2017’s hottest hip-hop trend is brought to you by Ron Burgundy.
The best song in the world right now, by an almost comically wide margin, is Future’s “Mask Off.” The catchily menacing track from the first of the Atlanta rapper’s recent album diptych has worked its way up from fan-favorite deep cut to his highest-charting solo single yet, inspiring several memes and going gold along the way. It’s also one of the strangest songs to hit the radio in a long time. “Mask Off” contains multitudes, many of which would seem to be contradictory: It’s an ode to dead-eyed nihilism as a lifestyle with the triumphal energy of a go-getter’s anthem, and yet it’s the go-to track of the moment for DJs who need to set a club off, and yet it’s gloomy enough to make an incredibly effective breakup song. It’s a certified banger that you can hear blasting out of car windows coast to coast that relies heavily on… a flute sample.
Flutes are an incredibly wack instrument. Possibly the wackest. Instruments like the oboe and the clarinet are more sonically irritating, and the douchiness of intentionally complicated instruments like the Chapman stick exceeds the flute’s pompous reputation (which it held well before Jethro Tull inflicted itself on the world). But the flute stands alone at the intersection of irritating sound and annoying personality. Ron Burgundy makes a perfect spokesperson for it.
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And yet in the hands of “Mask Off” producer Metro Boomin, the historical weight of every shrieking prog rock flute solo and “Actually the term is flautist” ever inflicted on the world evaporates in a cool, blunt-scented breeze and the mournful soul of Tommy Butler’s Selma soundtrack. Through some powerful occult maneuver, Metro’s made the flute not only tolerable, he’s made it bang.
Amazingly, this isn’t the first time he’s pulled this trick off. In fact, he’s been dialing in hype flute samples all over the place recently. Last year he produced Atlanta phenom (and human meme) 21 Savage’s Savage Mode EP, featuring the Future-backed breakout single “X” that balances a claustrophobically knocking beat with a surprisingly tender and melancholy flute melody that could function perfectly as the score to the melodramatic climax of a Hong Kong action flick. A loopy flute riff holds down Gucci Mane and Drake’s “Both,” which Metro produced alongside frequent collaborator Southside (who contributed to “Mask Off” too). The pair also built the beat for Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision” out of a pitched-down flute sample from Chilean folk group Inti-Illimani that I’m incredibly curious to know how they came across in the first place.
In fact, the flute’s become one of the stickiest trends in hip-hop production. Beat maestro Zaytoven’s been putting them on beats for acts like Migos for years now. Murda Beatz’s conspicuously flute-heavy “Portland” is one of the standout moments from Drake’s slightly overstuffed playlist-as-album More Life. 2Chainz, D.R.A.M., and Lil Yachty have all rapped over flutes recently. Against all odds, Flute Rap has become its own genre, one that’s poised to dominate 2017. And somehow this doesn’t seem like a bad thing?
In the hands of Metro Boomin, the historical weight of every shrieking prog rock flute solo and “Actually the term is flautist” ever inflicted on the world evaporates in a cool, blunt-scented breeze.
Why is Flute Rap having a moment right now? It probably has something to do with the inevitable aural fatigue that audiences developed from Southern mixtape rap’s years-long reliance on maximalist bombast and blaring, Inception-style horn arrangements (something Metro Boomin once specialized in). It might also be related to the surging interest in gentle New Age sounds that’s popped up in other genres like indie rock and dance music.
Or maybe we’ve just been wrong about the flute for all these years. Maybe we let prancing prog rockers and irritating small-time band-class divas get in the way of a perfectly fine and exceptionally chill instrument when we could have been letting it soothe our ears with its mellow tones. Whatever the reason is, it’s starting to seem like this is going to turn out to be the Year of the Flute, and I’m not even a little mad at it. Or at the very least, maybe it’s the year we learn that jazz flutes are good for something besides punchlines.