The "Internet Rapper" Phenomenon
Since debuting in 2008, XXL's annual Freshman Class feature has had its fair share of questionable choices (such as Kidd Kidd appearing a full eight years after we first heard him on "Mrs. Officer") and flops, not to mention numerous omissions of rappers who've gone onto stardom. It's never exactly been considered a finger-on-the-pulse-type source for new talent, but rather a conversation starter and surface-level barometer for casual hip-hop hobbyists. But oddly enough, the Freshman cover is what I keep coming back to when trying to grasp the massive shift in hip-hop that occurred a little less than a decade ago. Nowhere, other than some long-lost hypebeasts' Myspace pages, is the phenomenon known as "blog rap" better visualized.
Look at XXL's 2008 Freshman cover. On it, we see a broad sampling of the various forces at play in rap at the time: cypher-tested lyricists like Papoose, Saigon, and two future Slaughterhouse members; larger-than-life Southern personalities Young Dro and Lil Boosie; and the last gasp of ringtone rap's commercial stranglehold in Plies, Gorilla Zoe, and Rich Boy. The one outlier is Lupe Fiasco, who could have been considered the underdog had he not already had two Atlantic Records releases to his name at the time of publishing. The very next year, Fiasco would've seemed much more at home on the cover.
Asher Roth, B.o.B, Kid Cudi, Mickey Factz, Wale, and Charles Hamilton all showed up, some with buzzing tracks to their name, some with newly-minted label contracts, but none with albums to their name. Contrasting sharply with their other classmates (twin motormouths Cory Gunz and Ace Hood, and cool-but-not-trendy classicists Curren$y and Blu), these six didn't look, sound, or promote themselves like rappers of the past -- they were 2009, or more accurately, 2008 incarnate.
Reflecting the file-sharing mashup culture of the contemporary internet, these guys were rapping over everything from '80s arena rock to post-O.C. indie to Sonic The Hedgehog soundtracks. It was a time when the most famous rapper of our generation was still writing and producing most of his own music, and his influence on others was much more apparent than any attempts at swag-jacking from younger artists. "These labels all think they've discovered the new Kanye West," wrote The Guardian's John McDonnell in a piece discussing the feeding frenzy that led to Wale, Hamilton, Cudi, and B.o.B's major deals.
It's easy to pinpoint the post-Graduation, pre-808s Kanye that these guys all idolized, as his Daft Punk-sampling, shutter shades and skinny jeans-wearing, pop culture-referencing ways reverberated throughout rap in ways that few other distinct periods in his career have. Graduation birthed a Kanye fanbase that yearned for more of the same vibrant, pan-cultural rap, and wouldn't be satisfied with anything they considered "gangster" or "ignorant" -- 50 Cent's big-budget Curtis was chopped liver to a video of two cool kids dressed in skinnies and rapping about their bikes.
Consider it the final nail in the coffin of The Source and, somewhat ironically, XXL, two publications that were the places to go for new hip-hop throughout the '90s and early 2000s. Fashion and indie music-focused blogs began popping up as the go-to destinations for the latest in trendy rap, updating several times a day with the latest Kid Sister track, KAWS collab, or DMX/XX mashup. Unsurprisingly, this yielded the term "blog rap," which was much more commonly used as a pejorative by old heads than by the listeners themselves. As McDonnell explained it in his cringeworthy terms: "rappers who make it big on the blogs and not on 'da streetz.'"
In his article, he dismisses the majority of blog rap on the grounds of over-saturation ("if Mickey Factz so much as passes wind, I will get emails from a dozen online pluggers and PRs") and geekdom ("[Their] fanbase consists largely of people who spend all day uploading these artists' music"). To people who currently work in music, or even just spend an hour or two every day on music websites, those seem like givens at this point, but PR blasts and online hyper-fandom are both relatively new additions to the system. Seven years after blog rap took over XXL's cover, it feels like both a distant memory and a sign of things to come, with our perceptions now jumbled by the internet-accelerated sands of time.
You're probably wondering why I just rambled about blog rap for 750 words in 2016 -- when was the last time anyone gave a shit about Mickey Factz? "Blog rapper" is certainly a term you don't hear all that often anymore, but it bears clear similarities to one we hear all the time now: Internet rapper. Like its predecessor, it mostly exists as a derogatory phrase, a quick and easy example being Troy Ave using it to dismiss Joey Bada$$ in a recent diss track ("You just an internet rapper, nobody cares"). But as is the case with most aspects of his career, Troy is off the mark. Bada$$' sound is decidedly pre-internet, a slick update on classic sounds from his hometown, while what's more commonly seen as Internet rap would probably piss off conservative standard-bearer Troy even more.
