The first American Football album presents an image on its cover that has long remained in my mind. This image, a photo of the side of a Midwest house on a cloudy night, is conjured up from my unconscious and displayed on the projection screen of my mind’s eye every time I hear Mike Kinsella’s voice. American Football sounds like that photo looks: inviting, mysterious, and decidedly more complex than the surface would lead one to believe. The past few years have seen a renaissance in American Football’s emo/math rock aesthetic, with numerous young indie bands taking up the torches of sincerity and despair, displaying their emotions cleanly and clearly on distortion-tinged canvasses that recall the side of that house from the American Football album cover. And yet as the emo revival seems robust and healthy, I recently saw online that the house—which resides in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois—is for sale. Some things come full circle, it seems, especially with the release of a long-awaited second American Football album. But many things do change: people move away, houses fall apart, neighborhoods fall into dilapidation. Perhaps if the house is to be a metaphor for the resurgence of emo, it must be taken both as a memory and a state of disrepair that tasks the present with its rebuilding.
There’s a tragic feeling of incompleteness to Sharon Jones’ career, and it’s best be summed up with the phrase "discovered too late and gone way too soon." The soul and funk vocalist’s story is a well-told one: a criminally overlooked session powerhouse—who clearly possessed the chops and sheer life-force to be a star when she first turned professional in the ’70s—finally achieves fame in her late-’40s only to have pancreatic cancer claim her life in 2016 at the age of 60. Fortunately for the world, the Grammy-nominated Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, made the most of her all-too-brief stardom, dropping seven stellar studio albums, including the posthumously released Soul of a Woman, recorded as the singer underwent debilitating chemotherapy treatments.What makes the group so unique is their ability to feel unapologetically old-school, yet without any residue of weepy nostalgia. Anchored not just by Jones’ attention-seizing voice, but the group’s agilely stabbing horns and preternaturally metronomic rhythm section as well, their music pops, sizzles, and jumps with a sweaty, determined modernism. (Especially relevant in this context is their funk-spiked reworking of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”) It’s a sound that has exerted a huge impact on 21st-century pop, pushing retro-soul into the mainstream while also making the Dap-Kings, as well as their sister outfit the Dap Kings Horn Section, in-demand session musicians in the same vein as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or the Wrecking Crew.Arguably the first artist to take notice was the late Amy Winehouse, who employed the Dap-Kings when crafting her own fusion of retro and contemporary R&B for 2006’s game-changing Back to Black. The album’s co-producer, Mark Ronson, then used the ensemble’s crack horn section on his massive retro-pop hit “Uptown Funk,” featuring dynamo singer Bruno Mars. More recently, the digitally minded Kesha used those soul-piercing horns on her crushing, feminist anthem “Woman,” from her emotional tour de force Rainbow.But not every session/appearance fits snugly between the poles of R&B and pop—there’s a slew of leftfield examples, too. On her self-titled full-length from 2014, avant-garde singer-songwriter St. Vincent leans heavily on the unswerving pulse of Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss (who also plays skins for the Dan Auerbach-led Arcs), while her collaborative effort with David Byrne, Love This Giant, weaves their horns into the duo’s art-rock pointillism. Other standouts include The Black Lips, whose garage-punk rave-up Underneath the Rainbow utilizes the services of baritone guitarist Thomas Brenneck and trumpeter David Guy, and country outlaw Sturgill Simpson, who worked with the the Dap-Kings horns on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and then brought them onstage for his 2017 Grammy performance.On top of featuring cuts from each of the artists already mentioned, our playlists dips into the Dap-Kings many related projects (including The Budos Band and Menahan Street Band), as well as veteran soul and funk singers Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Rickey Calloway who, like Jones, found a welcoming home on Daptone, easily retro-soul’s most important record label. Of course, the absence left by Jones’ death will forever be felt; she was, after all, a once-in a-generation talent. But it becomes all too clear when exploring this diverse array of songs that her vision and style will continue to echo throughout modern music for a long time to come.
