illustration by Jensine Eckwall

For “wellness,” naturally, is no cause for complaint — people relish it, they enjoy it, they are at the furthest pole from complaint. People complain of feeling ill — not well. Unless, as George Eliot does, they have some intimation of “wrongness,” or danger, either through knowledge or association, or the very excess of excess. Thus, though a patient will scarcely complain of being “very well,” they may become suspicious if they feel “too well.”

-Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

It’s like the person seeing it and not the person doing it is always able to translate it and raps a little better […]Somebody watching it, you’re in the trap though, too. It dangerous just being in there. If the feds kick it in everybody’s getting the same charge. They got a right to talk about the same shit, too.

-Sonny Digital

I. The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It

“Bodak Yellow” seems as good a place to start as any. The following is not a reflection of Cardi B as a performer, who is wonderful, or the quality of her music overall, which is superb. This is about both a larger and a smaller thing than that; this is about trap music’s very own blood vessels.

“Bodak Yellow” was released in 2017 to extraordinary commercial success and unanimous, intense critical adulation of the sort typically reserved for established tastemakers like Beyonce. It’s a fun track. You’ve heard it playing somewhere even if you don’t know it by name. What you may not have heard is Young Thug’s 2013 single “Danny Glover.” While hardly ubiquitous, the song made a splash on rap blogs and was an early hit that helped propel Thug towards his rarely-contested title of trap music’s reigning maverick. It is also a fun track.

The story might be that it’s an homage to Kodak Black’s “No Flockin,” but “Bodak Yellow” sounds much closer to “Danny Glover.” The hook that kicks in around the one minute mark in each is nearly identical, the lurching space-synth melody that drives them both can’t be but a couple of notes removed from each other, and even the cadence of the rapping itself is disarmingly similar: since “Bodak” moves at a faster tempo Cardi has to spit quicker, but she elongates vowels similarly, harmonizing between the bass thuds in clear imitation of Thug.

“Danny Glover” was produced by Southside, a member of the prodigious and venerable beat collective 808Mafia; “Bodak Yellow” was made by someone who goes by J. White Did It, a character with little available public information and, as of this writing, no significant credits to their name besides this song. Anyone can smell the rat here: “Bodak Yellow” must be a plant, and its surrounding narrative of organic, unexpected success is a canard. Does this matter? Of course it does. Originality and integrity always matter. But.

To quote the title of a recent 2Chainz project, the play don’t care who makes it.

Trap has evolved from a culturally unpalatable regional hip-hop subgenre into pop music’s molten nucleus of Cool, the booming engine of its aesthetics and goals. It guides the course of fashion and slang on a global scale. It has the energy to lift one out of the most bracing poverty and desperation and into the throne of adoration and prosperity with the click of a key, the press of a sequencer pad.

It is also a hated kind of music. It is cyclopean in its design and ugly in its ideology. It bears down upon the listener. It taunts. It exhilarates. It is impossible to turn away from.

But as thrilling as it remains, trap music is now also something its creators could never have predicted: comfortable. As we see with “Bodak Yellow” and “Danny Glover,” it is now capable of nourishing itself upon itself. It can stagnate artistically without great fear of commercial neglect, and it can be self-referential to the point of plagiarism without experiencing any reprisal. When you own the world, no possession can amount to anything greater than a souvenir.

Trap has a long way to go before it “dies,” as much as any genre can ever be capable of reaching such a state. But it may soon be that the music will become a landscape and not a figure in the foreground; a wall, and not a door.

II. I Came From Nothing

One should always tread cautiously when attempting to define an era that is not yet concluded. But for the purposes of this piece, it will be easiest to condense trap into three phases. The first phase begins with the originators of the genre, those who moved away from crunk and Dirty South into the abrasive, high-hat laden production style that would come to define trap music (Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy and T.I.). The second phase stems from the proteges and discoveries of these originators, artists that would define the bright, ostentatious and darkly quasi-psychedelic elements of trap that would move it into the chic space it inhabits today (Young Thug, Migos and Future). Then there is a third and more nebulous evolution of trap, one which strips down the already brutalized language of the genre into a riotous playpen of harsh-yet-minimal beats and ever-cruder lyricism (Lil Pump, 6ix9ine and Members Only cohorts XXXTentacion and Ski Mask The Slump God). It is this third mutation which may well come to be known as something that isn’t actually trap music at all, but for the time being it merits inclusion with its forebears.

And although the stylistic origins of trap and the story of its proliferation and its eventual reach into the greater United States have been well documented, the cause of the opening which allowed it to thrive is harder to pinpoint. All we can say is that at one point anyone could observe a void. Gangster rap had been a radio mainstay since the days of N.W.A., but by the late 2000s it had assumed a rather stolid character. G-Unit had lost its momentum, Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan had made a dedicated plunge into mediocrity, and with few exceptions the West Coast had nothing of significance to show despite being the soil from which the genre sprang.