No, it's not "n*ggas rappin bout html n shit," as a confused tweeter wondered in December 2013 -- Internet rap is a fashion-forward hypermodern style that probably reads as incomprehensible to anyone who's clueless about online interaction, Atlanta weirdo trap, and/or autotune. Like blog rappers, most of these artists gained favor in ways outside of the usual music industry channels, whether via viral video, tastemaker clout, or most likely, a cosign from "it kid" Ian Connor. Connor isn't a rapper, but he's so central to this subculture that he may as well be its patron saint. Neon hair, day-glo beats, stick talk that sounds like nursery rhymes -- these are his apostles. Now having served as a fashion consultant to A$AP Rocky and Kanye, Connor's managed to put his friends Playboi Carti and Lil Yachty on with each rapper, respectively, giving Internet rap its strongest foothold to date.
Blog rap was a clear torchbearer in the lineage of backpack rap -- take Kanye's "Benz and a backpack" mentality, add in some self-righteousness, subtract genre boundaries, and you're pretty much there -- but Internet rap couldn't be further from Black Star and Def Jux. Blog rap presented itself as a clear alternative to the mainstream (lest we forget Cudi's "If I die today the last thing you remember won't be about some apple bottom jeans with the boots with the fur" from "The Prayer"), and even when its artists did begin to "go pop," they entered rotation alongside Hayley Williams and David Guetta, not T-Pain and Akon.
Internet rap almost dares you to play it in mainstream settings -- it's so close to sounds that Keef, Thug, and other have popularized, but it's just grating enough to be subversive and ruffle the feathers of the old heads kids love to piss off. Yes, there are clear ties to the weirder sides of contemporary drill and trap, but who isn't influenced by those genres these days? Where Internet rap gets most of its oddball ways is courtesy of two guys who came up just after the blog rap boom: Soulja Boy and Lil B.
As Meaghan Garvey put it in a wonderful Soulja retrospective last year, the "Crank That" rapper "wasn't just facilitated by the internet -- he was the Internet." Making unprecedentedly productive use of sites like Soundclick and Myspace, the young Atlantan savvily navigated the web like few of his peers did, drawing just as many haters as fans, but understanding that any mention worked in his favor. His somewhat amateurish style was part of his charm -- you didn't really know why you liked it, but it was just so catchy and infectious. Along with Lil B, who added several layers of weirdness and the whole "based" philosophy to the shtick, Soulja paved the way for a less self-serious hip-hop landscape that's only now coming into true focus. "Though [Soulja's] reign of influence has faded significantly in the past few years," Garvey wrote, "it's only because culture finally caught up to him."
Alongside that cultural undercurrent ran trap and drill, both styles driven by street cred and musical aggression, and here's where Internet rap begins to coalesce. When combined with gang talk and gun threats, the unhinged songwriting styles of Soulja and Lil B take on a new form. It leads to a point where Lil Yachty can say "She smile like an emoji" on one track and then "He gon' get knocked off with the scope" on the next, barely batting an eye. It's an odd dichotomy that's definitely led to use of the phrase "Internet rapper" to denote someone with suspect street credentials, but lyrically, it's not too far off from Young Thug or Future.
All of this is not to say that blog and Internet rap are (or were) inherently good or bad phenomena. There's plenty of reason to complain, whether it's due to lack of singing ability or the jarring nature of hearing someone sing "Keep the chopper with me" to the tune of the "Rugrats" theme song, but there's also plenty to love.
Yachty's new mixtape Lil Boat is a particularly interesting case, veering as frequently between stomach-churning queasy and wide-eyed wonder as a shroom trip. It's certainly more challenging and melodically rich than anything blog rap ever produced, and presented with far less pretension. There's a certain level of understanding that I had with blog rap that I won't with Yachty, mostly because I'm not a senior in high school when he came out, but I can sense much of the same animosity from the hip-hop powers-that-be, and that's exciting as fuck. Hip-hop was built on pissing off older generations. Kids love Yachty, Carti, and Lil Uzi Vert, and it won't be long before they're inspiring rappers who are several degrees weirder. I can't wait.