While the internet has hurtled us light-speed into the future, its most pervasive effect (as noted by writer Simon Reynolds in his 2011 book Retromania) has been to make the past instantly accessible, reviving cultural artifacts and iconography long ago erased from our collective memory and stripping them of their context. The late-2000s indie-pop permutation known as chillwave was the sound of that process happening in real time. It was a virtual mood board of borrowed nostalgia for a half-remembered ‘80s, with old-school rap beats, electro synth bleeps, plush yacht-rock, Baeleric house, and 4AD dream-pop all blurring together like repurposed images in a rapidly scrolling Tumblr feed, and mutating and fading like the resolution on an overused VHS tape.Of course, like all genre buzzwords, nobody wanted to own it at the time, and both its key progenitors (Ariel Pink, Animal Collective) and early ambassadors (Toro y Moi, Washed Out) have since moved on to pursue more grandiose visions or pop-accessible paths. But like many easy-to-dismiss fads, chillwave’s sound has lingered to become a permanent component in the contemporary indie toolkit. Its DNA is present in the music of modern-day mavericks like Blood Orange and Tame Impala, and it’s had a soluble effect on the sound of latter-day Flaming Lips and Destroyer; even Nick Cave’s 2016 track “Rings of Saturn” bears its unlikely influence. A decade on from its emergence, chillwave very much remains the future sound of our ever-present past.
While contemplating whether or not to boycott Kanye, listen to the soulful, spiritual jazz of Kamasi Washington. Itll take the edge off, we promise.In this time of great shitiness, when the ruler of the world is a reality star who rose to power by stoking the basest racial sentiments of a populace knee-deep in Russian propaganda, I think back to other shitty times, namely the late-summer of 2005. Less than a year before, we’d re-elected a president who led us to war based on a lie that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and forever shattered the Middle East. Louisiana, my home state, was underwater after Hurricane Katrina, and people were dying. The president was, at best, cavalier about the loss of life, and, at worst, complicit in it. Kanye, during a marathon to benefit the victims of that hurricane, famously declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and that felt like one of the most courageous and comforting things I’d ever heard. His words were bold and empowering, and though the odyssey Kanye would undergo over the next decade was slightly more ambiguous, it all felt of a piece with that moment. To put it plainly, I loved Kanye.I supported Kanye after his marriage -- not despite of who he was marrying, but because of it. Kim Kardashian was a beautiful, wealthy, and savvy woman. Who wouldn’t want that? I thought what he did at the VMAs with Taylor Swift was funny and warranted, and that the more extreme reactions against it were tinged with racism. I didn’t agree with everything he said in his “rants,” but I also thought that it was an inspired piece of stagecraft. All those things were awesome, in my opinion, and are among the reasons I love him. What Kanye is doing now has nothing to do with that narrative. When he poses in a MAGA hat, as Lyor Cohen appears to be throwing up an alt-right hand sign, he’s giving comfort to those who want to hurt the ones I love. When he professes his love for Trump and bashes Obama, it feels as if he’s helping push the boot down on our collective necks. He is not smashing the liberal groupthink or spiking our bi-coastal kool-aid via with a truthbomb. There’s no aspect of this that qualifies as speaking truth to power at all. The conservatives in this country control every branch of government. They dominate at the federal and state level. They have instilled what is effectively state-run media that is the highest rated news source in our nation. And they’re being led by the guy who took out a full-page ad begging for the execution of five innocent African American kids. This is the guy Kanye loves.There’s no post-ironic reading of this. It’s enabling oppression. Listen, I don’t normally boycott people. People have their opinions, and I respect that, and I can generally separate the performer from the person. I still obsessed over The Good, The Bad and The Ugly even after that weird-ass Clint Eastwood speech at the RNC. I still love Michael Haneke movies even after said some pretty disagreeable shit about the #metoo movement. Im embarrassed to admit it, but I listened to R. Kelly a lot longer than I should’ve. This feels different. Kanye’s narrative is intrinsically tied to his artwork. It’s a postmodernist cliche at this point, but his life is his art -- he very consciously turned it into a cross-platform meta-narrative -- and, if in the course of crafting that story, you transform yourself into an alt-right villain, you shouldn’t be surprised when people treat you like one, and that means you get boycotted.Still, it’s difficult to turn my back on Kanye’s music. He’s given us so much, and I’ve loved each and every one of his albums. I can’t think of another artist from the past 20 years whose name is on as many classics. He’s changed the way music sounded at least three times over the course of that period, and I was genuinely looking forward to hear where he was taking it next. Still, it’s hard to separate KANYE, THE ART PROJECT from Kanye, the rapper and producer. Perhaps somewhere along the way the former overtook the latter, and now we’re left with this thick web of misdirection and irony that will never be untangled. But part of me says that even that reading is too generous.So, I get that this is normally the part of the essay where I, the writer, tries to negotiate the contradictions, clarify the argument, and come to full-throated resolution. I’m sorry, but that isnt’ happening here. I’ll wait and see, process my feelings about this, and see if I’m able to separate Kanye from KANYE. Its going to be tough, either way.
