Fifteen years ago, in her Punk Planet column, Jessica Hopper wrote a piece called “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t.” The piece went about as viral as a zine column could in 2003, and it’s probably still one of the most widely discussed pieces of music criticism that this century has given us. Its thesis: Emo, which was then exploding in popularity, was becoming a repository for wounded-male feelings, a place where women, never welcome onstage, only exist as catalysts for boys’ broken hearts and pent-up rages. Within a few years, as Alternative Press haircuts like Hawthorne Heights briefly became bona fide pop stars, Hopper’s piece would come to seem grimly prophetic. Now that emo has lost its grip on the imagination of teenage America — and now that women like Julien Baker and Snail Mail and Waxahatchee are taking its sounds and sensibilities in completely different directions — emo has become something else. But that feeling that Hopper wrote about continues to float freely, like a poisonous cloud. And for now, it has settled around SoundCloud rap, quite possibly the de facto sound of teenage America in 2018.
SoundCloud rap in 2018 isn’t quite the same thing as emo in 2003. For one thing, SoundCloud rap exists within a musical tradition where ferocious misogyny has long been the rule, rather than the exception. In just the past few years, we’ve seen a ton of aging rap stars, like Nelly and Fabolous, facing allegations that they’ve attacked women, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the attitudes in their lyrics — attitudes that had long been accepted and even embraced my millions of listeners — hadn’t, in some ways, spilled over into actual behaviors. In any case, the music’s context is vastly different from emo, which came out of punk, which was always at least supposed to be enlightened and egalitarian. And furthermore, there are plenty of young women working more or less within the SoundCloud-rap space: Rico Nasty, Kodie Shane, Molly Brazy, maybe even Bhad Bhabie.
But the vicious anti-woman ignorance that I hear in a lot of SoundCloud rap has no real precedent in rap history. XXXTentacion has become a massive star, and he’s done it while facing allegations of committing horrifying violence against his pregnant girlfriend. And it seems like his stardom hasn’t come in spite of those allegations but instead that he’s fed off of the sense of notoriety that his actions have lent him. And it might not be that far of a leap to see connections between what XXXTentacion may have done and the way he and his peers talk about their relationships. They’re not depicting themselves as cool and in-control, the way rappers throughout history have. Instead, they’re depicting themselves as depressive erratic livewires who take their insecurities out on the women in their lives. That’s new.
Because it’s not just that these guys objectify women, that they talk about fucking with mechanical joylessness that all but ignores the women they’re supposedly fucking. That’s been happening in rap for decades. I have made my peace with that, and I’ve enjoyed and rapped along with hundreds of songs that have done that sort of thing. Maybe I’ve always been wrong about that. I’ve probably always been wrong about that. But the SoundCloud rap kids are doing something else. They’re not treating women as objects; they’re treating them as actively hostile forces. Every broken heart, every wounded feeling, is the fault of some conniving, disloyal, unfaithful, manipulative woman. It’s a whole new generation of male rappers embracing their own victimhood, and as someone old enough to be their father, it’s scary to witness.
Which brings us to Juice WRLD. Juice WRLD is a 19-year-old sing-rapper from a Chicago suburb who is basically transforming into a pop star in front of our eyes. A few weeks ago, he released Goodbye & Good Riddance, his first album, which debuted in the top 10. The album actually climbed a couple of spots this week, suggesting that it’ll be one of those albums that hangs around the top 10, Post Malone-style, for months at a time. This week, his single “Lucid Dreams” crept its way into the pop top 10, a level of crossover success that few SoundCloud rappers have achieved. It’s an oddly pretty song about taking pills and contemplating your own death, all because some girl did you wrong. He sounds lost and broken and sensitive, and his lyrics are pure spiteful-ass early-’00s emo: “I was tangled up in your drastic ways / Who knew evil girls had the prettiest face?”
