Uncertainty abounds for the platform's progeny.
When Berlin-based music sharing website SoundCloud launched in October 2008, it was a one-of-a-kind domain. Its accessibility as a communal launchpad facilitated organic discovery and kickstarted the careers of unproven, do it yourself artists overnight. The by-design lack of a hierarchy or red tape created an unmistakable sense of community, and opened up a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. Suddenly, the good, the bad, and the ugly were just a few clicks away from having their creations heard by millions, democratizing music in a way that had never been done before. By the time the early to mid-2010s rolled around, nascent rap hopefuls were being thrust into the spotlight without the usual co-signs from establishment figures. Artists who cut their teeth on the platform were disparagingly referred to as “SoundCloud rappers,” a generic catchall term initially dismissed as a passing fad by traditional media outlets and industry gatekeepers.
Yet eventually, “SoundCloud rap” grew to the point that it could no longer be ignored. The platform’s crusaders were putting substantial numbers on the board by employing a wildly aggressive and blown-out aesthetic that propelled them past signed acts. Labels caught wind of the SoundCloud buzz, and promptly began shelling out multi-million dollar deals. Those that showed even the slightest glimmer of promise were quickly snatched up in an attempt to keep up with, and cash in on, the heated market for online rap stars. "Major labels who don't have executives in the company who grew up understanding the culture – I think they do just throw themselves at whatever shiny object or whatever they think is the entry point," Joie Manda, EVP of Interscope Records, told Rolling Stone. In the midst of this mad gold rush, the burgeoning superstars of the digital Wild West ventured into uncharted territory and did the unthinkable: they transformed SoundCloud rap into major-label rap.
Deemed by The New York Times to be “the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip hop,” SoundCloud rap was built on dissonance, with an emphasis on “abandon over structure, rawness over dexterity.” It was a breeding ground of uncompromising experimentation: the hypnotic sonics of Atlanta trap were distilled through the makeshift lenses of pop punk, emo, and rap rock. This marriage of disparate sounds was unsophisticated in its construction. Mesmerizing repetition, hyperactive exuberance, punchy adlibs, confoundingly cartoonish catchphrases, digital distortion that was borderline unlistenable, and idiosyncratic, nursery rhyme-like hooks made for songs that could fit anywhere along the widening spectrum of the genre. While some of the music was groundbreaking, much of it predictably paraded under the guise of being avant-garde and did the absolute bare minimum in adding to the musical tapestry.
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Nonetheless, SoundCloud rap reflected the platform’s plurality: there was a sound for everybody. A crop of upstarts, quirky egos, and eccentrics who thrived on amorphism came to define an unorthodox hip hop sound. Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Smokepurpp arose as virality in the flesh, the rangy stylistic descendants of SpaceGhostPurrp, Denzel Curry and hip hop group Raider Klan. The late Lil Peep crafted emotionally vulnerable music that was the antithesis of the hard-edged machismo that previously defined mainstream hip hop. Others like the infamous Tay-K, who is currently facing two separate capital murder charges, may never get to fulfill their musical potential. The rejection of traditionalist ideals championed by purists, who watched the microgenre’s “one-dimensional novelties” blossom with abject horror, was embodied by facial ink, multi-colored dreads, gender non-conforming fashion choices, and volcanic, rambunctious energy.
With the lines between the underground and mainstream becoming increasingly blurred, younger and older generations are figuring out how to co-exist. Future and Juice WRLD bonded over their “affinity for prescription drugs and joyless sexual conquest” on WRLD on Drugs. Kanye West and Lil Pump, an artist heralded by detractors as the genre’s anti-Christ, landed on the Billboard chart with their top 10 hit “I Love It,” thanks in large part to a gimmicky music video. Ultimately, the young turks of SoundCloud rap embraced their role as internet underdogs, and in the process rewrote the traditional career arc of a rapper with a disturbingly pronounced “live-fast-die-young” attitude.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the jarringly brief career of XXXTentacion, the Broward County, Florida artist who rose to prominence despite, or conceivably because of, a lengthy list of stomach-turning criminal charges that included strangulation, false imprisonment, and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. His second studio album ? was a modern marvel of the streaming era that cemented his status as the biggest thing to materialize from the depths of SoundCloud. He was an unabashedly independent artist with a fanatical fanbase of disaffected youth who were seemingly unperturbed by, or perhaps unsure of what to make of, the heinous allegations. In the whirlwind of controversy that trailed X’s every step emerged the reality of his unique, undeniable reservoir of talent. His perceptible authenticity and intoxicating gift for melody struck a chord with a horde of listeners who found catharsis and internal validation in his words and frequent Instagram Live life advice. His music offered dichotomies that mirrored his turbulent presence: contagious acoustic ballads shared space with cutthroat, thrashing anthems and operatic rebellion.
