The Depressing Inertia Of Quarantine-Era Rap
“Yeah, I’m quarantine clean, so relaxed,” Gunna tells us. “Got my pillows in my Benz Maybach.” That sounds nice. It also sounds completely disconnected from any version of quarantine that anyone else is experiencing. “Quarantine Clean,” the Gunna/Young Thug/Turbo collaboration that came out last week, is an early sign of just how difficult it’s going to be for established rap figures to address the new reality that we’re currently facing. The feelings associated with this historical moment — the fear, the angst, the anger, the isolation, the all-pervading boredom — aren’t feelings that most of today’s rappers are well-equipped to channel or assuage. You can’t capture this strange and pan-cultural historical situation with bluster or confidence. Those things become insufficient.
Following rap music in the spring of 2020 is a profoundly weird experience. Most of the music that’s coming out right now was recorded long before a quarantine was on anyone’s radar. After the initial wave of coronavirus-themed novelty raps — a natural what the hell, look at this reaction — I haven’t seen anyone make compelling rap music out of the present moment. Detroit’s Gmac Cash, whose “Coronavirus” was such a fun out-of-nowhere mantra of a song, sounds a whole lot less compelling when he’s rapping about being stuck at home.
In addition to that relatively stagnant music, rap is currently burping up a series of vaguely depressing soap-opera story updates: Various imprisoned rappers begging to be let out of jail before they get sick, NBA YoungBoy fuming on Instagram Live about some stuff that the imprisoned Kodak Black apparently said about his girlfriend. This shit is no fun, and it’s no kind of distraction either. Instead, the truly euphoric rap moments of the past few weeks have come from looking back, from exulting in history. In the first week of quarantine, we got D-Nice’s instantly-famous Instagram Live DJ sets, euphoric dance-party throwbacks being conjured by one guy in his apartment. Other DJs have been doings similar things. After the DJ sets, we got the beat battles. Those have been fun, too.
One night a couple of weeks ago, I stared at my phone for an hour as Timbaland and Swizz Beatz played their hits for each other and talked their shit. Timbaland, bathed in red light, sipping from a big glass of wine and occasionally doing goofy dad dances while his teenage daughter, slumped in a chair in the background, declines to react in any way. Swizz Beatz, sitting in the darkness of his car and yelling into nothing, the screen of his phone reflected back in his glasses lenses. Swizz has been doing these beat battles for years — in studio backrooms, on Summer Jam stages — and he’s a natural showman. The sight of two rich middle-aged men playing their old hits at each other shouldn’t have been that exciting. Somehow, it was what I needed. Swizz and Timbaland liked doing it so much that they’ve presented a whole lot more since.
There are no clear rules to the beat battle, though Swizz and Tim have been trying to figure some out. There’s no clear way of determining who won. It’s not an actual competition, though it remains fun to watch producers yelling at each other. You have to be ferociously bored to watch an hour of Hit-Boy and Boi-1da. But this happens to be a moment when so many of us are ferociously bored. The beat battles are an empty and nostalgic spectacle, but they do the trick. It’s not like anyone else is coming up with anything. Except Drake. Drake came up with something.
Drake. What an asshole. What a diabolical piece of shit. He is going to conquer everything with “Toosie Slide.” It’s not fair. This motherfucker took advantage of a global pandemic to release a fucking line-dancing record into the world. Maybe, once this whole thing is over, we will be confronted with the garish spectacle of everyone in the club doing this ridiculous dance. But you don’t have to be in the club to do this dance, and so there are probably already god knows how many videos of teenagers doing the Toosie Slide in their kitchens currently tearing up TikTok. Drake didn’t have to do all this.
“Toosie Slide” almost feels like the result of a freaky experiment. With this song, we learn that yes, Drake still sounds morose and disconnected even when he’s calling out dance instructions. In the video, he swans around his empty and lavishly appointed apartment, then triggers a deluxe fireworks display that explodes over a city full of deserted streets. It’s not a good song, but the question of whether it’s good or not is beside the point. It’s going to be so huge. It sounds bored and dejected and antsy. Drake may have recorded “Toosie Slide” before the quarantine, but the song somehow reflects a collective mood anyway. We are all Drake now. God help us.
1. Kevin Gates – “Wetty Freestyle”
“Wetty,” a record from the Brooklyn drill rapper Fivio Foreign, is barely two weeks old. It no longer belongs to him. This is not necessarily Fivio Foreign’s fault. He could not have anticipated Kevin Gates, in horny and heart-bruised reflective force-of-nature mode, hijacking his song and doing magical things with it.
2. Sheff G – “Moody”
Brooklyn drill is now messing around with soft, romantic Spanish classical guitars. This is a smart thing. This could go places. Sheff G has sounded tough plenty of times before this. He’s never sounded graceful like this before.
3. Sauce Twinz – “Big Drip Squad” (Feat. Sauce Gohan & Sada Baby)
The universe has been waiting for Sauce Walka and Sada Baby to appear on the same song together. It has been foretold, and now it has happened. We are all richer for it. (I think Sada Baby won, but then again, I would think that.)
4. Kollision – “Walkin”
Quality Control, the homebase of the Atlanta rapper Kollision, has been responsible for so much dramatic singsong trap music, and the world really doesn’t need more of it. But this song sounds like an ancient incantation, and there’s always room for that. Great video, too.
5. Joe Grind & Giggs – “Trap House”
I missed you, angry-grunty UK rap music. Never leave me again.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
2 trillion dollar stimulus package & millions in donations & people are going broke by the minutes wtf is going on here ? Who’s Pockets is that cash going to ? this is weird
— juicy j (@therealjuicyj) April 4, 2020