The SoundCloud era: an obituary

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Tom Simmonds dissects the rise and fall of the sc era

The year is 2016. You have just got home from your final exam. The weather is blistering, you walk upstairs to your relatively cool bedroom, and open YouTube. Between the endless list of Joe Rogan clips and lofi house songs, lies a video that fills you with intrigue. The second XXL Freshman cypher of the year, featuring Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry, Kodak Black and 21 Savage is a perplexing watch, to say the least. I can say with certainty that from my perspective, as the admittedly stereotypical white teenage hip-hop listener at the time, I was almost astounded at the structure of the performance, and left wondering what I had missed that this should become the norm.

These artists, and this year, represented the eruption of a movement long restricted to Soundcloud recommendations, the second wave of a tradition that would dominate the late 2010s. The following years would see Juice WRLD belt out his discontent, XXXTentacion scream, Lil Peep fuse rock and rap in a way seldom done, and Ski Mask the Slump God rap quickly without inducing the cringe characteristic of Eminem’s rapid-fire delivery.

To truly understand this era, one must look to its origin. The proliferation of 3G networks invalidated the need for downloadable mixtapes found on sites such as Datpiff, and earlier MySpace. The continuing cultural mergers facilitated by the internet encouraged the Soundcloud scene’s growth into a creative haven for maverick rappers and producers. With the gothic-flavoured Memphis-style raps of SpaceGhostPurrp; Lil B’s chaotic, off-kilter self-deprecation and Yung Lean’s Swedish-accented aesthetic tours, Soundcloud fostered an underground scene starkly contrasting against the Swag raps and lyrical focus of the Datpiff, mixtape centric blog-era.

While unique, this first wave of SoundCloud artists would never truly break the mainstream. They did, however, lay down a roadmap for future generations, with the second wave of Soundcloud rap continuing its divergence from mainstream hip-hop. Rappers such as Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert further rejected traditional rhyme schemes in favour of ad-lib heavy, broken deliveries over increasingly unconventional beats. Classic southern trap instrumentation saw continued augmentation by producers such as Mexikodro and ICYTWAT, drawing upon nostalgia to deliver synth-laden, gamelike instrumentals. It was at this point that Soundcloud rappers further diversified, with hair being dyed increasingly outlandish colours, personalities growing more flamboyant and autotune used ever more generously. In this way, the stars of the era became rockstars in their own right.

The most noteworthy moment of the era would come around 2017, with the darkest, most alternative undercurrents of the scene culminating in the careers of Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice Wrld. This ‘emo-rap’ movement represented the natural conclusion of the darkness, rock-influences and distortion that had defined Soundcloud rap to that point. Conveying their anguish through often-screamed raps over bass-heavy, lo-fi instrumentals, these three artists would become symbols of teen angst in the late 2010s.

Like all movements, however, SoundCloud rap would eventually reach its decline. The deaths of the three artists mentioned above dealt a mortal blow to this relatively short-lived scene. It makes sense to view a movement so centred on drug usage as a product of its time. With the opioid epidemic of the 2010s leading to heightened public awareness, as well as the opioid-related deaths of Peep and Juice Wrld, it should be of no surprise that the sound started to lose traction amongst increasingly weary listeners.

Rap looks to be re-entering a street phase, artists such as DaBaby and NBA Youngboy purveying more refined, up-to-date street anthems with a minor revival in traditional lyricism. Elsewhere, key figures from the scene continue to carve a path within a fluctuating landscape, with Playboi Carti’s Die Lit achieving critical acclaim for its dreamlike, layered take on trap music.

The SoundCloud era represented a blossoming of creativity and diversity within hip-hop. Just as it revived the sounds of 90s Memphis rap and 00s pop-punk, one day teenagers will look to Lil Peep and Playboi Carti for inspiration.

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