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For a rising class of rap cyborgs, there's mastery in the mumble

Don Toliver, a Travis Scott signee who quickly defined his own lane, takes his half-sung raps to colorful new realms on <em>HARDSTONE PSYCHO</em>.
Jack Dalton
Courtesy of the artist
Don Toliver, a Travis Scott signee who quickly defined his own lane, takes his half-sung raps to colorful new realms on HARDSTONE PSYCHO.

By the 15th time Travis Scott performs “FE!N,” his bleating single with Playboi Carti, it ceases to be a song. During the tour for his 2023 album, UTOPIA, the Kanye protégé turned megastar took a page out of his mentor’s book and started playing the hit over and over to end his set, as if conducting some ancient ritual to bring the show to its climax. Eventually, repetition reveals “FE!N” for what it is: a chant-led immersion akin to a hardcore sound bath. “I just want people to be in just a good zone … really not so much thinking, more just doing. It’s like: You don’t come here to think, you come here to let loose,” he told GQ, before comparing his stage show to Disney World.

Scott has been thinking of his music as an amusement park attraction for a while. In invoking the Houston theme park of the same name, his 2018 album, Astroworld, took fanatical ambition to new highs, imagining rap as an energy- and atmosphere-driven fête for design-focused songs that had little three-act structures, or built a planetarium out of John Mayer guitar and Thundercat production, or added a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo as a twinkling coda. Astroworld is also the record where everything came together for him, musically, thanks primarily to the refining of a recording technique I think of as cyborg-speak. In this mode, which has been his overriding programming, he sing-raps through layers of vocal tuning that conjure an advanced Robocop suit refitted for pit-diving, all with the understanding that letting loose is the endgame. Scott is at the center of a constellation of rappers who perform as if what’s being said only half-matters — the doing preceding the thinking, in pursuit of the good zone.

Two new albums from artists floating around in that sphere, Don Toliver and LUCKI, exist along a spectrum preoccupied more with rap as texture than as text. They are operating toward different ends: Toliver, the logical conclusion of Scott’s post-genre arena rap, seeks maximalism, while LUCKI, a mumble-rap paragon, is burrowing the opposite way and seeking interiority. But in both directions, you can hear the ways this subgenre has evolved past the literalist interpretations that once constrained its cultural reach.

In the 2010s, a certain kind of undaunted spitter shifted the locus of popular rap toward abstraction. Warblers like Scott, Quavo and Lil Yachty embraced vocal manipulation in the studio. Jabberers like Carti, Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert each emphasized a marble-mouthed eccentricity that began in the larynx. Some were bemoaned for turning pitch correction into a distorting device. Some came to be called “mumble rappers” for their perceived illegibility. (You could think of Lil Wayne as the genesis of both styles and Future as the inflection point.) To all of them, rap was a sprawling canvas to be graffitied across in microbursts, and their kind were bombers doing impulsive fill-ins rather than ornate wildstyles. In a song like “FE!N,” you are seeing the connective tissue between two distinct but related types of smash-mouthed rap performance.

In many ways, Don Toliver is the second coming of Scott. Signed to Scott’s Cactus Jack label in 2018, Toliver initially turned ears by beating Scott at his own game on the Astroworld cut “Can’t Say.” In hindsight, the appeal there is obvious: all of the same amped-up, monotonic pomp, but with greater character in the vocals and something beyond mechanical moodiness to express. His superimposed singing is just as genre-agnostic, but significantly richer and rangier. I once described him as the T-1000 version of Scott’s Terminator, but it would be more accurate to say that the distance in their dimensionality echoes that between K and Joi in Blade Runner 2049: One has a tangible shape and form on mic, the other is mostly content projecting holograms of himself onto the beat.

Rarely has this been more evident than on Toliver’s new HARDSTONE PSYCHO, an album fixated on the textural component of modern rap verse and the push to invent a post-rap vision that functions as atmosphere first and foremost. Scott appears twice, on “Ice Age” and “Inside,” and in both cases, his serviceable rapping is one-upped by Toliver, who brings about chromatic shifts in color. Even in swinging from screamo and Tame Impala samples to Whitney Houston and Joy Orbison, the songs maintain a washed-out quality that positions his half-sung raps as the great unifier of a chaotic sonic mood board. In presentation, the album gestures vaguely at a thematic conceit — it is divided into four parts, each with its own overly dramatic subhead (e.g. “Dead Man’s Canyon”), and there is a Hell’s Angels meets Chrome Hearts aesthetic going on visually — but really, all of that feels like set-dressing for the rapper’s pursuit of a grandiose thunderdome sound.

