Ah, SoundCloud: the origin of Lil Pump, Lil Xan, 6ix9ine, and a whole bunch of neck tats and rainbow hair. In the last couple years, the music streaming platform has become synonymous with a very specific aesthetic: one that Vulture lovingly describes as a “very colorful pile of teenagers from Florida who don’t care about Tupac,” which feels alarmingly spot-on.
To be fair, on top of the platform’s Gucci Gangs and STOOPIDs, SoundCloud saw the first of some really decent Top-40 hip hop last year. It turns out, BlocBoy JB, Famous Dex, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie each started as certified SoundCloud Rappers, and have moved on to mainstream success and collaborations with Drake, A$AP Rocky and the like. Still, artists like Juice WRLD are doing a decent job maintaining the ultra-trendy sadboy image closely linked to SoundCloud on the Billboard Charts.
While the SoundCloud Rap aesthetic has crossed over to the mainstream (and, according to some, subsequently died there), there seems to be a new, undefined era of SoundCloud hip hop that is effortfully pushing back against the formula. A Gen Z type of rap that feels even more Gen Z than the post-ironic opulence of the Lil Pump era. Much of it embraces inclusive gender expression, it’s pro-human rights, it’s body-positive, and it’s rawly authentic. It’s nerdy-cool, which, as the kids understand it these days, is apparently just “cool.”
Even better, because it’s so individual and authentic, it’s producing a much wider variety of sound. There are more current trap sounds, acoustic Chance-adjacent uplifting covers, as well as some brighter, pop-ier electronic rap.
Granted, some see this as a departure from the roots of the hip hop tradition. In a lot of ways, it is. But in terms of pushing back against manufactured image and status quo – with a huge emphasis on rejecting authority for authority’s sake and instead moving towards a more inclusive, democratic future – this new era of SoundCloud rap may be more transformative than it initially seems. Of course, that’s not for me to decide. I can, however, tell you to check out these game-changing artists if you’re not already familiar. It’s likely some of them will be shaking up the Billboard Charts very soon, too.
At only 21, CHIKA is hardly a newcomer anymore. Her complex SoundCloud remixes of top-40 hip hop, as well as showstopping freestyles on Instagram (she has 500k+ followers), have caught the attention of Missy Elliot – and earned CHIKA an invite to the star-studded Roc Nation brunch last month. Just this week, she secured a spot in this year’s Afropunk lineup. With vulnerable lyrics, a voice like butter, and the attention of one of the biggest labels in music, she’s likely to have her big break on the charts sooner than later.
Abhi the Nomad
Abhi’s stage name is not at all a misnomer. He grew up moving constantly, from “Madras, India to Beijing to Hong Kong to New Delhi back to Beijing back to New Delhi to the Fiji Islands to New Delhi again before arriving in Thousand Oaks, California” according to his Facebook bio. Currently residing in Texas, he cites this constant movement as hugely influential to his sound. You can hear it, too. Some newer acoustic songs off his collection called Marbled could almost be Jack Johnson if you didn’t listen too hard, while other songs sound like hard-hitting Freaks and Geeks-era Childish Gambino. It’s certainly a mix, but each different sound is done exceedingly well, as if he’s totally mastered each genre. NPR agrees, with their 2018 profile of Marbled. Abhi is currently touring some regional festivals near Fort Worth, but keep an eye out for him in your city in the near future.
Passport Rav is a little bit harder to box into a genre as an artist because his work seems to defy boxes as a concept. While some of his underlying instrumentals read as College-Dropout-era Kanye, the reality is that Rav is bringing a very new sound – while also managing to sound retro. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s really, really good. As if we needed another reason to listen, Rav also uses his music to speak on gentrification and race politics in Brooklyn, of which Bushwick Daily recently took note. Asked about the future, he told the magazine, “I can see myself going beyond the music, even writing books and doing seminars for black youth.” With his talent for crafting innovative – and meaningful – sounds, it seems like that kind of platform may be well within reach.
A self-described “nervous internet entity, human rights advocate, internet musician, and full-time queer friend,” Atlas is a refreshingly under-branded artist. In fact, their Instagram is mostly full of unedited selfies, photos of friends, and album art. From a social media standpoint, they seem like a normal, friendly kid. On SoundCloud, though, they’re a polished producer, pumping out tonal, almost nostalgic-feeling electro beats for nearly 125k followers. Truly one of the best at heavily layered production, Atlas’s sound might be described as a bit of electro-pop with a distinct hip hop influence. While they seem to be focused on production volume rather than live shows right now, their collaboration-heavy library of tracks means you might hear them cropping up in even bigger artists’ music soon.