Considering how young the members of the band are, its amazing just how influential Jamie XX and his crew have been in popular music in the past five years. You can hear echoes of their work in everyone from FKA Twigs to Drake. This cool playlist from Complex offers a tribute to band by Nosaj Thing, John Talabot and others.
Its hard to believe that the Disney-loving, noodle-haired teen hanging from Britney Spears arm in the 90s would not only become one of pops biggest stars, but also a bona-fide, critically lauded hit-making powerhouse. Sure, lending his sky-scraping pipes to *NSYNC——one of the decades more successful forays into boyband-hood——guaranteed him a degree of visibility, respect, and fandom. But who could have predicted this unthreatening symbol of wholesome tween-pop would mastermind a career typified by unabashed sexuality, genre-bending sounds, and boundary-breaking hits?And with the release of his fifth album, Man of the Woods, on the horizon, Timberlake isnt taking his foot off the gas yet, with the album teaser seemingly nodding to yet another gear-change. Thanks to its slo-mo scenes of JT frolicking in nature (a field, some mountains, the snow!), many scathingly assumed he, like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga before him, planned to cast off the pronounced black-music influences that helped make his name and “rebrand as a white man.” And yet, in spite of the Gap ad-ness of the marketing campaign, one listen to singles “Filthy” and “Supplies” reveals all you need to know about this record: His signature aesthetic (i.e., meticulously produced, R&B-spiked pop) remains firmly intact and, in true JT-style, any country melodies and “southern-fried guitars” in the mix are mere seasoning to his soulful pop meat.In fact, Man of the Woods appears set to expand Timberlakes sound in much the same way each of his albums has, from the minimalist heartthrob pop of 2002s Justified to the sophisticated soul of 2006s FutureSex/LoveSounds to the chameleonic futurism of 2013s The 20/20 Experience (parts one and two), each exploration heralding a new creative phase for the industry darling. Here, we break down the man and his music into his four most distinct phases, and unpack the influences behind them.
*NSYNC might have had some monster hits (“Bye Bye Bye” being one of the best pop songs to come out at the turn of the millennium), but it wasnt until JT launched his solo career that his potential for super-stardom really registered on the industrys radar. “Like I Love You” was an instant smash, a divinely low-key debut that fused effortless vocals and Usher-style dance moves with stabbing acoustic guitar, whispered sweet nothings, and stark, skittering beats. Not only was he working hard to unshackle himself from his family-friendly, boy-band reputation, but he was also laying down his statement of intent to the record-buying public. And what a statement it was. Gone were the days of five-part harmonies and his-and-hers double-denim, and in their place were revelations of dream-shattering infidelity (“Cry Me a River”), impossibly delicious falsetto, and brazen explorations of sensuality (“Rock Your Body”). In fact, Justified really did what it said on the tin, commercially vindicating Timberlakes decision to walk away from *NSYNC, and unapologetically establishing his own sound.
Justified let us all know that JT was more than just a boy-band heartthrob, his overt sexuality and incredible songwriting merely hinting at the sophistication, worldliness, and sense of humor that FutureSex/LoveSounds would unleash on an unsuspecting public. JT had resoundingly grown up, the groove-laden R&B of his debut now eclipsed by a new electro-laced sound. He began exploring a funkier direction, riffing on Princes dirty-party dynamic on the Timbaland-helmed “SexyBack,” layering hip-hop beats and futuristic synths over meticulous production and flawless vocals (“Sexy Ladies / Let Me Talk to You”). Its both a vibe that he returns to with regularity—with the mastery and control of “Suit & Tie” nodding to perennial smoothie Marvin Gaye and neo-soul titan Maxwell—and a style that has influenced the next generation of post-boy-band hopefuls, like ex-One Directionite Zayn Malik.
