From blink-182 to Lil Uzi Vert: 2016 is the Year of Post-Punk Rap

By Thomas Klepacz

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A little over three years ago, Chief Keef released a song titled “Macaroni Time.” The single was put out exclusively on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop, and was mysteriously absent from any official mixtapes (although it has been thrown into several unofficial “leak” mixtapes found on Apple Music and Spotify). “Macaroni Time” predates two trends: what appears to be Keef’s strange fascination with the food (“No I don’t like macaroni/No you can’t cook it for me,” he raps in 2014’s “Emojis“), and —more importantly — ­Keef’s predilection towards pop-­punk vocal arrangements.

When I first listened to “Macaroni Time” in 2013, not much about the song surprised me. Its production consisted of typical Keef­-ian Fruityloop-­loop pastiche —­ a little more ebullient than usual, but still jangly as ever ­— and featured an array of Keef’s braggadocious lyrics (“She say she like my car and she like how my Forgi’s ride/She seen me with the stars now she wanna know me now”). One moment in the song seemed to stand out, however ­ in between 1:27 and 1:31 of the YouTube video, Keef’s vocals and adlibs sounded remarkably like those of blink-­182’s Tom Delonge . A tweet which stuck with me at the time but that I cannot seem to find now shared my observation; in some variation it asked “am i crazy or does chief keef sound like blink­182 in macaroni time.” Tweets like this seem to share it as well. Writers and artists alike had been commenting on Keef’s punk appeal for some time then —­ Danny Brown included, when he claimed Keef to be “totally punk rock” ­ — but this seemed to be something totally different. This was not periodic Waka-­esque shouting and yelling; it was two minutes and forty-­nine seconds of vocal inflection from an 18-­year old rapper from Englewood, Illinois that could have come out of Tom Delonge’s throat in 2003 .

Keef’s pop-­punk inflections don’t appear to be isolated. In the Chicago rap scene of 2013­2014 alone, several artists shared Keef’s rough, nasal tone: Lil Durk and Johnny May Cash, for example. For rappers like Keef, Durk, and May Cash, the hardest rap sounded like a strange combination of soulful early Future croons and off­-kilter, abrasive shouts like those of the recently incarcerated RondoNumbaNine. What might the appeal be? For me, a certain melancholy that derives from not­-quite rapping like you’re going to hurt someone and not-­quite rapping like you’re going to make love to someone. For others, it might be that it sounds just like blink-­182. Or Fall Out Boy. Or Hawthorne Heights. Or any group of socially frustrated teen suburban boys making rock music in the mid­-2000s.

For groups like the Sad Boys of Sweden, the appeal came from both. When, in 2013 and ‘14, artists like bladee and ECCO2K began releasing “post-­internet” or “post­-ironic” or “post-­anything” songs on YouTube, their inspiration seemed to derive from both the Chicago rap scene and mid­-2000s pop-­punk music. Members from the group have since worked with one of Chicago Drill’s most seminal producers, DJ Kenn, and one of Chief Keef’s closest companions, Ballout; the Sad Boys’ unofficial “leader” Yung Lean has even performed in punk groups himself. There’s also a petition to make him the new co-­vocalist of blink-­182. Whatever the product, Drill music’s melancholic character seemed to appeal to a group of frustrated teen suburban boys from Sweden in the mid­-2010s. Not only were they said to “sound” like pop-­punk ­— they were proclaimed punk­-rockers, and their affirmation of such seemed to change a lot.

Perhaps it was the fact that they were white —­ or that their music was more easily marketed towards consumers —­ but the Sad Boys’ embrace of whiny, emotional tones seemed to legitimize what had once been Keef’s “strange,” off­-kilter vocal variations. Their music was not speculated to be pop-­punk in a series of tweets; it practically was already, and thus established new precedents in the “cool” sectors of internet rap. Being sad and melancholic was now commercialized and commodified —­ the same listeners who bought into the internalized pain of mid-­2000s pop-­punk were now buying into the same thing, prepackaged with a group of young Swedish rappers in 2014. “Sounding” emotional and distraught was appealing to listeners looking for more “edge” in their music —­ without necessarily needing the actual violence or discussion of it that originated the entire vocal style.

