What first comes to mind when you hear the term SoundCloud rap? Perhaps you envision an immature group of teens with colorfully-dyed hair and face tattoos, rapping about prescription drugs. Maybe the term connotes a sense of rebelliousness that brings to mind exciting, unfiltered discoveries found on the internet. It could remind you of your own blunders and self-produced lo-fi beats you wish will never see the light of day. Regardless of your relationship to the genre, it seems that this simple two-word phrase elicits strong reactions from every Gen Z, tech-savvy music listener.
However, though mentions of the genre are a staple in music discourse, defining the short-lived moment of SoundCloud rap (often derogatorily referred to as mumble rap) is a task ranging from arduous to impossible.
During the last decade, the audience for the music streaming service SoundCloud exploded into the hundreds of millions. With a utopian vision of accessible music creation for the people, SoundCloud became a champion for any up-and-coming artist. New musicians, without ever having to leave their bedroom, gained stratospheric stardom, circumventing the conventional methods of going to professional studios and working with record labels. SoundCloud’s design is more aligned with social media websites than streaming services, which lowers the barrier between artist and audience. This gave a massive advantage to musicians who interacted with their fans online. Behind the scenes, SoundCloud’s unprecedented success shook the music industry to its core.
What we think of as SoundCloud rap is emblematic of the platform it spawned from. With harsh, raw instrumentals, SoundCloud rap embodies the DIY nature of its platform. Songs like XXXTentacion’s “Look at Me” (which currently has over 189 million plays on SoundCloud) contain blown-out vocals and very minimal mixing. Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” (which peaked at number three on Billboard’s Hot 100) trades songwriting for the repetition of the phrase “Gucci gang” 53 times. For outsiders of the genre, this style of production may make SoundCloud rappers seem lazy and their music seem inaccessible, but for fans, this amateur aesthetic only heightens the listening experience.
These rappers, boasting ostentatious personalities, mind-numbing music and underground origins may elicit strong parallels to the punk movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Rather ironically, most SoundCloud rappers have ditched the platform of their namesake and got snatched up by large record labels, leaving SoundCloud rap to embody the spirit of the early punk scene. Where punk was a stripped-down, aggressive and often nihilistic response to the maximalism of mainstream rock, SoundCloud rap responded similarly to the excess of mainstream hip-hop with hostile, anti-authoritarian attitudes. SoundCloud rappers are much more likely to write songs about taking drugs than dealing them, and the content of their songs is centered around depression and self-destruction, unlike mainstream rap’s obsession with ego inflation.
Similar to punk, SoundCloud rappers are overwhelmingly young. Many SoundCloud rappers, such as Tekashi69, Lil Peep and Ski Mask the Slump God, all gained tremendous fame before their 18th birthdays. The popularity of these teenagers solidified SoundCloud rap as the sound of Gen Z. The genre represented the anxieties of a highly online generation disillusioned with the world they inherited. The unhealthy forms of escapism discussed in these songs — from drugs and sex to self-harm — are prevalent coping mechanisms within a generation characterized by existential fear. The intensity of the genre, from the lyrics to the garish face tattoos, represents a palpable nihilism both on and off-stage. In a sense, SoundCloud rappers and their cartoonish personas create an incredibly authentic reflection of the broken society they were brought into.
Gaining millions of fans before you are legally able to vote, however, comes with a dark side. The lives of these artists have been of immense fascination from the public since the beginning of the genre, which may have to do with the stars’ accessibility through their heavily online presence. On these platforms, SoundCloud rappers have gained a cult following interested in everything from their next collaboration to their latest run-ins with the law. Many of these SoundCloud rappers became just as famous for their music as they did for their hectic personal lives. For rappers such as XXXTentacion and Tekashi69, the bombastic content of their music was backed up by charges for horrific crimes. The relationship fans have with these musicians has always been partly defined by morbid curiosity, and the distinction between enjoying music from these creators and condoning their actions is hazy.
These chaotic lifestyles may explain why the genre — and the phrase SoundCloud rap — has begun to fall out of fashion. Unfortunately, many of the artists who headlined the genre are either dead or sitting in jail. The notorious 27 club, which consists of numerous high-profile deaths of 27-year-old musicians, is now starting to look like a 21 club. The deaths of Lil Peep and Juice Wrld at 21 from drug overdoses, XXXTentacion’s assassination at 20 and Jimmy Wopo’s murder at 21 illustrate a painful pattern for the genre.
Although the public legal battles and violent crimes committed by the rappers may be of great fascination to the genre’s die-hard fans, it has mostly tarnished the public’s perception of the genre. It seems the characteristics which draw people toward these artists — their ridiculous public lives, their young, immature personalities and their intense lyrics — are the very aspects which eventually drove people away from the genre. Just as quickly as the genre exploded, it started to fade.
Pure SoundCloud rap may be all but dead, but its influence will have a lasting effect on the music industry. Record labels and distribution companies will forever have to wrestle with an industry that is rapidly becoming decentralized. In the internet age, it has now become mainstream for artists to use modest equipment to put out studio-quality beats from their bedrooms. While many of the artists who headlined this miniature musical revolution have either passed away or faded out of public life, others have found successful careers adapting and experimenting with the genre in new and exciting ways. Albums such as Denzel Curry’s TA13OO and Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake play on the spirit of SoundCloud rap in exciting ways while also gaining widespread critical acclaim.
It may be wrong to think of SoundCloud rap as a genre. Instead, it is probably best to think of SoundCloud rap as an artistic movement, one which guided a diverse coalition of artists, entertainers and producers. The movement became ubiquitous then extinct seemingly overnight, leaving wildly experimental, tech-savvy teenagers in its wake.
In the end, it’s up to us to decide what they think of SoundCloud rap. While divisive, it’s certain that the movement’s influence is here to stay. Whether die-hard fans, haters or somewhere in between, it is up to us to navigate this post-SoundCloud rap world. Hopefully, we can create some beautiful music out of it.
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.