Hes starred in multiple films, hes besties with Jimmy Fallon, hes hosted Saturday Night Live, hes appeared onstage with Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks, hes soundtracked multiple box-office hits, hes guested on records by Michael Jackson, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Madonna, and JAY-Z... is there anything JT cant do? Apparently not. After firmly staking his claim as one of pops biggest stars with FutureSex/LoveSounds, JT took some time out, lending his talents to a smorgasbord of side projects. In anyone elses hands, this apparent pandering to the masses might have proven to be a disastrous move, but in true Midas-style, JT turned a career breather into a chance for more creative expansion. Most notably, he wrote one of 2016s biggest hits, the interminably happy “Cant Stop the Feeling!” from DreamWorks Trolls movie.
Justin Timberlake has never been one to shy away from pushing the boundaries. When we expected nothing but tweeny ballads, he gave us minimalist pop with Justified. When we expected sultry R&B, he gave us sophisticated synthy funk with FutureSex/LoveSounds. When we expected more of the same meticulous control, he gave us the rangy, experimental two-part album The 20/20 Experience, complete with forays into neo-soul (“Pusher Love Girl), Afrobeat (“Let the Groove Get In”), and ambient soul balladry (“Blue Ocean Floor”). And right on time, just as we begin lending weight to allusions of country influences on new album Man of the Woods, JT drops singles “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and throws our assumptions back in our faces. In fact, JT seems to be mining different hometown influences here, nodding instead to his Tennessee hip-hop homeboys Chamillionaire and 8Ball & MJG in his dirgey bass and lightning-quick vocal deliveries. But JT’s albums have always been a complex feast of varying influences, from the pop verve of Michael Jackson to the filthy funk of Prince to the haunting melancholia of David Bowie, and theres no reason why Man of the Woods should be any different.
Shibuya-Kei is a subgenre of Japanese pop that originated in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. If you were a music nerd in the ‘90s, you probably remember Cibo Matto, Cornelius or Buffalo Daughter. The base of the music was 80s synthpop, but there was also a coat of shimmering guitars stubbled with quirky electronic flourishes and occasional forays into jazz or lounge. It was self-consciously cheeky music that occasionally teetered towards kitsch, and was viewed, by Western hipsters, with a tinge of exoticism. Birgitta has some wonderful playlist on her Spotify channel, and this one does a great job at capturing the genre’s oddness, thought it’s curious that she didn’t include Pizzicato Five.
Sometimes I wish I’d had a cooler childhood. Many of my friends have neat stories about discovering The Smiths at age 13 or getting drunk and listening to Springsteen (which I certainly do, but it’s for a different reason when you’re 30). My experiences were a little different. Sure, my dad used to play Electric Light Orchestra and Supertramp vinyls when we would clean the house and Paul Simon and B.B. King cassettes when we went on drives, which was awesome and formative, but most of my meaningful early experiences with music were with the classical music my grandparents and teachers would tell me about.A lot of my childhood was spent alone at the piano. After school, on weekends, when I would fake being sick so I could stay home alone with it, I revelled in the time I had with the instrument. I would play whatever I could get my hands on, as long as I liked it. My grandparents, who were very passionate about all kinds of music, would buy me CDs of famous works performed by illustrious pianists and conductors, and I would fall in love with certain sonatas or movements, sometimes buying the scores but usually printing them out from illegal sheet music sites in my high school library, daydreaming about them until I could go home and work on them. I loved Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s sonatas, Joplin’s rags and Ravel’s chamber music. I grew to love Serkin, Horowitz, Rubenstein, Bernstein, Goode, Abbado, Toscanini—so many great pianists and conductors.In addition to the piano I began playing saxophone when I was about 10. When I entered high school I decided to start taking lessons and I somehow made it into the studio of the St. Louis Symphony bass clarinet player James Meyer. Mr. Meyer taught me a tremendous amount about a whole range of cool things, such as zen meditation, martial arts defense moves, how to select and prepare reeds, and, most importantly, how to think about music. He exposed me to jazz, playing me my first real jazz record. It was Oliver Nelson’s 1961 Blues and the Abstract Truth, a hard bop masterpiece with unreal orchestration and elegant solos. I remember very clearly feeling like it was the dopest shit I’d ever heard. I bought the CD the following day at Borders. He also taught me about modern and postmodern music, from Debussy to John Adams. We played through everything we could.One summer Mr. Meyer was playing in the pit orchestra for a production of John Adams’ excellent 1987 opera Nixon in China. He showed me some of the sheet music and explained what post-minimalism was about. He said it was one of the hardest pieces he had ever played. I knew nothing about Adams or opera, but when I told my grandparents about it, they insisted that I have the opportunity to see it. My grandfather and I went to see Nixon in China a few weeks later—I found it exhilarating, new, and inspiring, but as a lifelong Puccini and Verdi fan, he did not like it very much at all. To this day I sing arias from that opera to myself when I am alone. Maybe it’s not as cool to some people as singing Springsteen, but I still think it’s pretty fuckin’ rad.
