Lucas Foster hangs out at the Denver airport to meet up with his Illuminati squad.
Ed. Note — All ratings are out of five.
REPTILIAN GOD MANA – Unstoppable Demon Shyt
4 Conspiracy-Induced Psychotic Episodes
Unstoppable Demon Shyt is a colorful pastiche of Deltron 3030, Da Devil’s Playground, David Icke conspiracies, and alien mysticism. The project sees rapper-producer Reptilian God Mana assuming several different characters, hopping through holes in the metaverse, selling sweaters to himself through the fabric of time, becoming a dimension shifting Archon overlord, and creating planets as a Five-Percent Nation villain, all without any awkwardness in transition. It’s the sort of conceptually coherent body of work that can only be filled out by someone in control of both rapping and production. Every song seems to fit between what plays before and after as he explores a well-defined palate of Halloween synths, piano keys, and heavy kick drums percolating around those thematically ambitious raps.
The sound is analogous to the Memphis eetrofuturism of Ghostemane, $uicideboy$, and Pouya. The spooky melodrama of these artists is always kind of draining through entire projects, and listeners with the agency to explore Memphis tapes (being aware of who Tommy Wright is does not count as exploring Memphis tapes) would inevitably just want the real dope without the FL Studios cut. Mana’s use of the sound is a little more self-aware, to the point where he probably finds the inevitable comparisons nauseating.
Matching the nostalgic reappropriation of those sounds with web 1.0 conspiracy theories makes a lot more sense than pretending like he’s ever held a gun before. The synthesis of the Heaven’s Gate website and E. 1999 Eternal creates something entirely new and distinct—something a lot more interesting than a voyeuristic gangster fetish.
On every song you can visualize amateurish renditions of the Annunaki and flash animations on a website’s landing page or neon comic sans on an insane protester’s information packet. If the History Channel ever makes an Ancient Aliens-esque series on David Icke’s Archon reptilian overlords with Illuminati bloodlines, this is the only acceptable soundtrack.
Mana separates himself from his peers in theme, and laps the competition in sound. He’s got more flows and deliveries than a rapper has any right to have. He doesn’t just change his cadence or try a Bone Thugs imitation every few tracks, he can often sound like an entirely different rapper from one verse to the next. Throughout the project he employs different versions of a polished traditional monotone, a blistering double time that rivals anyone’s in its speed, a lurching hesitation flow, and a Koopsta Knicca-inspired sing-song delivery, sometimes all on the same track.
As a package, Unstoppable Demon Shyt is so original and so good that it woke me from my fatigue caused by its subgenre, or perhaps classifying it as “White-Boy-Does-Memphis” is inaccurate. Mana is in his own lane, probably too niche for the masses of “lame mfs, cowards and hoes,” as he hilariously lampoons on twitter. If you like rap music, that shouldn’t matter, his music is engaging and original in a way that Lil Skies could never be.
Lil Skies – Lil Skies
1.5 Dubble Bubble Marketing Campaigns
Does anyone know where Lil Skies came from? Am I allowed to pose this loaded question in a rap column aiming to be Good Criticism? Was the “Lonely should be the national anthem” Twitter meme brainstormed in a conference room over kombucha and Macbook Airs? I want to reserve my right to speculate but readers really don’t want to know the answers to these questions. Piercing the shroud of an artist’s image in a masturbatory flexing of pseudo-conspiracy Spidey senses and knowledge of recording contracts ruins the part where you actually listen to music. The internet ruined a lot of things. For media savvy rap fans it kind of ruined emerging rappers.
Regardless, I still want permission to speculate from my ivory tower of Taco Bell wi-fi and off brand energy drinks. I try to treat SoundCloud like a community, and I included this tape in my column with a twang of guilt. Watching rappers grow through a series of self-released mixtapes, haphazard promotional strategies, earnest appreciation of every new fan, and giddy musical experimentation is the most rewarding part of following this scene. When artists like Lil Skies appear on Cole Bennett and Cuf Boys YouTube channels as fully formed distillations of SoundCloud trends, it’s much harder to get invested in them.
This is where we are now, though. SoundCloud rap is pop culture. What separates Lil Skies from rappers languishing in obscurity is what separates every pop star from the niche genres they take cues from: He’s good-looking and makes easily digestible, melodic songs at a very consistent pace. Listening to this tape, his ability to make pop music is so quickly apparent you wonder why Atlantic didn’t pluck him off Melrose and place him on Spotify rap playlists earlier.
He made the auto-tune soundtrack to a million Snapchat stories and entered the iPhone galleries of a hundred thousand adolescent girls. He’ll never lose sleep over his face tattoos. None of these wins make his music original or interesting. Lil Skies appropriation of wonky synths and post-Chief Keef autotune is tasty bubblegum pop and the album’s flavor doesn’t get stale through forty minutes of chewing; but if you follow the scene he was groomed to cannibalize, it has a gross aftertaste.