I first met Janelle Monàe when she was 22 years-old and opening up for the Oakland neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq at the San Francisco venue Bimbos, a mid-size club on the outskirts of that city’s North Beach neighborhood. A few months before, she’d released her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). It was an exciting, groundbreaking collection. It combined the wild, post-rap funk of Outkast and afrofuturism of George Clinton with the tech dystopianism of William Gibson and a more formalalistic, Brechtian remove. For a kid weaned on semiotics and Gang Starr, this collision was enthralling, if a bit messy. Janelle’s voice was captivating, but the songs sometimes couldn’t keep up with her energy -- the backing vocals blurred together, and the choruses weren’t always memorable. In short, I liked the idea more than her music.Regardless, she was a dynamic personality, and I was excited for the interview. About a half hour before she took the stage, her manager took me backstage, where Janelle was cloistered inside of small changing room -- more of a closet than a suite. She was already outfitted in her signature white tuxedo shirt, with her hair was bunched up into its beehive coif. She was nervous, but friendly. She offered me a water, which was nice of her. I spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to place her in the lineage of afrofuturism, discussing Octavia Paz and Parliament. In retrospect, it was a dumb move -- I assumed that her reading of herself was the same as mine, and didn’t allow her to speak for herself -- and the strategy bit me in the ass when, with five minutes left in my appointed interview window, she, annoyed and maybe embarrassed, declared that she didn’t know much about afrofuturism, she’d barely even heard of it. I felt shitty and a little bit disappointed. I hated that I had put her in a foul mood, and, more selfishly, I had no idea if anything in the interview was usable.But her live show that night was rapturious, a prolonged ecstatic release of energy that found her bouncing, jerking, and bounding across the stage in barely controlled dance patterns. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. And though she doesn’t make dance music, you couldn’t help but move. It didn’t matter that here hooks weren’t quite there, or that she hadn’t yet been able to name her own style, the performance was special, even singular. Since then, she’s made some jaw-dropping tracks that’ve shown immense growth and refinement, but the music, though oftentimes very very good, has never quite escaped her heavy conceptual framework. Luckily, she’s entirely catches up with herself on Dirty Computer. The album largely, though not entirely, loses the funkified Android conceit of her earlier work. It’s both more personal and more self-assured. It glides where her other music tends to churn, and the hooks are immediately catchy, and stick in your head. It’s still occasionally directive of other people’s work -- “Make Me Feel” sounds remarkably like Dirty Mind-era Prince, for example -- but she entirely makes it her own here; the sums of her influence coalesce into something much more personal and singular. It’s the best work of her career, and may end up being both the most fun and important album of 2018.The album’s two opening tracks are among the most memorable one-two punch in recent memory. Brian Wilson’s vocal remain pop’s greatest invocation, and amidst his lilting, layered , the lead-off title resurrects Janelle’s dreamy, sensual landscape. She invites us to “look closer” at the “text message caught up in the sky.” Once again, she’s identifying with hardware (a dirty computer, in this case), but the vocals are warm and human, and, soon, we hear MLK reciting the Declaration of Independence. We’re onto “Crazy, Classic, Life” now -- one of the neat tricks the front half of the album pulls off is blurring the space between songs, so that it all sounds like one, long jam -- and Janelle quickly asserts a theme that will run through the album. It’s 2018 now, and her and people like her are no longer on the margins; they’re now the “rulers” and “kings.” “Im