The Cycle of Cool in High School: The Stark Differences Between Millennials and Gen Z

Jay z young rap

“Rap is poetry. It isn’t just thought provoking, there’s thought behind it. If you take those lyrics and you pull them away from the music… they would say this is genius, this is genius work.

I remember reading this excerpt from Jay Z’s Decoded in 2011 and wishing that more people understood this truth. Still at 24, I am so grateful for Rap music. I think it raised me, or I grew up on it, or I raised myself on it. This piece is the result of me looking for the shared significance in my personal experience and the experience of those currently in their teens.

High School (2010-2014)

Senior Skip Day 2014 (Kian pictured far left).

When I started my Freshman year in 2010, most everything seemed to be fine.

Obama was president. There was no talk of mental health and I didn’t question my own. Social media hadn’t been deemed problematic so I enjoyed every iteration of it. School shooter drills weren’t practiced and I never feared violence on campus. Marijuana was still illegal and I never experimented with anything else. There didn’t seem to be much news so most people didn’t watch it.

Sheperd Fairey stands in front of his iconic HOPE campaign poster.
Sheperd Fairey stands in front of his iconic HOPE campaign poster.

Things felt so simple and above all there was HOPE.

Jarren Benton's tour bus 2011
Jarren Benton’s tour bus (2011)

Hope goes a long way.

Parents and teachers want nothing more than for you to hold onto it.

Someone or something will eventually push you to consider

whether everything is actually fine.

How you deal with that moment is a lesson of poets

not parents or teachers.

rap music from 2011 and 2012
*Long Live ASAP was distributed in 2013 but recorded in 2012.

In the 24 month window of 2011 and 2012, Kanye and Jay-Z collaborated on Watch The Throne, Lil Wayne snapped on The Carter IV, Kendrick dropped a classic, Section.80, followed by arguably the greatest album of all time, good kid, m.A.A.D. city, and A$AP Rocky set his legacy on Long Live ASAP.

Capital Steez american flag
Capital Steez, the only rapper whose death I remember from high school. RIP Steelo.

Meanwhile, the underground flourished and foreshadowed the next class of pop icons. Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean released their first solo projects with Goblin and Channel Orange, Gambino flexed on Camp, Danny Brown proved age is just a number on XXX, Mac Miller found his high-art footing on Macadelic, and Pro Era’s Joey Badass and the late Capital Steez breathed life into the East Coast with 1999 and a slew of politically charged singles.

These artists whispered to me through chewed fabric as I’d loop a single earbud through my sleeve and then clasp the disfigured white Apple product in my palm so that I could listen to their profane teachings during class.

tyler the creator in golf attire

Tyler taught me that if you are original and stick to your vision then, eventually, people will listen.

danny brown smiling

Danny Brown taught me success comes from unwavering perseverance and embracing every nook and cranny of oneself.

mac miller black and white image

Mac Miller taught me that individualism is a lonely but rewarding path.

Verses were broken down over blunts and beers in skateparks and mini vans with those that were drawn to poetry or wrote it themselves. It was here that genius was recognized as genius. It was here that I began to form opinions for myself. It was here that I found my voice. It was here that me and a select few felt cool- in our own way.

how to listen to music in class

If you take a look at what dominates the charts of mainstream rap these days, it may be easy to become disenchanted with the absence of intelligent lyricism that was once so essential to quality rap music.


People who reminisce about the glory days of more lyrical rap are often dismissed as old heads, unwilling to recognize the progress of the genre.

Tobe Nwigwe

But to be fair, if I were accustomed to clever lyrics from a prime Hov or Andre 3000, I too may be frustrated with the catchy, repetitive ‘mumble rap’ that pervades the top charts these days.


The age of poetry in the form of rap may seem behind us, but beneath the surface of mainstream hip hop, there are abundant artists who are carrying the torch.

Max Haber, Staff Writer

It makes sense that I have not stopped sticking up for a specific sound. I’m an “old head” and I’ve grown bitter as the culture that gave me legs becomes increasingly mainstream.

punk style

In the context of punk music, “old heads” were mortified by the rise of commercialized punk bands like Blink 182. Admittedly, I loved Blink 182 growing up and most everyone in their 20’s still does. Our support presumably “ruined” the culture for some.

Creativity and innovation matter most to those who grow up alongside a sound. The same tastemakers are then quick to judge those artists who, for one reason or another, aim to push it to its commercial potential.

High School (2016-2020)

As Domenic starts his Senior year at a Los Angeles charter school in 2020, most everything is messy.

cars lining up in the word hope

The only hope seems to be coming out of the Fairfax, Virginia County police department.

To my surprise, Domenic reached out to me the day before our call to confess that he doesn’t know much about music. I admire that Domenic chose to talk me about his experiences despite feeling uneducated on presumably the core focus of the piece. Domenic, a lover of cinema, can appreciate a good story himself. Fan of the music or not, sometimes living through something makes you more of an expert than liking it.

Freshman year, Domenic and his friends saw Lil Peep die. Sophomore year, Domenic and his friends saw XXXTentacion and Mac Miller die. Junior year, Domenic and his friends saw Juice Wrld die. Senior year, Domenic and his friends saw Pop Smoke die.

With the charts driven by Tik Tok challenges and Trap being the most popular genre amongst his friends, Domenic has “found [him]self wanting to listen to music but do[es]n’t know where to start.” Mazzy Star is one of the few artists he regularly listens to. Beyond that, Domenic is connected to music as he dedicates his free time shooting music videos and skate films.

