Rod Wave Is The World’s Saddest Rap Star
In Rod Wave’s video for his single “Tombstone,” an adorable little kid sits by himself, watching TV. The kid’s father is passed out on the couch. His mother is at work. Later on, that kid sits through a tense dinner that turns dangerous when the father gets abusive. Then we see that same kid walking down a sunny sidewalk, lost in thought, oblivious to the police who have just pulled up behind him and pointed their guns. Later on, after this kid has been murdered, we learn that he was deaf. He couldn’t hear the cops’ instructions. As the video ends, we see the child’s father, in a white tunic, laying him down at a riverside, as CGI vines encircle him. Rod Wave himself doesn’t take part in this whole narrative. Instead, he stands alone, baleful, on a snowy hillside, talking about his own tribulations. As an emotionally manipulative gutpunch, this video is basically Dancer In The Dark, played out in three minutes. It exists to make you feel things. It worked on me.
“Tombstone” is not a song about a deaf child who gets murdered by police, but it’s tragic in its own way. Rod Wave, the 21-year-old Floridian sing-rap star, laments the psychic wages of street life. As the song opens, Wave is out on the block, avoiding all phone calls because he knows that he’s about to learn something terrible: “I keep my gun in my drawers, ducking the sad news/ My phone say seven missed calls, I know it’s bad news.” This isn’t artful writing; rhyming “sad news” with “bad news” is about as elementary as rap lyricism gets. But Rod Wave make you feel it anyway. Wave sings like a choirboy, his tenor soft and vulnerable. He sounds like a lost innocent. On the chorus, he reaches upwards for a creamy falsetto, and he welcomes the inevitability of death: “Make sure you write, ‘The truest in the motherfucking game’ on my tombstone when they bury me/ By the river, they will carry me/ Finally, I’ll be resting in peace/ Finally, finally.” Behind him, a gospel choir joins in. It’s a mournful song. It’s Rod Wave preemptively mourning himself.
“Tombstone” is a hit. This week, it’s the #11 single in America. That makes it the biggest single in Rod Wave’s young career. (Wave hit his previous peak last year, when his Lil Baby collab “Rags2Riches” reached #12.) His style of melodic misery has been gaining momentum for a while. I first wrote about Rod Wave late in 2019, when he was a YouTube phenom and when his album Ghetto Gospel was picking up steam. Since then, Wave has ascended to a spot near the top of the rap ecosystem. Last year, his album Pray 4 Love debuted at #2. A week and a half ago, he followed that one up with the new one SoulFly, which, despite its title, has nothing to do with Brazilian nü metal. This week, SoulFly is the #1 album in America. But if this is a triumphant moment in Rod Wave’s career, you can’t hear it in his music.
The perks of rap stardom can’t make up for a lifetime of trauma. We know this. We’ve been seeing examples of it for decades. Rod Wave may be reaching a new career pinnacle, and there are a few moments on SoulFly, like the luminous single “Street Runner,” where Wave sounds like he’s beginning to find something resembling peace. Through most of the album, though, Wave remains in a miasma of depression: Long nights, close calls, friends and family members lost to violence or addiction or cancer or the penal system. He bemoans the family problems that his success hasn’t solved: “No matter what I do, can’t keep nobody happy/ Can’t keep these haters off me, can’t get along with my daddy.” And he alludes to his own substance issues, which can make stardom a whole lot harder to appreciate: “Don’t wanna do no shows or rap no songs, he tired of that shit/ In the bathroom, by himself, higher than a bitch.”
That last part is no joke, and it’s not Rod Wave trawling for sympathy. Last year, Wave suffered internal brain bleeding after crashing a Corvette, and then he rapped about the experience on his song “Through The Wire“: “Ran the light and hit a pole, a head-on collision/ Went to thinking ’bout my lifestyle that lost my vision.” A few months later, while Wave was walking out to play a show that shouldn’t have been happening during the pandemic in the first place, the stage crumbled under his foot. (Wave references that bit of business on SoulFly: “The stage collapsed, the only time you’ll see me fall.”) The transition to rap stardom isn’t easy for anyone. These days, I’ve got to imagine that it’s even harder.
On SoulFly, Rod Wave spends some time talking tough, but what’s really striking about the album is the vulnerability. Rod Wave’s not hard. His softness has always been his greatest strength. He puts everything out there. We’re seeing some kind of sea change in rap music, where the genre’s defining figures no longer come off as larger-than-life ice-cold superheroes. These days, you can be a successful rapper while sounding sad and broken and lost. Rod Wave is already just as much an R&B singer as he is a rapper, and his sweetly craggy voice is better equipped than most to express things like depression and weakness. That’s why people love him. I don’t think SoulFly is any kind of masterpiece, but it does its job. I’ve been going through my own family stuff lately, and SoulFly has been a quiet little comfort. The sad stuff I’m going through has nothing to do with the sad stuff that Rod Wave has gone through, but when I’m feeling down, it sounds nice in the background. It sounds like commiseration.
As I write this, DMX, one of the towering rap figures of my own teenage years, lies in a vegetative state in a White Plains hospital. Aesthetically, DMX’s music is light years removed from anything Rod Wave has ever done. But DMX, like Rod Wave, always gave the impression that he uses music to process his own demons. He was a man struggling, and he made his struggles public. That, more than anything else — more than the dog-barks or the dirtbikes or the dinosaur-bone-hard beats — was what made people love DMX. I think it’s what makes people love Rod Wave, too. Even after he became an arena headliner, DMX had that raw-nerve pain in his voice. That pain eventually caught up with him. I hope Rod Wave’s story turns out differently. In bringing his dark places into the light, Rod Wave has already done a public good.
1. 42 Dugg – “4 Da Gang” (Feat. Roddy Ricch)
The ridiculous sample is one of the great joys that rap music offers the world, but it’s expensive, so we don’t get it too often anymore. I don’t know whose idea it was to loop up the Scorpions’ 1982 screamer “No One Like You” and to put 42 Dugg and Roddy Ricch together over that, but it works so well. Detroit/LA rap swagger is a different beast from German nerf-metal swagger, but when you put them both together, it can rock you like a hurricane. (I look forward to someone making a podcast, 25 years from now, about whether the CIA really wrote “4 Da Gang.”)
2. Quelle Chris & The Alchemist – “Iron Steel Samurai”
Quelle Chris sounded great over an Alchemist beat on Armand Hammer’s “Chicaronnes” last week, and he sounds even better over Alc’s decaying psych-rock guitars on this. If Chris wasn’t so good at making his own beats, I’d say he should do a whole Alchemist album. Maybe he still should. “Y’all stay posing like IG hoes and alpacas/ I put my sauce on everything like sriracha.”
3. DB The General – “I Been Him”
“Rap game WWE — know what that mean/ That’s why I’m stomping through everything like Sting, the real king.” Sting is All Elite now, but the point still stands. When you make gloriously fired-up Bay Area headslap rap, you don’t need to stay up to date on wrestlers’ promotional affiliations.
4. Bankroll Freddie – “Pop It” (Feat. Megan Thee Stallion)
This is perfectly decent replacement-level strip-club rap right up until the one-minute mark, when Grammy-feted A-list star Megan Thee Stallion shows up to breathe fire all over everything. It’s crazy how the energy on a song can change the moment Megan starts talking shit.
5. Young M.A – “Successful”
There is a very realistic possibility that Young M.A is the hardest rapper in New York right now. Listening to her, I want to go out and buy a chain just so I can snatch it from myself.