Last year, Lil Yachty, rap’s biggest crossover star in 2016, went from being a teenage rapper from Atlanta who idolized fashion figures like Zeus Trappin and Ian Connor to palling with LeBron James in Sprite ads and becoming the new creative director of Nautica. But before all that, he was just throwing songs onto SoundCloud, where they got mere thousands of plays until, suddenly, that became millions. And now Lil Uzi Vert, from Philadelphia by way of Atlanta, has a current Billboard Top 10 single with “XO Tour Llif3,” which first dropped as part of a four-song SoundCloud playlist Luv Is Rage 1.5 in February, before its massive streaming numbers (over 70 million plays) lifted it up toward the top of the charts.
Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and the rest of their millennial rap wave (which includes Playboi Carti) have been dismissed as “SoundCloud rappers,” an attempt by the hip-hop establishment to pigeonhole them as frivolous or, worse, not “real” hip-hop. This diss might’ve meant something in 1993 or even 2008, but Uzi and his peers are just fine not being part of the hip-hop community. In fact, Uzi, whom Vulture compared to Kurt Cobain today, consistently refers to himself as a “rockstar,” and even uploaded and tagged his music on SoundCloud, provocatively, as “Alternative Rock.”
In short, this wave is just starting to crest. Here, a short list of six artists who have already mastered a distinctive musical and visual aesthetic that stands out among so many SoundCloud pretenders. Look out for them now—and not necessarily on the “rap” charts.
Only in the 2010s does Lil Peep become a rapper. If his career started in the 80’s, 90’s, or even 2007, he’d be praying for a Warped Tour slot. Instead, the singer moved out to Los Angeles, discovered the world of SoundCloud rap, and used that as his model of musical inspiration. He performs live with a DJ, but he doesn’t rap as much as emote at the crowd, who are eager and ready to perform his catalog back to him. Earlier this year, Lil Peep, speaking with Pitchfork about his own position in rap, said: “No one’s ever been in this genre before, so I couldn’t really compare it to anything from the past. I’m excited to find out.” Such boldness could be read as arrogance, but he’s selling out shows and getting major industry attention, so perhaps he’s right to trust his instincts.
A Miami native, Lil Pump offers a brief career origin story on his self-titled song: “My momma said Lil Pump won’t be shit.” The song currently sits with over four million plays, which at least serves to prove momma wrong, somewhat. That bratty deficiency defines much of Pump’s music—he wields a nasally voice and instinctual bounce that makes his tracks feel like someone already put it on repeat before the first verse even finishes. “Flex Like Ouu,” one of his best tracks, blows by in a two minutes and bops more with an energy that feels less rap, more basement hardcore band.
Much like his musical brother Lil Peep, Lil Tracy needs giant scare quotes around his being designated a “rapper.” His music often consists of downtrodden reflections on old relationships or head-over-heels heart-eyed emoji odes. While Lil Peep stands out with samples that read like an emo Myspace band’s Top 8 friends, Lil Tracy can do that style, but also relishes in the frantic giddiness of a “Checkmate King Me.” That fluidity is one of the trademarks of this style of SoundCloud music, where genre lines are completely disregarded. Lil Tracy and Lil Peep can do 90’s post-grunge (“Dying Out West”), but also interpolate old-school Travis Porter (“In Dis Bish”), because neither them or their fans see any distinction between them.
The performer Russ opened up to Billboard earlier this year about the road he’s taken to success: “I’ve been making beats for 10 years and before I even had a Soundcloud I dropped 11 self-produced albums and that’s the narrative that I really want people to understand.” Of all of these artists, Russ’s particular SoundCloud is the best curated, with every new song he drops featuring a bold minimalist design for his music that straddles the lines between rap and R&B. There is nothing lo-fi or messy about his music, which is why he’s slowly transitioned from SoundCloud into radio. Artists like Drake jump easily between genres, and Russ to his credit on a highlight like “For The Stunt” has the swagger of a college kid, but with the machismo of a R&B star.
Ski Mask The Slump God
Interestingly, even if this school of artists can be traced back to Soundcloud URLs and Instagram memes, Florida remains the IRL home for many. Ski Mask The Slump God, who is from Broward County, oscillates between bratty rap songs and mosh-inducing punk rock. This musical 180 is unified by lo-fi, distorted production that blurs the line between a rock sample and a Nintendo 64 sample being put through a cheese grater. He perfected that contrast on a remix of Lil Wayne’s “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” which is an aggressive, near metalcore cover of the original.
The Berkeley-based rapper Lil B won a rather large cult following in the early 2010s not because of his rap ability but by way of his personality, constant output of music, “based” lifestyle and memorable lines like “Thank You Based God.” Ugly God, who hails from Houston, like many of this new generation of performers, cherry-picks from the Based God template. “Let’s Do It,” a standout track from last summer, featured fellow internet superstars Trill Sammy and Famous Dex, and Ugly God’s plodding imitation of trap production feels like a parallel universe’s vision of Atlanta trap. That inversion of hip-hop tropes is what made Lil B so beloved, and why his descendent Ugly God can rise above the crowd.
Watch Lil Yachty take Manhattan: