Drug Use and Suicide: Welcome to SoundCloud Rap

A relatively new genre of rap has taken the world by storm, and in turn, has brought dark clouds over the industry. With its origins stemming from the SoundCloud audio distribution and music sharing website, “SoundCloud Rap” epitomizes music made in the social media era with its hyperfocus on branding. “SoundCloud rappers” sell more than music; they craft an image designed specifically for social media and the influencer status that can follow. Their overwhelming portrait of preference is a mosaic of drug use, suicide, violence, and other morbid topics. Also referred to as “Emo Rap”, SoundCloud Rap has recently conquered the attention of millions, primarily those in the teenage and 18 – 25 year old age ranges (i.e., Generation Z). According to Spotify, “Emo rap grew 292 percent in 2018 over last year.” This latest strand of hip-hop refuses to be ignored. As a child of the 90s though, and someone who grew up listening to Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Eminem, Nas, Jay Z, Kanye, and a whole host of other artists and groups (Souls of Mischief, Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, the list goes on…), not only do I find Soundcloud Rap distasteful, I find it dangerous.

Perhaps I am culturally ignorant and stuck in my “Dad Rap” generation or, as Lil Yachty – a top artist of the SoundCloud age – put it, “Older hip-hop people don’t understand evolution – or don’t want it.” I guess it’s difficult to understand the incessant glorification of drug use and suicide, especially when these gruesome themes target impressionable young people and the music is almost completely devoid of any lyrical artistry. Gangster rap may not have been suitable for a more wholesome crowd, but at least it was largely loaded with stories about societal issues and life in the hood. Guys like Snoop Dogg rapped about smoking weed, but rarely did they celebrate harder drugs like “Lean” (a cocktail containing codeine), and if they did, it was more on the fringes (RIP Pimp C). In fact, many rappers wrote songs about their struggles with drugs, advocating against their use (see Otherside by Macklemore). Most SoundCloud Rap, on the other hand, shamelessly promotes hard drug use, everything from Xanax to opiates (watch as Lil Pump celebrates 1 million Instagram followers by cutting a cake in the shape of a Xanax bar).

In October 2018, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) brought charges against a rapper known as realnewjerzeydevil “for allegedly distributing a fatal dose of fentanyl mixed with heroin.” The DOJ even stated in its press release how “this investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use.” According to TMZ, realnewjerzeydevil (Michael Jones) was part of a group, Goth Boi Clique, that included the more widely known Lil Peep, who died in late 2017 after overdosing on Xanax and fentanyl, along with many other drugs found in his system (he was 21 years old). Michael Jones not only distributed the fentanyl mixed with heroin that ultimately killed a 29-year-old woman, but according to the indictment, continued selling the same drugs even after he knew of the woman’s death. Based on these charges, Jones faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison with the potential for a life sentence. Following the charges and the TMZ story, Goth Boi Clique rejected any affiliation with Jones.

While realnewjerzeydevil was relatively unknown, rappers like the late Lil Peep have served as the face of the new SoundCloud Rap generation. With equal parts Atlanta trap, emo rock, and pop-punk influences, the genre has created a unique sound and an army of similarly unique-looking artists who barely have to leave their bedrooms to gain notoriety. Lil Peep explained to Pitchfork how he went to Guitar Center one day and spent $200 on a microphone, plugged it into his MacBook, and recorded his early songs on GarageBand in his room. After a few months of playing around on his computer and uploading tracks to SoundCloud, he noticed there were tens of thousands of people playing his music, and his following only grew from there.