Vince Staples came to prominence as an associate of the L.A. underground rap collective Odd Future, making multiple appearances on Earl Sweatshirt’s 2013 album Doris. Two years later, Staples released the acclaimed album Summertime ’06 on Def Jam, which featured an appearance by frequent collaborator Jhene Aiko and established the Northside Long Beach rapper as a brilliant and distinctive voice in hip hop. Despite his irreverence toward traditional hip hop gatekeepers, Staples has proven an able collaborator for conscious veterans like Common and Dilated Peoples, as well as an agile MC who can tackle adventurous tracks from producers like Flume and Clams Casino. With the sheer variety of collaborators he sounds at home with, Vince Staples has enhanced the unique place his solo work occupies in the musical landscape and the ways he can express his sense of humor and political perspective.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.I have studied music since I was a child, but in my memory there is one singular moment in which more was revealed to me about the potential of the art form than in any other event in my life. I was an undergrad student at Webster University, where I was studying music history and piano, when this metamorphosis happened. It was very simple: I was working on an assignment in the music building’s computer lab, half listening to a conversation between my friend Shumpei, a Japanese composition student, and one of the composition professors. Shumpei, for his senior project, was writing a symphony, and he was describing the work to the professor, saying that he was fleshing out this or that part of it on that particular day. The professor was intrigued by this project, especially because in today’s composition programs, most students are working in electronic, atonal, or highly-specialized experimental composition. For Shumpei to be writing a symphony was very strange. Then the professor posed the question that was immediately and permanently seared into my mind. He asked, “What’s it about?”It had never occurred to me that classical music could be “about” something. Clearly operas were about something, and program music was about something. But instrumental works? It seemed insane to me. My first thought was that the professor was joking, being facetious, testing Shumpei with an obviously rigged question. But as the conversation unfolded, I started to become attuned to a new plane of meaning in music. I became aware of its essence.I share this anecdote not only because it continues to resonate with me today in my work as a historical musicologist, but also because it frames the way I associate music with contemporary historical events. Whether one likes it or not, Trump’s election is the most significant, unexpected, and potentially transformative political event that has occurred in the adult life of a person my age. I am not saying this in the affirmative or the negative—I am merely being dialectical about it. It is going to produce a new political terrain. Neoliberalism is under siege, the Democratic Party has fractured, the category of “president” is changing, and, most importantly and ideally, the Left has a new position from which to critique—and hopefully overcome—capitalism. From a Marxist standpoint this is truly an interesting situation.I have found myself listening to Beethoven for the past week. At first I did not question it, for this is typical of someone in my line of work. But as I started to realize that I was listening almost exclusively to Beethoven, I began to wonder why this was. As I have thought about it for the past few days, I find myself contemplating not only Beethoven, but the French Revolution, Hegel, and subjectivity. I don’t intend to descend too far into philosophy here, but I will point out that for Adorno, Beethoven’s music represented a particularly sensuous, philosophical image of society. He believed that in Beethoven’s music resided hope and transformation, that his music personified the emerging human quest for consciousness, becoming spirit. “Art is more real than philosophy,” Adorno wrote in his fragments on Beethoven, “in that it acknowledges identity to be appearance.” This means that, to put it reductively, art’s forms, like those of society, are subject to change, that the whole is mediated by the individual parts, that the totality can become something greater than itself, something non-identical, something other.What will Trump do? I don’t really know. I want to believe that he wont be that bad, and that, in opposition to him, we will witness the first revolutionary Left that has existed during any of our