There is a particular speech given on HBO’s Game of Thrones in which one of its main characters defines chaos as a “ladder”; a tool that, if harnessed by the right person, can be as powerful a weapon as any for finding success. For a show that deals with dragons and ice zombies, such a concept remains interesting because it reframes the unpredictability and randomness of what we define as chaos into something calculated and strategic in nature. It transforms discord and anarchy into the new world order, and the disorganized into behavioral auteurs, if you will.
Desiigner, for the entirety of his short career, has mastered this concept to both his detriment and success.
To understand Desiigner’s rap career up to this point is like understanding the equations Matt Damon was solving in Good Will Hunting. The 20-year-old Brooklyn native has become one of the most fascinating, frustrating, magnetic, and mysterious rappers in recent memory, and his music thus far has landed on a spectrum anywhere from appalling to magnificent. His lyrics range from incoherent to illustrative, his beats from boring to jaw-dropping, and his personality reaches energetic levels that would make the Tasmanian Devil blush. Desiigner’s career functions much like the eclipse we just witnessed; impossible to look away, but you’ll burn your eyes if you look too long.
For the first half of 2016, Desiigner was called many things, but a formidable rapper was never one of them. Other than “Panda,” his intoxicating, mind-numbing hit single, we as listeners only had small guest features on songs like Kanye West’s “Freestyle 4” and “Champions” to piece together who, and what, Desiigner intended to be.
At first glance, the “knockoff Future” comparisons made sense, as Desiigner’s baritone voice inflection and mumbled lyrics felt derivative at best. For many, he was seen as a “mumble rap” replica whose only prospects lay within his Kanye co-sign; just another kid rapping about “broads in Atlanta” who had never actually been to Atlanta.
There was something more, though, to Desiigner’s abilities. Behind the insane gun noises and ad libs, the jokes and memes that seemed to follow his “kid in a candy store that only sells caffeine tablets” personality, and an adversarial rap community, was actual substance, which became more apparent than ever after his 2016 XXL Freshmen “Timmy Turner” freestyle.
At first glance, the melodic cadence, finger-snapping, and brevity of the video were almost too much to process. Yet, at the time, even the most jaded listener couldn’t help but be mesmerized after 30 minutes of repeating the video. No longer was Desiigner tightrope-walking the line between eccentric and parodic, but performing hypnosis, and the flash of raw talent we saw from only four bars was his spoon circling the cup.
Since that point, some 14 months ago, those two versions of Desiigner have expanded into other directions as listeners have become increasingly dubious as to which direction we should expect his music to follow.
It began with his highly anticipated mixtape, New English, which became the earliest encapsulation of his chaotic conundrum. Most of New English was bad, but not in such a traditional sense. Instead, its worst qualities lay in its squandered potential, but only enough to leave you with disappointment and never condemnation.
Tracks like “Make it Out,” “Zombie Walk” and “Da Day” showed legitimate potential, with Desiigner ditching many of the tools that found him drifting into already established lanes and walking an unbeaten path. “Zombie Walk,” specifically, displays the multifaceted skill set of a young emcee who improved his hook-writing abilities and showcases a cadence and lyrics worthy of playback. On “Make It Out,” a menacing anthem about his roots, Desiigner manages to completely change his voice inflection, highlighting the lesser-known quality of his lyrics by punctuating his words.
Unfortunately, whatever positive steps Desiigner took towards finding his groove, he chose to moonwalk backward off a cliff with the rest of New English. The mixtape suffered from the classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen, except Desiigner was all of the cooks. The project was mostly unfocused and unfinished, an indication its creator was never quite sure what items to put on the menu.
Part of what made Desiigner alluring in the first place, what has continued to separate him from the massive class of rappers of his generation, has been a seemingly relentless fissure of energy that even he can’t, or won’t, control. On New English, that lack of control trajected him to soaring heights of charisma and potential, and just as quickly found him bottoming out in the Mariana Trench of hip-hop. Some tracks, like “Caliber” and “Jet,” felt only half-completed, even with Pusha T bolstering the latter, while other tracks like “Talk Regardless” remained so incoherent that at times it felt like Desiigner was rapping with a mouth full of fries. Even “Panda” felt dry and uninteresting within the landscape of a mixtape full of blind dart throws.
After New English, it shouldn’t have been easy to apply a tag of “muddled future” to Desiigner’s name as both a description of his music and his career, but it was.
Over the past year, since New English, Desiigner has been gearing up for his debut album, The Life of Desiigner, by using promotional singles as marketing tools, and his career feels even more unpredictable and tumultuous as ever. This is not meant to portray his recent music as negative, either. Rather, Desiigner remains, well, just as chaotic as ever. Critics and fans alike would be hard-pressed to take a guess at where he’s planning to take us next.
In fact, Desiigner’s first step towards his debut was actually his best song to date, “Outlet.” Accompanied by a window-punching banger of a beat, “Outlet” finds Desiigner at the absolute pinnacle of both lyricism and confidence—shades of the artist we briefly heard on the “Timmy Turner” freestyle. Lyrics like “I let em hate, talk shit, talk shit, yeah, n***a this is all it did to me / More bottles, more b****es, more gold, more hoes, this is all a victory” and “I be talkin' like I got a Ray Charles choppa, yeah that’s my blind date” came as a welcome surprise accompanied by boastful horns. For the first time, Desiigner wasn’t just tracing over the blueprints of the generation before him; he was establishing his own.
Several singles that followed, such as “Thank God I Got It” and “Up,” carried the same improvements, with Desiigner experimenting with much more diverse production and song structures. “Up,” an upbeat, Three Six Mafia-sampling track laced with heavy drums and piano chords felt like Desiigner’s first refined radio single, and even with a heavy dose of Auto-Tune, it also followed a much more innate energy within Desiigner where even the loudest Future comparisons felt cheap. If Desiigner’s career to this point had been defined by an almost purposeful chaos, this was him building his ladder and climbing up as far as he could.
Yet, for every rung of the ladder that Desiigner managed to climb, he has remained one step away from snapping under the weight of his own disorganization. The good graces earned from tracks like “Holy Ghost,” “Liife” and “Malibu” feel undercut by more recent tracks like “Arms” and “Formula.” On “Arms,” Desiigner spends the majority of the song’s three-and-a-half-minute runtime either repeating the word “arms!” or “I got what you want,” as the song never untangles itself from its own terribly constructed hook. It’s the type of moment that gives even the most optimistic Desiigner fan pause as nightmares of his laziest, most unoriginal moments from New English flash before our eyes.
On “Formula,” Desiigner’s use of Auto-Tune is so heavy that it once again sounds like he recorded the majority of the song underwater. More than that, both “Arms” and “Formula” feature an alarming lack of self-awareness from Desiigner about his own skill level. From tracks like “Outlet” and “Up,” we as listeners know that he can be as efficient an artist as Future, but yet he knowingly chooses to shoot shots from behind the backboard with his eyes closed, musically speaking.
That same unkempt energy that completely obliterates “Outlet” and gives Desiigner one of the best songs of the year so far is the same reason why a track like “Arms” can’t stop happening. For almost the last two years, the Brooklyn native's been one of the most intriguing individuals in rap because of his unpredictability. An artist without direction is impossible to understand in the grand scheme of hip-hop, and we are instead stuck with a Schrodinger’s Cat dilemma; a career that at the same time is both on the verge of collapse and glory, while Desiigner remains too topsy-turvy for us to be able to open the box and see which one his career will find.
Chaos, for Desiigner, is the double-edged sword of his entire career, and a ladder he seems perpetually on the verge of backflipping off of at any moment.