Goodbye & Good Riddance basically blows “Lucid Dreams” out to concept-album length. The whole album is about feeling romantically dejected or about doing whatever drugs you can find so that you feel numb rather than romantically dejected. The album’s cover is a crude cartoon drawing of Juice WRLD driving off, flipping a middle finger in the air, and leaving a woman in his literal dust. Throughout the album, there’s a series of skits — recordings of a woman calling him, first to demand that he never call her again, then to demand that he start calling her again. “All The Girls Are The Same,” his first viral hit, is more of this: “Hey, these girls are insane / All girls are the same / They’re rotting my brain, love / Think I need a change.”
Elsewhere, he talks about the idea of drugs as a coping mechanism: “Will I die tonight? I don’t know, is it over? / Looking for my next high, I’m looking for closure.” Many of his lyrics are simplistic bitch-did-me-wrong LiveJournal-poetry scribbles: “You’re my depression / Your first impression was a deception.” And sometimes, things get even darker and more concerning: “Baby, do your worst / I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t kill me if I kill you first.” At one point, he seems to find a moment of reflection, of clarity: “Heartbreak mixed with the drugs, not the best thing.” And yet that’s all he has to offer.
Juice WRLD isn’t exactly a rapper. He claims Chief Keef and Kid Cudi as influences, and he’s got bits of the monotone singsong that both of them sometimes use. But in his whiny melodies, I also hear echoes of Post Malone and Twenty One Pilots. When he does rap — or when he sings in cadences that sound a bit more like rap — he can be laughably clumsy: “Her name ring bells like a Motorola / I lay the bitch off like I’m her employer.” Still, he has a light touch with his hooks, his nasal and vaguely pop-punk drawl floating above the 808-heavy beats with a natural grace. And I don’t doubt the sincerity of his songs. He’s hoarse and wracked, like he’s really going through it. And maybe that sincerity is even more of a reason to be concerned. Because the artist who Juice WRLD most resembles is Lil Peep, the emo-rap world-blurrer who died of an accidental overdose last year, at the age of 21. I’ve taken to thinking of Juice WRLD as the Macklemore to Lil Peep’s Atmosphere — the cleaned-up, simplistic, pop-friendly face of a sound that started out as a genuine underground phenomenon.
SoundCloud-rap was always going to go mainstream. It was already happening before Juice WRLD showed up, when Lil Pump was breaking into the top 10 with only-slightly-cleaned-up versions of the fired-up lo-fi knucklehead anthems that he was throwing up on SoundCloud a few months earlier. Juice WRLD isn’t an industry creation; he was posting these songs for a while before the labels of the world noticed. Still, his take on this sound is cleaner and sharper than what most of his peers have done. It seems destined to be more successful, too. And maybe that’s the most disturbing thing about Juice WRLD. As the major labels are grabbing hold of SoundCloud rap, turning its practitioners into stars, they’re leaving behind the raw unpredictability that the genre had in its infancy. But they might not be leaving behind that deep wellspring of male victimhood. That can be a hard thing to shake off.
1. Kamaiyah – “Addicted To Ballin” (Feat. Schoolboy Q)
It is summer now, so I would like a few hundred more songs exactly like this, please and thank you.
2. Armand Hammer – “Vindaloo”
The duo of Elucid and billy woods are getting ready to release a whole new album of broken, staggering mutant New York boom-bap, and if this first single is any indication, they’re venturing even further out into the ether. This is a good thing.
3. Will The General, Sada Baby, & Shakur – “I Ain’t Gonna Lie”
Things are happening in Detroit rap right now. There is an energy. And maybe, judging by this, there’s an energy in Cleveland, too.
4. Dreezy – “Where Them $ @”
Dreezy, from Chicago, seems incapable of making anything that isn’t infernally catchy, and it’s a mystery to me why she’s not already a huge star.
5. Rich The Kid – “Can’t Afford It” (Feat. Pusha-T)
After Daytona, after “The Story Of Adidon,” Pusha shouldn’t need to show up on anonymous trap songs with Manic-Panic-dreaded goons, and yet here we are. But at least we can say that he wrecks it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
ME & J COLE COOL NOW SO NOW ITS FUCK RUSS
— Lil pump (@lilpump) June 6, 2018