Silverchair was where I jumped off. I just couldn’t do it anymore. When that band showed up, the entire idea of alternative rock, and of grunge in particular, just started to seem irredeemably corny. Less than a year after Kurt Cobain’s death, alt-rock radio was suddenly in love with this little Australian kid — 15 years old, same age as me — who looked like a Muppet Babies version of Cobain and who sang in a gargling bray like Eddie Vedder. It wasn’t even that Silverchair were bad. It was just that I could no longer escape the idea that someone was trying to sell me some bullshit. I wasn’t wrong.
Twenty-five years later, Silverchair are apparently considered legends in Australia. They’ve been through a bunch of different aesthetic phases. Daniel Johns, the little kid who looked like Cobain, has publicly battled depression and anorexia and arthritis. These days, Johns is making funky dance-rock with Empire Of The Sun’s Luke Steele. He’s a complicated adult artist, not a living avatar of mid-’90s grunge marketing. But Silverchair were never the problem. The problem was an American record industry that couldn’t wait to sell kids like me some shit like Silverchair.
I wonder how many kids are having that same reaction to the Kid Laroi. The parallels are almost eerie. The Kid Laroi is a cute, mop-topped blonde Australian teenager who sings vaguely catchy songs about depression and who sounds a whole lot like a recently dead icon. In this case, the recently dead icon was actually around to mentor the Australian kid for a little while. But the Kid Laroi’s arrival still feels like some kind of breaking point. Could the Kid Laroi’s success foreshadow the end of the emo-tinged TikTok sing-rap kids? Or does it just mean we’re a few years away from the emo-tinged TikTok sing-rap version of Creed?
The Kid Laroi is Charlton Howard, a 16-year-old kid from Sydney. Two years ago, Laroi posted his debut mixtape called 14 With A Dream on SoundCloud and made it into the finals of a nationwide competition on the radio network Triple J. The Chicago rapper Lil Bibby, once a teenage phenom himself, signed Laroi to his Grade A Productions label, and he set Laroi up to open for Juice WRLD — Laroi’s most obvious aesthetic inspiration — when Juice toured Australia in 2018 and 2019. Juice and Laroi recorded a few songs together. Cole Bennett, the video director who helped Juice WRLD ascend to popularity, directed some videos for Laroi. Laroi became a TikTok sensation, and now he’s well on his way to something like pop stardom.
The Kid Laroi technically scored his first top-10 US hit last month. Laroi appears on Juice WRLD’s track “Hate The Other Side,” a Marshmello/Polo G collab that peaked at #10 when Juice’s massive posthumous album Legends Never Die came out. A week and a half ago, Laroi released his debut album Fuck Love, a half-hour song-cycle about a relationship breaking apart. Thanks to huge streaming numbers, Fuck Love debuted at #8 on this week’s Billboard chart. This kid is popular.
Fuck Love is a rough listen. Laroi can kind of rap; he does it a bit on his earlier singles. But he doesn’t really rap at all on Fuck Love. Instead, he’s stuck in adenoidal sing-whine territory through the entire album, bleating over the 808 thunks and replacement-level dramatic pianos that have become the default backing for a whole generation of rap kids. A few phone-message skits outline the album’s general story: Laroi is in an unhealthy relationship with a girl who feels used whenever she spends time with him. Then he fucks her friend. She’s furious, and she dumps him and takes up with someone else. When he tries to get her back, she tells him, “Like, bro, you fucked with my friend.” Reasonable!
Naturally, Laroi frames himself as some kind of victim all through this. He sings about himself as a wounded soul who needs love: “Maybe, maybe it’s you who can save me/ I got love for you, but I hate me.” But he doesn’t want the girl to get too close: “Love isn’t what you see and what you want it to be/ I want you, but I just can’t give you all of me.” Eventually, when they’re broken up, he tells her, “You showed me that you ain’t shit and these bitches is dangerous.” When he finally sings that he’s “gon’ be selfish” on the last song, he sounds triumphant, like he’s finally figured things out, even though he’s made it perfectly clear that he’s been selfish this whole time.
I can’t stand Laroi’s adenoidal voice, but he has a reasonably strong sense of melody, and he can sink deep into tracks. Some songs, like the Cashmere Cat/Benny Blanco/Happy Perez production “Erase U,” turn Laroi’s mewling into halfway-effective pop music. I kind of like how Laroi interpolates Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” a song that came out when he was two years old. Laroi’s whole thing also seems a lot less grating on “Tell Me Why,” the one song on the album where he isn’t talking about being a toxically shitty boyfriend. “Tell Me Why” is a sad goodbye to Juice WRLD, a lament from a kid who’s already seen too much misery: “I swear that I’m way too damn numb to even think about this shit/ But when it’s late and I lay awake, I get to tweaking in this bitch.”
Right now, Fuck Love is hanging out in the top 10 behind posthumous albums from two young rappers who have died in the past year, Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke. It makes me wonder: What’s going to be the long-term effect of all these young rap deaths? Laroi is young enough to look upon people like Lil Peep and XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD as heroes, and he’s watched them all die. Is that going to fuck him up? And is his own self-involved whine-rap going to fuck up kids younger than him?
Along with those posthumous albums, Fuck Love is also sitting in the top 10 alongside emo-hedonist sing-rap smashes from Lil Baby and Gunna and Post Malone — the albums that never seem to leave the top 10. If I had to guess, I’d say Fuck Love will probably stay in the top 10 for at least a few months. The album fits so many playlist-friendly algorithmic sweet spots that it’s easy to imagine it having the same kind of legs. And anyway, the Kid Laroi is firmly pitched at the same kids who love those albums. Laroi’s artwork is all anime-based. His collaborators are fellow TikTok rap kids like Lil Tecca and Lil Mosey. His haircut is a messier version of the early-Bieber shag. He’s got Cole Bennett directing his videos. He’s built to stick around, at least for now.
But is this the breaking point? Are kids going to finally get sick of this shit? I’m old enough to remember when Silverchair showed up, so the Kid Laroi does not make music for me. I’m not supposed to get anything out of it. But does anyone get anything out of an album like Fuck Love? Or is it just a desperate record industry’s latest attempt at selling some shit? Things are hard enough on the teenagers of 2020. They deserve better than this.
1. Tha God Fahim & Mach-Hommy – “Versace Church Van”
We’re living through a minor golden age of drumless halfway-ambient East Coast boom-bap that can make your brain feel like it’s floating in embalming fluid. I’m enjoying it.
2. Black Noi$e – “Mutha Magick” (Feat. Bbymutha)
How many rappers would hear a beat this weird and discordant and just fucking go in on it? Bbymutha is special.
3. Lil Keed – “She Know” (Feat. Lil Baby)
If amniotic depressive sing-rap is the new language of pop — and, clearly, it is — then I’m glad we’ve got some stars who came make something both warm and psychedelic out of it.
4. ChaseTheMoney & Valee – “Bling Bling”
Valee has pushed beyond the border of the mumble-rap universe and discovered the new horizon of “barely making any sounds at all.” I love it.
5. Foolio – “Splat Music”
Those bluesy guitars don’t exactly splat, but maybe “Contemplative Twang Music” isn’t a good song title.