A Requiem For Hip-Hop’s “Clout Era”

Ser Baffo/Getty Images for BET

A Requiem For Hip-Hop’s “Clout Era”

Ser Baffo/Getty Images for BET

Think back to 2017, a time when rap’s hyper-punk and vibrantly rugged sound emerged from the deep pantheons of SoundCloud and YouTube’s outer rim. Artists like Lil Pump, Playboi Carti, Lil Yachty, and others arose from the cracks and introduced a new pyro-trap and emo-rap wave that set the internet ablaze.

The endless sorrow of XXXTentacion’s “SAD!” and the zaniness of Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” helped popularize a sound once perched in rap’s subterrane, which paved the way for other purple-haired and tattoo-faced stars like Juice WRLD, Lil Xan, Tekashi69, and Trippie Redd to enter the genre’s newest musical locus. With their arrival, a new legion of artists rolled in with microwaveable hits that fed Internet drifters and school-aged Gen-Z’ers in search of an artist that emanates today’s rebellion. They found it in the mumbled lyrics, off-key melodics, and piercing chants of the era’s rappers and trap crooners, who floated over pulsating beats and lo-fi mixes. The music was undeniably of the now, and the artists’ celebrity grew as their sound and antics on social media became more outlandish.

By the time this music found a mainstream profile under the banner of “SoundCloud rap,” we were nearing the end of what podcasters DJ Akademiks and Adam22 recently defined as the “clout era,” a period that saw artists with limited musical talent, maybe one or two mild SoundCloud hits, and a flair for virality thrust into the industry spotlight. As they dove deeper into drug-induced stunts, dubious pranks, and the highest acts of troll-ery, these artists landed high-profile record deals and gained millions of fans and social media followers by drawing onlookers into their wild lives outside of music. But as declared on the Off The Record podcast last month, the clout era died just as quickly as it was born, leaving many artists in musical purgatory and the dens of Internet culture’s past.

What distinguished this era from rap’s fleeting successes and one-hit wonders of the past was its emphasis on outrageous online behavior. Although there were some genuine innovators among the bunch, this was a time defined by minimal musical talents whose drug-induced rants, contentious interview moments, and brainless claims (yes, Kid Buu still thinks he’s a clone) fueled their celebrity and budding rap careers. While the lives of street artists like YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Kodak Black, and others were the subject of countless YouTube videos and mooted Twitter threads, the quality of their music was the catalyst of their success. But for many artists of the clout era, their talents simply paled in comparison, forcing them to depend on their wild escapades. And although TikTok has introduced the world to artists like the Boyboy West Coast, iLOVEFRiDAY and even two-time Grammy winner Lil Nas X via the mega-hit “Old Town Road,” much of their early success and virality came from the millions of TikTok users and fans who used clips of their songs for their own videos. As those vids blew up online, more people were drawn to the artists’ music and personas, a process that differs vastly from what young artists were doing in the mid-to-late 2010s.

At the height of the clout era, an artist’s lifeline was dependent on their next viral moment. When their music fell on deaf ears, they leaned on videos of them getting kicked out of hotels, calling out their supposed “opps,” and detailing their life’s wildest moments on Vlad TV interviews. For a time, that landed them at the top of blog feeds and in the minds of hip-hop fans. But after Tekashi69 – the industry’s top clout-baiter at the time – landed in jail in November 2018, DJ Akademiks says the era as we knew it was finished: “I’ve never seen an era just be like — it’s not even a ushering out period, that shit is just corny. You can’t imagine anybody doing what [Lil Pump] was doing and what all these guys that got super-viral were doing back then … that shit is a dub.”

The influence of the clout era began to wane after the passing of XXXTentacion, Lil Peep, and Juice WRLD, genuine innovators who were rising cultural figures at the time of their passing. Losing many of the scene’s biggest stars stripped the era of much of its allure and exposed the dangerously drug-fueled lifestyles often tied to its music, which ultimately led to Peep and Juice WRLD’s fall. The decline was compounded by the rise of Brooklyn and New York drill, with artists like Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign, Sheff G, 22Gz, and others flipping the hip-hop soundscape on its axis. Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party” and Fivio Foregin’s “Big Drip” marked the sonic shift toward slower beats and a darker, grittier, more realist aesthetic, a movement that eventually forced clout-era artists out the industry door.

