Disclaimer: This article deals with music and musicians that can’t seem to string a sentence together without any expletives. I’ve found clean videos for this piece, but if you look further into the discographies of these artists, the rap ones especially, be ready for some rough profanity.
Listening to an artist like Lil Xan — especially after listening to something more mainstream, say, Kendrick Lamar — can be a jarring experience. Devoid of any loud noise or tough sounding percussion his breakout hit “Betrayed” starts out with a slow and simple electronic riff. When Xan starts rapping, the uniqueness of his voice comes like a second punch to the gut. Youthful, obviously white, and extremely lethargic, the California rapper’s vocals are not standard hip-hop fare. But then again, the definition of “standard hip-hop fare” is becoming muddier and muddier, especially after last year’s surprising but inevitable replacement of rock as America’s most consumed genre with rap.
Lil Xan is still pretty small as far as musical stardom is concerned, but he’s getting bigger everyday, and he’s played a major part in the rise of soundcloud rap. Soundcloud rap is a genre characterized by stripped down lo-fi trap beats, and an unusual use of distortion, often resulting in a decidedly ugly sound. Primarily growing through online streaming, The movement has been compared to a variety of other musical movements, such as punk and emo, and pulls similarities from both, but the clearest parallel I can see is with 90s grunge (even though that wasn’t really a movement as much as it was a branding of Seattle music culture). Soundcloud rappers possess the sincerity that most Seattle rockers came to be famous for — that “I don’t care if you like my song” attitude that garnered the movement so much attention two decades ago. Florida rapper XXXtentacion released a shakily voiced declaration in that vein on the first track of his debut album 17.
“If you are not willing to accept my emotion and hear my words fully, do not listen. I do not value your money, I value your acceptance and loyalty.”
Sound-wise, if you ignore the fact that one is using guitars and drums, and the other is usually using a computer, the parallels between soundcloud rap and grunge are plentiful as well. Both styles have an austere and unvarnished vibe to them, and a thick dissonance that creates a distinct atmosphere. Just as grunge sought to counter slickly produced pop, soundcloud rap is the polar opposite of the radio friendly, overproduced, pretty music to which modern listeners are accumstomed.
The mainstream catalyst for the movement has been Lil Uzi Vert and his hit “XO Tour Lif3.” Keeping with the grunge analogy, this is SC rap’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Melodic enough to be a crossover hit, but possessing the same characteristics and attitude as are typical of the genre, the song’s beat gets its muted vibe from the fact that it was produced using only a portable speaker, and a computer.
There are however, some lyrical digressions between the two genres, as is to be expected. While “XO Tour Llif3” features a compelling emotionally strained chorus “All my friends are dead/ push me to the edge” it almost immediately turns into a rap about money, women, and fast cars.
Most dreadful is the chorus to Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” — a song every bit as simple as it sounds — which simply repeats the song’s title seven times. There is an unfortunate lack of complexity and meaning, and when the rappers do have something to say, it often gets drowned in rambling braggadocio, which, to be fair, is typical of rap music, but when a sound is this unique, one expects the lyrics to follow suit. I may be nitpicking, but part of what defines the genres to which soundcloud rap might be compared, is rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional lyrics to match the rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional sound. I should mention that XXXtentacion’s 17 is a rare exception, lyrically complex and musically diverse, the album is worth a review all on its own.
Some Punk Lyrics:
“Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it/ I wanna destroy the passer by!” — “Anarchy in the U.K” by The Sex Pistols
“Everybody’s doin’ just what they’re told to and nobody wants to go to jail” — “White Riot” by The Clash
Harmful elements in the air/ cymbals crashing everywhere/ reaps the fields of rice and reeds/ while the population feeds!” — “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Some Grunge Lyrics:
“This is my kind of love/ It’s the kind that moves on/ It’s unkind and leaves me alone” — “Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone
“If you wouldn’t care I would like to leave/ If you wouldn’t care I would like to breathe” — “Blew” by Nirvana
“Why would you want to hurt me?/ So frightened of your pain” — “Animal” by Pearl Jam
And some SC rap lyrics:
“Clothes from overseas, got the racks and they all C-Notes/ you is not a G though” — “XO Tour Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert
“What you mean? What you mean? What you mean? Yeah/ That’s okay, that’s okay, that’s okay, yeah” — “Wake Up” by Lil Xan
and finally, my favorite:
D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, DRose, D Rose/ D Rose, D Rose, D Rose, D Rose — Lil Pump…guess what the name of the song is
This new breed of hip-hop tends to focus more on creating a distinctive vibe than spitting poetry, but it will probably need to evolve in order to be taken seriously in contemporary society. Like I said before, with rappers like XXXtentacion, this is already beginning.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, U2’s Bono, who could be said to know a little something about the rebellious, uncomfortable, and emotional, talked about how he and the band discover new music. He cited his son Eli as one source: “Elijah is in a band, and he has got very strong feelings about music… He believes that a rock & roll revolution is around the corner”. When asked if he agreed, Bono simply answered, “It Will Return”. Bono seemed to indicate that soon, rock is going to unseat hip-hop and once again reign supreme as our culture’s music of choice. As much as I love rock music, I don’t see that happening.
