Rex Orange County, Steve Lacy & Anti-Pop’s Hip-Hop Adjacency

By | Posted November 3, 2017
How young anti-pop artists have developed a quasi-genre directly adjacent to hip-hop, but also intimately related.

The first half of “Boredom,” a standout from Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy, isn’t made up of the short, happy bars that dominate the rest of the album. Rather, the voice of a 19-year-old English artist demands your attention. Rex Orange County, featured twice on the album, has a fan in Tyler, and he belongs to a growing crowd of young, post-SoundCloud singer-songwriters.

This group is best described as anti-pop; their music caters to no one but the creator. They aren’t making the traditional R&B ever-present on the periphery of hip-hop, but they have a distinct sound and aesthetic nurtured by the culture. Through co-signs and association, anti-pop artists like Rex, Steve Lacy, and Cosmo Pyke have developed a quasi-genre directly adjacent to hip-hop, but also intimately related.

These artists are making music for themselves and their friends—the just-barely '90s kids. Kids that never had to buy CDs, and are much more familiar with SoundCloud than Limewire. They grew up with hip-hop in their headphones and guitars at home, and they make indie music driven by a DIY spirit. This music is anti-pop because it’s not born from a desire to be popular, and it typically has simple chord progressions, unassuming lyrics, and lo-fi production. Beyond that, their music is hard to characterize, because, frankly, kids don’t care about genres. Laid-back and relatable, it’s easy to see the appeal to members of the hip-hop community.

Steve Lacy, another Tyler collaborator, started making music with The Internet in high school. He began contributing guitar and bass at the request of Matt Martians, but soon enough he was listed as an executive producer for the group’s GRAMMY-nominated album Ego Death. Before he turned 18, Lacy was an important part of the neo-soul discussion, but the music he makes on his own is different than The Internet’s.

Steve Lacy’s Demo, the guitarist’s promising first solo venture, was recorded entirely on an iPhone, and it shows. Not in quality, but in spirit. “Dark Red,” my favorite from the project, is a clear indicator of what Steve Lacy can do with melody, and listening to the bassline in “Some” will have you feeling cooler than you've ever felt before. No track goes over three minutes, and throughout the EP, Steve drops an idea as soon as he finds the groove.

Healthy, youthful shiftlessness is a hallmark of anti-pop, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect these artists' work ethic. Steve Lacy has been busy this year. He had multiple contributions on Flower Boy alongside Rex, a guest feature and production credit GoldLink's acclaimed At What Cost album, and another production credit on album-of-the-year frontrunner, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

Assisted by hip-hop, this indie subculture has the potential to turn into a full-blown sonic trend. Rex Orange County and Cosmo Pyke, another London-based anti-pop artist, have an anything-goes approach to creating melody that values texture over genre, and it perfectly complements the state of hip-hop today.

Rex Orange County’s music is as influenced by jazz as it is by Bon Iver; his voicings and chord progressions ebb and flow with the path of least resistance. He can adopt a spoken-word delivery style with deadpan humor (“UNO”) as easily as he can sing about his lover to frantic horns (“Best Friend”). Cosmo similarly shirks genre. You may recognize Cosmo from his appearance in Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” music video, but his music speaks for itself. He croons sweetly on “Social Sites,” and the swirling melodies on “Chronic Sunshine” emulate but amend the reggae tracks he grew up with. Ultimately, the styles can diverge, but the music is unified by a DIY approach.

We’re able to see what happens when hip-hop and anti-pop converge with “PRIDE.,” from DAMN. When the relationship is pushed to its logical extreme, it’s clear that the two cultures complement each other perfectly. The track was produced by Steve Lacy, and his footprint is all over it. Crafted partly on Steve’s cracked iPhone 6, the song is simple and beautiful. Kendrick finds every pocket in the melody, but he lets the magical chord progressions carry him upwards. “PRIDE.” peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100, a chart position that speaks to the ways hip-hop has legitimized the sound of young, anti-pop artists. With help from established and respected acts like Kendrick, Tyler, and GoldLink, the sound has been exposed to the mainstream.

In an interview with Dazed, Cosmo Pyke offers his next move: “I’ll be working on writing more songs, involving more loved ones, creating art that people don’t need but might want.” Art that people don’t need but may want—this lack of urgency drives the sound of anti-pop.

These aren’t indie songs for slackers, as Spotify playlist titles would have you believe, but music that has a care-free spirit and unaffected uncoolness that compels.

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