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 Dollnamed her recent turnt-up tape Aaliyah Keef, after the 19-year old’s two biggest inspirations.
THE NEW RAP-ROCK
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.
THE WILD CARDS
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 BbyMuthachannels the energy of trailblazers like Gangsta Boo and La Chat into tough, thoughtful, bad-ass underground anthems.