It isn’t that good rock music isn’t being made anymore, but the stuff that charts is extremely reminiscent of the past. One of the fastest ascending rock bands right now is Greta Van Fleet, who’s main point of marketability is the fact that they are a near replica of Led Zeppelin, from the screeching vocals of lead singer Josh Kizka, to their propensity for odd song names (Highway Tune, Safari Song, and Black Smoke Rising are three of their most popular). My favorite album of the year, Colony House’s Only The Lonely achieved much of its appeal by drawing heavily upon rockabilly and surf rock. The greatest stroke of irony is that the Foo Fighters, arguably the most successful band to emerge from grunge, made their latest album Concrete and Gold arguably a giant homage to classic rock greats such as Queen, The Beatles, and Steely Dan. While I’m cherry-picking my data a little, for most intents and purposes, rock is dead, and we’re living through its funeral.
Great song though…
If rock is going to continue on, it is going to have to evolve. It must shift away from veneration of what has come before and move into new territory. If it can’t reach the younger generation, then it is going to die off as the determining demographic moves on to new genres. Kids just don’t listen to rock music anymore.
So what do I think? Call me crazy, but my guess is that rap is going to absorb rock, or vice versa. This might seem crazier if it weren’t already happening, and if it hadn’t been happening for decades, ever since Run D.M.C’s remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”. The late Lil Peep’s genre-breaking “emo rap” songs could very easily be mistaken for old Blink-182 with a different back beat, and Post Malone, formerly a heavy metal guitarist and quite a virtuoso with the axe, structures his “rap” songs like rock songs and even goes so far as to cover Nirvana and Metallica at his live shows. Most notably, Kendrick Lamar, winner of five Grammy awards in 2017, has appropriated elements of rock into his live and even some studio performances. Lamar seems to incorporate pretty much every genre; his hit “King Kunta” even features a guitar solo. He also capitalizes on the bombast of rock in concert, usually performing with a live band or orchestra. King Kendrick’s performance of “Humble” at the VMA’s hit hard with distorted power chords crunching over his bars, and his verse from “DNA” at the Grammy’s was accompanied by a wild and rambling jazz guitar riff.
As I listened to all this, I began to notice that it all reminded me of a certain musical act, that’s been around for almost a decade: Twenty One Pilots. A two-man outlet from Columbus, Ohio, drummer Josh Dun and singer Tyler Joseph combine multi-instrumental intensity with a stripped down DIY vibe that separate their sound from, well, everything. Commonly labeled “schizophrenic pop,” the myriad of musical influences that go into TOP songs make genre distinctions tricky. “Schizophrenic Pop” seems to fit, until you get into songs like House of Gold, that sound like front porch Americana, and piano ballads like “Taxi Cab”. Their sound comes by its murkiness honestly; Joseph’s explanation as of SxSW 2013: “I didn’t know there were rules to songwriting when I started making music.”
TOP uses a variety of instruments: the keys, piano, uke, and even bass, but not a guitar. And yet, their rage and their passion easily classify them as a rock act in my mind. Rock is borne out of anger, hate, desire, love…intense human emotion. It’s not a series of musical motifs, or a combination of certain instruments; it’s an idea, one that can exist in a garage, a car, an arena, or a rap club.
After a year of insane releases on both sides of the board, 2018 is going to be a fateful year for music, as Rap and Rock clash for dominance of charts, and the zeitgeist. I predict that one is going to absorb the other. Those “rules” to songwriting are going to start breaking down, and the seeds will be laid for the amorphous, undefinable, and totally non-generic (in every sense of the word) music of the future to spring forth.