Australian Rapper Masked Wolf’s Depression Song “Astronaut In The Ocean” Is Our Latest TikTok Meme Hit, Somehow
The spy-movie guitar rings out three twangy, echoing notes. An urgent drone in the background gets busier, then suddenly blinks out. One stern, commanding voice calls out over that emptiness: “What you know about rolling down in the deep?” Then the drums kick in, hard. The song’s intro lasts exactly 17 seconds, but that’s enough time to build a quick hit of tension-and-release energy. If you were editing a short serotonin-burst video for a social-media network — a video where, say, something dramatic happens 17 seconds in — then a song like that might fit your needs perfectly. That, at least, is my best explanation for the “Astronaut In The Ocean” phenomenon.
“Astronaut In The Ocean” is a song that the mostly-unknown Australian rapper Masked Wolf first posted on YouTube in the summer of 2019. Masked Wolf, who comes from Sydney, recorded the song with the Melbourne producer Tyron Hapi, and it sat online, mostly unnoticed, for more than a year. Then somehow, mysteriously, the TikTokers noticed that intro. As I’m writing this, there are 470,000 TikTok videos set to “Astronaut In The Ocean.” By the time you read this, there will be more. A lot of those videos seem to be dedicated to unbelievable physical feats — gymnastic displays, skateboard tricks, impossible basketball shots. Those things don’t seem to have anything to do with “Astronaut In The Ocean” itself, but maybe the song is both immediate and dramatic enough that it makes sense when paired with those images.
Since those TikTok videos started up, “Astronaut In The Ocean” has charted in the UK, Germany, Canada, and a dozen other countries. The track seems to be especially popular in Eastern Europe; as I type this, it’s #1 in Slovakia and #2 in the Czech Republic. “Astronaut In The Ocean” hasn’t charted in the US yet, but it seems like it’s just a matter of time. A couple of weeks ago, Elektra announced that it had signed Masked Wolf to a multi-album deal.
I have an eight-year-old son, and it has lately become increasingly hard to get him to stop looking at TikTok. I get it. This kid can’t go to school. It’s still winter, so he can’t get outside to see his friends much, either. TikTok is built around quick little jolts — tiny bursts of information that might register and might not. Watching him scroll through is a disquieting experience. He barely ever lets the video play to the end. He just keeps flicking up and up and up, unless he finds a video of anime characters kicking each other in the balls or something. He rarely registers any kind of visual reaction to what he’s seeing. But what he’s seeing creeps in. At some point in the last few weeks, my son decided that “Astronaut In The Ocean” was his favorite song.
I asked him to explain how he first heard “Astronaut In The Ocean” and what the attraction is. He says, “Well, I’m normally on animal TikTok,” which I didn’t know was a subcategory. When he hears that intro — that “what you know about rolling down in the deep” — he stops scrolling. He knows that, when he hears that opening, something is about to happen: “It’ll be like, ‘Boom. Kitty.'” But he likes the song, too: “It’s just, like, catchy.” He’s right. It is catchy.
“Astronaut In The Ocean” doesn’t seem like a meme song. Masked Wolf is a lyrically-lyrical type, a rapper with a whole lot of technical skill and very little noticeable personality. Based on Masked Wolf’s YouTube backpages, “Astronaut In The Ocean” is easily his best song. The track deploys all of Masked Wolf’s skills in a quick two-minute package. It has a sticky hook, a dramatic beat-drop, and a couple of fast and precise verses. The song is gently evocative, and while some of the lyrics are pretty dumb — “I believe in G-O-D/ Don’t believe in T-H-O-T” — it’s also built around a fairly resonant metaphor for depression. My eight-year-old says that he didn’t know it was about depression, but I think he can relate to the whole striving-to-feel-OK tone. I think a lot of people probably can.
There’s not too much info out there on Masked Wolf. He’s 29 years old, his real name is Harry Michael, and he’s been rapping since he was 13. There’s a lot of Eminem in his delivery, and most of the influences that he names are flavorless, athletic post-Eminem types like Hopsin and Joyner Lucas. But Masked Wolf can also put together a decent half-sung hook, and he’s got a nice authoritative boom in his voice. His Australian accent isn’t too strong, but it’s distinct enough to make his voice stand out just a little — to make him sound like something other than Logic 2.0.
“Astronaut In The Ocean” works, but it’s probably worth asking why a pushing-30 Australian unknown’s depression song became a TikTok meme and then a hit. “Astronaut In The Ocean” doesn’t really exist in conversation with the rest of rap music. It doesn’t capitalize on any trends in the genre, and it doesn’t react against any trends, either. It may or may not be the product of a local sound; I don’t actually know anything about the Sydney rap ecosystem. (Iggy Azalea, the biggest Australian rap star of all time, is from Sydney, but she was pulled into the American celebrity sphere more than a decade ago, and that’s where she’s been ever since.) “Astronaut In The Ocean” exists as its own weird little island — much as “Old Town Road,” the first true TikTok smash, once did. Masked Wolf’s song doesn’t really have a greater cultural context, and it doesn’t really need one, either.
Right now, “Astronaut In The Ocean” has more than a hundred million global streams, and Masked Wolf’s other tracks barely have a fraction of that. He might not ever make the multiple albums that he’s obligated to deliver to Elektra. It might not matter. Elektra might make back its investment on “Astronaut In The Ocean” alone. As Craig Jenkins writes in this recent Vulture piece, TikTok virality has a flattening effect on music. It’s not an artistic end unto itself. Masked Wolf strikes me as a sincere guy who’s been quietly working on his craft for years, not as a megawatt star in waiting. But TikTok has helped a nobody from nowhere turn a two-year-old depression song into a global hit, and maybe that’s worth something. In any case, I’m glad my eight-year-old has a song that he likes.
1. Lushlife – “Dépaysement” (Feat. Dälek)
I don’t generally make a habit of recommending 10-minute jazz-rap odysseys, but this thing is pretty. The track has all the astral drift that its length promises, but it doesn’t sacrifice the neck-snap immediacy of those verses, either.
2. Megan Thee Stallion – “Southside Forever Freestyle”
Meg is a full-on pop star now, but she hasn’t let that dim her snarl one tiny little bit. It does my heart good to see someone with multiple #1 singles bringing Gangsta Boo levels of swaggering intensity to a random YouTube loosie. (A fact-check, though: The Rocketeer did not actually go to space. He was just a guy with a jetpack. I could see how the helmet might make Megan think otherwise, though. Shout out to her for keeping The Rocketeer discourse alive.)
3. Sauce Walka – “What You Gone Do”
I love how Sauce Walka can dispense smart, serious career advice and still make it sound both grimy and condescending. Imagine failing in the NFL and then becoming a cautionary punchline in a Sauce Walka song.
4. Cakes Da Killa – “What’s The Word”
I don’t know how big Cakes Da Killa’s audience is, but I do know that it’s not big enough. If enough people were hearing Cakes Da Killa, we’d be in the midst of a full-on hip-house revival right now. That needs to happen. More people need to listen.
5. Young M.A – “Off The Yak”
Young M.A is a survivor. She came up making classing New York club-banger rap, but the arrival of Brooklyn drill doesn’t seem to bother her at all. She just talks her shit over the most mournful Brooklyn drill beat you ever heard, and then she keeps skating.