Justin Bieber wanted it bad — or, at the very least, people within the Justin Bieber camp wanted it bad. (Bieber himself never seems to want anything except for the endless nightmare of his own fame to end, and he doesn’t want that badly enough to stop making music.)
Bieber’s new single “Yummy” got the grand-opening treatment. “Yummy” isn’t a comeback attempt, exactly, since Bieber has never entirely gone away. But Bieber went a few years without releasing a single of his own — as opposed to jumping on other people’s songs — so “Yummy” was supposed to reaffirm his transcendent stardom. Bieber’s label did everything they could to mobilize the man’s fan army, up to and including releasing seven different “Yummy” videos, all at once, in a clear attempt to get the chart bump from the extra streams. It didn’t work. Bieber still lost to a creaking-door sound-effect.
The creaking-door effect — the ee-urr — is the strange little hook at the heart of “The Box,” the viral smash from the young Compton rapper Roddy Ricch that beat “Yummy” to #1 in this week’s great chart upset. We’re getting used to this type of thing now: Songs bubbling up from the internet ether, derailing record-label plans and reestablishing the streaming-era chaos that continues to baffle those who are paid well to exploit those systems. “The Box,” it’s worth noting, isn’t even a single. As of right now, it has no music video. Nobody planned for this. And yet there it is: The ee-urr reigns supreme.
And yet this isn’t a true outsider victory like the one that Lil Nas X enjoyed last year. Roddy Ricch comes from the major-label system, and he’s been deliberately building towards this moment for a couple of years. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a rapper better able to capitalize on this moment in music history than Roddy Ricch. Roddy comes from Compton but also grew up partly in Atlanta, which allowed him to absorb two different rap traditions. He belongs to the first generation of rappers primarily influenced by melodic trap types like Future and Young Thug, rather than by the artists who inspired those two.
Roddy raps in a melodious quaver that melts into the background, a sound that’s never so demanding or intense enough to break your concentration when you’re listening to a playlist. He’s got a knack for coming up with slick little hooks that quietly worm their way into your brain when you’re not paying attention, and his voice is rough and haggard enough that his crime-life memories sound lived-in. And Roddy is versatile enough that there’s barely any difference between his singing and his rapping. He makes sense on every type of music that’s currently floating around in the ether, whether it’s UK drill or Marshmello-produced candy-trap. He makes everything sound like one thing.
Roddy Ricch has only really been making music for a little more than two years, and he hasn’t had one single breakout moment, at least until “The Box” did what it just did. But if he did have one, it was probably “Ballin’,” his collaboration with Mustard from Mustard’s Perfect Ten album. (“Ballin'” is months old now, but it’s on its way into the top 10 in the wake of “The Box.”) “Ballin'” takes the bluesiness of Roddy’s yelp-moan delivery and turns it ebullient. Roddy uses Mustard’s clipped, plastic funk to craft an up-from-nothing anthem, and he hides enough little hooks in the song that it keeps coming back to you. This winter, “Ballin'” has been in the air, and I’ve never been sorry to encounter it.
Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, Roddy’s official debut album after a couple of mixtapes, was always going to be a big deal. But the album itself sounds, at least to me, like replacement-level melodic trap. Over the course of nearly an hour, Roddy’s high-pitched yip wears thin. He can be compelling when he gets into specific crime-life memories: “They did a whole sweep, couldn’t even go to sleep / A lot of my family members got got / My uncle looked police in his eyes, and he got shot.” But too often, Roddy simply talks about fucking and buying things without a whole lot of emotion. His sound can be numbing. When Please Excuse Me first came out, I decided not to write about it because it just didn’t seem interesting enough to warrant comment. The rest of the world disagreed.
It would be one thing if it was just “The Box.” It’s not. Please Excuse Me debuted at #1 on the album charts, and then, after dipping out of the top spot for a few weeks, it returned. The album is big. We’ve seen things like this happen before; the Roddy Ricch collaborator A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, a similarly inclined sing-rapper, did big chart numbers in the early months of last year partly because there just wasn’t anything else out. But this isn’t that. Roddy’s success feels focused and organic. He matters in ways that A Boogie just doesn’t.
