Bells & Whistles: The Sexyy Red Olympics

A chaotic night in Los Angeles, plus new songs from penelope*, KARRAHBOOO and more.

This column was originally published on Nina Protocol on 12/7/23.

Art by Tyler Farmer.

The games of Sexyy Red

Mano: Midway through her set at the Palladium in Los Angeles, Sexyy Red shielded her eyes from the stage lights with a hand and gazed out at an ocean of beautiful people, choosing lucky contestants to take part in a twerk contest. For what felt like 30 minutes, Sexyy and her team carefully assembled a roster of eight women from her fanbase of “Hoochie Babies.” One girl in a blonde wig and tight pink top came up. Another had Sexyy’s bright red hair. A couple fans flashed their breasts to get her attention so that she’d select them. Then came three rounds of twerking. The top two from each round were determined by the level of applause from the crowd (no noise-o-meter, just vibes), then those four finalists competed for the championship and a cash prize. They all danced to her then-unreleased song “Bow Bow Bow (F My Baby Dad).”

I looked around and saw maybe the fullest picture I’d seen of Los Angeles in the few weeks I’d spent there on a trip motivated by unemployment, restlessness, and a vague desire for Linking and Building. I witnessed, in no particular order: scantily clad twenty-somethings, fratty white boys in jean jackets and Air Forces, 03 Greedo’s entourage, kids in impact-font T-shirts, even the occasional unc quietly singing along. At one point my friend and No Bells creative director Srikar nudged me to point out an IG model standing in front of us. It was high school prom for the people who don’t fuck with prom, loose and rapturous and volatile.

For my money, in 2023, no new artist has had more of an impact on hip-hop than Sexyy Red. Even though No Bells Dot Blog mostly cares about music that sounds like Roblox avatars tweaking out on vape pens, Big Sexyy is the moment, rapper of the year. The kids scream her ad libs, the adults think she’s gloriously vile, the college boys hope she’ll come to their tailgate, and the rap critics get flashbacks to Gucci and Sosa. Her raunchiness makes “WAP” sound like Kidz Bop, and her delivery is so good that she’s able to shirk conventions and chant all over these beats, giving the rawness of Hypnotize Minds a fresh finish. In maybe record time for him, Drake’s already cribbed her swag for one of his best songs of the year. Incredible. 

In New York, I’ve heard Sexyy Red in the club pretty much every weekend for months, my favorite moment being when Popstar Benny spun four of her songs back to back, so I knew this LA show was about to feel like a megachurch for Hoochie Babies. We arrived around 8:30, over an hour late per the bill but well before the first opener had even gone on. Enough time to cop a sweet Sexyy Red shirt from the merch table because for some reason I did not think to dress for this.

Then came an all-woman opening lineup: Tay Money, Big Mali and Rubi Rose. They all did their thing. Rubi brought out this goofy-looking Twitch streamer named Neon who I guess has a whole bit about trying to get with her. I felt old. As we waited for Sexyy Red and then waited some more, it became evident the show was being delayed because fans kept passing out. Seems like there was some minor crowd crush going on, and every five or ten minutes I’d see someone emerge from the thick like a deer in the headlights, totally drenched. Finally, the lights on-stage changed to Hood Hottest Princess artwork, and Sexyy Red emerged, wearing black cat ears (it wasn’t Halloween, this is just a thing she does), big shades, and a top featuring a sea of gems meant to accentuate her baby bump.

Sexyy’s small catalog already feels like a greatest hits. From fan favs like “Hellcats SRTs” to more recent hits like “Shake Yo Dreads,” every NSFW line was chanted back by the crowd, and every song Sexyy rapped word-for-word. She brought out hometown hero YG to play “BPT,” rapped all the Drake parts on “Rich Baby Daddy” so well that I’m now fully convinced she wrote it for him, and did “Pound Town” twice at the end, performing it acapella for big stretches. She sometimes struggled with breath control, but the fact that she was doing it at all while appearing to be quite pregnant made such minor details barely noticeable.

The next day, as I wore my Sexyy Red 4 President shirt out near Chinatown, one guy in an Italian deli whispered “skeeyee” as he walked past me. Soon after, another kid yelled BOW BOW BOW at me out of a car window. Even when the show is over, we’re all just pawns in Sexyy Red’s universe.

Bach has 8.7 million monthly listeners. Where does that revenue go?

Millan: Mano caused a stir on Twitter this week by shouting out Bach for keeping his streaming numbers up throughout the years (centuries). The most common response, save for the “industry plant” allegations, was a question: Who gets paid from that?

Let’s say each Spotify stream pays out three thousandths of a cent on the (diabolical organization, Nina gives artists 100% of proceeds…) and assume Bach receives at least 8.7 million streams a month. You’re looking at about $26,000 monthly and over $300,000 annually, on the low end. Nothing to scoff at. But Bach’s compositions—i.e., his notated sheet music—are public domain, free to copy, use, and distribute however you wish. So the money goes to the orchestra who performed, recorded, and distributed his works, as well as the label who released it, right? And given the state of AI in music, is it crazy to think that Spotify and/or major labels will soon be releasing auto-generated renditions of Bach for a quick buck—or that it’s already happening? Should we get out a Oujia board and get the big man’s thoughts on this? I’m sure the first thing he’d ask is where his check is at.

And now, this month’s song premiere! [Ed. note: this originally premiered on Nina.]

penelope* – “fur hat”

Mano: Ever since Millan sent me “#yankee” by penelope*, which glues an American ditty to an incredibly hard glo beat, I’ve been intrigued by the work of the New York-based artist. He makes Salute Emoji rap, so confident and raw you can’t help but dig for more. And when I dug, I found out he has largely evaded dropping his music traditionally, saving it for exclusive live performances around New York, the occasional YouTube upload, or both.

“fur hat,” the first single off penelope* and producer Malaika’s album melodic #bone, builds on that mystique, awash with Auto-Tuned melodies, waves of electronics and soft jerk drums. Ahead of recording the majority of #bone in a marathon session, penelope* and producer Malaika studied the sounds of contemporary underground scenes—specifically the jerk music of xaviersobased and nettspend. penelope* would ask Malaika to make beats that “sound like how water hits leaves.” As he tells it, “da concept of da project is bringing crazy wavy melodies to da jerk genre due to our love fa max b.”

“fur hat” floats around your brain like a dream but sticks with some gorgeous runs from penelope*, who dips into some Thug-type crooning towards the end. Reminds me a bit of Yhapojj and a bit more of ZAYALLCAPS (Zay if you’re reading this you should make a jerk song imoooo). Definitely one of the coolest takes on the genre I’ve heard in a minute—be on the lookout for the tape in early January.

And now a word from starting bloggerback Olivier Lafontant, who really loves this Babyxsosa song.

Babyxsosa – “I’m Over This Level Of Life, My Love”

Olivier: There’s an eight-minute ballad at the end of Babyxsosa’s self-titled EP that comes across like she’s arguing with herself in the mirror, treating her reflection as the estranged lover she’s scratching and clawing to get back at. On “I’m Over this Level of Life, My Love,” the Virginia rapper/singer is audibly wounded. Picture her as she appears on the cover art: barren and lonesome within the confines of an amatory prison, no company except for that mirror and the four walls that transpose her AutoTuned caterwauls into cavernous echoes.

This is not new subject matter for Babyxsosa. In the late 2010s, the 23-year-old emerged as the spunky, effeminate wildcard of New York rap-group-turned-record-label, Surf Gang. She became a discreetly prolific fixture in plugg rap and R&B in the years that followed, lilting over 808s about love, sex, and a compulsion towards luxury. Since 2021 she’s operated solo, applying her methodology to more ambient, avant-garde textures––her newest work is the apotheosis of this pivot.

