eoy_2021: Digicore takes shape

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Perennially tough to pin down, most attempts to define digicore music tend to focus on what the genre isn’t. Soundcloud creative director Billy Bugara’s editorial Digicore playlist, which played a major role in codifying the scene, describes it as “not Hyperpop and not Glitchcore.” 

Pioneered in the late 2010s by a young, online generation of self-taught producers, rappers and singers, digicore is a genre that’s perpetually under construction: a modular approach to genre sprouting from mid-decade “SoundCloud rap” and hyperpop. There are a few distinguishing characteristics, like stuttering nightcore vocal edits and intricate trap production, and there’s a sense of community, too, born from sprawling collectives and Discord servers, but the underlying principle is freedom. 

Like the work by 100 Gecs, Duwap Kaine, Sybyr and Charli XCX that laid a foundation for their sound, these singles arrived bursting at the seams with alien textures and disparate ideas — jungle breaks and harsh blasts of static grating against chiptune melodies — yet their overall attitude seemed to completely deviate from the source material. While the Hyperpop experiment, predominantly spearheaded by young millennials, bent genre conventions with a mischievous wink, the subversion of digicore happens more by circumstance. It’s the sound of synapses kicking into overdrive — the default mode of perception for Zoomers who toyed with technology in their early childhood and grew up with unlimited access to media at their fingertips. It’s the gestalt of every playlist put on shuffle; the pop cultural synthesis required to understand a Youtube poop; reaction videos made to reaction videos made to forgotten 90s reality TV shows. Concepts that may have been novel or “meta” to the previous generation are now the jumping-off point for a more refined and expressive medium. 

Over the past year, digicore has begun to produce its most mature, high-concept work to date, spawning acclaimed projects by quinn and dltzk, who mined their Zoomer anxieties while still riffing on the cartoon violence and idiosyncratic lingo of their internet forebears. It’s a harsh juxtaposition, sure, but digicore revels in contrast. It can be Silly and sadistic; organic and artificial, vulnerable and closed-off. The more you try to make sense of it, the less defined it becomes. Digicore’s self evident, and once you get it, you know it when you hear it. It’s this malleability that’s kept it pure for the time being — unable to be easily packaged, playlisted, or Spotified. 

Drawing from midwest emo, Jersey club, and Brazilian funk, our top 15 digicore singles released in 2021 represent the omnivorous tastes and prodigious talents of the scene’s artists. When a genre’s essence is unbridled freedom, it takes radical ideas and energy to keep things running. These artists are up to the challenge. – Jude Noel

15. ch2rms feat. d0llywood1 & vasto – “shut up” (3D$)

ch2rms is one of the rare digicore artists whose best songs are hidden in the tracklists of larger projects, like the Toradora! inspired #US mixtape, but “shut up” stands out among his catalog of loosies. Enlisting help from a few fellow Sillyteam members, he orchestrates a frenzy of highly-processed voices that race to keep up with a brisk 3D$ beat. Wiggly sine waves fill in the margins as ad-libs and mangled phrases scatter in all directions: a chaotic mix of sounds that’s oddly soothing to get engrossed in. – Jude

14. Exodus1900 – “BADBOY!” (CJ808 & s1ninja)

CJ808’s beats threaten to collapse like Jenga towers, but each is constructed thoughtfully and intentionally. Negative space is a focus for the 2K3 producer, as is cultivating a vast palette of plug-ins and textures that seem to suck everything into their gravitational field. On “BADBOY!” bass and drum swell and crackle under Exodus1900’s angsty vocal, pushing it into the garbled, guttural tones you might hear on a Sellasouls record. It’s a thrilling mess, music as pure muscle. – Mano

13. Raegun – “zen” (ria)

One of the most rewarding parts of listening to digicore is being totally shell-shocked on a semi-regular basis. Artists in the scene often talk about not being able to sit with a style of music for longer than a week or two, so they’re constantly hurling curveballs at your SoundCloud feed. This is presumably how we get songs like Raegun’s “zen,” which sandwiches stuttering bass drops and risers between bossa nova keys and bass. An imagistic writer, Rae interprets this soundscape as the wreckage of a crumbling relationship: “Play this game way too much, trade some lies from our tongues / Shoot my heart with your gun, put your lips on my blunt.” – Mano

(Ed. Note: Rae is writing for No Bells soon but we loved this song before we started working with her.)

