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Rap Will Continue to Dominate Music in 2018, Thanks to Its Distaste For Genre

January 20, 2018

Lil Uzi Vert once told me he wanted to be a rockstar. On a June day in 2016, under a slab of sapphire sky, I followed him from New Jersey into the thick of Manhattan. In our time together—I was writing a profile of the then-22-year-old—he remained strikingly walled off, especially for an artist on the precipice of fame. He wasn’t a rapper per se, he assured me numerous times, or at least didn’t operate like one by traditional standards; his creative singularity, he said, skewed more towards impulse and cracking vulnerability.

 

Aughts-era rap was often built on narratives of excess and indestructibility, but Uzi was interested in its inverse, the finite. He cited the influences of Marilyn Manson, Paramore, Wiz Khalifa. Life, he believed, was meant to be lived—recklessly, riotously, at full-throttle speed—because it could all end as quick as it began. In the months since that conversation, Uzi has become an avatar for a new wave of rap, pop music’s most dominant genre—and its best case for where music at large is going in 2018.

 

Consider “XO Tour Life,” his bracing meditation on depression, drugs, and belonging. Over a beat from Atlanta producer TM88 that sounds more like a morose lullaby than a commanding radio hit, he sing-raps, “I might blow my brain out/Xanny, help the pain, yeah/Please, Xanny, make it go away.” The song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 exactly one year after our meeting, and by the end of 2017 had amassed over 1 billion audio and video streams across SoundCloud, Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music.

 

Uzi’s got a knack for melody, a technical comprehension for cadence and structure. His outlook is all foggy realism and youthful melancholy, a style that took hold of the SoundCloud rap community for much of last year. The subset, often dismissed as “emo rap,” is colored by the trickster menace of South Florida vandals like Lil Pump and XXXTentacion (who is facing charges for witness tampering and aggravated battery), Northern California’s Lil Xan, and standouts Lil Peep and Lil Skies (reflective and ominous, Skies’ “Nowadays” currently holds the No. 1 spot on the SoundCloud Top 50).

 

Collectively, the music is largely defined by a biographical vulnerability that gives way to violence, drug-addled introspection, and a kind of ritualistic self-loathing. (Last November, Peep overdosed on Xanax and fentanyl, but had become a breakout, if controversial, scion of sad-boy rap.) These are tales of misfits and rejects who wear outsiderism with unreserved pride; as a result of their fractured worldview and ghost-like emptiness, they’re now regarded as cult figures in a movement that’s creeping into the mainstream. The micro-universe of SoundCloud rap, and the platform’s embrace of amorphous and experimental sound, is now pop’s best gauge for where the genre is headed.

 

 

Narratives vary, but what this mold of rappers have in common is an almost acrobatic appetite for obscurity. Their sounds pull from a well of creative resources—rap is rock is R&B is EDM. They’re not alone in this endeavor. Steve Lacy’s “4Real,” a paean to young love unceremoniously released in September, was a crackling hybrid of punk spirit and celestial funk, with the occasional flourish of avant-garde R&B. It confirmed Lacy’s anti-pop undertaking: that a song can, and should, be a nebulous configuration, its tentacles endlessly spread in every direction, grabbing what inspiration it can.

 

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