In a series of formless, effusive refrains, Sosa acts as a pendulum between unconditional love and insatiable retribution. Her lyrics fold in on each other as she navigates infidelity and toxic attachment, sputtering through the aphrodisiac war of attrition she finds herself in. She doesn’t know if she knows what she wants, she just knows she’s pissed off about it.

“And you thinking it’s over, over / I been on my get back, get back bitch / You better not be with that, with that bitch / I miss that, I miss it over here,” she croons. There is no veil between Babyxsosa and her audience. You’re watching her ball her fists as her stanzas cascade into the pop filter. When background dialogue from the studio creeps into the mix, you want to look over your shoulder to see if her audio engineer is there beside you to hand you a tissue.

Mk.gee & Two Star – “Are You Looking Up?”

Millan: After spending the past two years helping architect Dijon’s breakthrough album Absolutely, Mk.gee recently returned to solo mode with a pair of two-track singles. “Are You Looking Up?,” my favorite of the bunch, is an act of orchestrated harshness. Using a similar crunchy church-hall mix as Dijon on “Many Times”—check Mk.gee playing guitar on a rowdy, living room performance of that track here—Mk.gee strains his voice as if he were recording from 50 yards away, sounding like it’s a lost demo from Paul Simon’s Graceland through the Springsteen’s Nebraska filter. With piercing guitars and muffled drums, this is a stark contrast to his singles of three years ago, “Untitled” and “cz,” which each approached synth-pop perfection, but perhaps a step towards something more convoluted and bold.

KARRAHBOOO – “Running Late”

Millan: KARRAHBPOO needs to change her name to lowercase cuz I couldn’t imagine her screaming about anything. She raps about trigger fingers and drug binges with the same tone as someone’s soothing grandma.

Mano: I’m just glad some good has come from Yachty’s “I Can Actually Rap” schtick.  KARRAHBOOO cribs her label boss’s relaxed, Michigan-influenced cadence and just sounds a million times better. Pair “Running Late” with Yachty’s elite music video director AMD Visuals and you get a perfect moment—I keep running back that opening shot with the mason jar. Yachty the tastemaker all up in the videos >>> Yachty the rapper.

YT – Low Me (feat. kare & kwes e)

Mano: This is YT, a guy from the UK who raps on jerk beats. Apparently he just graduated from Oxford which puts him neck and neck with Killa Ki for Hardest Rapper Ever Out of Oxford. When it comes to the raps, he’s more like SubiiBabii than xaviersobased, going for a jerk-goes-pop thing so clean and glossy that in another timeline this might’ve been downloadable on Tap Tap Revenge. Obsessed with this one mostly because of the line, “I’m in the pool getting fried like Meek Mill.”

Glokk40spaz – “F**k Sum”

Millan: He is so angry! “The way I swang the stick, this bitch shoot rapid fire / I wanna look you in the eyes when you die (That’s on God) / I wanna come to yo funeral, watch yo mama cry.” I’d rather you didn’t!! The vanilla in me aside, this song is so hard. I’ve heard some people throw around the term “Atlanta Drill,” which, sonically at least, is inaccurate because the pointedness of traditional drill doesn’t mesh with the more elastic rapping that comes out of Atlanta. But thematically, it checks out. This is not trap music. This is sadistic music.

Mano: So compelled by a lot of what’s going on in this New New New (New?) Atlanta scene right now. I already know BabyDrill’s MadMan is gonna get snubbed on many end of year lists. I think like drill, the bleak, sometimes demonic energy of this music is at once what makes it compelling and unsettling and it’s really pushing the limits of what I can stomach (this kidbecoming A Thing is so wild to me). But musically, I love how Glokk40spaz, Lil Tony, and others in this world are burrowing into Nudy and BabyDrill and 21 Savage’s dark, cartoonish style and unearthing new possibilities.