lifetimes. In my opinion, this possibility—as the sectarian, dead “left” has shown in the past decades—could not have existed if Clinton had become president. The code word here is “revolution,” and it always must emerge in opposition to something. Trump is the better opponent.My point with all this is that I look to Beethoven’s music for hope, because it was truly revolutionary in every sense of the word—its forms, its relationship to tonality, and, of course (!) its dialectical relationship to the French Revolution. His music is living proof that spirit cannot be extinguished. Beethoven during his lifetime (1770-1827) witnessed the rise and delay of the possibility of freedom, and this had a profound impact on his development as a composer. In no other body of music can one bear witness to such dizzying moments of hope and despair.The Eroica asked what it would mean if a particular interval resolved upward instead of downward, allowing the listener to observe as the status quo of form was broken apart before their very ears, melodies conversing and intertwining, down literally becoming up. The fugue of the op. 110 piano sonata contemplates, among other things, what would unfold if a theme was inverted, played as its own negative. The counterpoint and orchestration of the “Harp” quartet is sublime, especially in the last 90 seconds of its first movement, which contains gestures that continue to legitimately blow my mind. The late quartets investigated tonality to its full potential, so much so, in fact, that most music for the following 75 years was a form of sublimation, trying to catch up to what Beethoven did. This is distilled in Josef Danhauser’s 1840 painting Liszt at the Piano, which shows Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt playing at the keyboard under the consterned bust of his great predecessor, a symbol of Beethoven’s domination of all of his 19th century pupils.To invoke the opening to this essay: What is music about? It is about humanity and possibility. It is an image of ourselves in which the rules do not have to apply, allowing us to work through our desires, our fears, our fantasies, and our losses. I conceived of this playlist as covering a range of classical works that I consider to have significant moments of beauty and freedom, but due to the lengths of the movements I would have selected, as well as the fact that for me, Beethoven is *the* subjective composer, I decided to make this a Beethoven Essentials, of sorts. These are some of his most inspiring flourishes of autonomy. I have listened to Beethoven this week because, if we were living in a sonata form, we would be in the development. There has been a thesis and an anti-thesis, and there is hope. Things are changing, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to determine how we recapitulate.
Oh, I’m tired of looking for homeAnd asking about my loved onesMy soul is woundedSo the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman cries on “Mawal,” the penultimate track off his 2017 album, To Syria, With Love. After six years of war in his home country, the man known among Westerners for his dabke jams, for his laments to heartsickness, and for his ubiquitous keffiyeh and sunglasses can hold in his feelings no longer—he misses home.The war in Syria has spurred a global refugee crisis, stoked xenophobic and Islamophobic fears across Europe and America, and prompted U.S. president Donald Trump to add the Levantine nation to his list of countries thrown onto a controversial travel ban. But Syria’s musical traditions offer a much-needed escape from the horrors of war. Indeed, as this playlist shows, there is much to explore, from honey-voiced pop stars like George Wassouf and Assala Nasri to classical and folk traditions championed today by the likes of Ibrahim Keivo and the Orchestra or Syrian Musicians (members of whom performed a much-heralded concert last year in London with Damon Albarn and other guests as part of the musical collective Africa Express).Even before the war, Syria was never given a good rep in Western media representations; talk was all about Bashar al-Assad and the “axis of evil.” But in the Middle East, this country is famed for its rich traditions of art, music, and culture. Indeed, the capital Damascus contends as one of the oldest cities in the world, while the major city of Aleppo was famed as a center for sacral chants and the poetic and musical form called mowashah, preserved for centuries among Sufi and Christian musicians. Today, the situation may be incredibly dire for millions of Syrians, but there’s still the music, helping us heal from yesterday to today.