12. doxia – “runway” (doxia)

There’s an energy doxia captures that few vocalists in the scene can match. He frequently sounds like a Nicktoons character singing through a box TV, and his melodies remind me of radio jingles. That’s all to say that “runway” felt like a warm blanket this year. As Doxia sings vague nothings about packs in the mail and keeping heat in his pocket, he pulls you into a wintry trance, teasing out early-age memories without being explicit about them. – Mano

11. Wido – “who was” (Wido)

Press play on this track and you’re instantly spirited away. The Zaytoven-esque bounce and calliope synths on Wido’s self-produced beat create an all-consuming, sinister atmosphere that pairs perfectly with his spooky vocal delivery. He sounds like a Soundcloud oracle channeling a god of madness, his singsong flow taunting the listener as 808s bob in a circle like the Rites of Spring. “Red jewels on my fingers / red hands commit a crime,” he intones — a symbol from a dream, a transmission from the Black Lodge. – Jude

10. underscores – “Bozo bozo bozo” (underscores)

Besides frailty, Teen Week and drive-by lullabies, underscores’ fishmonger was probably the best digicore full-length I heard all year. It sometimes leans a little too cutesy and cartoonish for my taste, but underscores is an extremely meticulous producer and writer and packed so many ideas into this record. The best is “Bozo bozo bozo,” a mischievous little guitar tune that bursts into breezy electronics every chorus. – Mano

9. blackwinterwells & quinn feat. fish narc – “STRENGTH BONUS” (blackwinterwells & fish narc)

Best known as a seminal producer in digicore, Blackwinterwells is also one of the scene’s most confessional songwriters. Her pluggnB album Stone Ocean and acoustic set at Friend Fest showcase her lyrical approach, which centers diaristic language and haunted imagery. “STRENGTH BONUS” is a duet between wells and quinn about finding their footing: “Oh, I just need something to believe in / Oh, I just need someone to believe in me.” These simple turns of phrase are accentuated by wells’ sparse, bright synths that shift into a new key in the outro. She may be the scene’s go-to producer, but she’s at her best when she’s creating for herself. – Mano

8. juno feat. dltzk – “nowhere to go” (dltzk)

Rock music is in a strange, interesting place right now. While the genre’s mainstays from decades past will dominate radio forever, and newer, safer acts like Snail Mail have become critical darlings, it might be digicore artists like juno and dltzk who are innovating most on the genre right now. The pop punk drums and guitar on their single “nowhere to go” are frayed and compressed, like they’re coming through an old boombox. These intimate textures bring you close to juno and dltzk’s crushed-up transmissions of heartbreak, a musical feat pulled off by the genius–and technical limitations–of teenaged bedroom producers. Call it SoundCloud rock. – Mano

7. 8485 feat. fish narc – “southview” (blackwinterwells & fish narc)

When 8485’s “Southview” opens, it almost sounds like a Taylor Swift song. Like Swift, 8485 comes off as supremely talented, yet down-to-earth and relatable. The difference is that 8485 will switch a song’s arrangement up on you in a moment’s notice. Buoyed by the production work of blackwinterwells and fish narc, 8485 bursts into the chorus under gurgling synths, then a full on rock breakdown. That chorus is simple, but staggering: “I haven’t seen anybody I’ve known for a long time, in a long time, in a long time.” 8485 writes in these plain, exacting sentences, singing them in the pleasant lilt of someone you might know. (My favorite vocal performance of hers is this spare cover of Yung Lean’s “Agony.”)  “Southview” offers a glimpse at how digicore might expand beyond bedrooms without losing its soul. – Mano

6. twikipedia feat. ericdoa – “senta” (twikipedia)

Released on New Year’s Day, “senta” finds Brazilian artist twikipedia breaking from their usual Bladee-influenced trap sound to dabble in the baile funk music native to their home country. The track still retains digicore’s signature stuttering vocal chops and gummy 808s, but twikipedia doesn’t fuse the styles so much as they highlight their similarities. Sampled brass sets the tone for rapid-fire bars spit entirely in Portuguese, engaging in the standard Soundcloud bravado before delving into more pointed political subject matter. A portion of the final verse roughly translates to “I want to end the system / The rich just eat, the poor can only take” and later invokes the name of anti-colonial revolutionary Tiradentes. I’m always down to hear Twiki rap about Earthbound or Pokemon over glitched-out production, but it’s when they step out of their comfort zone to test out a totally new sound that they truly shine. – Jude

5. quinn – “and most importantly, have fun” (quinn)

Quinn is an expert at using samples and interpolation as narrative tools, and nowhere is that more evident than on “and most importantly, have fun,” a collage-like G-funk track loaded with drum and bass breaks and retro synth leads. While many digicore artists mine the pop culture of their childhoods for inspiration, quinn’s sonic references call back to a time before she was born, starkly contrasting the pandemic era anxiety brewing in the backdrop. Midway through the track, a television anchor discusses the prospects of vaccinating teens with CDC director Rochelle Walensky while an outro samples the chorus from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour”: “going each and every place with the mic in their hand.” It’s a cathartic cry of frustration for a generation whose world has been put on pause for the past two years. – Jude

4. wubz – “mania” (wubz)

While the majority of Soundcloud artists seem to pitch their vocals up by default, Alabama rapper/producer wubz takes the contrarian route, slowing things down until his songs resemble remixed outtakes from Future’s Honest. None pull it off quite as well as “Mania,” a single constructed around a cinematic piano loop and a screeching brostep drop that could soundtrack the CGI intro to a Youtube channel. It’s totally self-indulgent, and it works — probably because wubz has an uncanny knack for wringing every drop of sentiment from a phrase. Even lyrics that read like the transcript from a first-person-shooter voice chat can give you chills when the person on the other end of the mic can hit notes like this. – Jude

3. kurtains – “axel ocelot” (kurtains)

“Axel Ocelot” opens with a staccato guitar riff that sounds like a MIDI version of a Blink-182 tune, toying with the concept of authenticity that is the song’s subject of study. Kurtains examines the separation between one’s IRL self (Talkin’ all my shit ’cause I’ve had enough / So mysterious I don’t even talk at all) and their irrepressible online persona. “Who let the dogs out? Fuck you!” he sighs at the song’s future bass-inspired crescendo, voice cracking. It’s totally ridiculous, but as evocative as the fleeting memory of a middle school dance. “Axel’s back and free.”

