“She felt that she was shedding the innocence of childhood the way a garden snake might wriggle out of its old skin and leave it behind. She wondered if the snake sensed things differently, if its new skin felt raw and sensitive, if the ground beneath it seemed rougher, the sun above it more intense.” —Louisa Morgan, A Secret History of Witches.
Youth is often nocturnal; we grow in the nighttime. Darkness invites the lowering of inhibitions, the obscuration of persona, and the quiet creep of piercing paranoia mixed with a dash of truth. Where music is about exploration and rap is a young man’s game, the intersection of these ideas breeds an obsidian playground for upcoming artists. Young rising stars in every pocket of hip-hop have been breaking into the genre with an overcast aesthetic. We link arms and traverse their nocturnal halls with them, but it would be reductive to say we are witnessing the rise of “emo rap,” when in truth, the kids have always flourished in the doldrums.
Take The Infamous by Mobb Deep. Released before Havoc and the late Prodigy had reached legal drinking age, we’d be hard-pressed to call the classic record cheerful. Infamous is a gloomy and heavy listen, but it is far from flat. It is not “emo rap” as we understand it today, Prodigy isn’t crooning in his bedroom, but it would be wholly dishonest to call him unemotional. On wax, Mobb Deep make youth sound like a trip to the gallows—mostly because it is. Reality is mostly grim and sometimes vile, frequently unforgiving and often grotesque, yet in the disenchanting, we stumble upon the universal. The kids are fucking sad, man. And 23 years on from The Infamous, youth is still as foreboding.
From conflict and fear, though, we evolve. If we consider youth a liminal space, then we can go ahead and consider that rites of passage often happen in the literal dark, in the literal nighttime: first drink, first fight, first fuck, and so on. In the past few weeks, countless young artists have released songs and full projects that sheath themselves in this nocturnal atmosphere. One album may use the dark as a springboard to self-assess (Chester Watson’s Project 0), while another tape can focus on the unwinding qualities of night for all that they’re worth (Jack Harlow’s Loose), while yet another uses the dark as a backdrop for their discomfort with transition (Sheck Wes’ MUDBOY).
This is what the youth sounds like: murky. A lack of clarity and a thirst for clarity, that is what it means to be young and bothered. Watson, Harlow, and Wes each bring us into the murky waters of their youth, and while each of their experiences is unique, it is not long before we realize that everyone is wading in the same tinged sea.
In the case of 21-year-old Chester Watson, we do not have to guess at his intent or his obsessions. Internality is the thing when it comes to his latest album, Project 0. Largely written during his late teens and kept close to the breast, Project 0 is myopic and leering in the best way: a portrait of a young man peering over the edge of a well of his own creation. Opening track “Lost Inside” is the sonorous tumble down into the vacuum of mossy cobblestone and self-reflection. Project 0 is dark and dank, accented by the chinks of gears locking into the place before the prowl of stone on stone makes time seem infinite as Chester discovers who he is.
Winding horns cast in the negative summon the image of emergency flares going off in the distance as Project 0 continuously climbs within itself. Second track “Long Story Short; Life” is riddled with images of free-falling, wants for freedom, and the tar-trap of suicidal thoughts. However, the album does not sound resigned—Watson’s darkness is not a place of surrender. Rather, Project 0 sounds expected and acquainted with itself, like dissociating on the couch at a dimly lit and seedy party because anywhere is better than anywhere else.
Amidst the death cry of his innocence, Watson employs gravelly textures and gothic imagery. He is glum and he is insular, but he is absolutely not boring. “Floating,” in sound and in content, sounds like a constant trip down the dungeon hall. Watson speaks on the chimerical in the same breath as he dubs himself a skater. Chester’s youth plumes through the track—vodka and chasms, clubs and black magic, excess wealth and mythological wickedness—acting as a totem.
All the while, Watson strives to see himself. Yes, he is stewing within his emotions, but not without an inquisitive air. Project 0 is full of important questions we may well only be able to ask and answer in the dark. “Chessmaster” deals with self-harm, anxiety, and insomnia. “Temple” is an admittance that Watson can no longer run from his problems, “they’re too massive.” Even on the, dare we say, bubbly “40 Acres,” where Watson is at his peak Skater Boy Wants For More, we still get images of poverty and a fast-approaching doomsday.
Youth does not anchor Watson to the ground, but it does yank him closer and closer to the core of something. Just as well, Project 0 ends with an instrumental. The free-fall continues. Chester Watson never lands as he hurls through his own thoughts, reminding us that perhaps darkness is the pixie dust keeping us young and inspired. For all the escapist elements on the album, we never forget that Watson is a young man and neither does he.