There’s no pain exactly like losing a musician you love. Partaking in good art can’t help but feel like a communion between oneself and the work’s author, so even if we never get the chance to meet our favorite creators in real life, the loss of one feels deeply personal. Not to mention the collected weight of all those songs that will never be written, and concerts never performed. Add to this the complicated nature of mourning a public figure — whose private life and struggles are often known only to their family and friends — and, well, it’s just brutal.That’s why posthumous songs, while so often a source of strife between labels and artists’ estates, can be so soothing to us fans. They give us a chance to remember the musicians as they were (consider Sublime’s “What I Got”) or as they might be right now (Avicii’s “Heaven”). They let us feel grateful for what we had (Bob Marley’s “Give Thanks & Praises”) or pissed off over what we lost (Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”). Sometimes they play like a final missive from beyond (John Lennon’s “Woman”). Often they’re prophetic (Tupac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”). And occasionally they’re just big, beatific shrugs (Mac Miller on “That’s Life”).Some of these songs were released within days of the artist’s passing, and most came within a year. But all of them feel imbued with some extra meaning, from the sad irony of the opener, Hank Williams’ “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but Time,” to the hard-fought optimism of the closer, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Music heals, so grab a tissue box and hit play.
Of the infinite subgenres crammed under the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella, no two feel as diametrically opposed as country-rock and glam. The former is a emblematic of authenticity, traditonalism, humility, and lonesome landscapes; the latter is the product of artifice, stardust-speckled futurism, flamboyance, and seedy inner-city alleyways. But on his two solo releases to date—2016’s Dolls of Highland and the new Full Circle Nightmare—Portland-via-Shreveport tunesmith Kyle Craft effortlessly initiates a holy communion between roots and ritz, casting his audacious, satellite-chasing voice and saucy narratives in a downhome brew of teary-eyed guitars and barrelhouse piano rolls. And he’s just the latest, most visible participant in a long conversation between these polar-opposite aesthetics.Before they became ‘70s pomp-rock icons, David Bowie and Elton John cast their vivacious voices in more rustic settings on their early records, while their peers in The Rolling Stones wallowed in southern-bordello sleaze on Exile on Main Street. And ever since, glam-loving rock acts from The Flaming Lips to Jack White to Girls have twisted heartland sounds to suit their own whimsical worldviews or, in the case of The Replacements, expressed solidarity with gender-bending outsiders. There is, of course, also a deep history of openly queer artists—from renegade troubadour Patrick Haggerty (a.k.a. Lavender Country) to doomed glitter-rock sensation Jobriath to avant-disco polymath Arthur Russell to modern-day indie acts like The Hidden Cameras and Ezra Furman—who’ve infiltrated the notoriously conservative arena of Americana, balancing sly subversion with sincere appreciation. Follow the lipstick traces into the heartland with this playlist of artists who serve up the glitz with a side of grits.
Hey, it happens: You neglect to keep up with all that’s new and cool in rap for a month (or several). Then you snap back into focus and, all of a sudden, the hip-hop landscape is completely populated by adolescents with face tattoos who’ve named themselves after prescription pharmaceuticals. “Where am I? How did I get here?”, you might wonder, feeling approximately 5,000 years old. Not to worry——“rap time” moves at a speed that defies all commonly understood laws of physics, anyway. For those who scan through Rap Caviar and feel lost, we’ve compiled a handy user’s guide to rap’s new generation, taking you on a tour through SoundCloud rap, Latin trap, and all things 2018. (Cue up the playlist above for a general overview of the contemporary hip-hop landscape at large, and then dig deeper into each scene below.)
Have you, a full-grown adult, ever been shaken to your core by sheer proximity to a group of teens, certain that they will roast your entire existence simply because they can? Welcome to the lawless land of SoundCloud rap: the movement that, over the past year and a half, has eclipsed the DIY implications of its somewhat dismissive moniker and officially infiltrated the mainstream. Originally, its biggest songs gathered steam on——you guessed it——SoundCloud’s weekly “most played” charts, which ostensibly bypassed stodgy industry gatekeepers to gauge exactly what fans respond to most. But for a while now, the movement’s been gradually outgrowing its home base, with curated playlists becoming the preferred platform for “discovery.” (Scare quotes intended.) And its biggest songs have ascended to the upper echelons of the Billboard charts in recent months: Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 in December; 6ix9ine’s “Gummo” peaked at No. 12 later that month; and, most recently, two separate singles from Lil Skies have been simultaneously cruising up the charts.It often feels as though these rappers are more united in visual aesthetic than they are in sound: Crayola-colored dreads, bountiful face tattoos, and worrisome Xanax references abound. (For a while, the scene was also disproportionately stationed in South Florida, though it’s branched out a bit, with Trippie Redd based in Columbus, 6ix9ine repping Brooklyn, and Lil Skies heralding from Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.) But aside from its brash attitude, there are a few common threads that tie the scene’s disparate acts together. The mix is often purposefully overblown and heavy on the digital distortion. Track run times are generally short enough to sustain a social media-saturated attention span. Influence-wise, SoundCloud rappers take cues from the improvisational sing-song style of Chief Keef, the gothic scuzz of ‘90s Hypnotize Minds acts, and the melodies of ’00s emo. Perhaps the most unpleasant quality of the movement is that its biggest stars have been regularly revealed to be terrible human beings——but what else is new in 2018?
It’s impossible to come up with a concise expression of what trap music sounds like in 2018 when the style is easily more diverse than it’s ever been——not to mention more prominently represented within mainstream hip-hop. (Hell, Taylor Swift albums come with Future features these days.) No one needs an introduction to Migos or Young Thug in 2018; but perhaps you’ve breezed through Rap Caviar lately and wondered, “Who the fuck is Lil Baby?” Atlanta remains the trap-music capital of the universe, and if there’s any one label that represents the style’s most popular iteration right now, it’s Quality Control Music, the label founded by legendary A&R rep Coach K. Migos are the label’s marquee act, but the label’s recent Control the Streets, Vol. 1 compilation provides a slightly more in-depth overview of sound of the moment: mostly downcast, with plenty of minor keys to go along with the stuttering snares.Beyond the Migos, though, Atlanta’s most ascendant trap stars over the past year have been Playboi Carti and 21 Savage. Carti’s supremely bass-boosted “Magnolia” was everywhere last year; and if trap’s most recognizable beatmaker these days is Metro Boomin, its most promising newcomer is Pi’erre Bourne, the Atlanta producer behind the single, whose sparse but immersive style is starting to take off. Meanwhile, 21 Savage’s slurry delivery, eerie beats, and nihilistic lyrics have infiltrated the charts over the past year; his understated “Bank Account,” produced by Metro Boomin, was a breakaway hit in 2017, and lately, it’s felt like half the Hot 100 has a 21 Savage feature, from Post Malone’s “rockstar” to Cardi B’s recent “Bartier Cardi.” You can’t talk about trap in 2018 without mentioning Cardi, who had the biggest come-up in 2017 rap with her explosive No. 1 hit, “Bodak Yellow.” That song, in turn, interpolates the flow from Kodak Black’s 2014 single “No Flockin” (hence the titular reference). South Florida’s answer to Lil Boosie, Kodak’s also seen a boom in notoriety, despite what seems to be constant legal trouble; his “Roll in Peace” single, featuring fellow problematic rapper XXXtentacion, has sat near the top of SoundCloud’s most-played charts for what feels like centuries in rap time (more accurately, about five months).Clearly, then, trap’s purview extends far beyond Atlanta in 2018. Baton Rouge prodigy YoungBoy Never Broke Again (formerly known as NBA YoungBoy) has been making waves in recent years for his wise-beyond-his-years storytelling, in the lineage of hometown heroes like Boosie or more recently, Kevin