Where, then, does this bring us to in 2016? Primarily, to a 21­-year-­old rapper from Philadelphia named Lil Uzi Vert. In the fall of 2014, a song named “Motorola” emerged on my Soundcloud “related” feed. The app’s algorithms linked it to to Future, Keef , and Durk songs of the time ­— increasingly massive and orchestrative “trap” anthems in a time when “trap” began to sound more like this —­ but something seemed to set Uzi’s song apart. Kind of like how Keef’s “Macaroni” did a year before. While Future, Durk, and Keef were crooning and growling away in the model of Keef’s punk­-isms of 2013, Lil Uzi was squealing and rambling in a manner not­-quite Uzi (of a different namesake) and not-­quite Thug. “Motorola” was aggressive and industrial in the same ways that Keef’s works were, but somehow entirely chaotic in a way even Keef couldn’t replicate. The song’s top comment on YouTube is still “what’s he saying? my trap games sincere?” ­— a question to which I don’t even know the answer. Lil Uzi Vert was doing something with his instrumentation and vocal range that hadn’t quite been seen before, although I wasn’t sure entirely what. I’m still not sure if I know.

In an interview with Nardwuar from March, Vert is gifted a GG Allin bobblehead ­— complete with shit ­— that prompts Uzi to recall vital moments of his musical growth. “What can you say about Lil Uzi Vert and GG Allin?” Nardwuar asks, to which Uzi simply replies: “We both are rock stars.” What does Uzi like about him? The fact that he “gave no fucks” and was “crazy.” “In seventh grade, I thought I was a real… rockstar,” Uzi claims, “and you know, YouTube… I watched his like documentary, and then…yeah.” Perhaps his way of saying the proverbial the rest is history. Whereas Keef seemed to have generated his pop­punk vocal sounds from real­world observations on the vocal developments of Chicago Drill  —­ or, for all I know, somewhere in his head —­ Vert consciously acknowledges the influence of punk vocalists found on the internet.

Whether it’s Allin or Marilyn Manson or Paramore, Vert seems to have performed the Sad Boys trajectory in reverse: whereas the teen Swedish boys of the group discovered the punk crossover of Drill music on the internet, Lil Uzi discovered the Drill crossover of punk music on the internet. Uzi loved rap and found instrumental music that reminded him of it, just as the Sad Boys loved punk and found rap music that reminded them of it. In any case, both artists desired a certain “grit” or bare emotion in hip­hop music that they found in the punk they loved. The collaboration between the two could still seem a bit strange, however. As Uzi grins at Nardwuar beneath his signature colored dreadlocks and Chanel frames with the sticker still on, he reveals brilliant diamond teeth that match his four diamond chains ­— a far cry from the feces­-covered attire of his idol, GG Allin.

And thus we have a perfect encapsulation of rap’s pop­punk state in 2016. From the times when Waka and Keef were compared to punk rockers, to Keef’s adoption of Tom Delonge­-ian vocal range, to the Sad Boys’ Swedish adaptation of painful, whiny interiority, we now have tracks like the very­-recently released “Now I Do What I Want” that sound like just about the closest thing to Patrick Stump singing on a Don Cannon beat. For Lil Uzi Vert ­— a rapper crafted as much in the streets of Philadelphia as on YouTube, watching GG Allin documentaries —­ hip-­hop has become both the sonic and aesthetic encapsulation of post-­punk culture. With the sixth most popular album on Apple Music and one of the most common search­terms, what Lil Uzi Vert creates could maybe be called popular post-­punk rap. Or just pop-­punk. In any case, it has become a sound ­— if not the sound —­ of cool, in-­the-­know hip­hop in 2016. Lil Uzi Vert’s songs are GG Allin with diamond grills; Patrick Stump with purple dreadlocks; bladee with one of these . They are entirely aggressive and prototypically masculine while somehow being as fragile as Stump or Delonge’s nasal­-laden vocals. From Keef’s confounding “Macaroni Time” to the corners of Swedish internet culture and back to the subwoofers of just about every car I see driving down the streets in Los Angeles, we have Lil Uzi Vert and his pop­punk­rap projects of 2016. The rap sound of 2016.

If I’ve forgotten one thing ­— the re­-return of pop-­punk­-rap to the corners of white, internet rap culture. Have any of you heard DJ Lucas?

Thomas Klepacz is a recent college graduate who isn’t quite sure what to do with his life. In the meantime, he’s writing (predominately) about what makes him happiest — the often-unheard hip-hop music that drives pop culture forward.