A lot of music written about or for gaming tends to be garish and overly literal: it’s still treated as a novelty in popular culture despite its near-ubiquitous presence in the lives of millennials and Zoomers. “Axel Ocelot” avoids these pitfalls with grace, finding in its refrain vulnerability and self-actualization in the ultraviolence of a third-person shooter. The song’s cozy chords and warm pulses of bass feel like spending a snow day on the couch, completely immersed in a virtual world. Especially in a time period where the concept of a social life has been turned on its head, Kurtains has created a tender, witty snapshot of teenage ennui in 2021. – Jude

2. ericdoa & dante red – “finale” (ericdoa)

Digicore artists love creating alter egos. LIke an alt account on Twitter or Instagram, a SoundCloud alt gives you a space to post your works in progress and toy with new ideas without judgment. This was initially why ericdoa conceived his alter ego dante red. But over time, the account evolved into its own recognizable artist, equipped with a bitcrushed voice and bright, pixelated instrumentals. Summer of 2020, dante red’s song “movinglikeazombie” went viral, was remixed by umru, and played a key role in ericdoa signing to Interscope. Suddenly, in 2021, ericdoa was in a different echelon. He was taking trips to L.A., touring the country with Glaive, hitting the studio with SoFaygo and Travis Barker. What would dante think of all this?

That question is answered in the incisive meditation “finale,” ericdoa’s farewell to dante red. What’s incredible about “finale” is how it collapses ericdoa’s complicated, clawing feelings of navigating the industry down to a conversation between him and his alter ego. This kind of deep-internet mythologizing could only work in a genre as rap-heavy and writerly as digicore. ericdoa admits that he’s changed, that he has new priorities; dante sneers that eric “signed a piece of paper” and switched up. 

As the song progresses, it reaches deeper and deeper into ericdoa’s psyche, pulling out knotty metaphysical details. “If I kill you, then it’s suicide,” eric says, to which dante replies, “So how you gonna do it right?” 

eric: “People think that I’m you / And that comparison hurts.” 

dante: “You did this all by yourself / You didn’t need any help.” 

The thing about alter egos is they offer us freedom. They make us more in touch with ourselves. They make us more human. But as you grow as a person, sometimes your old self is the one holding you back. Alter egos become relics of your mind, corrupting your current identity. ericdoa’s “finale,” then, reads as an artist both shedding and paying homage to his past–a vessel for becoming. – Mano

1. dltzk feat. kmoe – “homeswitcher” (dltzk)

No digicore artist had a bigger 2021 than dltzk. The New Jersey artist rang in the new year with one critically-acclaimed project, Teen Week, and closed with another: an hour-long album called Frailty, which integrated their EDM-inspired sound into a more ambitious, proggy take on fifth-wave emo. That’s not even counting the entire sub-genre of Jersey Club — Dariacore — they invented as an extracurricular activity, spawning a legion of pseudonymous disciples and a charity compilation of their work. Whatever dltzk touches is undeniably their own. While their work wears its eclectic influences, from Porter Robinson to Trippie Redd, on its sleeve, the finished product reveals the invisible threads that had been connecting them all along. 

They’ve been so prolific that it’s hard to believe “Homeswitcher,” the third Teen Week single, actually came out this year. Released in January, the collaboration with Vancouver’s kmoe set the tone for the innovation that would follow. Adorned with 4/4 claps and sawtooth synth leads, its intro verse resembles a fusion of festival future bass and electro pop from the early 2010s before launching into a trunk-obliterating bass drop. 

“You get excluded like a private VC,” dltzk sings, their voice phasing in and out of focus like a dropped call. Internet beef is a recurring theme among digicore singles, but “homeswitcher” focuses on the emotional toll that takes place offscreen. “Don’t talk shit about me, you know it makes me mad,” says kmoe. “I thought we were besties,” replies dltzk. While that might sound a bit silly on paper, in the recording, it feels like the breaking point of a doomed friendship. It’s the essence of the scene boiled down to a couple minutes’ worth of music: art that’s Very Online but never jaded. And then the instrumental outro hits, machine-gun snares and staticky samples arranged in unfathomable ways, flexing dltzk’s technical prowess while maintaining the melancholy atmosphere. It’s fun, it’s moody, it’s sneakily complex. Everything digicore should be.  – Jude

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