Some of it is craftsmanship. That ee-urr sound on “The Box” is just a smart musical decision. Roddy recorded that sound after the track was otherwise done, and it works in mysterious ways to make the song more memorable. Little mid-verse moments do the same, as when Roddy suddenly breaks out of his cadence to roar, “Bitch, don’t wear no shoes in my house!” He switches back and forth between good-life flexes and righteous anger with striking ease. Sometimes, he does both at once: “I done put a hundred bands on Zimmerman.”
If you spent enough time with Please Excuse Me, depths emerge, especially in the late-album tracks. I like how Roddy turns into a concrete, specific storyteller on “Prayers To The Trap God”: “I was watching Family Guy when the police raided / A trap full of juggernaut suits, that shit was crazy.” I like how he invites a gospel choir onto the mournful closing track “War Baby” and how their voices complement his. I like how he always conveys the impression that there’s something at stake, that he’s never fully comfortable with his own success: “I told my brother have some patience and your day’ll come / Now he sitting in the county jail and he ain’t got no bond.”
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what I think. Roddy Ricch is a star regardless. His chart coronation this week is no fluke; it’s a culmination of a long and patient streaming-borne campaign. (If the song has a recent precedent, it’s the success of Migos’ “Bad And Boujee,” another would-be summer jam that built steam and topped the charts in the dead of winter three years ago.) Roddy’s isn’t a bold new voice, and his sound isn’t a radical departure; it’s just a slight tweak on the Atlanta trap trends that have been dominating for the past few years. That’s too bad. I still think his album is boring, though “The Box,” with its dramatic string fanfare and its eerie lurch, is an obvious smash. But Roddy Ricch doesn’t have to rewrite the rulebook. He simply has to keep tossing these hooks out into the world, waiting for one of them to catch. It’s already worked. Roddy Ricch has won.
1. Drakeo The Ruler – “Ion Now Nothin (Remix)” (Feat. ALLBLACK, G Perico, & Ohgeesy)
Drakeo The Ruler was acquitted of murder last year, but he remains in prison, basically facing those same charges again. From what little I understand of his case, an obsessed DA has refiled charges after a jury was hung on two of his lesser charges. So one of the great cult heroes of the recent LA rap renaissance remains imprisoned. And yet a two-year-old Drakeo song still works as an of-the-moment anthem, especially with two additional verses from ALLBLACK and G Perico, two more California rappers with flows of their own that sound perfectly at home in Drakeo’s world.
2. Sada Baby – “Pressin” (Feat. King Von)
One of these days, maybe I’ll write one of these columns, and it won’t include at least one new Sada Baby song. That’s not happening anytime soon, though. The man is cruising. This time around, Chicago drill head-slapper King Von makes an effective copilot.
3. Shoreline Mafia – “Mind Right” (Feat. Warhol.ss)
Warhol.ss is a Chicago rapper who came up in the SoundCloud-rap world. But based on this, he should just become a fulltime Shoreline Mafia member? This slaps extremely hard, and Warhol sounds absolutely natural doing brisk California post-hyphy.
4. Tee Grizzley – “Red Light”
Tee Grizzley doesn’t work in every context. But if you throw him a beat that sounds like drills boring into your skull and tell him to go nuts, he is money in the bank.
5. Valee – “Not Playin”
It was supposed to be a big deal when Valee signed to G.O.O.D. Music a couple of years ago. For a brief minute, it was. And then Valee just quietly went back to what he’d been doing before signing: Making absorbing, weirdly atmospheric videos of songs where he flexes weirdly for less than two minutes at a time, letting strange bleepy beats halfway drown him out. This suits him just fine.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— QueenzFlip (@QueenzFlip) January 10, 2020