Gangster rap had gone quiet. It needed something loud. It needed the cybertronic mayhem of Lex Luger. It needed DJ Drama hollering his trademarks over the uproarious and un-EQed anthems to thuggishness and excess which percolated through his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. It needed Flockavelli and The State vs Radric Davis. It needed trap music.

But of course, success necessitates formula. The rigidity of trap rap — the mechanical hi-hat focused production, the brusque lyricism, the bombastic synth and menacing brass melodies (among other elements) — is not the genre’s undoing but its entire center of gravity and strength. In the ’70s, disco’s popularity was aided by its consistent BPMs and uniform sense of energy; this made it so DJs could easily flip or change the disc without interrupting the flow of the music when played at clubs and parties (hence its name). The sudden glut of trap material served a similar function, and still does. By 2011, when the mixtape boom was reaching its peak and Datpiff was making stars out of artists like Big Sean and Meek Mill by way of digital word-of-mouth long before these artists ever had significant national radio hits, trap had become an effortlessly accessible and seemingly endless whirlpool of bacchanalia. You could make a playlist that jumped from Gucci Mane to Gunplay to Lil Durk to Young Scooter to King Louie to YG without having the momentum subsist for even a moment. And you would never want it to. Trap, taken in bulk, is the most electrifying music of modern times.

But it is also exhausting. And even for the most ardent partygoer, one’s eyes must meet the sun eventually.

III. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Richard Morales Jr. may come to be best remembered as the first major career casualty of trap’s explosive popularity. Far from an overnight sensation himself, Gunplay had figured as a tertiary presence in Miami’s rap scene for years, orbiting around artists like Rick Ross and DJ Khaled. He had snarling outlaw charisma and a flow that could cut glass, and from hard-edged bangers like “Jump Out” and “Drop” to freestyles over classic Wu-Tang Clan beats there were few productions he seemed incapable of being able to turn into a one-man riot. Still, success as such remained elusive. He was well into his 30s by the time two of his mixtapes, Bogota Rich: The Prequel and 601 & Snort, started to give his name a noticeable buzz in the early 2010s. With positive press reception for his tapes, coveted features on singles by artists like Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky, a near-ubiquitous presence on Ross’ own high-profile projects, and tangible excitement brewing over his incoming debut LP, Gunplay showed every sign of becoming trap’s next megastar.

Then, in 2012, Morales mugged his accountant, on camera. Charges were dropped several months later due to witnesses being uncooperative, but Gunplay’s momentum never recovered. Living Legend was delayed into obsolescence and dropped three years later to utter critical indifference and negligible sales, barely cracking the Billboard 200. By this time he could not even claim to be a prolific feature artist, having all but disappeared from the singles charts over those years. Gunplay still releases music, but his time as a major locus of excitement in the trap world proved to be as brief as it was intense. It leaves a bitter taste to recognize how easily one can imagine a timeline where things shook out differently for him. But trap, even moreso than other forms of pop music, calls for sacrifices.

To understand what happened to Gunplay one most know something about Maybach Music, the label which published most of his substantive output. Maybach was founded by Rick Ross in 2009 and, since the mixtape explosion of 2011, it has served as trap music’s highest profile purveyor of mediocrity. Its roster is a portfolio of hedged bets, whether it be a poor man’s J. Cole like Stalley, or the abusively uninteresting Rockie Fresh; even its success stories like Wale and Meek Mill, both of whom have had albums debut at #1 on the Billboard 200, fail to bring much in the way of cultural impact outside hip-hop, besides being occasional fonts of amusing internet drama. Yet despite its negligible claims to success, the imprint has yet to shutter. It does fill a gap in the market. Maybach is the American Apparel of trap music, dwelling in a space that resembles success by eliminating risk and shedding itself of attributes both positive and negative. Entities like Maybach Music thrive in popular fields, where the excitement surrounding the nature of the media it peddles is such that you can’t articulate why the specific object in question is boring until it has already stolen your time.

This is all to say that a genuinely maniacal presence like Gunplay, no matter how much money and attention he can draw to the label, doesn’t belong somewhere like Maybach. If he’d been part of 1017 Brick Squad his antics would’ve fit right in with label head Gucci Mane’s outlandish criminality, but on Maybach, home to its laconic production and nondescript feelgood rags-to-riches stories, Gunplay was a disruption. And being such a close associate of Ross, as the head’s founder, it would’ve been tantamount to high treason to look for representation elsewhere. So he was more or less left to suffocate, for no other cultural crime than living up to the lifestyle he rapped about…which, ostensibly, was the only reason he drew interest as a performer in the first place.

This was the first great instance of trap becoming incompatible with itself, a symptom of a redrawing of borders which would leave little room for some of the figures who helped make the music exciting and noticeable in the first place (I suspect that this is also why we see little these days of the once-prolific Alley Boy and his label, Duct Tape Entertainment). While unfortunate, it was perhaps inevitable: the loudest and rowdiest will always be the first to be held in contempt in the court of public opinion.

IV. On Bullshit

The most commonly repeated piece of folk wisdom that hip-hop’s detractors use to justify their near-primitive hatred of the music is that in its most visible consumptive form, the genre “glorifies” violence, hedonism and excess. The specific quotation of the word “glorify” is important because it isn’t the correct way of describing what this music communicates, but it seems to be the verbiage that is most frequently used. Sometimes these same people will use the word “celebrates” instead, and that’s a little bit closer to the truth, but regardless of how they phrase it they’re not letting you on to what really upsets them about this music. Gangster rap, party rap, trap rap, or any other ostentatious and vulgar form of hip-hop is distressing to the uninitiated because the ubiquity of the music necessarily positions its accompanying lifestyle as being one of necessity for its storyteller, and by extension, by sheer volume of its presence, its listener as well.

Necessity is a concept that engrains itself in its subject via repetition. Consider: it is theorized that alcoholism develops when the stimulus brought on by drinking begins to make its way to the quadrant of the brain that regulates survival instincts instead of pleasure principles, also known as the lizard brain. For a drunk, a shot of vodka that emboldens them to talk to a cute girl will travel down the same neural road as a surge of adrenalin that tells him he needs to get away from a man holding a gun. A less heavy example of this principle would be that of an office worker grumbling “I need a vacation.” He feels as though without some sort of relief, the volume or intensity of his work (or both) will become a burden to him and disrupt his life, making a vacation a necessity. Whether or not the drunk or the office worker are empirically correct, these needs do not feel disruptive to them because they arise from organic circumstances (or, in the case of the drunk, the need may feel disruptive but its intensity and discernable point of origin make it feel no less a need).

Nothing is more infuriating or troublesome to a person than that which falsely insists upon itself as a necessity based solely on its insistence of appearing frequently in a person’s life. This is why a person’s rage at hearing a specific pop song or gossip about the Kardashians may appear so outsized in proportion to the actual problems these things are capable of presenting to them: as they besiege a person’s attention at the grocery store, on Twitter feeds and television commercials, their ubiquity insists that they are necessary facets of a person’s life, even as their overt fatuity exposes that they aren’t. Cognitive dissonance is frustrating to discover in oneself at the best of times, much less when it seems to have been beckoned into you from afar. It’s like seeing a rainless cloud pull over a desert as you clutch a piece of fruit that’s already gone rotten.

Trap rap may be ubiquitous, but this does not mean it is well suited to ubiquity. It is extreme in its aesthetics and narrow in its point of view; like black metal or the original wave of dubstep from the mid-2000s, trap is as powerful as it is specific. It is such that even many ardent hip-hop listeners will disavow the genre wholesale, aligning themselves philosophically with the same cultural conservatives who would have the whole genre of rap music tossed out along with it.

But there exists a line that makes sense of it all, that brings to light trap music’s spiritual burden. In the outro to Future’s “March Madness,” which only seems to be present on the version of the song included on the 56 Nights mixtape, Future calls for a gangster’s prayer. His ending request: “God, show us the way. And if you can’t show us the way, then forgive us for being lost.

Here is the paradox of trap: it is ignorant but self-aware, a music which celebrates superficiality but which is not, itself, vapid. There is necessity in trap. It is the very essence of necessity, to some people. Trap isn’t a distant star, it’s a lightbulb; the energy of it comes from a small place but spreads from the core and ensconces its surroundings. It isn’t the sun, but its light still fills the room.

Here’s how Migos presented themselves on the cover of Culture II, which came out earlier this year.

And this is what Migos looked like on the cover of Juug Season, their debut mixtape released before they were signed to a label.

“A zebra can’t change its stripes.” True enough. But a zebra’s stripes aren’t simply ornamental; they are the outcome of evolution. Instructive or otherwise, there is reason to be found in all things under the sun.

V. I Just Need A Whole Lot Of Drugs In My System

I went to rehab a few years ago. It was a nice, welcoming space, and it accepted addicts from all income brackets and walks of life. But some of its patients weren’t there by choice, per se; they were sent to rehab by the courts in exchange for time served or as a condition of their parole. The criminals were uniformly the kindest, most open and nonjudgmental of the inpatients, and I made friends with them quickly. There was a rooftop gym which we made frequent use of, and when we worked out together we would listen to trap music.

Phones and iPods weren’t allowed in the facility, but there was no written rule about cassettes or CDs, so one of the inpatients who had been enrolled before thought to bring a few mixes with him. There was a house and techno mix, there was a collection of ’90s Bay Area hip-hop a la Too $hort and E-40, and there was a contemporary rap mix, and that’s the one we listened to the most. Someone so desiccated from heroin abuse that they couldn’t even lift the bar at first came to be able to bench press 150 pounds with the help of Juicy J; a stick-up kid who lived on eightballs and vodka, who was advised not to exercise because counsellors feared he could have a heart attack, managed to break his personal best mile speed to the tune of “Fuck Up Some Commas.” The gym was the lifeblood of rehab, an unbroken hive of raucous activity and fellowship, and the tone of the bonds we made were set by the excitement, the strange surge of triumph and redemption, imprinted by the trap music we listened to together.

The life of a dealer and an addict (frequently one and the same) is alternately a vortex of horror and a wellspring of black comedy. You make friends at rehab the same way you get to know someone at a funeral; the cartilage that separates you from others becomes the tissue that pulls you close to one another. The stickup kid I mentioned earlier had to bear witness to the suffocating body of his overdosing brother as it was dumped in front of his home from the back seat of a moving car. Bringing the soon-to-be-corpse to his house was intended as a sign of respect, you see. He watched his brother’s eyes bulge and nearly pop as he took his last breath. Conversely, there was a dealer I knew who was captured resisting arrest after becoming so bedraggled on lean that he sprinted into the glass façade of a Boost Mobile outlet and knocked himself unconscious, and I still can’t tell people about that story without laughing.

I’ve lost track of both these men, but last I heard one of them was moving to Santa Barbara to be with an ex-military wife he met in rehab, and the other is still bouncing between rehabs and jails. They are both, most assuredly, bringing their music with them in some form or another.

Fredo Santana, an inescapable figure in Chicago’s drill movement, passed away last year at the age of 27 over complications resulting from a seizure. He had a history of such seizures, and of being addicted to the types of substances that cause them from withdrawal, and was hospitalized earlier in the year over circumstances that seem identical to the ones that killed him.

Could it be that the bleak cartoon that trap music illustrates is not only not confined simply to the songs themselves but to the world that they draw from, and that this world is in fact not shrinking but becoming larger as its inhabitants move through the world like oxygenated blood cells, changing color and becoming realized as they enter one’s line of sight?

Trap is the music of the streets. To love it is to never walk alone. If this annoys some people, or many people, then so be it.

VI. I Get The Bag

Consider Datpiff.com.

Datpiff is pop rap’s university, a proving ground as well as a community and an archive. It’s where Drake began his rise to dominion in earnest, when So Far Gone gained a million downloads and proved that the market for his delicately masculine storytelling could be greatly expanded. It’s where Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa and Kid Cudi cut their teeth at the end of the last decade, and where Odd Future Wolf Gang, The Weeknd and Childish Gambino became superstars at the start of our present one. Familiarity with Lil Wayne’s prolific Dedication and Da Drought series of mixtapes is still considered a barrier to entry for “true” fans of his, and those releases have to this day never been made available on other streaming services. Popularity on the service can determine everything from label terms to brand deals and club walk-in fees for a rising rap star. Datpiff is a sturdy bridge between the mainstream and the esoteric; it is where one becomes the other, where a decidedly new-school rapper like Kodak Black can accumulate the buzz needed to gain press attention and start moving units, or where an older performer like Jadakiss can go to test the waters among specifically keyed-in rap fans and see if there’s enough in the tank for another album. Datpiff is not a known quantity among casual music listeners, but for understanding modern rap music and thus the topography of pop as a whole it is a vital entity, worthy of study.

Like any good semi-secret club, Datpiff is a tiered establishment. The million-plus downloaded tapes largely belong to pop rap megastars like Wayne, Khalifa and Rick Ross. These are a big fixture of Datpiff’s traffic; for example, a curious user will see that Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2 has 2 million downloads and then might download it themselves out of curiosity. These become self-propagating draws, earning their keep on the site just by existing. But Datpiff has a kind of middle class in its mixtape economy, one that creates value with its consistency of turnover rather than the individual staying power of its releases, and that middle class is the trap circuit.

Future is perhaps the best example of this concept at play, the shining beacon that proves the possibility of upward mobility through the website. While Purple Reign currently sits at a cool million downloads, the rest of his oeuvre tends to fall in the 250–500k download range, including the triple crown of mixtapes he released over the course of 9 months leading up to his blockbuster LP DS2 (those releases being Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights). Many of his biggest hits, including “Same Damn Time,” “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “March Madness,” were free downloads on free albums before they were inescapable radio anthems. He started as a midrange draw and, over a half decade of persistence and consistency, turned himself into one of the biggest names in rap music from the perch of a distribution site many still don’t even know exists.

Rarely does a significant thing make itself known by beginning large and then toppling onto the public. Most media doesn’t fall from the mountaintops but rather emerges from caverns. Trap is no exception. It intercepted mainstream culture from a perpendicular angle; first it is blaring out of the windows of ramshackle projects, of prowling sedans. Then it’s on the internet, more specifically in one large and loud but very secluded crevasse of the internet; anyone can hear it if they know where to go. Soon “anyone” means blogs and college kids, music’s two most insistent and insouciant output avenues. Now the stuff is inescapable: Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” is playing out of a silver SUV cruising down the bleaker end of Myrtle-Broadway, and also in a boutique hot dog restaurant in the East Village. It’s coming from a digital point of origin but occupying an exponentially growing and already tremendous expanse of physical space. And now here are the trappers in popular culture, following the Kardashians on Kanye’s heels; they’re just roaming around, grazing. Nothing left to fear.

But there was a problem: people mistook volume of presence for popularity. Trap was popular inasmuch as any other mainstream form of hip-hop has been popular, in that it had an outsize impact on style and language. But it was, and remains, disliked in the same measure that it is imitated; even among many of the genre’s most ardent listeners, the performers themselves are held in contempt as much as admiration, oftentimes simultaneously, the two feelings occupying the same emotional area. One can’t seem to get away with bopping to 21 Savage without feeling the need to mention his deficiencies as an MC; to see the frequent description of Mustard’s beats as “skeletal,” even in praise, is to bear in mind an image of music that is literally without substance. The blogger, the aesthete who claims this music under dubious pretenses, feels exposed if he does so without at least a small measure of self-deprecation.

Enter the age of the roundup list, and the frantic tyranny of the beleaguered columnist who finds himself stripping the music for parts. Popularity has a bad habit of being mistaken for a desire for more, when it is frequently simply an appreciation of what is already there; thus for every Fat Trel we had a Starlito insisted upon us, a Travis Porter for every Travis Scott, a Gino Marley that languished under the spotlight for every Chief Keef that thrived. Not all of these artists were terrible, and many of them contributed standout tracks to the genre, but they all fell victim to these critics’ misunderstanding of the mixtape format.

Columnists eventually discovered, or rediscovered, that a mixtape is not like an LP unless specifically designated as such by the artist, and shouldn’t be judged according to the metrics one would use to rate a CD. A mixtape is a portfolio in miniature; even releases of sprawling length aren’t expected to have more than a handful of good tracks because they are displays of ability and aesthetic, not coordinated artistic statements. A good mixtape relies on its overall impression as opposed to its particular highs and lows. It’s not a curated plate but an impressive buffet. Something like Hustle Gang Records’ G.D.O.D. or Gucci Mane’s World War 3 trilogy succeeds not in spite of but because there is too much of it. The listener is left free to select and admire as much or as little as they wish.

What this means, however, is that a mixtape becomes exhausting when listened to as a conventional release, and so should be left to be enjoyed according to the listener’s own schedule and desire. A “mixtape of the week” feature does not acknowledge this. Such pieces turn the act of listening to this music into an exhausting chore for even the most avid trap enthusiast. When Migos’ Culture II was released at the beginning of the year, critics were disappointed, lost. In contrast to megahit Culture’s relatively brisk 58 minute runtime, II ended up being nearly twice that long, inhabiting no traditional shape and containing no throughlines that would allow it to be judged sensibly in the way that its predecessor had been. Its amorphous nature was mistaken for self-indulgence, its major label distribution taken as false symbolism that Migos were to streamline their output from that point on. The album was not an album at all, but critics refused to assess it in light of its intended spirit.

Migos, for all their flaws, continue to work in the same tradition which made them famous, and that should be respected if not necessarily commended. When critics misunderstand the niches of an artist’s success, they inflict their ignorance upon the mainstream and commit lasting cultural damages to the arts they intend to champion. When they mistake the musical functions of width and depth they distort the observed media in a literal mathematical sense. And when a territory like Datpiff is “discovered” but its language is not learned, its ability to contribute is yoked improperly and ultimately curtailed. The nexus between popular potential and total recognition is destroyed; the bridge is collapsed.

VII. Imaginary Beings

Last year, Yung Mazi was killed outside a pizzeria.

The identity of Jibril Abdur-Rahman’s murderer remains unverified as of this writing, but the motive isn’t hard to fathom. Mazi was notoriously quoted as claiming “God made me bulletproof” after explaining that he had been shot upwards of ten times and survived, and in 2015 he began something called the Slap A Rapper Challenge, an initiative that was as violently wrongheaded as it was self-explanatory. Mazi was stylistically unidentifiable as a rapper and his legacy will count few fans of his actual music, but the dark absurdity of his death will surely secure him a place in rap’s ever-growing tome of footnotes. He will be a cautionary tale, a strange joke with a punchline as obvious as it is unfunny.

