Bells & Whistles: The future of rap is noisy as hell

Internet rap is reaching such a level of cranked-up cacophony that even the ostensible mainstream feels avant-garde.

The column is back. This time, it has a new home: NINA. Not gonna lie, I am still learning about the nuts and bolts. What I do know is it’s an online music marketplace that gives artists 100 percent of the proceeds from their sales and has a very cool editorial arm helmed by writers that I used to read in high school. Here’s the gist: Bells & Whistles is now gonna be MONTHLY. Same format, maybe a bit longer. It’ll live on the Nina blog for a week before getting republished on our website. Expect a little Thinkpiece or some weird writing about the state of things at the top, a song premiere from a rising act we like and a dump of great songs at the end. – Mano Sundaresan

Art by Tyler Farmer.

Mano Sundaresan: I go to rap shows at the same three or four places in New York and experience the same frantic, poisoned, beautiful mess. Phones light up the darkness as xaviersobased hits those dance moves, as kasper gem barks into the mic, as Nettspend flails around like an NPC. The machinery of gorgeous synths and hazy Auto-Tune spillage puts you in a trance, the auditory equivalent of losing yourself on a crowded street. Whenever I get online, the sounds I encounter drill holes into my brain. Some of the music is terrible, some of it is incredible, and all of it has been fascinating to witness. 

Internet rap, a term we can loosely define as “rap music that is made by and for internet circles,” is approaching such a level of cranked-up cacophony that even the ostensible mainstream feels avant-garde. In my mind, we are at least one era removed from Whole Lotta Red, the classic Playboi Carti album that set off the 2020s with its scalding overdrive. That was the Rage Era, roughly 2021-2022, where everyone was sliding on those glossy synths popularized by F1LTHY et al on WLR. Yeat quickly became the torchbearer of this new generation of cyborg-rap, but there was also Ken Carson and Destroy Lonely, Sofaygo’s ascension to Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records, and some one-off hits here and there that fleshed out the era’s canon. Complex attempted to codify this movement as “SoundCloud 2.0,” but it never felt like the second coming of 2016 to me. A lot of it blended together. Seeing how quickly this sound was upstreamed through the Lyrical Lemonade YouTube channel and tipped by influencers like Zack Bia and Bobbalam, as though they simply wanted to showcase the Next Thing instead of something actually cool, almost felt nefarious. What we saw was the lawlessness of the SoundCloud boom sanitized into a souped-up, streaming-era product. Minions music. By the time Yeat himself had started to shift into a funkier style with his September 2022 album Lyfe, it felt like the sound was slowly dying.

But something shifted late last year. New York rapper-producer xaviersobased was gaining a bit of buzz around his song “patchmade,” which sounded like what’d happen if you turned up the buffering on a scratched-up CD (in the best possible way). Los Angeles producer kashpaint’s beat cascades like cirrus clouds and is rhythmically fresh—I hear a bit of Milwaukee in its pattering snares. Elsewhere in xavier’s catalog, you’ll hear atmospheric walls of sound, bass turned up to unreasonable levels, and restless vocals that rarely stay at just one pitch. “patchmade” has been an institution of Underground TikTok all year and has set off a whole wave of rappers iterating on the so-called “jerk” sound (no sonic relation to LA’s “jerkin” scene of the late 2000s). Maybe most notoriously, the young VA rapper Nettspend has gained a bunch of lovers and haters this year for his stuttering, glossy take on jerk (but mostly for looking absolutely absurd in every video).

One thing about this sound that seems to have really jolted the underground is its sheer loudness. Atlanta producer feardorian told me that in 2022, he started listening to xavier whenever he had beat block. One of the first instrumentals he made in this style was xaviersobased’s “Upper West,” which dorian said he patterned off the xavier song “turn up.” “I wasn’t really using sub like that,” he said, “and I boosted the 808s super high. It was, like, clipping in the song. I had never did anything like that, it was really unorthodox to me.”

Check this year’s production work from Atlanta’s perc40 and Minnesota’s tdf for another dimension of this high-decibel fuckery. I swear to god I hear demons gargling with salt water in the low end of these beats. Their 808s are unholy, straight blasts of distorted signal that sound like FL Studio is malfunctioning. The rapping from their collaborators Smokingskul and wilkarduno is like if Mystikal only had access to Bandlab and a laptop mic: raw, unprocessed, punched-in madness. (If you’re craving a fun rabbit hole, go through silenzc’s type beats of this demon music). Meanwhile, Osamason, one of the fastest rising rappers from the underground this year, opts for a bit more polish and hookiness, iterating on Ken Carson’s zoned-out style, but still: these songs are massive, with bass boiling over the top of the pot. They make the rage beats of (relative) yore sound like easy listening.

