There is a lot of singing happening in rap music right now. Some of it — Polo G, Lil Baby, Juice WRLD’s “Bandit” — is good. Most of it is bad. DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion, the two rapping-ass rappers who emerged out of the internet in 2019, are looking more and more like glorious anomalies. Teenage America apparently just wants to hear dudes squeakily mewling about their toxic relationships through clouds of Auto-Tune. I try to be an openminded listener, but let’s be completely honest: Most of this singing shit sucks so bad. The new A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie/Lil Uzi Vert single “Reply” is an abomination. Big Sean’s verse on Jhené Aiko’s “None Of Your Concern” makes me want to hack my ears off with a broadsword. Arizona Zervas’ viral hit “Roxanne” might be the worst song I have ever heard in my life. Fuck all this shit.
Please understand: This is an old-man gripe. I am an old man. I have done things in my rap-listening life that few now living could ever understand. I have watched MC Hammer’s Saturday morning cartoon and then walked around all day singing its theme music out loud. I have owned “Cantaloop” on cassingle. I have stayed up all night watching the Box in the hopes that the “Bring The Pain” video would come on again. These Trippie Redd-ass half-singers are not attempting to appeal to me. Nor should they. But I am just about done attempting to fight down the bile that rises in my throat everytime I hear another one of these post-Future crooners on my timeline. If these motherfuckers can’t bother to actually sing, then why should I listen to them sing?
Rod Wave can sing. That’s what’s interesting about him. Wave is 20, and he sounds at least twice that. Wave has a tremendous, bluesy groan-bellow that turns vulnerable when his voice floats into its upper register. The way he uses his voice, it almost doesn’t feel right to call Wave a rapper. He has a rapper’s timing, a rapper’s self-consciousness, and a rapper’s sense of soul-damaged toughness. But even when he’s rapping, he’s singing.
Wave comes from St. Petersburg, Florida, and he started doing huge YouTube numbers long before most of us took notice. Like his fellow ground-level Southern sing-rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Wave is rooted in both melody and in the Southern street-rap tradition. Those two have built up huge young fanbases through a relatively organic word-of-mouth process. Nobody is using Rod Wave to try to sell anything. His music is raw and wracked and messy. He sounds like he’s got something at stake. And that, combined with his actual musical ability, gives him a presence that most of his peers don’t have.
Rod Wave mostly uses those gifts, and that presence, to vent serious dark-night-of-the-soul shit. He sings about deep-seated pain: “He’s been abandoned his whole life… he’s been broken, traumatized.” He sings about depression: “It’s hard to stay focused when that pain running deep.” He sings about being stigmatized: “They look at us as hooligans, but they don’t understand the hand that I was dealt / All the dreams that I watched melt, all the pain that I done felt.” He sings about his own faults: “Now here’s a toxic trait that I have / I beg for distance when I’m mad, but being distant, we won’t last.” Even when he’s trying to sound triumphant, which isn’t often, he almost immediately devolves into bitching about the men and women in his life who have let him down. His music is heavy, and expresses that heaviness in plain, simple language: “Death’s gotta be easy cuz life is hard.” It’s blues music, really.
People were comparing Rod Wave to Kevin Gates, one of our great contemporary bluesmen, long before Gates took Wave under his wing. In the past few months, Gates has brought Wave on the road as an opener, and he’s served as executive producer on Wave’s new album Ghetto Gospel, which came out at the beginning of the month. Ghetto Gospel debuted at #14 and has since climbed into the top 10. Most albums that debut high immediately fall. Ghetto Gospel is rising. It’s hit some kind of chord. PTSD, the mixtape that Wave released in June, is doing big streaming numbers, too. Rod Wave appears to be going places. And Gates’ example has shown that a raw, emotional, frog-throated sing-rapper really can become some kind of pop star.
Right now, though, Rod Wave is nowhere near as good as Kevin Gates. His songs, pretty as they are, can be almost numbingly miserable. His music leans heavily on florid pianos and fluttery acoustic guitars; it’s all pretty pedestrian. Still, there’s clearly something there. Rod Wave has things to say, and he has the ability to say them. He has a gravitas, a wounded grace. And while everybody else is singing, Rod Wave is singing.
1. Krimelife Ka$$, ABG Neal, Sheff G, & Sleepy Hallow – “Forrest Gump”
There is so much I don’t understand. I have no idea why this song is called “Forrest Gump.” I have no idea what kind of gun goes “too-too-too.” But I understand that beat. Ugly, violent, nasty rap music does not get much more hypnotic than this.
2. Sada Baby – “ShoNuff”
Sada Baby is out here rapping Bret Hart catchphrases over ’80s cop-movie guitar. I love it. “I got the drummer talking loud like Stephen A / You ain’t shit, I’m Booker T, yo’ ass Stevie Ray.”
3. Big K.R.I.T. – “Ballad Of The Bass (My Sub V)”
Big K.R.I.T. has made a whole lot of great music over the past decade, but I can’t remember the last time he came out with something that made me want to fight someone. This makes me want to fight someone. That’s a good thing.
4. Boosie Badazz – “Put ‘Em Up”
Boosie can annihilate any beat when he’s in the right frame of mind. But if you put him on something that sounds like 2003, he becomes an unstoppable force. Just keep doing that, please.
5. Plies – “Boss Friends” (Feat. DaBaby)
It would be a real shame if the mumble-rap era passed by without a Plies revival. Plies was mumbling long before it was cool. (This video is almost unfathomably stupid.)
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
the Grammys nominating more camp counselor music for Best Rap Album? lemme go put on my surprised face
— YG Magnum (@HaroldBingo) November 20, 2019