not Americas nightmare,” she coos on the song’s pre-chorus, “Im the American dream.”In that way, it resembles Frank Ocean’s Blonde, another coronation of a queer America that was curtailed by Trump’s election a few months later. Monàe’s work contains little of Ocean’s melancholy or ambience; Dirty Computer is pure pop music, euphoric and uncluttered. “PYNK,” which features Montreal steam pop producer Grimes, is a technicolor march down the broadest boulevards of American culture. The song hems together and subverts lyrical archetypes. Witness the pre-chorus:“So, here we are in the carLeavin traces of us down the boulevardI wanna fall through the starsGetting lost in the dark is my favorite partLets count the ways we could make this last forever"Taken out of context, this could be sung by Tom Petty, Britney Spears, or any number of chroniclers of main street adolescence. That Janelle is using this in the service of an anthem to pansexuality should be subversive, but, in 2018, it seems perfectly normal. This is a victory for all of us.Monàe’s previous music has always seemed to exist in a different time. The revved-up guitar riffs and funky drummer breakdowns place her in the ‘60s, while the lyrics’ runaway-Android lover motif put her firmly in the (20)40s. But Dirty Computer feels necessarily of this time. The world caught up with her. The techno-dystopian daydream of her earlier work has become a crippling reality, and, yes, that’s unfortunate. But the sheer, self-conscious otherness of Janelle, which ten years ago was a commercial liability, is not only permissible, but is celebrated, and this album is funky testament to this new freedom.
Lets face it, being sentient in 2018 is a pretty grim proposition. The Western order is collapsing. Immigrant children are being torn from their parents. Social media has turned us all into data-packets. Each and every morning we wake up and are greeted with headlines proclaiming the blowback from racism, misogyny, and environmental degradation. Our safety net is disintegrating. Truth is under segue. There’s an opioid crisis, a tariff war, and seemingly a new school massacre every freaking week. Our president is Donald Trump, and our friends are Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin. There’s even a guy running for Senate in Virginia who is an active, admitted pedophile.I get that you just came here to listen to the best music of 2018, and not read a depressing recap of 2018’s most nightmarish news, but the two things are connected. Popular music, now more so than any time in recent memory, reflects the dread and dysfunction of our public lives. You can hear it in the dark irony of Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and in the damaged hip-hop soul of Huncho Jack’s “Modern Slavery.” It’s in the narcotized nihilism of Lil Peep’s “4 Gold Chains” or XXXTENTACION’s “Sad!”, and in the clamoring industrial noise-scapes of Osheyak’s “Hidden Teeth” or the pinging rap cacophony of Jpegmafia. Even when our music is hopeful, you can still spot the shadows of our particular malaise. Janelle Monae and Kamasi Washington push the gospel of resistance, and even transcendence, both of which are empowering, of course, but it also serves to draw our attention back to our collective cancer. One really has to look to electronic music for any true relief, and new music from DJ Koze, Nico Jaar, DJ Sports, and Axel Bowman feels particularly sublime -- you need a pretty big flashlight to combat this darknessAnd while this all sounds horribly depressing, it’s also resulted in some great music. There has yet to be the single album-length masterpiece -- no DAMN! or Yeezus -- but we’re not living in the album age, and each week seems to bring some titanically awesome single, whether that’s Jean Grae and Quelle’s “Gold Purple Orange” or Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Black Snow.” And even if the public landscape looks impossibly grim, we’re undeniably lucky to live in the same world where Peggy Gou, Vince Staples, Nils Frahm, Cardi B, and Kendrick Lamar are all making music. So let’s rejoice -- it’s rally the best logical response to this ongoing shitshow.
