TIDAL 10 – Hip-Hop: The Ascent of Viral Rap
This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a striking range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.
Given its record-breaking popularity, it’s reasonable to speculate future cultural historians will identify Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” as the ultimate swan song of the 2010s. For the bulk of 2019, it was an unstoppable force, spending 19 consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. But more than that, its well-documented rise to popularity on social platforms like TikTok was perfectly emblematic of the way the global music ecosystem has evolved over the past decade to become a democratic marketplace.
As smartphones began narrowing the global connectivity gap at the outset of the decade, millions of people gained access to an online universe that disempowered traditional gatekeepers and eliminated artificial boundaries. Accordingly, hip-hop — long since underrecognized by the old guard for its outsized influence — finally assumed its rightful position as the world’s most popular and dynamic genre.
All of this, in concert with the meteoric rise of online platforms connecting artists with consumers directly, created the perfect storm to spur on the subsequent renaissance we’ll refer to here as viral rap. Shorthand for a highly disruptive force, the term alludes to a subcategory of hip-hop reaching a broad audience — intentionally or otherwise — via memes, dance challenges and other online paraphernalia.
The cultural shift has been swift and profound. In 2012, when Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to reach a billion views, this renaissance was just beginning. Amused audiences wrote the song off as a gimmick, awestruck that millions of non-Koreans had embraced Psy’s brand of flamboyant foreign-language rap. Seven years later, every hip-hop song released by the K-pop group BTS goes astronomically viral within minutes, and no one bats an eye.
Of the platforms responsible for launching rap songs into the echelon of virality, YouTube is just one entry on a laundry list that includes Instagram, Twitter, Triller, Dubsmash, TikTok, SoundCloud and, before 2017, Vine. Whereas all of these services have acted as springboards for viral smashes at some point — fueling the rise of tracks like Doja Cat’s “Moo” and Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” — Vine and SoundCloud were the platforms where viral rap truly became a subgenre unto itself.
Looking back on the now-defunct Vine, it’s striking how inextricable hip-hop memes were from its broader content landscape. Artists built entire careers because rap songs inspired punchlines for six-second jokes (Lil Yachty’s “1Night”) and fodder for choreographed dances (Silentó’s “Watch Me [Whip/Nae Nae]”). Bite-sized rap videos were uploaded by influential youth and then, crucially, iterated on endlessly by their similarly youthful followers. If the everyday phrase “about a week ago,” a reference to Bobby Shmurda’s hit song “Hot N—a,” sparks a Pavlovian response that makes you want to throw a hat in the air, you have Vine to blame.
Meanwhile, on SoundCloud, a group of D.I.Y. artists (6ix9ine, Ski Mask the Slump God, Trippie Redd, etc.), united by a lo-fi aesthetic and an anarchic ethos, have risen to fame by tapping into the service’s built-in user base. Their music can achieve tremendous commercial success, yet it doesn’t always penetrate the broader monoculture — not in the traditional sense of virality, at least. But it’s resonated deeply with a community of young listeners who identify with the tortured aggression and melancholy it embodies. By melding elements of hardcore rap — complete with pain-addled references to violence and drug use — with emo-rock sensibilities, these “SoundCloud rappers” have been able to bring millions of loyal, angst-filled youngsters into the hip-hop fold. Tragically, in the case of Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD, there was little separation between the unfiltered authenticity their fans gravitated toward and the lifestyles that ultimately contributed to their untimely deaths.
Unsurprisingly, all of this democratization has sent the music industry scrambling to find a way to cannibalize these newly created mechanisms. In 2019, record labels reverse engineer songs around choreographed dances, hoping to inspire the next “Kiki Challenge,” which catapulted Drake’s “In My Feelings” to the top of the charts, or “Mannequin Challenge,” which did the same for Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” A&Rs instruct young rappers to add artificial distortion to their music to better compete with the lo-fi appeal of SoundCloud acts. Authentic regional movements, like Chicago drill and U.K. grime, are quickly co-opted by industry veterans.
Fortunately, hip-hop fans seem to have a good nose for sniffing out this sort of inauthenticity. For every meme that a record label is able to manufacture by paying influencers and tracking data, there will always be five more that force them to play catch-up. You can’t learn the type of Internet-savvy Lil Nas X possesses in marketing school. If the prevailing lesson of the current decade is that you can’t put a lid on the Internet, we, as hip-hop fans, should be eternally grateful for this gift.
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