Yung Mazi was shot and killed on August 8th, 2017, but it was Jibril Abdur-Rahman whose body absorbed the bullets.

Entertainers have historically been at the mercy of the characters they play. David Bowie was the rare artist who seemed to be in complete control of his personas at nearly all times; we hold this skill of his in such high regard that we never fail to bring it up when talking about his career, or have any desire to disentangle it from his music. It’s not an easy thing to do, to not only give a character a life of its own but have it still walk the path you desire for it. The more visible you are, the more controlled you are by the vision of others.

But while perception of the role is still largely out of the artist’s hands, that role can now be played at all times. In the ’90s, rap’s dangers seemed to be an organic consequence of the lifestyle and environment which produced the music, not a specifically intended outcome of being the kind of person that produces such music. In the case of an artist like Big L, for example, we are made to deal with three simple elements: the persona, the music, and the hidden “true” self which is unheard by the listener but nevertheless influences the artist’s product. All three of these spheres are necessary to grapple with when considering his output, and when thinking about his murder, and this is the way it has been for most of 20th century entertainment. These three areas rarely needed much in the way of extrapolation in the past. The persona and the performance thereof were not thought to be separate things, and why would they be?

But we’re seeing something in the latest mutation of trap that makes it seem as though the act and the outcome of that act are not one and the same, that a light can go through a prism and become trapped or distorted. More baffling still is that this distortion frequently comes not from falsehoods but from truths. When video surfaced of the recently departed XXTentacion punching an ex-girlfriend in the back of the head, supplementing an already daunting tower of criminal evidence that he was a repugnant abuser of women, it was both a confirmation of the character he played and of his true self, but in a way that felt unwelcome for both entities. When Charlemagne asks 6ix9ine if he’s a sex offender during his infamous Breakfast Club interview, it’s a reminder that the necessity of this question is both somehow a vindication of and eternal black mark on the rapper’s Scumgang ethos. In reply, 6ix9ine states: “No I’m not.” And then mopes: “You could have looked that up, you got a computer right there.” Nothing bothers these kids more than having their narrative misinterpreted, because that individual narrative is all that they’ve been allowed.

Just as a rapper is better able to craft their public identity in the digital age, without overt interference from marketing presences, so too is the audience free to interpret that information however they wish. In the ’80s and ’90s, gangster rap was seen as a consequence and outgrowth of the violence and despair of the crack boom. For all the contempt much of the public had for N.W.A., there seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement that even if the music itself was thought to be loathsome and base, at least the conditions that it grew from were worthy of serious thought. The music was part of the landscape of the times.

But the genre doesn’t seem to have the same presence in the overall cultural conversation now as it did back then. We by and large don’t think of the Obama years as being those when deportations skyrocketed, when an opioid epidemic that had been a generation in the making finally made its presence known; even the Great Recession, which has haunted every facet of American existence for almost a decade, feels like such a fact of life at this point that grappling with its cause and effect feels pointless to the point of being disrespectful. War, poverty and despair had once again become benign generalities. This has led to an age of reckonings, not of insights, and as such we don’t see the broader story of humankind that accompanies this particular generation of rappers. There are no new crack stories to be told, and Vicodin addiction doesn’t have the squalid panache needed to elicit either rage or sympathy. When the exterior narrative fails to excite, the modern young rapper must go to diabolical lengths to become noticed.

The branding becomes self-contradictory and befuddling and sometimes deeply vile under these limitations. It’s not enough to say they come from a rough part of town when 6ix9ine pleads guilty to use of a minor in a sexual performance or when Kodak Black goes to prison for rape; one is blindsided by the absurdity of someone named Lil Xan, with the letters “ZZZ” tattooed on his cheek, retroactively fashioning a career out of telling kids not to do drugs. These are far from the first atrocities and idiocies committed by popular music artists, but they provoke a novel ring of disgust, of irritation. Dr. Dre threw a woman down the stairs at a point in time where one could feign plausible deniability about such things; when The Game was accused of sexually assaulting a contestant on his dating show it was around the time of release of The Documentary 2, a modest bump briefly interrupting what had been a long career plateau from an artist whose music had always been somewhat ignorable. This was villainous behavior without question, but again: explainable to some degree as a product of environment or a brutish temperament, and executed without flamboyance.

