Meet Ghostemane. He’s a white kid with dyed-gray hair and the word kybalion, which Google tells me is some kind of ancient hermetic philosophy, tattooed across his forehead. (It’s also the name of one of his songs.) Ghostemane produces and releases his own music, fusing raspy black metal textures with juddering industrial low-end and frantic hardcore howling. At his shows, people mosh furiously. Ghostemane says that he doesn’t listen to much rap. His list of musical inspirations includes experimental grindcore band Full Of Hell and screamo cultists Circle Takes The Square, as well as bands like Brand New and Coheed And Cambria. His logo looks like a black metal logo, his cover art looks like black metal cover art, and in one of his most recent videos, he wears corpsepaint. Given all this, Ghostemane should be some feverish, intense Bandcamp bedroom-noise kid, a mysterious figure who posts globs of raw sound online and maintains a studiously mysterious public image. And that’s basically what Ghostmane is. But Ghostemane is also a rapper. Because these days, rappers can do all those things, too.
Right now, the thing that aging rap critics like me are trying to figure out is SoundCloud rap, the bubbling-over scene of face-tatted miscreants who make screamy, gurgly lo-fi depression-music and who have built a whole thriving, devoted scene around it. The breakout star from this scene appears to be XXXTentacion, who writes extremely popular songs about suicide and sings as often as he raps. I’ve tried to write about XXXTentacion as little as possible because he seems to be an actual human monster, a dangerously abusive piece of shit who has already inflicted a lot of pain on at least one vulnerable person. It’s unfortunate that he had to become the star of the bunch, even though it seems likely that the terrible things he’s done are part of his appeal. And that sense of instability, of erratic and dangerous personalities, seems to suffuse the scene, enveloping all the rappers who don’t beat up pregnant women. It even extends to a teenage good-time party-rapper like Lil Pump. Ghostemane has found his place on one wing of that scene: the scraggly, longhaired white kids like $uicideboy$, Bones, and Pouya, the ones who rap quickly and sometimes incomprehensibly about living lives of darkness.
That’s Ghostemane’s context. That’s why a kid like him can be considered a rapper, why he can thrive in a rap scene that’s nothing like any rap scene that’s existed previously. Ghostemane comes from the hardcore scene in his West Palm Beach hometown, and he’s said that he didn’t even listen to rap until one of his bandmates in his old hardcore band Nemesis played him some stuff. As a rapper, he’s a curious case. He’s clearly technically gifted, capable of the exceedingly demanding flickering quick-tongue singsong pioneered by mid-’90s Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. But his rap voice is a nasal yammer, and a lot of them time, it’s impossible to tell what he’s saying. When you can figure out his lyrics, a lot of the time he’s using rap cliche (“ask me if I give a fuck about a bitch,” that kind of thing), but he’s doing it to bring up a bigger point about being depressed and numb and existentially afloat.
Ghostemane’s lyrics are about depression and self-hatred and mysticism and Satanism. It’s like he’s giving a metal-kid take on the occultist trappings of those early Three 6 tapes, showing just how far this stuff can go. When he raps about sex, it’s invariably squalid and rough sex. And Ghostemane’s music often sounds most alive when it moves away from rap almost entirely, when it digs deeper into its hardcore and metal and industrial undercurrents. (He produces most of his own music, and the guitar and drum sounds are him playing.) That’s especially true on his new album Hexada, which is the most freeform thing I’ve heard from him yet. There’s a stretch on the song “Polaris” where he stops rapping altogether and repeats “I want you to hate me” and “I know what you’re thinking about” over and over, his voice taking on a whiny urgency that reminds me, more than anything else, of a young Trent Reznor. Other parts remind me of Godflesh — these huge, towering, processed-to-hell guitars pounding and pounding. Ghosetmane gets called horrorcore a lot online, but that’s not really what he’s doing. Instead, he’s chasing his own sound, a sound that doesn’t really have a name yet.
Is it any good? I’m honestly not sure. From a straight-up rap perspective, probably not. Ghostemane doesn’t sound cool. His voice can get grating, and he doesn’t have the on-mic presence of the Three 6 guys who clearly influenced his style or even some of the SoundCloud guys who seem to be his rough contemporaries. Still, I can’t stop listening to him, falling into YouTube holes and listening to old podcast interviews and stuff. A straight-up rap perspective doesn’t really make sense when you’re talking about Ghostemane; he’s a creature of this moment where rap can be just about anything. The figure he most resembles might be Lil Peep, another face-tatted white kid who only rarely raps and who seems to be working from many of the same references. (Last year, Peep and Ghostemane were in a group called the Schema Posse together, but they broke up before I ever heard of either one of them.) But Peep’s music sounds thin and irritating to me. It wallows in its own sadness. Ghostemane lashes out with it. He’s made this rough, serrated, violent music that sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It draws me in, shakes me up, and leaves me feeling both disturbed and cleansed. And, rap or not, that’s what extreme music is supposed to do.
1. Conway – “Bullet Club” (Feat. Lloyd Banks & Benny)
Wherein Conway ropes a former G-Unit star into appearing on a hard, raspy, guttural posse cut named after a Japanese wrestling faction. I love this shit.
2. Young Thug & Carnage – “Homie” (Feat. Meek Mill)
The idea of Thug forming a duo (Young Martha) with an EDM producer doesn’t exactly fire me up, but this song does. The eerie organ and the frantic pace and the perfectly-placed Meek guest verse and the general sense of urgency all add up to something. Also: “If a pussy nigga play with me, swear to god, Kirk Franklin can’t save him / I could get you wet real easy / Not a Power Ranger, you a stranger.” A Power Ranger?
3. Danny Watts – “Young & Reckless” (Feat. Aye Mitch)
Jonwayne produced this track, and it’s got some of his underground-rap density. But there’s also a twitchy, excitable energy to it that I really like. The combination just works.
4. Marty Baller – “Like Mike” (Feat. A$AP Ferg, Smooky Margielaa, & Aexys)
Energetic New York kiddie-rap that I simply cannot bring myself to hate. If New York ever comes to dominate rap again, it’ll probably be because of some fun, goofy shit like this, not because of any kind of boom-bap revivalism.
5. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie – “Beast Mode” (Feat. PnB Rock & YoungBoy Never Broke Again)
…Or New York rap could come back on region-free post-Drake singsong-rap. That is also a possibility.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Gucci Mane (@gucci1017) September 12, 2017