beyond.
To jump to classify Earthgang as the next Outkast, even while that comparison might be intentioned as a praise, stops us from experiencing Earthgang as just that—Earthgang. We ought to give the scores of artists whose work we flippantly consume every day a chance to make a name for themselves as themselves and not merely a recreation of a former artist. As Saba once said, “Stop comparing me to artists. No, I am not them.” By all means, keep making comparisons. After all, they can be fun and insightful! But when you do, perhaps take a moment to reflect on the fact that there will almost always be more that you don’t know about any given artist and their art than what you do know. Before you think about what makes Earthgang like Outkast, listen carefully to their music and think about what makes Earthgang Earthgang.
Photo Credit: Aaron J. Thornton / Theo Wargo, Getty Images