By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
(Featuring a bunch of guys who aren't exactly burning up the charts yet)
Wiz Khalifa is a 23-year-old kid from Pittsburgh. He's got unkempt hair and a preference for raggedy skater clothes, and he likes weed a lot; in a recent interview, he bragged that he spends $10,000 a month on the stuff. He raps in a barely conscious giggly mumble that usually trails off into a sticky singsong. And in a roundabout sort of way, he might be the future of rap. Amazingly, that's probably a good thing.
In September, I watched Wiz—who, at that point, had no hits and no major-label albums to his name—absolutely pack Metro, a good-size Chicago club, with a multiracial coalition of kids who knew every word of his mixtape tracks. "Black and Yellow," his collab with the masterful Norwegian pop production team Stargate, was just starting to make the blog rounds at the time; it's a slow-building crossover smash now. The song manages the difficult task of translating Wiz's loopy stoner charm into pop alchemy, but he was doing just fine for himself before it landed. That Chicago show was no fluke—he has been doing the exact same thing for a couple years, packing kids into clubs and hitting the road hard, tossing free mixtapes into the world whenever he had another hour of new songs, growing an audience at an alarming rate.
Wiz connects, at some level, because he's doesn't sound like a star rapper. He's not calm, steely, in control. He's spun-around and dazed, lost in his own murmur. On the 2010 mixtape Kush and Orange Juice, he raps over samples of music he might've encountered on a weeded-out channel surf: the Garden State soundtrack, the Camp Rock soundtrack. On one song, he coos, "Everything's better when you're high" over and over, sounding like the burnout curled into a fetal ball beneath the high school bleachers.
He's not alone down there. Best bud Curren$y is stretched out on the grass, bragging to an arty girl about his car. On his third mushroom of the day, Lil B is attempting to explain quantum physics, though one sentence doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the next. Yelawolf is insisting that his straw hat and giant belt buckle are some next shit. Off in some corner, the sneering Odd Future kids are burning ants with magnifying glasses and cracking unsettling jokes about staging another Columbine. When football practice and National Honor Society meetings aren't keeping him too busy, sometimes Drake stops by.
All these guys—even Drake—are weirdos in one sense or another. And with Kanye West's itchy anxiety and Lil Wayne's slurring hyena gibber firmly entrenched at its highest levels, rap is a safer place for weirdos than it's ever been. But weirdness isn't what's new here. Instead, these new jacks are content to languish in their own self-created worlds rather than chasing crossover status. "Black and Yellow" notwithstanding, hits aren't the end goal here. Instead, we're getting album-length aesthetic statements: Curren$y letting production vet Ski Beatz slather his somnolent confidence in psych-rock lava-lamp juice on Pilot Talk and smooth-funk softness on Pilot Talk II, Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt ripping violent fantasias over half-smothered 808s on EARL, or Lil B building a messily sprawling, all-encompassing body of work in which every one of his hundreds of rambling, nonsensical freestyles matters as much as any other.
Even though he's an over-earnest striver compared to most of these guys, Drake helped prime the world for this approach. On last year's breakout So Far Gone mixtape, he rapped over Swedish indie-pop and ambient synth washes, turning himself into a star. And on 2010's prophecy-fulfilling full-length Thank Me Later, he hews admirably close to that same aesthetic, subjecting his army of big-name guests to the airy keyboard smears he favors. But the new rap wave pushes Drake's love of, say, Lykke Li to new levels. Both Lil B and Odd Future mastermind Tyler, the Creator name-checked lo-fi art-pop freak Ariel Pink this year; if this keeps up, Pink could become rap's least likely white spirit animal since Phil Collins. The raps feel like casual conversations or jokey brag sessions, not imperious statements of world domination. And whizzing around the Internet in the form of free MP3s and zip files, this stuff is steadily finding its mark, landing with a small but growing (and religiously devoted) legion of like-minded kids.
Decentered and kid-targeted as it is, this stuff will never register on a poll like Pazz & Jop the way it should. Our album chart finds Curren$y at #93 and #159, Yelawolf at #144, and Earl Sweatshirt at #145. At #24, only Drake did well. But the cloudy-sonics crew aren't the only rap types committed to full-length projects that pursue a single basic idea with single-minded tenacity. Amid the top 100 albums, you'll find stuff as disparate as Das Racist's hyper-referential art-kid deadpan, Roc Marciano's psychedelic boom-bap, and Waka Flocka Flame's riot-starting post-crunk bellow—all limited-appeal stuff that will drip its way into your soul if you let it.
And then there's 2010's #1 album by a wide margin, a broken-down masterpiece from a guy who willfully retreated from a pop-radio spotlight that'd suddenly moved away from his crazy ass anyway. Like plenty of the younger guys he inarguably inspired, Kanye West is now fucking with woozy textures and art-pop samples and implacably depressive drugged-up lyricism, and he built up goodwill for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by spending months throwing free MP3s at whoever would listen. Wonder where he got that idea.