Meanwhile, a new generation of SoundCloud rappers began to emerge, with artists like Ken Car$on, SSGKobe, Yeat, BabySantana, SoFaygo and others adopting a similar aesthetic and rip-roaring rebellious sound, but without the same exploits of the clout era. After seeing how the careers of those artists came and went, the new brigade of underground rappers is steering clear of their stunts and focusing on the music: “One of the main reasons why Lil Pump was so big was because of his antics,” artist Midwxst told Complex in a recent overview of the scene’s new wave. “But sometimes you have to learn, OK, you shouldn’t make your whole persona based around these things.” SSGKobe added, “I definitely feel like there’s less gimmicks now. I feel like a lot more people are genuine in this underground scene. They’re more true to themselves than trying to fit in.”

Where does that leave the original clout-era products? As their initial hits and viral moments came to pass, several of those rappers failed to make major splashes on Billboard or regain the momentum they had at the peak of their powers. With their fading celebrity, many have stopped making music completely or have done so inconsistently over the last few years. While artists like Lil Xan fell to the background due to concerns with his physical and mental health, others like Ugly God stopped releasing music for reasons still unknown to fans. The “Water” artist, known for his salacious lyrics and brash attitude, hasn’t released another project since 2019’s Bumps & Bruises. In response to the YouTube clip from the Off The Record podcast, which had Ugly God and six other artists on the video’s thumbnail, the Indiana-born artist made a tweet out to Akademiks and asked him to stop grouping him with the other artists of the clout era.

While artists Lil Pump and Smokepurrp have maintained their activity, their profiles have dwindled consistently throughout the years. Between the two artists, Purrp recently went viral for performing in front of a nearly empty crowd in Pontiac, Michigan for his We Outside Tour. The Florida rapper dismissed the video, writing in an Instagram tour recap, “Tour been lit DONT BELIEVE THE HYPE, I love what I do and ima give my fans a show regardless, I bet they won’t post this tho.. WE OUTSIDE!¡”

Along with the encouragement of drug use, the era was built on viral-chasing raiders like Tekashi69 who brought the tactics of online sensationalism to the streets. He blended the two worlds, but after countless videos of the “STOOPID” artist goading his enemies and taunting authorities on social media, his antics finally caught up with him and he landed in jail for firearms and racketeering charges in 2018. But even after his release in April 2020, despite Billboard. 6ix9ine’s last project, TattleTales, fell massively short of expectations. The 2020 album was projected to sell over 100,000 equivalent album units in its first week, but it only earned roughly half that. He’s barely been heard from since, though he’s apparently still got enough juice to get recent single “Giné” into the lower reaches of the Hot 100.

There are other artists who are wedged in a space of complacency, as they either haven’t fallen off musically or haven’t left the minds of hip-hop fans. Names like Lil Yachty come to mind; he semi-successfully rebranded as a Michigan rapper and is still being tapped for interviews and to perform at major festivals like this year’s Rolling Loud. Artists like Doja Cat, Trippie Redd, and Playboi Carti have further ascended from the bounds of the clout era by continuing to pen Billboard-topping hits and maintaining the intrigue they first held as new acts. After declaring her cow status on the forgotten viral hit “MOOO!,” Doja Cat has become one of today’s biggest pop stars, and even nabbed a Grammy this year for the SZA-assisted “Kiss Me More.” While Trippie Redd and Playboi Carti haven’t reached the heights of Doja, the two artists have broadened their fanbases and expanded their catalogs and now sit near the top of a short list of still-relevant clout era alumni.

To continue leveraging their stardom, other artists have redefined themselves or pivoted completely to other career paths. Viral sensation-ista Bhad Bhabie first graced TV screens in 2016 during an appearance on Dr. Phil. The “Gucci Flip Flops” rapper parlayed her “Cash me outside” moment into a music career and signed with Atlantic Records in 2017. But after the music label dropped the then 18-year-old in 2021, Bhad Bhabie shifted to OnlyFans content, and in April posted receipts showing earnings of $52 million on the subscription service. While he still makes waves as an artist, clout-era alumnus Blueface has branched out into the reality TV world with Blue Girls Club TV, with the YouTube series placing the Los Angeles-born artist among the list of most-talked-about artists on social media and blogs like The Shade Room.

The best days of the clout era are long gone. Fans will never have a chance to see how generational talents like XXXTentacion, Juice WRLD, and Lil Peep would have fared in today’s soundscape, or if they would have kept the prior era alive, but their music has inspired other young artists to reach their career heights and to do it their own way. As for those still living, who remain young enough to theoretically recapture the musical and cultural force they once had: Can the likes of Lil Pump, Ugly God, and Lil Xan ever hope to thrive outside the ecosystem that launched them? If not, they can at least look forward to the SoundCloud rap package tours that will surely be popping up 10-15 years from now because nostalgia is the most potent clout of all.

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