Of course, in order to distinguish yourself on social media amidst a slew of other SoundCloud Rappers, you need to command attention. For this reason, SoundCloud Rap is as much about image as it is the music itself, which is why most of these rappers have outrageous face tattoos, multicolored hair, and obscenely bright clothing. Just take a look at the extreme example of the rapper, Tekashi 6ix9ine, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on racketeering charges where the mandatory-minimum is 32 years:

Tekashi 6ix9ine, rainbow grill and all, is 22 years old

Many of these SoundCloud rappers could pass as anime or cartoon characters. It is all part of the overall branding strategy on social media, with SoundCloud and Instagram as the platforms of choice. Rappers of this generation no longer rely on sponsorships or features from established rappers like they did back in day (e.g., Dr. Dre signing Eminem to Aftermath Entertainment in 1998). In addition to exotic and outlandish appearances, however, this potential path to fame incentivizes crazy, and oftentimes dangerous or criminal, antics intended to attract attention on social media. Teenage rapper Tay-K, for example, announced on Twitter that he was removing his ankle monitor while under house arrest and planned to flee to shoot a music video about his escape, which became “The Race” (it generated over 158 million views on Youtube and is riddled with gun violence and drug use). 6ix9ine (pictured above) reportedly spent years trying to gain fame, eventually associating himself with some Brooklyn-based Bloods when other tactics failed. His breakout hit, “Gummo”, was the beginning of the end for him, a beginning that had actually started a few years prior when he posted a disgusting (and illegal!) video to Instagram where he performed sexual acts on a 13-year-old girl (he plead guilty, and at the time was only given a slap on the wrist, but as noted previously, is now facing racketeering charges).

Other examples of insane performative antics abound, with the sole goal of creating social media hype. Many of these posts and videos feature drug use like Lil Pump’s Xanax bar cake noted earlier, or the endless Instagram videos of the late Lil Peep in various states of intoxication. While mental health problems are undoubtedly an issue for almost all of these young SoundCloud rappers, it’s hard to ignore the marketing power their live mental decline has on their audiences. Fans soak it up and keep coming back for more. It’s almost as if they’re getting a vicarious high watching these artists deteriorate live on social media. The attention only incentivizes more extreme behavior in an effort to attract more followers, likes, and shares.

The music further bolsters the images and videos that seem to glorify the drug use and suicide. The confessional lyrics do shed light on serious mental health problems, but they also seem to be part of the social media branding strategy. This contrasts from emo rock’s rise a few decades back prior to social media’s prevalence, where artists appeared painfully authentic when expressing their emotional state. How are audiences to distinguish truth in storytelling when 6ix9ine’s lawyer also tells judges that his client “liked to present the image of being a gangster to sell his music”, but that his “client is not a gangster”? Or when drugs appear all over social media posts, but artists swear they’re not glorifying their use, only their fragile mental states? Or when artists like Lil Pump put machine guns in their mouth? Mental health issues are serious, but so is selling drug use and suicide as part of an overall branding identity.

Kurt Cobain, the revered voice of Generation X, refused to advocate for drug use, let alone incorporate it into a branding strategy designed to sell records or enhance his fame.

I never went out of my way to say anything about my drug use. I tried to hide it as long as I could. The main reason was that I didn’t want some 15-year-old kid who likes our band to think it’s cool to do heroin, you know? I think people who glamorize drugs are fucking assholes and, if there’s a hell, they’ll go there.

Kurt Cobain

Some have argued that the glamorization of drugs, suicide, and violence in SoundCloud Rap is unintentional. They argue it’s an evolution of rap, a genre that used to be about stories of struggle and boasting of material wealth, and is now focused on anxiety, stress, and depression and how people are coping with it. It’s hard to interpret this authenticity though when artists like Lil Peep give these half-rapped ruminations about guzzling drugs and committing suicide, as he did in his debut project LiL PEEP PART ONE, only to see those same artists clowning around on social media, sticking guns in their mouths, and posting pictures and videos of drug use. The risk for imitation is high, especially when the core audience is comprised of kids in their teens and early 20s.