The nature of the offenses might be somewhat different, but the ugliness is not new. The unearthing and publishing of this ugliness is not new. But the difference now is that we can’t tell where any of this is coming from. Our symbols have abandoned us. Frail and depressive, XXXTentacion didn’t have the traditional image of the toxic masculine abuser to help make sense of his noxious crimes. Makonnen never succeeded in convincing his peers or his listeners of his drug dealing bonafides even though by all metrics they were as tangible as O.J. da Juiceman’s were. 50 Cent and Jeezy and T.I. dressed like where they came from; they didn’t wear flower prints or shave their eyebrows or have absurdities tattooed on their faces (although Gucci Mane would be the one to kick this last trend into gear). Lil Peep and Fredo Santana — one from the wealthy suburbs of Long Island and the other from the battlegrounds of South Chicago — made music in the same genre and died in a similar way mere months apart from each other. The narrative of the ’80s and ’90s was simple: drugs and poverty lead to crime, and the music from the areas most afflicted reflect as such. This is all still true, and it’s all technically still part of the narrative. Even the term “trap” comes from a previously obscure piece of slang reflecting this.

But just as the performance and the act of performing must now be separated into two different categories, the narrative and its characters now intersect but are not necessarily dependent on each other. Young Dolph looks like a trapper as much as Lil Yachty doesn’t. A release about drugs, sex and murder can have a picture of a gun and a brick of heroin as its album art, or it can have a screencap from an anime porno that came out in the 1980s. We’ve long moved past the “fake vs real” judgement in rap music as a valuable metric of quality. We know what the reality is, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Young Thug may have come from frightening impoverishment, deep roots in gang life, and once had to cover his mouth at his first signing to keep label executives from seeing his rotted teeth, but that isn’t his story. His story is that he sometimes wears dresses, yelps and hoots over beats, and puts out about 3 or 4 albums worth of material a year. His appeal is specifically that even after half a decade of prominence no one knows what to make of him.

Yung Mazi certainly belonged more to the Ralo style of rapper than that of Trippie Redd; indeed, like the late Bankroll Fresh before him, he was a dyed-in-the-wool trapper whose authenticity seemed to be his undoing. Nevertheless, he was split. The person we saw die was the one who made a gimmick out of hitting “fake” rappers and uploading the videos to Youtube, who took 50 Cent’s legendary imperviousness to bullets and made it a gloat that defined not only his career but his entire character and in the end took his life. His performance failed. The bullets pierced the veil.

VIII. I Came From Nothing II

2017 was a confusing year for trap music. Migos and Future had their biggest hits while also releasing the least inspired albums of their careers. Lil Yachty’s debut LP Teenage Emotions flopped, whilst 6ix9ine managed to kick off an entirely separate longform essay’s worth of drama in the span of a single autumn. Beautiful Thugger Girls dragged Young Thug into a confusing turn at Drake-style balladry that proved polarizing even by his standards, and Gucci Mane quietly resumed stewardship of Atlanta with a string of well-received mixtapes. We’re over halfway into 2018 and it’s still hard to know what to make of it all: trap is clearly not on the way out, but it’s getting difficult to cut to the core of the genre now. It’s hard to say who, if anyone, is in control.

What trap becomes — this music which is all things splintered, bracing, mercurial and irreproducible — is anyone’s guess; the genre was never supposed to make it this far in the first place. Every day that it retains stylistic dominance is a day it lives on borrowed time. But a transmogrification can be observed.

I mentioned earlier that trap can be seen as having essentially three stages, but there is in fact a fourth “lost generation,” one which isn’t beholden to the current bludgeoning Soundcloud Rap aesthetic but still can’t comfortably fit in with the middle wave that ascended trap to its current popularity. They’re hard to define, but you can get a feel for who they are when you hear them: your 21 Savages, your Famous Dex’s, your Lil Yachtys and Lil Uzi Verts. While their music may not be quite as boomingly cartoonish as that of someone like Lil Pump, they themselves are still larger-than-life characters that represent a playfulness that, Young Thug and the occasional Gucci Mane punchline notwithstanding, trap seemed to lack for the longest time. Be it Yachty sing-rapping over a beat constructed around the Super Mario 64 menu music or 21 Savage’s prowling delivery suggesting nothing if not a vengeful Dr. Phibes on Thorazine, the fantasia and unreality that had only been hinted at previously became one of the main draws of the genre.

But far from disturbing any kind of natural order within the genre, they proved that new aesthetic layers could be added without any given artist being seen as barging in on another’s territory. Not for nothing, this slim class of trapper began to emerge not when the previous generation was waning in popularity but right as they seemed to be hitting their stride. None of them have displaced any former trap stars. And while the new Soundcloud rappers and their adjacent peers have a reputation for upsetting the apple cart, they keep their feuds outside the family. Whether it’s Cardi B slighting Nicki Minaj, Pump’s trollish aggression towards J. Cole or Lil Xan’s preposterous YMCA escape stratagem necessitated from disrespecting the ghost of 2pac, young trap artists tend to pick fights with rap’s sages, not their own peers. This suggests, in its own colorful way, that there remains equilibrium within the genre yet.

