Man, every year, everybody’s like: “Yeah, these kids out here, they’re a new breed. I ain’t never seen nothing like this before. This the end of the world now.” Look around, fuckhead; this seem like the dawn of a new day to you?- Poot in The Wire
SoundCloud rap is an exemplary micro genre for our troubled political moment. This loosely defined scene is known for heavily distorted production and mumbled raps performed by young artists with a love of garish face tattoos and endless troll antics on social media. It’s known as much for scandal as it is for music. Performers like the Tekashi 69 and the now deceased XXXTentaction have been implicated in shocking acts of violence and abuse, while sad boy icon Lil Peep fatally overdosed just as he was poised to break into the mainstream. Lyrically, the music is pulled between hedonism and depression, with outrageous drug abuse depicted as a physic defense against a joyless life riven by apathy and suicidal thoughts. Its philosophy is best summed up by Lil Peep “I used to want to kill myself/ came up still wanna kill myself”. Even the cartoonish Lil Pump, whose odes to juvenile delinquency sound positively optimistic by comparison, brags “whole gang full of drug addicts”.
It’s of course important to note that the conjunction of pop music and hopeless nihilism is not new. As a kid getting seriously into music in the late 1990’s, for example, so much of what I liked was what formed in the morbid shadows left by grunge and gangsta rap, and the violence and self-destruction around figures like Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. And despite their materialistic and self-loathing aspects, these genres maintained dissident sentiments, railing against the police, racism and societal alienation. SoundCloud rappers seem too focused on their downward spirals to critique the status quo, or to think about how it may be the root of their personal misery.
What strikes me most about SoundCloud Rap is its sheer joylessness, with pleasure and pain indistinguishable. This emotional flatness expresses what Mark Fisher called “boring nihilism”, the contemporary feeling that even the rich and successful can’t escape the existential poverty of a life without meaning. We are taught that happiness is just a purchase away but experience a reality where we are more stressed, surveilled and precarious than ever before. Our consumerist present is haunted by the sense that it may be all hurtling towards its end, through multiplying environmental and economic catastrophes. And all these systems which sustain life itself break down, political elites do little to avert the looming climate change apocalypse, showing a criminal indifference to the fate of future generations. For philosopher Eugene Thacker, contemporary reality is haunted by a sense that “the world, the cosmos, even our own bodies, may be all indifferent” to us. Rather than being the center of some universal drama, we may be another species blithely shuffling towards extinction.
Read against this backdrop, Soundcloud rappers are symptomatic of a broad cultural malaise. Take the career of J Molley, the South African performer who has been most overtly influenced by the trend. His Instagram is emblazoned with slogans like “Die Lit” and “thinking bout money and death”, while his songs combine boastful materialism with titles like “Sinister/Paranoid”, “Always Stressed” and “Suicidal Thoughts” (borrowed from an infinitely superior Notorious B.I.G song). While Molley’s music is relentlessly downtempo, his music videos are even more grim. In clips like “Always Stressed” the spaces associated with material success, from nightclubs to McMansions, are filmed with dim lighting, suggesting a frigid world bleached of all hope. Molley creates the atmosphere that something is very, very wrong but is incapable of articulating why.
It’s precisely this sense of stagnation that makes SoundCloud Rap a salient symptom of a widespread cultural malaise. The style promotes relentless self-destruction, on the one hand, and expresses deep feelings of misery, but seems to be unable to make the casual connection between these. This is more than just misplaced adolescent rebellion. This incoherence speaks to a global political and imaginative impasse, where the entire infrastructure of capitalism is leading us to our doom, but there is a widespread sense that we can’t change it.
The sentiment “die lit” is merely an exaggerated version of pervasive nihilism permeating everyday life.