Imitators aside, 2018 was a destructive year for SoundCloud Rap. One of the biggest faces of the genre was XXXTentacion, who was murdered in June while awaiting trial on disturbing domestic abuse charges (he allegedly beat up his pregnant ex-girlfriend). He was one of the most streamed artists in the world on Spotify in 2018. 6ix9ine, as discussed above, is facing major prison time. Lil Pump spent a couple months in jail for a parole violation. The guy who makes music videos out of his crimes, Tay-K, is currently being held without bail on charges of murder and aggravated robbery. Lil Tracy suffered a heart attack from heavy drug use (he’s 23-years-old). Lil Xan recently went to rehab for substance abuse. You get the picture – the scene is dark right now.

Even if you were able to move past the chaos surrounding SoundCloud Rap and focus only on the music, hip-hop purists would likely balk. XXXTentacion got love from guys like Kendrick Lamar when he dropped his album “17” and from Kanye following his death, but most of the industry veterans simply seem forced to work with these new age rappers because of their massive followings. Nicki Minaj, for example, collaborated with the upstanding 6ix9ine on “FEFE”, which was probably her biggest song of the year. Unlike their predecessors though, SoundCloud rappers typically place little emphasis on lyricism, while focusing intensely on distortion and laid back beats. The end result is that everything sounds almost exactly the same. Snoop Dogg hilariously poked fun at this approach, specifically targeting the Atlanta trap and mumble rap music that burst onto the scene with Migos, Future, etc.

Modern radio and the commercial realm of music has injured rap. It set up ambiguous rules and systems for success that don’t take into consideration the quality and skill of the rappers craft. It redefined rap as just being a beat driven hook with some words in between and an entire generation has surrendered to chasing the format instead of chasing the art form. 

Lupe Fiasco

And here we are, facing a SoundCloud Rap wave that largely adheres to a set formula: (1) slow and distort a few beats and melodic tones; (2) think of something catchy you can say over and over (more offensive and outlandish the better); and (3) record, remix, and repeat. Combine this formula with eccentric and equally eye-catching social media posts, and you’re suddenly a star in the making. The music this creates renders a disservice to the golden age of hip-hop that preceded it, making it difficult to justify even calling SoundCloud Rap, “rap music” in the first place. None of the SoundCloud Rappers have time for deep introspection or the thoughtful crafting of witty rhymes that tell a story – they’re too obsessed with their next social media post, or the next song they’ll make using the same formula as the last one.

Given the popularity of SoundCloud Rap, however, some people disagree.

“The very things that some hip hop purists criticize about XXX [Tentacion] or [Lil] Xan or others — the lack of witty punchlines or intricate rhyme patterns — is the very thing that defines its aesthetic. Emo rap is as much or more about sound and feeling as it is about subject matter.”

Erika Montes, head of artist and label relations at SoundCloud

It’s hard to focus on the sound and feeling though when SoundCloud rappers repeatedly chant (or mumble) themes of drug use, suicide, death, and violence directly at their audience. Although granted, not everyone in the genre is guilty as charged, as the New Yorker recently captured with a telling piece on the artistic approach of Earl Sweatshirt, the Odd Future alum, who at age 24 is already a veteran of the Emo Rap wave. And yes, if you can overcome some of the genre’s downright awful lyrical performances, some of the tracks have catchy beats. But as one Youtube comment perfectly summarized in response to a 6ix9ine song, “This shit does bang but it’s lowering my IQ.”

Some of SoundCloud Rap’s inherent differences to traditional rap challenge its relationship with the past. A number of current artists seem to take pleasure in dissing hip-hop’s forebears. 21 Savage, for example, took aim at “Og Rappers” for being too judgmental of the new generation:

Lil Yachty said Notorious B.I.G. was overrated, although he later apologized. Similarly, Lil Xan called 2Pac’s music boring, and Lil Pump has a song titled “F**K J. Cole.” Meanwhile, the older generation, who seem more like choir boys everyday compared with this new wave of rappers, do not hesitate to express their opinion. Eminem sees a general lack of substance in this generation. Namely, SoundCloud rappers lack his technical skills and wit, all points that are nearly impossible to dispute. He even raps about it in his new album, Kamikaze, where he takes shots at Lil Yachty, describing in detail how he’d prefer to mutilate himself in his private areas instead of listening to what Yachty has to say. And on his track, “Lucky You”, he goes off on SoundCloud Rap generally, much to my amusement:

They're askin' me "What the fuck happened to hip-hop?"
I said "I don't have any answers"
'Cause I took an L when I dropped my last album
It hurt me like hell but I'm back on these rappers
And actually coming from humble beginnings
I'm somewhat uncomfortable winning
I wish I could say "What a wonderful feeling!"
We're on the upswing like we're punchin' the ceiling
But nothin' is feeling like anyone has any fuckin' ability
To even stick to a subject, it's killin' me, the inability to pin humility
Hatata batata, why don't we make a bunch of fuckin'
Songs about nothin' and mumble!
And fuck it, I'm goin' for the jugular
Shit is a circus, you clowns that are comin' up
Don't give an ounce of a motherfuck
About the ones that were here before you that made rap, let's recap
Way back, MC's that wreak havoc on tape decks
ADATs, where the G Raps and Kanes at?
We need 3 Stacks ASAP, and bring Masta Ace back
Because half of these rappers have brain damage
All the lean rappin', face tats, syruped out like tree sap
I don't hate trap, and I don't wanna seem mad
But in fact, where the old me at? The same cat that would take that
Feedback and aim back, I need that
But I think it's inevitable
They know what button to press or what lever to pull
To get me the snap though (lil' bitch)

Clearly, Eminem does not have much fondness for the artistic talents of the gang of Lil’ SoundCloud rappers. Rap used to be about creative and technical skills – who is the most clever with their rhymes? Who is the wittiest? Who has the best wordplay? Better yet, who can use that wordplay to tell an intriguing and compelling story? Where is the substance in SoundCloud Rap?

Will.i.am had a thoughtful take on this new wave of rappers:

What’s the number-one sport on the planet? Soccer, because anyone can play it. The problem with hip-hop is everybody could do it. It doesn’t take much fucking skill right now to make hip-hop. It’s become the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s no longer about Rakim-level, Nas-level, not the deep, metaphorical simile shit. Out of respect for the Nases of the world, let’s not call it hip-hop. Let’s say that’s rap. But instrumental music is going to be the next biggest shit.”

Will.i.am

In many ways, instrumental music paired with rap is already here and has been here for a while. The only difference now with platforms like SoundCloud is that the barriers to entry are almost nonexistent for the Lil Peeps and Yachtys and Pumps of the world. The path to stardom only requires that they act crazy enough to distinguish themselves and come up with some catchy hooks. The deep, Nas-level rap is dead.

So how does this new generation reconcile itself with the old? You may ask – does it need to? Why should it? Because nostalgia is a moneymaker. Think about the highest grossing concert tours in history – they’re almost all in the classic rock genre: U2, Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, etc. “Classic Rap” has yet to materialize, and if the divide grows wider between the newer generation and the old, it may never catch on. In order to bridge the gap, it will take the Kanyes, Kid Cudis, Drakes, and Kendrick Lamars to lead the way, whether through collaborations (which we’re already seeing) or otherwise. Kanye may be more of a senile elder statesman today, but it was arguably his 808s & Heartbreaks album from 2008 that launched this trend of emotional and depressed rap music. The only difference though between that album and most of SoundCloud Rap is that it was actually compelling and undeniably authentic.

If SoundCloud Rap wants to maintain or expand beyond the teenage and early 20s audience, it needs to address its dangerous incentive structure and the problem childs it creates. Anyone glorifying or glamorizing drug use or suicide under the guise of expressing their mental health issues should not be celebrated. We should not popularize, like, love, or retweet morally repugnant messages that wannabe rappers craft solely to attract attention. Reasonable minds can differ on whether the artistry inherent to SoundCloud Rap qualifies as “Rap”, but glorifying drug use and suicide should not be tolerated.

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