There are a variety of theories as to how a Nordic nation of 10 million people and few other notable exports besides IKEA, Volvo, and gummy candies came to thoroughly dominate the global pop marketplace through its formidable arsenal of performers, writers, and producers.Some point to the country’s generous funding for artists and arts education—“I have public music education to thank for everything,” über-producer Max Martin said in 2001. Others credit the model set by ABBA, the Stockholm-formed phenomenon that may be just as big today as it was during the ’70s thanks to Mamma Mia! In his essential book The Song Machine, writer John Seabrook emphasizes the influence of Denniz Pop, the Swede who helped mastermind Ace of Base in the ’90s and mentored Martin and other future hitmakers before dying tragically young. Or maybe—like the Bulls under Jordan and Pippin or Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!—they just love killin’ it.Whatever the reason, the Swedish control of the international charts only intensified through the 2010s, as producers like Martin and Shellback survived the end of the boy-band age they’d owned via their work for *NSYNC and Britney Spears by becoming equally indispensable to new superstars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. They updated their trusty formula of don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus structures and major keys with the energy rush and dramatic tension of EDM and other elements that added complexity without sacrificing immediacy. Just consider the woozy twists and turns that fill Martin’s production for Ariana Grande’s “Into You” and the reggaetón lilt in Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care”: fresh variations that otherwise deliver those Swedish pop fundamentals with ruthless efficiency.The same drive to innovate is just as clear in the songs by Swedish artists such as Robyn, who began and ended the decade with a pair of heartache-filled masterpieces, and Tove Lo. As for Avicii—a.k.a. Tim Bergling, the DJ and producer who sadly took his own life in 2018—there may be no artist who more successfully bridged the realms of clubland, streaming, and old-school hit radio. The extent of his influence will be felt even more in the decade to come.But as for now, here’s a playlist that shows how those Swedes got it done.
The storied songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin won their first joint Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” a disco-tinged, self-affirming strut from the Elton biopic Rocketman. That Oscar capped off a decade of big-ticket soundtrack songs, whether they were high-concept tracks like Lana Del Rey’s glammed-up Great Gatsby lament “Young and Beautiful,” heart-tugging ballads like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born duet “Shallow,” or Pharrell Williams’ giddy Despicable Me 2 bounce “Happy.” Musicals were in high supply during the 2010s as well, with La La Land and Frozen leading the pack of song-filled fantasias that took viewers to far-off lands.
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.
“Techno is a brain-dead exercise of plastic sound.” Those were the words Thurston Moore chose to utter in a recent episode of Pitchfork’s “Over/Under” series, and goddamn did they ignite a burst of social media disputes and outrage. Techno and house music diehards were incensed, labeling the indie legend a white male rocker has-been who doesn’t know jack. His defenders, meanwhile, dismissed his detractors as whiny, thin-skinned club brats who take themselves too seriously. It’s a dustup that’s just another manifestation of the rock vs. dance music rivalry that flared up in 1979 when the Chicago White Sox hosted the infamous Disco Demolition Night.This stuff is so played out. Clearly, the folks on both sides of the “Thurstongate” debate don’t listen to many mainstream jams. If they did, they’d realize that rock and electronic dance music, once rivals, have now cross-pollinated to such an extent that it’s often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Simply look at Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart for the week of July 1, 2017: the top three songs—Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” Twenty One Pilots “Heathens” (this thing is just never going to leave the charts, is it), and Linkin Park’s “Heavy”—are produced like dance tracks: Programming and sequencing fill every conceivable space; keyboards are all over the place; and vocals frequently dip into rapping and/or an R&B/dance-pop falsetto. Guitars are in the mix, but they’re no longer a core quality.This is just the tip of the iceberg. Ever since Aaron Bruno (a.k.a. AWOLNATION) introduced the novel idea of marrying a Black Keys/White Stripes-style thump and grungy power chords to electropop synths, EDM shimmer, and even some chopped and screwed goop, modern rock has witnessed a surge of artists who simply don’t give a shit about operating within the genre’s traditionally drawn boundaries. There’s Lorde, X Ambassadors, Rag’n’Bone Man, Bastille, Issues, and MISSIO (whose massive, electro-rock anthem “Middle Fingers” probably is unknown to most folks over the age of 30). Even South Africa’s KONGOS, who utilize plenty of chunky, distorted-riff action, build their songs for both the arena and club.All this prompts the question: trend or the new normal? Hard to tell. After all, the charts still see action from garage-bred dudes like Jack White, Benjamin Booker, and the Black Lips who remain faithful to a classic conception of rock ’n’ roll. But it does seem as if Twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons, as well as every other artist on our playlist, are expressions of deeper shifts in rock’s relationship to digital production technology that are going to continue to become more far-reaching. Of course, we could run out of energy by the end of the decade; in that case it’s back to folk music for everybody.
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.