SoundCloud Rap Is Thriving While SoundCloud Is Dying
SoundCloud is in trouble. Earlier this month, the streaming platform laid off nearly half its workforce, positioning the move as what it needs to do to remain “independent.” Since then, there have been reports that the company doesn’t even have enough money to survive the next two months, even after the mass layoffs. Publications like Fortune are already writing obituaries, pondering where things went wrong for the company. It’s hard to believe that SoundCloud will just straight-up die this year; I have an easier time imagining a cash-rich streaming service or a social network swooping in just before the clock runs out and buying it for relative pocket change. Still, the timing of this implosion is a sad irony. SoundCloud might be financially destroyed, but it’s never been a stronger cultural force than it is right now, especially within rap. Just about every rapper who’s risen to stardom in the past five-or-so years has done it largely through SoundCloud, a service that works as an efficient discovery engine and mostly removes the corporate-gatekeeper systems that make services like Spotify and Apple Music so much less exciting. (One of those ascendent rap stars, Chance The Rapper, is apparently working on the SoundCloud problem, though God only knows what that means.) And lately, SoundCloud has become something other than a vehicle. It’s become an aesthetic.
“SoundCloud rapper” looks like a generic term; it could describe just about anyone who’s only gotten to the “throwing shit up online” career stage. But in 2017, SoundCloud rap became a genre, a shorthand for describing the anarchic lo-fi drug-rap kids out there who are confounding older kids like me. The tag could apply to stars-in-waiting like Chicago’s Famous Dex or Houston’s Ugly God, energetic and cartoonish and self-effacing young artists who love anime and mosh pits and Xanax. It absolutely applies to Lil Peep, the 20-year-old tatted-up white kid from Long Island whose whole style is sad-bastard mumble-whine singing over trap beats and who’s really way closer to mid-’00s MySpace emo than to any generation of rap music. The term also fits $UICIDEBOY$, the scraggly New Orleans duo whose sound is like a skate-rat take on early Bone Thugs.
But the whole SoundCloud rap tag probably best applies to a rangy mob of South Florida rap kids, raspy and forbidding stylistic descendants of SpaceGhostPurrp and Denzel Curry. These kids tend to have face tattoos and dyed hair and dazed countenances and terrible rap names: Smokepurrp, Pouya, Ski Mask The Slump God, Ghostemane, Wifisfuneral. The most prominent of them is XXXtentacion, the risible figure who went to jail for beating up his pregnant girlfriend and who seems to incite massive brawls at all his shows. He’s the only one of these rappers with an actual Billboard-certified hit (“Look At Me”), and he’s the only one who showed up on the XXL Freshmen cover last month, though really any of them could’ve justifiably been on there. They’re all way more popular than you might expect, with YouTube and SoundCloud numbers well into the millions. (Jon Caramanica’s recent New York Times survey of the phenomenon is a great primer.) But for me, the most fascinating artist to come out of this wave is a 16-year-old Florida kid named Lil Pump.
OK. So. Lil Pump. Where to begin. Lil Pump is like someone fused Chief Keef and Lil B in the transporter pods from The Fly, then convinced the resulting fusion-monster to act like Riff Raff and to record all his tracks on a built-in Macbook mic. He’s like the Alien character from Spring Breakers, except if he was younger than the actual Spring Breakers. He raps almost entirely in catchphrases. His songs are almost jarringly simple, they all sound almost exactly alike, and they’re all two minutes long; these three things are the only things he has in common with the Ramones. That New York Times story starts with an anecdote about Lil Pump playing a show in Portland, getting mad at a kid in the crowd, kicking the kid in the head, and then scrambling for the exit when the whole club turns into one of those Western-movie everyone-fighting-everyone barfights. His biggest song is “D Rose,” which is only barely a song and which, as I’m writing this, has 24 million plays on SoundCloud and 32 million more on YouTube. He doesn’t even have a mixtape out yet. He still has braces.
