Juice WRLD death sends shudder through 'SoundCloud rap' world

New York (AFP) –


The shock death of artist Juice WRLD has renewed mainstream focus on the "SoundCloud rappers," a hip hop subgenre whose angsty, jagged sound has taken the internet -- and the charts -- by storm.

The unpolished movement takes its name from the Berlin-headquartered platform where its artists launched to fame, a streaming site started in 2007 that lends itself to discovery without the traditional gatekeepers.

But once seen as hip hop's disruptors, the scene is increasingly succumbing to a tragic fate: rapper Juice WRLD's weekend death, causes still unknown, was only the latest to strike the subgenre.

The DIY site SoundCloud once was rap's Wild West, where wannabe musicians uploaded their rough, often emotionally vulnerable music, promoting it to their digitally savvy fan base elsewhere on social media.

The movement's aesthetic fed the music's virality: neon-dyed dreads bloomed from rappers' skulls like mushrooming highlighter bouquets, as their signature facial tattoos promoted traction on sites like Instagram.

The young crop of rappers cultivated a lo-fi sound with a case of the blues, often centering on depression's wounds -- and the prescription drugs that can dull the ache.

"Numb the pain, take these Percs to the mouth and the nose," crooned Juice WRLD in his song "HeMotions," off the 2019 album "Death Race For Love."

"I'm not a drug addict, got it all wrong / I'm just a love addict 'til my heart gone."

The artists regularly cite use of the anxiety drug Xanax, the painkiller Percocet, and the concoction known as "lean" or "purple drank."

The brew that originated in the US south is typically prescription-grade cough syrup -- which contains the opiate codeine -- mixed with soda, and sometimes also hard candy or alcohol.

- Art, fast and dirty -

In recent years the SoundCloud rappers took their chaotic energy mainstream, as the buzzy scene triggered bidding wars among labels to sign music's latest shiny object.

According to US media, rough estimates of major deals included $8 million to the hyperactive 19-year-old Lil Pump and $10 million to XXXTentacion, who signed weeks before his murder in 2018.

Streaming's reign set the stage for the SoundCloud rappers' volcanic rise, allowing artists to evade the industry's traditional power brokers and drop music whenever they wanted.

SoundCloud is also a haven for DJs, and 17-year-old breakout superstar Billie Eilish first went viral there.

But rap is the dominating force in the industry today, accounting for about a quarter of on-demand streams in 2018, according to market monitor BuzzAngle.

Rappers "as a group are making music about what's happening today -- and making it available," said Larry Miller, director of New York University's music business program.

"I think they got the power of free, or cheap, music-making tools and free music distribution faster and in larger numbers than other genres did," he told AFP.

"They are just putting the art out there -- and doing it fast."

- Emotionally raw -

But though the SoundCloud rappers appeared a burgeoning force, the movement appears to be imploding.

A hip hop mutation with a punk spirit, many of its figures lead volatile, sometimes crime-ridden lives.

Its outlaw artist XXXTentacion -- who broke out with the lurid hit "Look At Me!" -- was murdered at age 20. He already had a string of charges to his name, including false imprisonment and domestic abuse for allegedly beating his pregnant girlfriend.

And the 23-year-old Tekashi69, seeking leniency on racketeering and weapons charges, this year was a star government witness at the trial of alleged former gang associates.

Others have succumbed to the demons evoked in their art: Juice WRLD's death followed the passing of fellow rapper Lil Peep, sometimes dubbed SoundCloud's Kurt Cobain, who suffered an accidental overdose of fentanyl and Xanax in 2017.

Though the musical movement is sometimes overshadowed by associated drugs and violence, lyrically the subgenre marked a shift for hip hop.

The bars get emotionally raw, and are sometimes less akin to traditional hip hop than 2000s-era emo rock bands like Panic! at the Disco.

Juice WRLD -- whose breakout hit "Lucid Dreams" last year stayed for months in the top 10 of Billboard's hottest songs -- was particularly known for exploring weighty themes including mortality and heartache, contrasting foreboding beats with tender, melodic hooks.

"I feel like people are not afraid to touch on all their emotions," the rapper told NPR prior to his death, in an unpublished interview the outlet released in part upon his passing.

"Back in the day, especially when everybody was trying to act hard all the time, I feel like people just wasn't touching on that side of their life," he continued.

"I feel as though some of the people now are more mature and more grown than the people back then because they talk about everything that they went through."

"Everything, not just the violence."