The following are excerpts from my call with Domenic. Some questions and responses have been condensed for clarity.


The first two descriptors Domenic uses are “pretty hesh”

a 1980’s skateboard and crossover heavy metal vernacular that has morphed into an aesthetic that romanticizes appearing effortless on digital platforms,

and “there’s a lot of nicotine.

“Youth e-cigarette use has doubled among high school students, from 11.7% in 2017 to 27.5% in 2019; and tripled among middle school students from 3.3% to 10.5%.” Some blame popular shows such as Euphoria, in which there were 67 incidences of e-cigarette use across the eight episodes.


Someone “who do[es]n’t really associate with anyone, [they’re probably wearing] some Carhartt pants, converse, clean cut” and “listen to a good amount of Trap music but also like try to mix it up with some indie or maybe some goofy 2012 Katy Perry type stuff because they know it’s funny and cool.”


View this post on Instagram

What the Fuck

A post shared by Domenic Smith (@sirdomenic) on

Being creative is definitely cool, I’ll make a short film with my friends and I’ll be so hyped to post it. Even if its super goofy, I’ll just be happy.

The goal is to make something really funny and entertaining and make my friends laugh. I guess if it makes a million people laugh that’s awesome too. Other friends skateboard or do music.

I have a friend named Omid Elmasi who I make music videos with.

I have a friend Ilan who is very into clothing and before COVID he was doing cat walks and stuff. I really respect it.

View this post on Instagram

@05.18.19 @ilan.a.p

A post shared by Ilan A.P. (@ilanpozeilov) on


[To me it matters] if someone makes content just because they want the views and know what’s going to blow up versus someone who is trying to do something new and creative… and change the world.

Domenic mentions boysru1e’s ability to make fun of himself as an influence on his friends’ style of humor.

I guess [I look up to] my friends.


lil peep emotional hoodie

When they died, it was a big thing. A lot of kids would be sad, a lot of kids would be making jokes. A lot of people would be arguing that you shouldn’t be sad because they’re a shitty person. 

I watched the Lil Peep documentary and I love Lil Peep now- I’ve been listening to his music. They seem like cool guys. He was definitely not very cool [to listen to when he was alive] even though he was a cool guy. The kids who listened to him were emo and goth girls who weren’t necessarily seen as that cool or popular.

If you said you liked Lil Peep, you’d probably be made fun of.



My friends, not really. But mental health is talked about in my age group and all the anxious kids at my school talk about it all the time, how they’re on meds and stuff.

Everyone is anxious. People take depression stuff, Xanax. Kids take it for fun. Adderall is everywhere.


An LA boutique came under scrutiny for their line romanticizing prescription medications.

The only kids who abuse [prescription medications] are the kids who want to have fun with it. The kids who are prescribed it, there are no fun effects.

[There are] drugs, yeah all drugs. Definitely nicotine, molly, powders that go into their noses, wax pens, xanax, what else, adderall of course. Oh, I forgot about fentanyl…

Usually once or twice a year, there will be a kid in the valley who will die from overdosing. They always seem to be sort of somewhat liked and well known. Maybe the ones who aren’t just aren’t talked about.


Just like in general? That’s the question. I don’t know… I’d say I’m optimistic. Unless Covid is totally crazy and just keeps going forever.

Yeah, sometimes I’m scared. Every time the governor says a new date, that’s a little scary. When it gets scary, I just look away. Or hang out with friends. Or cooking.

They say they are going to hybrid this semester- half zoom and half at school- but there’s no way. There’s no way. I have a feeling I’m going to graduate on zoom.

Go to college, if there’s still COVID take a gap year and work on a production and then go to college. I’m deciding what my major is gooing to be- I think, screenwriting.

[Most people my age] don’t have a plan for the future, but that’s normal.


Domenic’s photo of choice for the piece.

It’s really no wonder that Domenic is not chasing deeper meaning in existing content and rather chooses to create it for himself. The world is broken right now and it is up to his generation to try and move forward with rose colored glasses. While there are clear similarities between me and Domenic, the world that he is growing up in is so different than the one I did.

Trump is president. Mental health is at the forefront of every conversation and it seems that society is finally having long overdue revelations pertaining to gender, sexuality, and identity. Social media is so problematic and each new iteration of it promises to encroach on your privacy with an increasing intensity. This year there were 60 mass shootings in May and 95 in June. Marijuana is illegal and kids seem to have moved onto heavier drugs- and nicotine. The news is everywhere and its impossible to look away. And still, Domenic has hope.

I am so grateful for Rap music. I think it raised me, or I grew up on it, or I raised myself on it. Domenic doesn’t need someone or something to show him a more turbulent reality. The reality of the world we live in has become quite apparent and in many ways, he is living it. As for what’s next in the cycle of cool, I think it remains unclear. Maybe it’s not even music. One thing is for sure, Tik Tok and other platforms that favor creators will be at the forefront.

Hell, there’s even poetry on Tik Tok.


“You’re teaching us how to hate the thing we want to love the most” – students #fyp #poetry #genz #school #spokenword #PhotoStory #PlantTips #foryou

♬ original sound – marbarboyce

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Kian’s article “A Comprehensive History of Techno and Finding God in the Music With Ellen Allien” here.