Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Ambien Music - where faded meets fey

I did an interview December 2018 with Beatrice Finauro of Dry magazine (Milan) about trap / mumble rap - and why it was my favorite music of recent years. Here it is - resequenced a bit - and with a riff woven in from a separate interview with an Italian journalist that touched on the subject glancingly, and a few other stray thoughts.

Is trap a heresy, a new classic canon or both things at the same time?

On one hand, trap is just rap – the same old, same old. Gangsta rap, part 12. If you listen from a distance, you won’t hear anything you’ve not heard before. But immerse yourself in the music, and you hear a host of micro-innovations. Most of them are in the domain of vocals – the creative use of auto-tune and other vocal processing, the emergence of ad libs as kind of antiphonal commentary on or reinforcement of the lead vocal, the blurring of rapping with singing so that you can’t distinguish between rhythmic speech and melodic trills. 

Listen to the almost choral weave of voices in Migos - the main rap, the ad libs (often shouted or whooped or gasped nonverbal eruptions of pure jouissance), and then the rippling hyper-Autotuned backing vocals - again, wordless moans of ecstasy that sometimes resemble psalms or monastic chants. This is a new thing in music. And just as striking and interesting, it's a new kind of melting, woozy subjectivity for hip hop masculinity - almost effete at times. 

This new subjectivity and the vocal modes that have emerged alongside it seem to have been produced by changing drug use patterns  - the different vibes  generated by drugs like Xanax and Percocet. Although purple drank has been a southern  hop hop staple for a long while. But these numbing anxiety killers and pain killers have turned rap of the Migos, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Rich the Kid, Travis Scott type into a kind of ambient music - or even Ambien Music.  It exists in a zone between faded and fey. 

Texturally the floaty, wafting, twinkly IDM-ish sounds in the production make trap one of the last remaining bastions of minimalism in modern music, which otherwise tends towards maxed out digitalism. Trap has digimax's hyper-real contoured gloss, but in combination with minimalism - so you get this killer combination of spare and sumptuous. Trap tunes often consist of just a few vaporous sounds looped and these highly repetitive vocal hooks, and often there are a rather small total number of words in the entire lyric. It's a break with the whole tradition of MC lyricism, it's much more about texture and mood, and these sing-songy, rippling hooks. This is music that invites you to trance out, to listen in a semi-attentive stupor. Tracks ooze out of the car speakers to cloud the vehicle's interior - and especially if you're driving at night, it's like you're gliding along inside this futuristic glowing capsule. 

Adam Harper defined the characteristics of Hi-Tech aesthetics Vs Indie aesthetics. I think some of the features of Hi-tech, such as the harsh vision of the future, being decadent, excessive and aggressive, and originally linked by Harper to artists such as James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, can be also attributed to the trap genre. On the other hand, we have the supposedly warm, benign, archaic and, I’d say, lifeless realm of Indie to which the trap is opposed. In your opinion, which are the main trap’s features and where does trap lie in the contemporary ecosystem?

The supposedly subversive or parodic elements of vaporwave or hi-tech / hi-def – to me they pale next to the reality of what is streaming out of the mainstream airwaves. Which is to say the hyper-reality of it -  a lifestyle that is fantastical, psychotic... What could be more insane or morbid than the subjectivity in a Drake record or a Kanye song? The black Rap n B mainstream is further out sonically and attitudinally than anything the white Internet-Bohemia has come up with. Rap and R&B, Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Cardi B, Migos: is already the Simulacrum, is already decadence. I call it Weimar n B.

Trap spans from the original formula, such as the one of Gucci Mane, T.I, Young Jeezy, to the Ebenezer’s one, influenced by R&B and Gospel, to London’s Drill and so on… And each country has its own version. Is there a common ground, rule or standards that is cross to the different types of trap?

There are certain beat patterns that recur (yet also a surprising diversity of grooves and feels). You can connect trap back to early 2000s sounds like crunk and New Orleans bounce – the idea of the Dirty South – to labels like Cash Money. 

I suppose if there are two things that define all 21st Century hip hop is that it doesn’t use samples very often and it breaks with the looped breakbeat approach of classic East Coast Hip Hop. The beats are programmed and relate to a longstanding Southern U.S Hip Hop tradition that was rooted in drum machines and 80s Electro. Trap is part of that, as was the related L.A. sound of Ratchet as pioneered by DJ Mustard. But in a larger sense it’s all trap, it’s all gangsta rap, it’s all rap. There’s an absolute continuity, a changing same to quote Amiri Baraka.

Why does trap have such an influence on kids?

Kids want something that feels now and that belongs to them, and trap is the most convincing and intoxicating contender for that role. Most other forms of youth music are static or overly shadowed with heritage and history.

The other thing is that trap is one of the few music around that drips with a disruptive and illicit jouissance. Trap – especially Migos and Young Thug, but all of it – is ecstatic. The performers seems entranced by themselves, in a swirl of ecstasy and glory. Think of the feeling in Rae Sremmurd ‘Black Beatles’ . The fact that their trope for that feeling of excess, triumph and abandon is rock stardom tells you something. This is supplying what kids got from the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin: a fantasy of a life without constraints.


Luke said...

It's unfortunate that your point about mumble rap representing a new subjectivity for hip hop masculinity didn't make it into the published interview as it is one of the things that I find most interesting about mumble rap too. Especially when it is contrasted with the typical portrayal of hip hop masculinity which still found a place in the published piece.

Regarding the dichotomy between 'conscious' hip hop and mumble rap, it is a necessary distinction, but i like to think of mumble rap as 'unconscious' hip hop not because it is anti-woke or anti-progressive, but in the psychoanalytic sense. If conscious hip hop is superego music, and the majority of other hip hop ego music, mumble rap is id music. From all the non-verbal sounds, the adlibs, the mumbling and so on, to those problematic lyrics which often come across as more the product of free association than conscious boasting.


i never saw this comment until just now - but cheers. good point - i like the idea about it being 'unconscious' rap, stream of unconsciousness, letting fantasy and the id come out to play

the ecstastic blurry moans and gurgles and the tourettic ad libs, they seem to release psycholibidinal energy in spurts and spasms, it's very much some Kristeva semiotic material being let loose, strings and blobs of jouissance

reminds me of Tim Buckley's "Starsailor" the track

the babyvoice Playboi Carti just makes the regressive tendency manifest