While Chester Watson has phased out of the party, 20-year-old Jack Harlow is all in on playful debauchery and inhibition-shedding on his Atlantic debut, Loose. From the title to his approach, telling ItsTheReal that he all but abandoned writing songs in favor of freestyling in the booth for this project, Loose is an ode to unwinding at the witching hour. The switch from writtens to freestyles is momentous for Harlow, who told DJBooth earlier this year he wished music was more objective to jive better with his analytic personality. In this darkness, with this angle of attack, Harlow grows and grows up.
Just as Chester pulls no punches with his intent, neither does Harlow, whose album literally opens in the dark with “SUNDOWN.” An homage to Clipse’s “We Got It for Cheap,” the track sets Loose up to be a much-needed undoing of the typically methodical and measured Jack Harlow. Do not be mistaken, though, these are not blistering party raps nor are they droning and miserable drug anthems. Loose is a collection of slumped-on-the-couch bangers. This darkness is imperfect and endearing, breeding false confidence in tow with a series of childish mistakes. Loose is fun in the way it is fun to be impulsive and young, and mostly consequence-free.
Loose is the passive soundtrack to anyone entering their requisite villain phase. Not terribly dastardly and always worthy of a good story, this runoff of youth is murky if only because we all momentarily hang up our moral caps. With that, Loose in enamored by women and intoxicants and excess. Of course, at no point are we worried about Harlow. If anything, moving from Gazebo to Loose, we might even cheer him on for the simple fact that he sounds ecstatic and in control. Within this particular darkness, Harlow comes into his own by stepping out of himself and throwing away all efforts to save face.
Of course, the project is not simply dark in theme. The production, handled in majority by 2forwOyNE, works with Harlow to set an apt, late-night scene. Even on the bright and wonderfully pompous “PICKYOURPHONEUP,” Harlow’s deep voice and dark voids masquerading as bass notes keep us in dark and murky form. Elsewhere, (“NUN FREE,” “CODY BANKS,” “KNACK FOR IT”) Harlow delivers his raps and croons with a labored touch over turbid synths. The weight Watson brought with his mindstate Harlow delivers with his tone and production. The freedom Watson seeks and endlessly tumbles towards on Project 0, Harlow steps into on Loose once he sheds his rigid exterior.
What Harlow and Watson get at with their projects, then, is that youth is a series of uncomfortable transitions. Twenty-year-old Harlem rapper Sheck Wes’ debut album, MUDBOY, is uncomfortable transition personified. The young man, former model turned rapper, broke over the course of a year with his hit “Mo Bamba,” signed a joint deal with Kanye West and Travis Scott, and went on an impressive press tour where he won us over with his humility and eagerness to share himself with the world.
Yet, MUDBOY ultimately felt underwhelming. Wes’ presence was there and gone too often on the record to hold our attention, and it became a wonder how the artist who made “Mo Bamba” and “Chippi Chippi” could deliver a stale debut. The truth? MUDBOY was likely rushed out by a label that wanted to capitalize on the buzz over cultivating their artist. That’s dark all on its own.
MUDBOY is not without merit, of course. The album sounds dark in that the production is trappy and largely steals the show. Opener “Mindfucker” is demented and submerging. On “Gmail,” Wes is explosive and visceral, and closer “Vetements Socks” is somber and resolute. “Never Lost” is a brisk exercise in storytelling, but one that showcases Wes’ relationship with his mother, his Senegalese culture, and the very real fear of a block too hot. MUDBOY has a stoic lucidity to it, the blanketing darkness that comes when reality sets in that we have no clue who we are and where we are meant to go.
For all its good, though, the album is ultimately too uneven to hold water. Even so, there are lessons to be learned from MUDBOY. The imbalance of Wes’ performance is a personification of growing up with unsteady footing. The discomfort of transition and instability informs the album’s rushed feel. Being rushed, too, is an element of youth: growing up too fast (with or without choice), rushing into relationships, making rash decisions. At its lowest, MUDBOY is still par for the course when it comes to giving us a picture of a true and imperfect adolescence. Youth is tense and fleeting, and so is MUDBOY.
All of three of these albums work in tandem to give us one murky picture of youth. The kids are sad, man, and listless and striving. Out from the discomfort, there is boundless room to evolve. Within the darkness of youth, as hip-hop knows it, there are endless ways for an artist to explore themselves and hold up a mirror to the listener. Sometimes you are lost and sometimes you are the bad guy, and sometimes you are backed into a corner and rushed out the door, but all the while you are young and blooming in the nighttime. That is the lesson of these three albums: in spite of everything, growth is always possible.
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