If you, like me, were born in the ’70s — or even if you were born before, say, the second Clinton administration — you are supposed to gaze upon Lil Pump with abject horror. To old-head types, he should be a Lovecraftian creature of the deep, his mere existence throwing our reality into such disarray that we go insane. Compared to him, Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage are old-school rappers. But I don’t know, I kind of like Lil Pump. He is so smart, and he is so dumb. One early song, “Take,” is 101 seconds long, and it includes the phrase “take a nigga bitch to the movie” repeated about 92 times. His idea of rapping is to just chant the same things over and over again, with minor variations (“take a nigga bitch to the WingStop.”) The songs sound like absolute dogshit, utterly drowning in digital distortion, as if nobody cared enough to give them even the tiniest mastering job. But in the right circumstances — when you’re slightly drunk, when it’s too hot outside, when you’re feeling pretty dumb yourself — they hit like anthems. Lil Pump says his mixtape is coming out next month, and I sort of hope it’s 15 minutes long and borderline unlistenable because that would mean that he’s keeping his persona intact. Nobody had even heard of Lil Pump before this year. He is a creature of the SoundCloud era. He could’ve only ever existed on SoundCloud.
For generations, there’s been an entire rap-gatekeeper establishment that’s existed in part to keep unserious, unskilled kids out. Rising rappers have needed cosigns from establishment figures or label execs. At the very least, they’ve needed to organically grow fanbases by moving mixtapes out of their trunks, or, later, on DatPuff. Lil Pump hasn’t had to do anything like that. He’s exploded out of nowhere in mere months, and I’d argue that the rap landscape is better with a snotty little punk like him around to keep things exciting and unsettled. SoundCloud might’ve made a hundred bad business decisions, but that site has still allowed figures like Lil Pump to bubble up. They’ll probably all be fine without SoundCloud, if it comes to that. (I hope they move to Bandcamp, where they can at least sell some merch and make a little money.) But SoundCloud still shaped this landscape. And whether SoundCloud disappears or becomes part of a larger conglomerate, it won’t be the same anymore. SoundCloud has made the music world a more fun, anarchic place. Maybe we won’t appreciate it until after it’s gone.
1. Mobb Deep – “Try My Hand”
What a pleasure to hear one last craggy, grimy, intense Mobb Deep song, mournful Alchemist beat and all. Before we lost Prodigy, I’m not sure we all appreciated just how gracefully he was aging. This song serves as proof that he still had great work left in him.
2. Aminé – “Wedding Crashers” (Feat. Offset)
A euphoric fuck-you breakup song with a music-box melody sunny and irrepressible enough to work as ice-cream truck music. When was the last time you heard someone wish a lifetime of mediocrity upon an ex while sounding this good-natured?
3. Puff Daddy – “Watcha Gon’ Do?” (Feat. Rick Ross & The Notorious B.I.G.)
That classic gleaming expensive-sample ’90s style of Puff Daddy song should not work in 2017, and yet here’s this massive cinematic escapist machine, and it just makes me want to buy shit I can’t afford. Another thing that still works in 2017: an old Biggie verse, this one repurposed from the Lox’s “You’ll See,” which feels like it still hasn’t aged a day.
4. Conway – “Moroccan Waters” (Feat. Meyhem Lauren)
Is this a golden age for underground mournful-funny-tough-guy rap music? Because sometimes it feels like it. Conway: “I’m Peyton Manning, still spending indie money.” Meyhem Lauren: “Eat so much octopus, about to grow another arm.”
5. Nessly – “Popstar” (Feat. AJ Tracey & Blackbear)
See, this is what I’m talking about. An Atlanta SoundCloud rap star signs with a major label and immediately drops a gurling, head-blown banger with two other SoundCloud guys, one from London and one from Florida. I would love to see some of these guys blow up big without losing whatever underground-insurgent appeal they started out with.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Bodak Yellow's impact. She didn't have to say a word. 👏🏾 pic.twitter.com/pyJkCvu9tx
— keem (@keemsofamous) July 22, 2017