It's a weird time in music in general, and specifically in hip-hop.
Named for the platform that spread it—a decade-old music site where users upload songs, like YouTube for independent musicians—SoundCloud rap has become a genre in and of itself. The songs typically use simplistic, subdued beats, often with snippets of strings and sometimes complemented with emo chords, paired with lyrics that ping-pong between braggadocio and nihilism, with lots of sex and odes to heavy narcotics thrown in.
This week, Lil Xan comes to the Hawthorne Theatre. Xan is a ninth-grade dropout from Redlands, Calif., whose babyface and gentle eyes are offset by his facial tattoos.
What is the merit of this stuff? To find out, I posed some questions to WW's in-house youth culture expert, Walker MacMurdo. Here's our debate about the merits of SoundCloud rap, and whether teenagers should get facial tattoos.
Martin Cizmar: So you genuinely like this stuff? I tried listening to it, and I could not get over the fact that it was straight garbage, Lil Uzi Vert being the worst, I think.
Walker MacMurdo: Well, the fact that you call Uzi a SoundCloud rapper shows just how out of your element you are, my old, washed friend.
Cizmar: Well, I literally started on the SoundCloud chart and listened to everything and Lil Uzi Vert had like four tracks in the Top 50. I put in the work, dude. I tried.
MacMurdo: Yes, I like this stuff. I think that there are rappers in the SoundCloud rap genre that are very good and that the movement, however long it may last, has artistic merit.
Cizmar: Artistic merit? It's just dudes trying to sound like Lil Wayne but without the charisma to pull it off. It's all about pain pills and money and getting women.
MacMurdo: The classic "Rap is just, 'Yo, yo, yo/Bitches and hoes!'" argument. Yes, the music tends towards repetition and simplicity, but that's it's power. SoundCloud rap is best understood as the second wave of another much maligned sub-genre of music that was criticized for brutish aggression, ignorance and bone-headed simplicity—nu metal. SoundCloud rap is about tapping into your most simple, honest, vulnerable, teenage feelings without pretension.
Cizmar: But these dudes are not teenagers. They're all in their mid-20s. Or early 20s, at minimum. This is not streetwise storytelling. It's childish. How old was Ice Cube when he wrote "Boyz n the Hood"? Nineteen? Snoop was 22 when "Murder Was the Case" came out.
MacMurdo: And I wonder what old-ass people had to say about that when it came out? And how old was he when his very smart, sophisticated track "Ain't No Fun" came out?
Cizmar: Yeah, see, I think this "old people don't like things the kids like" is the entire defense of SoundCloud rap. Music critics from places like the New York Times are so scared to call bullshit on this and look old that they're just letting the abjectly terrible and stupid music go totally unchallenged. "Benz Truck," by Lil Peep, is one of the most absurdly fucking stupid songs ever put out. This is a real testament to how far hip-hop has come, where any legitimate critic is too scared to call bullshit lest they look "old" and "washed."
MacMurdo: Lil Peep was an incredible musician, and he would've been absolutely massive had he not died so young. Think about it—emo rap. The fact that someone had the temerity to turn Modest Mouse and Mineral songs into beats, and then find someone to rap about their vulnerabilities over it, and for that rapper to make it sound cool and badass instead of corny, is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It should've been awful, beyond awful. But it's so good.
Cizmar: If they even really talked about their vulnerabilities, maybe. I mean, it'd still be middle-class white idiots whining about girls who wouldn't fuck them, but maybe there would be a case. But Lil Peep was just talking about opioids and luxury SUVs.
MacMurdo: That's what Future raps about. And no one denies Future's pain. So why deny Peep's? When someone says, "Used to want to kill myself/Came up, still want to kill myself" and then they die of a drug overdose at 21 years old right as they were blowing up, how can you say "lol, poser"? Perhaps you just object to the visual element of the genre?
Cizmar: Do you know the No. 1 song on SoundCloud right now? 6ix9ine's "Gummo."
MacMurdo: I didn't know that "Gummo" was No. 1 but it is deservedly so because that song is incredible—
Cizmar: Do they get bonus points for having a bunch of random letters and numbers including lots of X's and Y's in their name? You'd be MACCCMUR3R.
MacMurdo: The intro to "Gummo" makes me want to put my fist through a wall. I've listened to it probably 40 times in the past three weeks. I listened to it like an hour before this convo. I've had the chorus stuck in my head for a month. It's the "Break Stuff" of this generation.
Cizmar: You realize that "Break Stuff" was a fucking joke, right?
MacMurdo: Yes, of course, it still fucking rules, though! Is there anything else we need to discuss with this?
Cizmar: My strong belief is that these impressionable young people who are cursed with this being the music of their generation—much as Korn was foisted upon me rather than Nirvana— should be warned not to get their faces tattooed. I feel really strongly about that. Can we agree on that?
MacMurdo: Look, it's none of my business if someone wants to get a face tattoo or not. I grew up in the late '90s and early 2000s as a chubby kid in a weird, lower-middle-class family, and my parents got very acrimoniously divorced when I was in third grade. I had to deal with all of the sadness and anger from that situation somehow, even though I was far too young to have any idea how to do so, let alone smart enough to know how to do so. "Dumb, shitty, simplistic" music from Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Deftones helped me deal with my crappy childhood, and I see a lot of the aesthetics of that time reflected in SoundCloud rap. Sure, some of this stuff sounds simple, but if you're a kid or young adult and you're having a shitty time, you aren't wrong or an asshole for liking this music even if people think it's dumb or irresponsible or whatever. In 20 years, some shitbag music critic will be writing this exact same column reminiscing about the good old days of the late 2010s while debating the merits of SkaGoth or whatever else is next. And if you play your cards right, that shitbag music critic could be you.
SEE IT: Lil Xan plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE 39th Ave., with $teve Cannon, on Saturday, Jan. 27. 8 pm. Sold out. All ages.