Toliver’s last album, Love Sick, was the first to deviate from an impressionistic formula, conjuring R&B and soul specifically. These new songs — like the ones he’s best known for, “No Idea” and “After Party” — are far less interested in the performance of genre, instead leaning into the tone, timbre and elasticity of his singing. Throughout the woozy mosh-trap of “4X4,” he morphs from a Scott-like droid to a shrieking banshee. At various stages, he sounds like a motormouthed walkie-talkie transmission (“Brother Stone”), like a sexbot floating through a wind tunnel (“New Drop”), and like he’s submerged in amniotic fluid (“Deep in the Water”). Even when his writing is at its most limited, he is sustained by the resonance and emphatic theatrical gestures of his voice.

 LUCKI cultivates an immersive, senses-first atmosphere on <em>GEMINI!</em>
JMP / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
LUCKI cultivates an immersive, senses-first atmosphere on GEMINI!

There is no such theatricality with LUCKI. He is a mumble rapper, and not in any pejorative or colloquial sense — he is often literally mumbling in his songs. It wasn’t always this way: The rapping on his breakout 2013 mixtape, Alternative Trap, was not just direct but resolute, and often transparent about its underlying coldness. But over time, as he shifted from trapper to narcomaniac within his songs, he seemed to slip deeper and deeper into a zonked-out stupor. There was a moment where rappers like Young Thug were being dubbed “post-verbal,” but Thug’s music had always angled toward loosing the kinetic energy of verbs through explosive motion, and eventually, on albums like Punk, he put intention into being easier to understand. By contrast, LUCKI, who has cited both Thug and self-proclaimed mumble-rap originator Chief Keef as his earliest inspirations, makes songs possessed by languidness, stripping his verbs of much of their momentum. Even at a healthy pace, his verses can seem garbled. Codeine is the sedating substance fueling his songs, sucking you into the hypnotic whirlpool he inhabits.

It isn’t long into his new album, GEMINI!, before this dynamic becomes apparent. “I be slurring when I talk, but it’s gon’ matter what I say,” he raps on “Courtesy Of.” A few minutes later, on “CTA 2 Bach”: “Twenty mil’ off rap, I’m serious / I ain’t even think hard on the lyrics.” He's both underselling and humble-bragging here; to say his raps can’t be lyrical is to misrepresent what they are after. Close listening reveals the same sharp mind of Alternative Trap operating at a slower speed, drawing you into that warped memory hole. He slumps through the dazzling, crystalline beats with a half-shrugged survey of his circumstances, a process he has described as “dumbing it down” (learned, in part, from Carti). What’s understood doesn’t need to be explained. In a memorable run on “RIP,” he raps: “I used to go to sleep in the trap, I ain’t even sell s***, that’s where my people was at / I’ll never see them again, drink a lot of syrup, still lose sleep ‘bout the s*** / I ain't gone speak on the s***, whatever I say probably gon’ deeper the s***.” As he retreats into himself, you are invited to follow into the abyss of his fogged-up mind, where there are clues if not answers.

As with many so-called mumble rappers, it isn’t actually all that hard to make out what LUCKI is saying (most of the time). Sometimes, it isn’t really necessary, either, though on songs like “BRAZY4real” and “Exotic,” a sense of self-perception does consciously suffuse what is rapped. “Can’t believe I’m still getting higher / N**** wondering how he ain’t die yet,” he groans on the latter, a dazed world coming into focus. There are many lyrics reflecting on drug use buried here — informing his personal and creative lives, wrestling with needing them to function while knowing the dangers of addiction — but you don’t even have to hear them clearly when the music is doing its job, simulating wading through new-money excess in a sedated state. The goal isn’t necessarily to obscure, but to disorient. It can take some time to get your bearings, but once you catch his wave, there is an intoxicating thrill to the viscosity and the motion. Feeling what LUCKI is feeling, or an approximation of it, is the point. “Getting high really affected my music and my relationships … and Future helped me understand what I was going through,” he told Pitchfork in 2019. “I know getting high is bad, but Future made me feel like we were all in this together, and I wanted people to feel about me how I feel about Future.”

To bless the proceedings, Future pops up deep into both HARDSTONE PSYCHO and GEMINI! He is a rosetta stone of sorts for both rappers — a harbinger of Activis-clouded auto-tuned grumbling and purveyor of the groggy dealer-addict disposition. But in Don Toliver and LUCKI, you can hear how far those modes have spiraled off from his original approach. Many of the songs from Future’s classic era were little Shakespearean dramas: a man tormented by his inner demons, numbing the wounds they inflicted with iced-out vengeance, even as he quietly pleaded for help. He sought deliverance through hedonism, and Scott is still seeking the good zone — but the music LUCKI and Toliver make is not merely in search of feeling good. After years of disparagement for this kind of exercise, these rappers demonstrate that texture can be a means for character work and inner depth, a multivalence beyond simple amusement.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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