It is 2018, and we are living through the Wild West of rap music. In the last two years, dozens of young hip-hop talents with wild clothes and even wilder hair have risen through massive success on SoundCloud and other social media platforms. Like the gunslingers of yore, many of these so-called “SoundCloud rappers” earned their notoriety through crime, gaining an aura of dangerous cool by breaking the law or engaging in dangerous behavior. Now, it seems that outlaw lifestyle is catching up to them.
Arguably, the recent spate of outlaw rappers began with Tay-K, a teenager from Texas. After being arrested and charged along with six others for the murder of one Ethan Miller in Mansfield, Texas, Tay-K, whose real name is Taymor McIntyre, skipped bail and recorded his hit song “The Race” while on the run.
“Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case,” the song’s hook goes over dinky, bass-heavy production, “but I didn’t beat that case, bitch I did the race.”
On the day of the song’s release, McIntyre was finally caught after allegedly committing another murder in a San Antonio Chic-Fil-A, and he is currently awaiting trial. “The Race,” meanwhile, hit 44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Other criminals-turned-rappers have had varying levels of success.
New York’s 6ix9ine, also known as Tekashi69, was convicted of using a child in a sexual performance in 2015. The conviction has dogged him throughout his rise following the surprise success of his song “Gummo,” which introduced his rainbow-haired, face-tatted, scream-rapping persona to the world. After catching an assault charge in Texas and provoking a series of escalating beefs with YG, Chief Keef, Trippie Redd, and even Bhad Bhabie, 6ix9ine, real name Daniel Hernandez, was kidnapped, robbed, and beaten in Brooklyn.
Basically, it seems as though everyone in the rap game hates him, except for fellow controversy magnets Nicki Minaj — their collab “FEFE” hit number three on the Hot 100 — and Kanye West, who was recently seen in the studio with Hernandez.
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The most high-profile of all of these, however, would have to be XXXtentacion, responsible for chart-toppers such as “Look At Me!,” “SAD!,” and his 2018 album ?, which went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart upon release.
The Broward County, Florida, rapper was born Jahseh Onfroy. His life and career were exhaustively detailed in a Miami New Times story that sheds light on his abusive relationship with ex-girlfriend Geneva Ayala, the charges stemming from said abuse that got him sent to jail, and the infamy he won that boosted his career to stratospheric heights and a fanatical following shortly after. Two weeks after the story was released, Onfroy was gunned down while leaving a motorcycle dealership in Deerfield Beach, in an apparent robbery gone wrong. He was 20.
Even before his death, arguments had been fought over the degree to which X’s fame was gained through crime. In a way, he invalidated this even before his death by gaining a fervent fandom of teens and young adults who forgive his past transgressions. Before his murder, he would speak to them directly via Instagram Live in off-cuff struggle sessions where he would charismatically dispense life advice. The sessions oddly complemented the lyrical content on his albums 17 and ?, which featured anguished, angsty songs about regrets, failed relationships, and suicidal ideations — all tried-and-true themes for young people everywhere.
Such is the same for a new musical force, Juice WRLD, who will perform at this year’s Goldrush Festival and thankfully has not committed any major crimes as of this writing. Born Jarad Higgins, the Chicago native soared to fame with his song “Lucid Dreams,” which made it to No. 3 on the Hot 100 following a music video by tastemaking director Cole Bennett.
The song is at once beautifully sorrowful and childishly vindictive.
“I still see your shadows in my room / can’t take back the love that I gave you” he says in the opening lines before arriving at more spiteful, less sophisticated words: “You found another one but I am the better one,” “Who knew evil girls had the prettiest face?”
It’s an unsophisticated look at heartbreak, but coupled with an incredibly catchy and clearly articulated vocal melody (this is important in a subgenre also called “mumble rap”) and a mournful guitar sample taken from Sting’s “Shape of My Heart,” it turns into a Snickers-like sweet-and-salty combination that makes its enormous success understandable. It’s the same sensation that made Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3” a massive hit.
Higgins may be only 19, but it’s more than a little embarrassing to hear a guy talking about women like this on a major song (even worse, his followup single is called “All Girls Are the Same”). Especially in hip-hop, women are far too often portrayed as the source of male self-destruction — take, for instance, people blaming Ariana Grande for ex-boyfriend Mac Miller’s overdose instead of, oh, the people who made the pills that killed him. If I were a few years younger, however, still whining about girls, not yet at peace with my own repulsiveness, I might glom onto something like this. I might see Juice WRLD as some sort of wise big brother figure, transmitting his heartbreak across the internet and speaking some sort of great truth about love as a result.
What Juice WRLD has done, and what an entire scene of better and worse rappers are doing, is taking advantage of this teen angst, which is present in contemporary culture to a much higher degree than usual.
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Mostly, this is because of the times. We are assaulted with the idiocy and cruelty of those in power on an hourly basis, on the news, on Twitter, and in the indignities of day-to-day life. Many people feel as if there is no future, and if there is, it will be a bleak one. Imagine dealing with that while also balancing school, college admissions, hormones, part-time jobs, and your Instagram persona. It triggers a fight-or-flight mechanism, and this sound, the combination of melancholic words and beats and the wild look of SoundCloud rap that has come to be known as emo rap, is the flight.
Yet even as emo rap is defined by critics like Anthony Fantano as the “new wave” of hip-hop, the sound, and SoundCloud rap as a whole, is in jeopardy. Along with the murders and assaults and jailings already discussed, there’s also the cautionary tale of Lil Peep, an emo rap leading light who died of an overdose in 2017. There’s also Lil Pump, the “Gucci Gang” hitmaker who was arrested in Miami on August 29 for driving without a license, subsequently violated his probation in Los Angeles, and will spend the next few months in jail as his Kanye West collab “I Love It” makes waves.
It seems as though the nihilism, lawlessness, and live-fast-die-young attitudes that drive the movement are beginning to tear it apart. So many of these rappers seem to be following the advice of Kurt Cobain, who wrote in his suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” But is it?
Juice WRLD. At Goldrush 2018, Saturday, September 29, and Sunday, September 30, at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center, 5700 West North Loop Road, Chandler; 480-502-5600; goldrushfestaz.com. Tickets are $106.85 to $213.10 via goldrushfestaz.com.