Being molecularly the same music it was 5 years ago does not mean it is carrying itself in the same shape, however. Trap is being smelted. Cloud rap and vaporwave, precocious internet misfits that they are, are converging with trap music, three rivers pouring into a sonic ocean of unpredictable tides and drifts. What started with the intentionally garish, Memphis rap worshiping DIY aesthetic of Raider Klan, and with MertoZu’s absurdist vulgarity, is taking full popular shape in artists like Lil Tracy and Smokepurpp. That these artists exist at all is not surprising; that they’re emerging with hits, slowly but surely becoming competitive with the established moguls and masterminds of the form, is striking. There’s little doubt that soon this unnamed style will be the genre’s dominant force. As punk and grunge and the first wave of trap itself proved, music’s most childish forms are its strongest and frequently its most enduring. If anything is going to preserve trap, it is going to be this silliness, this abrasion of norms. Trap music has always been a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and the artists that lean into this the hardest are going to be the ones we remember best.

Trap has nothing left to establish. Its future will be composed of continuations, not origins. Its formula has proven that within its boundaries there can be extraordinary levels of variance that all manage to lead to the same forceful and exciting end. Even as it frays, one is tempted to think that there’s no concrete reason it ever has to end. It will, as all things do. But like the lived experience of many of its star MCs, it has proved that beyond all the fun and ostentation and rage and eros, trap works because it is about survival above all things. It may be stopped or displaced some day, but it will never be threatened.

IX. Life Is Elsewhere

Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy will probably be the rap album of the year. But this is a less self-explanatory title than it may appear.

Cardi is full of instantly iconic lines. “Only thing fake is the boobs” speaks for itself. She is funny and menacing and sometimes disarmingly tender. The beats, while quotidian, serve their purpose well as being vague and exciting canvases on which she can paint her personality. Invasion of Privacy is EQed like a Datpiff tape, murky and sloppy, and like its star this serves to be at once obnoxious and charming. It is impossible to argue with results: enjoyable music deserves to be enjoyed.

Invasion of Privacy gives me the same feeling that Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty by Big Boi does. Stylistically, these two albums share nothing in common besides being eminently fun rap albums. But they both feel like celebrations of the rap music of their respective times, and also a bit like two joyful farewells. Chico Dusty was a smart, buoyant Southern pop record that felt like an estranged cousin of both Ludacris and Little Brother, as beholden to Dirty South as it was to conscious hip-hop, a playful ode from a master of the form showing that he had nothing left to prove and allowing himself to simply have fun. Upon release, many critics assumed it would be the hip-hop album of the year.

Tragically, it was followed some months later by Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which seemed to reshape the art and image of rap entirely by itself. It’s one of only a handful of releases in the history of recorded music, along with the likes of A Love Supreme or Are You Experienced? or Music For Airports, which can claim to be its own partition, its own judge of the Before and After for the music released in its proximity. Chico Dusty was in no sense a failure, but it will never be remembered as the best hip-hop album of its age. It is an album that has in some sense been abandoned, one that so luxuriated in itself that it never thought of paradigms and paid the price for it.

Invasion of Privacy carries a similar portent to me; it seems to have captured and drilled down the charms of its era so well that nothing similar to it can hope to follow and succeed. It is symptomatic of a genre that is in such good health that it will only weaken if it stays still. This is Superstar Trap at its most welcoming and most powerful, sans the unsettling quirks of its internet-bred siblings. It may have served the need it was made to fill all too well. Perfected, it has nothing left to do but excuse itself.

In the same month Invasion of Privacy came out, Young Thug released Hear No Evil, a 12 minute EP that served as a kind of return to his hard-edged trap roots after the weirdness of 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls and the enjoyable but somewhat milquetoast Future collaboration Super Slimey. It’s trim and mean and exhilarating, and gives just enough time to its guests to reflect Thug’s sphere of influence while leaving the spotlight squarely on himself. It’s proof positive of a seemingly inalterable momentum that only he and a very select few other artists of his generation have the ability to maintain. It doesn’t fill any kind of need; it doesn’t prove anything we don’t know about Thug, but it reminds us of his potency. It exists because it can, because it is desired.

Thug and Cardi are similar. They are loud, persistent characters. They embody trap’s color and boldness. Their goofiness engenders respect. They are rich. They make for deadly enemies. They give a listener the sense that they are both completely free.

Writer, media critic, and thinker of thoughts based out of Austin, TX. Get in touch at chrismichaeljones@gmail.com, or follow on Twitter at @CJIsWingingIt

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