When I think about feardorian, tdf, and others in this emerging wave playing with loudness in crazy ways, my mind goes to baile funk, the Brazilian dance music genre that seems to be slowly crossing over into the rap internet (word to billdifferen for their crucial role in covering this music for us common folk). A lot of the funk songs that go viral hinge on hammering your eardrums with the loudest, most unexpected sounds their producers can wring out of their DAWs. I often see rappers from the aforementioned scenes share funk music, cite it as an influence, and in the case of core collective Novagang’s founder prblm, channel it as direct inspo for an upcoming project. Any worries that rap might be in decline are just so silly to me for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that the kids genuinely seem interested in pulling new sounds into its orbit, and pushing it to the limit in the process.

Already, I’m seeing the wicked ways in which some of these artists are being vaulted up the ladder and slowly sucked of their purity. Young artists continue to sign terrible deals—just like with every generation—and an ever-increasing dependence on show money leads to them signing onto some extremely cursed lineups curated by shady promoters. But if we’re talking solely about the music, it’s challenging me more than ever. It’s teasing out new sounds and making me draw connections in rap’s history that I’d never before considered. The underground is entering a new era, and wherever it goes, I’m all ears. 

And now for some songs that we like, starting with the first ever BELLS & WHISTLES PREMIERE! [Ed. Note: this was originally premiered on the Nina blog]

Pinkest – “Catholic Spain”

Millan Verma: Couldn’t be happier that our first Nina premiere is with Pinkest. They’re a long-time staple of Atlanta’s DIY scene and have stayed true to their sound every time the city has shifted. Since arriving in the mid 2010s, Pinkest has continued to move as a singular entity, unwilling to bend toward commercial appeal or passing fads, earning local respect for high-octane sets that blend glam, grunge, and psychedelic story-telling. I’m certain that anyone who sees them perform will agree that they’re better than 99 percent of artists working today. Whether they’re on a bill with emo and indie acts or with the Awful Records-inspired alt-hop side of Atlanta, crowds react with the same jubilant pushing, shoving, and dancing until the final note.  

“Catholic Spain” is their first release in over two years, the first single off their upcoming project As Real As Life Can Be. It’s heavy, whimsical, and like their best work, leaves you feeling delirious. In their words:

This track is a false history narrative rock and roll song in just three minutes. We’ve been recording this project for the last year at Pendulum Studios and have really hit a stride in our writing and playing. We have another album of material in the works after this coming release. We have a video coming out on Friday made by Nerv (Courtney Pierce) and some art made by Kaitlin Simotics. The track was produced by us and Matt Mattson and it was mastered by Grant Lepping.

Talinwya – “MY___”

Mano: Talinwya, who was until very recently a college football star, looks like he could absolutely steamroll you and shotguns a beer with his breakfast every morning. This is why, when he raps, I am shocked, even slightly appalled, by how good he is. The guy’s like a cyborg version of Gunna. This song floats by like a pixelated mist, Talin running routes in its crevices. “New jazz,” the jerky, quirky rage sound canonized by TikTok producers and Lunchbox’s album of the same name (and now continued by artists like Talinwya) hinges more on infectious vocal tics than substantive lyrics. I can trace a line from it through Yeat’s funky work with BNYX back to YSL’s historic 2019, when Keed was reaching for the heavens with every yelp and Thug was concentrating his loose bursts into a tight heat ray. Talinwya rushes into that lineage and hits a slant route.

Millan: College football “star” is a bit generous. Looks like he had 5 grabs for 21 yards in 10 games last season at a JUCO in California. But as a six foot three 240 pound tight end he could’ve been more of an edge sealer / linebacker hunter. Just peeped his film and yeah he’s a bulldozer. Probably that dude who bangs his bare head against the lockers before every game. Type of dude to look you in the eyes and snarl. The song is nice though. I’m usually turned off by minute-long earworms but this one works.

Margo Price – “Black Wolf Blues”

Millan: Something about using first names in songs always gets me. Bruce Springsteen is the king of it: he spends 4th of July with Sandy, drives Thunder Road with Mary, fantasizes about late nights with Candy. Margo Price, who possesses a booming voice and literary skill to match, has the same effectiveness here. “The storms are on the hill / I always think of Jacob.” Who’s Jacob? And why are you always thinking about him? This line immediately puts me at eye level with her. It’s like when a friend talks about someone they assume you know, so you nod your head and stitch together the story as they explain. Like, if I began this blurb with, “This was the last song Jenny ever listened to,” you’d be all, “Wait a second who’s Jenny and where’d she go??” Anyways, this is one of Margo’s more biting songs. It pairs a slow, simple arrangement with a longing that just can’t be faked.

Duwap Kaine – “Sunset”

Mano: Duwap Kaine pushes positivity. In the spring, he dropped a fun tape called Duwap So Based that’s an endearing homage to his new friend and mentee, xaviersobased (who is himself a Lil B disciple). And despite being one of the GOATs of the last decade of internet rap, he’s never come off as aloof or reserved, instead remains his funny, authentic self while posting songs that have increasingly reflected on his health and his path towards enlightenment. “Sunset,” where Duwap reflects on the physical and mental effects of depression over a chilly Milwaukee beat, offers a perfect example. Duwap was undoubtedly a major inspiration and influence on the simmering rap landscape I discussed in the column above, and it makes me happy that he continues to be one of its guiding lights.