It’s no secret that all bubbles burst. SoundCloud rap brilliantly captured the spirit of the youth movement, and gave strength to the timeworn notion that rap is the crucible of the young. But like all trends, it was never built to last in its originally ordained format. With 2019 on the horizon, hip hop is teetering on the brink of another inescapable transitional moment. The once endless flow of prospects through the signing funnel has slowed to a mere drip. Though it’s tricky to put a finger on the pulse of something that has been tenuous and unpredictable from the start, the popular era of SoundCloud rap appears to be coming to a close. Excitement and interest are waning, and the ecosystem is shifting in response. Given the newfound ease with which artists can upload music on premier streaming platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify, many are choosing to skip over the SoundCloud step entirely. “I don’t really think SoundCloud will ever be the same. It’s dying out,” says producer Ronny J. “I still fuck with SoundCloud but I don’t really use it as much.” Lyrical Lemonade founder and music video whiz Cole Bennett echoed the sentiment in a recent interview with Complex: “I think SoundCloud rap is essentially no longer a thing. Unless you want to put a label on people who actually blew up from it over the past couple years, but I don't think anyone coming out now is a SoundCloud rapper, so to say.”
Tastemaking playlists like Apple’s The A-List: Hip-Hop and Spotify’s Rap Caviar are soaking up attention and redistributing the culture cache that SoundCloud once boasted sole ownership of not too long ago. From a strictly monetization standpoint, the aforementioned streaming platforms offer more rewarding opportunities when it comes to paid content, and artists are taking note. “[SoundCloud’s] premium tier hasn’t necessarily grown to a point where it makes sense to push to it,” says Nima Etminan, VP of Operations at EMPIRE. “I can’t really speak on the specific payoffs but [with] Apple [Music] being premium only, obviously the payoff is higher.” Etminan, whose music company is set to distribute X’s first posthumous album, has also voiced his concern with the way that the SoundCloud categorization may stifle artistic growth. “You want to be an artist. ‘SoundCloud rapper’ devalues that. I don’t think any artist likes to be put in a category.”
Rappers are now turning to social media and Spotify’s new direct upload program as a means of selling their brand and easily distributing their music. Instagram, in particular, is playing a vital role when it comes to artists cutting through the static of competition. Novel creative tactics are oftentimes more effective than having the backing of a marketing or promotional team. Lil Pump can build hype for forthcoming releases by sharing minute-long studio snippets of songs with his millions of followers, generating immense traction in the form of likes and comments. Tekashi 6ix9ine’s scream-rapping persona, controversial trolling tactics, and harebrained social media jabs are cut from a similar cloth. It’s a straightforward formula: internet savvy artists who know how to harness and engage their internet savvy followings.
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In hip hop’s forty plus years of existence, never has the genre been more stratified, more oversaturated, more lucrative, or more thrilling. Rap has emphatically taken control of the direction of the music industry, wiggling into every crevice of pop culture. Still, the parameters for where the sound goes next remain shapeless. The deaths of X and Peep, deified stars who were at the center of culture consumption, revealed a staggering fissure in a genre that is in a constant state of renovation. The fantasy of fame and fortune, a product of a bygone era, continues to play a role in the quest for superstardom, but there is a nebulous ingredient bubbling forth in the now mainstream SoundCloud mixture. Jay-Z, Kanye, and Nas, a trio of revolutionaries who had releases in the past year, are noticeably beginning to buckle under the cruel yoke of father time. The middle-ground generation remains firmly entrenched in the familiarity of the self-selected myths of the Marcy-made mogul, college dropout, and Queensbridge poet: Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Travis Scott, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Migos, Childish Gambino, and A$AP Rocky are seasoned veterans with predictable and sustainable career trajectories. SoundCloud rappers have not abided by the same narrative, nor do they seem wholly interested in the musical immortalization that has been so heavily stressed by their elders.
Thus looms the question: what will be the fate of the platform’s offspring now that SoundCloud rap has outgrown its fringe position? Will this moment in time be remembered as a bountiful cultural spring? Or will it be earmarked as a 21st-century graveyard full of broken hyperlinks, forgotten sounds, and oversized caricatures? For better or worse and regardless of the platform’s ongoing struggles to overcome choppy financial waters, the supreme culture-driving force of SoundCloud shaped this lawless landscape. Whether its descendants leave a lasting legacy remains to be seen.