Gates. Chicago’s Famous Dex might not be a household name (which is probably a good thing, given the rapper’s alleged history of abuse), but his minimalist, slippery style looms large over the purposefully off-kilter sounds of 2018 trap and SoundCloud rap. He’s far from the only trap star with a troubling rap sheet: see Arlington, Texas MC Tay-K, whose raw 2017 breakthrough single, “The Race,” literally narrates the 17-year old’s run from a murder charge, for which he’s currently awaiting trial. Newcomers Tee Grizzley and Molly Brazy represent the dichotomy of Detroit street rap: Grizzley’s pathos-heavy “First Day Out” is a masterful mix of the joy and pain felt on his first day released from prison, while Brazy’s party anthems harken back to the bounce of Cash Money and No Limit productions from around the time the 18-year-old was born. And as evidence of Chief Keef’s underwritten influence over how trap music sounds in 2018, Dallas’ Cuban Doll named her recent turnt-up tape Aaliyah Keef, after the 19-year old’s two biggest inspirations.
The most memorable outfit on last weekend’s Grammy red carpet was not an ethereal gown or a suave tuxedo; instead, it was the ever-so-over-it Lil Uzi Vert’s mall-goth cargo pants, a triumphant comeuppance for anyone who spent the early ‘00s lurking Warped Tour, replying to flirty AIM messages with “Rawr xD,” or raving beneath the nearest underpass. It was bound to happen eventually: At some point over the past couple years, the well of ‘90s nostalgia ran dry, rap merch began looking like a Hot Topic sales rack circa 2002, and a new rap-rock movement had kicked into high gear. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug——especially when it sets its dreamy gaze on a trend so deliciously garish——but this isn’t your older brother’s rap-rock. Instead of macho mosh-pit metal, rap’s new generation is drawing from the more sensitive strains of ‘00s emo and pop-punk, which makes sense given hip-hop’s embrace of melody over the past decade. Along with the past decade’s steady blurring of genre boundaries, this moment seems inevitable. In fact, it may represent a more fully-realized vision of rap-rock than its original iteration——not to mention finally vindicating Lil Wayne’s “rappers are the new rock stars” mantra on Rebirth eight years ago.Uzi’s 2017 breakthrough, “XO TOUR Llif3,” is so far the defining hit of the new rap-rock movement, with ultra-depressing lines like “Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead” sung in Autotuned pop-punk cadences. An even bigger hit (and one that’s even more on-the-nose) is Post Malone’s “rockstar,” with its callouts to Jim Morrison, TVs tossed out hotel windows, and the actual lyric “I’m with the band.” But as far as a figurehead, the scene’s most promising leader was by and large Lil Peep, the heavily-tatted, deeply emotive rapper who died of an overdose last November at age 21. Emo-inspired anthems like “Awful Things” capture the romantic nihilism of a doomed generation; in his stead, members of his GothBoiClique crew, like Lil Tracy and Horse Head, keep the legacy alive.
It’s easy to feel beaten down by the world in 2018. And if things weren’t dark enough as it is, it’s all the more disheartening when hip-hop headlines and playlists feel increasingly dominated by unrepentant abusers and the gatekeepers who support them. Meanwhile, minor keys and eerie vibes have dominated rap production for the past few years, thanks in large part to the influence of Metro Boomin. Have we officially descended into full-time cultural nihilism? Well, not yet: A largely unconnected group of artists from across the map are keeping the flames of optimism flickering by basking in rap’s sunnier side.For the past couple years, Lil Yachty’s lighthearted trap has been an easy target for haters of “rap these days.” But along with his Sailing Team crew, the 20-year-old’s purposefully rinky-dink take on the past decade of Atlanta hip-hop——from Soulja Boy’s playful ringtone rap to the exuberance of early-‘10s groups like Travis Porter——has demanded serious consideration. Just as bubbly, but even more impressive rap-wise, are Sailing Team member Kodie Shane’s “Drip On My Walk” (buoyed by two simple piano keys) and Maryland rapper Rico Nasty’s Nickelodeon-themed bops. And it would seem that the boy-band format is back in style, minus the choreography and major-label svengalis. The super-ambitious Brockhampton crew has amassed a cult-like following for their inclusive, genre-spanning DIY jams. And perhaps the least expected ray of light in the 2017 rap landscape came from Baltimore’s Creek Boyz, whose trap chorale “With My Team” is a genuinely heart-warming ode to crew love.
As trap has evolved into the dominant sound for popular rap, Spanish-language hip-hop has responded in kind, and Latin trap has exploded into an undeniable force. Reggaeton had been the defining sound of the Latin urban charts for the past decade, but over the past two years, Latin music has adopted trap music’s lurching bass, 808 drum patterns, and half-rapped, half-sung cadences. Southern hip-hop’s influence has bled into Latin music for much longer than this particular moment, but artists within the scene seem to agree that “La Ocasión”——the moody 2016 smash from De La Ghetto featuring Arcángel, Anuel AA, and Ozuna——officially sparked the Latin-trap boom; the track currently has more than 465 million views on YouTube. However, the scene’s biggest star, and the one most primed for a mainstream crossover to English-speaking audiences, is Bad Bunny——the Puerto Rican rapper who, just two years ago, was uploading his songs to SoundCloud in his time off from bagging groceries at a San Juan supermarket. He hasn’t released an official album yet, but you’ll find his name all over popular Latin-trap playlists, Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, and, increasingly, the Hot 100. English-language rappers are taking notice of the movement’s massive popularity, and in the past year, there’s been an increasing amount of bilingual collaborations. Late last year, Nicki Minaj and 21 Savage hopped on the remix to Puerto Rican artist Farruko’s hit, “Krippy Kush,” which also features Bad Bunny and former dancehall producer Rvssian. And in August, Cardi B released an official Spanish remix to her No. 1 single “Bodak Yellow” featuring NYC-based Dominican rapper Messiah.
Though it may feel like rap in 2018 is overwhelmingly dominated by teenage SoundCloud upstarts and corporate-curated Spotify playlists, that doesn’t mean there isn’t space for genuinely idiosyncratic individuals to step out, too. There’s no formal connection between these particular rappers, many of whom stand apart stylistically even within their respective local scenes. But in 2018, as ever, rap is nothing without its sui generis weirdos, even if these artists aren’t yet represented on the charts, or on the most prominent streaming playlists. Watts, California’s 03 Greedo is impossible to pin down, as evidenced by his sprawling, versatile mixtapes that often clock in at 30 or 40 tracks long; from super-tough West Coast gangsta rap to spacy R&B ballads, you never know what you’re going to get from the rapper/producer, though he’s described his own style as “pain music that’s popping.” Along with Greedo, Drakeo the Ruler’s currently shifting the sound of L.A. street rap, with his deft, free-associative flow and vivid vocabulary. (Does anyone truly know what “Flu Flamming” means? No. Does it matter? Not in the slightest.) And Sacramento’s Mozzy has quietly become one of the most striking voices in West Coast rap, with his intense, super-detailed street-life narratives; Kendrick even gave him an unexpected shout-out at the Grammys this past weekend. Meanwhile, Chicago continues to breed true individuals, from the hyper-minimal, two minute bursts of subdued trap from Valee (whose shape-shifting flow has gotten him the attention of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint) to CupcakKe, whose colourful, outre sex raps have earned her a sizeable LGBT fanbase. And Chattanooga, Tennessee’s BbyMutha channels the energy of trailblazers like Gangsta Boo and La Chat into tough, thoughtful, bad-ass underground anthems.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.