The world is exhausting. Greedy corporations are gaslighting an entire generation into working themselves to death, the president is holding federal workers hostage over billions of dollars worth of concrete, and a contingent of folks are still enabling Kanye West to rock a MAGA hat. The musical mood of 2018 reflected the grim landscape that birthed it. Albums like Drake’s Scorpion and J. Cole’s KOD veer from zooted indifference and wounded Instagram flexing to well-intentioned finger wagging in the face of the evils of the social media era.
Even intricate sugar rush albums like Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD and Playboi Carti’s Die Lit traded in high-energy nihilism for what the pop landscape consuming public would recognize as “fun” just a few years ago. The title and cover art of Carti’s sophomore album says it all: live fast enough and you might just plow through to the other side through sheer force of will. Hell, Future just topped the charts with The WIZRD, a 20-track trip to the bottom of a double cup and a Balenciaga shopping bag post-breakup.
In other words, rap music as a whole is really sad right now.
A culmination of the massive influence of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak and the high-energy EDM bubble bursting at the turn of the decade have resulted in what Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene labeled as the “no party, all hangover” era of rap in his excellent piece “Are We Having Fun Yet? On Pop’s Morose New Normal.” The musical key is minor and the party is stuck on early morning regrets. Bad feelings aren’t foreign to rap music, but it’s hard not to notice the charts switch from featuring a song literally called “Happy” to the waking numbness of “all my friends are dead” and “I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay” over the course of five years.
Die lit, indeed.
So where do you go when even your escapist fantasies are burnt out? During his most recent LA Leakers freestyle, released the same week as his proper debut album Everythings For Sale, Shady Records signee Boogie raps, “I pray this black cloud I got don’t make me less approachable.” Even a rapper familiar with the exhaustion of struggle is self-aware enough to know how difficult but necessary balancing emotions can be. The road to rap stardom is paved with more than just good beats.
It isn't all doom and gloom, though. Just as every cloud has a silver lining, rap has pockets of soothing hope and happiness shining in corners we often take for granted. You can hear it in tobi lou’s jokes, Rico Nasty’s throttling energy, and KYLE and Buddy’s earnest hopes for a better future. Or you can tweet at Michael Christmas, whose sophomore album Role Model was one of 2018’s figurative bright spots. The Boston rapper’s music comfortably straddles the line between rap and comedy, finding humor in the anxieties and drags of being a role model—both for his young sisters any anyone in need. Michael isn’t just happy or high energy, his pearly whites shine with All Might’s flash as he bounces his way through songs about finding love (“Honey Berry”, “Girlfriend”, “Brown Sugar”) and how far he’s come from the days spent throwing back cold drinks on Newbury Street (“Ball, “Growing Up”). Even when he’d rather sleep than have fun, he still presents as carefree.
Much of the production on Michael's album was handled by Meltycanon, a composer whose soft, digitized sound owes as much to 8-bit video games as it does to producers like Terrio and Pharrell. This bouncy production also found a home on Atlanta rapper Father’s major label debut, Awful Swim, meeting the Awful Records patriarch’s deadpanned flexes and Rick & Morty jokes halfway with clouds tailormade for gliding over. Unlike Michael Christmas, Father finds the joy in dead-eyed hedonism, all morbid pickup lines (“All these drugs in this bitch/But only you I wanna do” from “Only You”) and scaring racist white neighbors in his new Los Angeles neighborhood. Both artists serve as a steadying reminder of the bolts of joy that millions mine from stress, anxiety, and racism.
Barely a month into the new year, Aesop Rock is bound and determined to drag happiness into 2019. The New York rap veteran is fresh off the release of Malibu Ken, an album that, on its surface, appears to have the lowest stakes of his nearly two-decade career. The cover art would make a Garbage Pail Kid blush, while the beats—handled entirely by TOBACCO of Black Moth Super Rainbow—tease airy thumps out of pre-digital synths. The atmosphere is completely free of the punchy dourness of 2016’s The Impossible Kid and instead confides in the simple art of delivering dark humor as raps.
“Tuesday” describes a messy apartment where the fridge “is pretty much a home for mayonnaise alone” and neglected house plants take over, Little Shop Of Horrors-style. The first words of opening track “Corn Maze” see Aes deem himself “The World Weekly News Batchild,” about as silly and fake as outcasts get. The music video for single “Acid King” shows the titular character on the cover slowly losing his face in graphic detail while Aes recounts the story of Ricky Kasso—a Long Island man who killed his friend after he dropped acid and was told to do so by the devil disguised as a crow—over what sounds like a Knight Rider B-side. Malibu Ken can be lurid and vile at times, but TOBACCO’s candy-colored beats give Aes’ self-deprecating piss-takes new life. He’s never sounded so fun.
Dark humor is a very thin tightrope to walk in any medium, a reality that California-by-way-of-Arizona trio Injury Reserve put to the test last week with their new single “Jawbreaker.” At its core, the song is little more than a flex anthem for people who actually know how to put an outfit together—a staple of rap culture—but little lyrical bites add more flavor. The song begins with a lengthy spoken word monologue from Ritchie With A T, who rips apart both hypebeast IG accounts and fashionista/serial rapist Ian Connor, in particular, by describing an outfit featuring what he calls the “Rape 3000s.”
An empowering verse from a still on-fire Rico Nasty is followed by group member Steppa J Groggs lamenting someone who “blew they whole rent on some Off-White” before sneering that he still doesn’t have any of his own. Parker Corey’s production matches the playful stabs of the lyrics, a minimal beat pushed forward by hand claps, vocal hums, and hollow bells. Much like the song and accompanying video of a mock runway, the beat plays with the conventions of both modern rap and fashion with tongue planted firmly in Gucci-lined cheek. “Jawbreaker” is fun in much the same way exploring a new city with old friends is fun; testing out old shenanigans in a new environment and seeing what sticks to the runway.
New Music Friday can be just as overwhelming as the latest Google News alert, but that doesn't mean that any form of happiness or fun in our music should feel like a radical act. Joy is the one currency that we can’t afford to let anyone unjustly pocket. The least we can do for our favorite rappers entertaining our ears is to try and enjoy the sugar rush.