Every big musical movement sees a few latecomers master some popular techniques, sell a lot of records, and then seep out of the popular consciousness; think Ja Rule’s relationship with Y2K pop rap and Chicago’s relationship with yacht rock. More and more artists like Skies and Lil Xan are now the dominant SoundCloud aesthetic. If you aren’t a lame, check out the vastly more interesting rappers doing it independently. If you want a way better version of Skies, complete with original musical ideas, check out Bby Goyard and Lil Xelly and thank me later.
Adamn Killa & Killavesi – Lover Not A Killa
2 Pieces of $8 Avocado Toast
Genre bending in rap is really hip at the moment. A lot of rappers wear Metallica tees and reference Nirvana as influential in interviews. A few, especially those of and influenced by Goth Boi Clique and their late star Lil Peep, incorporate pop punk and Midwest emo into their music. Curiously, not many have taken experimental pop and dashed off with it. Enter Adamn Killa & Killasevi.
Experimental pop and hip-hop have been flirting with each other since Clams Casino brought internet rap into the future. Cloud rap always was a sly wink and nod across the table at Crystal Castles, XXYXX, and various other acts that fill the home pages of Noisey and Pitchfork. This is much more than adolescent footsie with its stylistic forebears. The line between Grimes and Lil B and Frank Ocean is more than just blurred, it’s shaded in and filled out. It’s hard to pin it down with an identity, or to even call it hip-hop.
The guitar riffs and bedroom synths on Lover Not A Killa roll through with a whimsical nonchalance. It is the musical equivalent of post-gentrification infill development: The cool people want to be here and the buildings are vacant! After smiling at the novelty of this trickm though, I kind of realized why I had only heard about it, a month late, through another music writer in his early 20s.
It seems more like experimentation for experimentation’s sake and critic bait than to explore original musical ideas. It’s cute, it has a few moments, but it lacks a skeletal structure of any substance. There is not enough rhythm to its percussive heart beat and the duo’s attempts at soaring into high flying rock choruses and vocal harmonies don’t get enough height to touch the rim. Every rap critic with dirty shoes and a cigarette habit wants to love this but I think we all know it falls a bit short of its lofty goals.
P2THEGOLDMASK – Marbach
3.5 Brink Trucks
Since 2013, San Antonio’s P2THEGOLDMASK has put his heart and soul into discovering every corner of the cloud rap house that Lil B built. He’s always pinned as an amalgamation of Based God and MF DOOM. Like DOOM, he is a 30-something late bloomer who wears a mask. Like B, he makes cloud rap—but that’s where the comparison collapses. He has his own sound, own clique, and own aesthetic; he’s an internet junkie by night and traps for his day job. No matter if he’s making R&B, cloud rap, or autotune trap, his music nods to his influences while always embracing the futuristic tilt and goofy humor that makes P2 a distinct artist.
To this day the best cloud rap tape I’ve ever heard was his 2013 Codeine Island EP, fully produced by Ghostpizza, released on his girlfriend’s SoundCloud, and suddenly deleted sometime in 2016. It wasn’t just four bar loops filled in with atmospheric fuzz and obscure cultural references. The synth melodies were as complicated as minute 38 of your average IDM album; the drums were subtle to the point of ambience; and his self-aware riffs on rap tropes were funnier than most stand up routines that satirize them.
That the best pairing of sci fi bleep bloops and deadpan one liners ever recorded fell under everyone’s radar is kind of a metaphor for P2’s career. No matter what he does, he tends to stay regarded somewhere between a local legend in San Antonio and underground innovator online. His music was “weird” five years ago, but now he’s just another masked face in the crowd.
The Marbach tape fuses the bubbly melodies and non sequiturs he’s fond of with the bounce of modern West Coast gangster raps. It’s the music that would be blowing out the speakers of a lowrider spaceship: sparkling, neon synths forming the candy paint body that surrounds the driving bass and clap drums under the hood. The fusion of these influences makes sense. LA Gangster Rap is a bull market right now, cloud rap’s influence is the foundation of all this stuff, and the fusion is more than a novel idea—he made it work really well on wax.
He is still interested in the same things that he’s always rapped about: finessin’ plugs, being a plug who cannot be finessed, juggin’ a hundred K (and he couldn’t believe it!), and women; and he still sounds most at home discussing these things over cloudy beats. The “traffic music” meets Clams Casino of “Brinks Truk” and “Marbach Hunt Ln” is still interesting, but he’s much more at home on the wonky synth loops of “Errday” and “Sackin.” P2’s an average lyricist, but he is so good at imputing mood and believability on songs like these that he can match up with any notebook gangster and eclipse songwriters more interested in entendre than earworm.
The underground is at the point where P2 probably is what he is, and projecting him as an up-and-comer would be as dumb as novice NBA writers noting a 26-year-old center working on his jump shot over the summer. That’s too bad. Everyone’s missing out on something great.
Five Finger Posse – Behind Enemy Lines
3 Ham Moshpits
Forget Five Finger Posse’s position as members of the “SoundCloud scene” for a moment. That term was engineered as the internet made regional boundaries first blur and then crack in an avalanche of .wav file attachments. This is a traditional assembly of five dudes from Philadelphia working in the same studios and hanging in the same neighborhoods. They are part of an emerging scene in Philly with the soon-to-be-world-famous producers of Working On Dying, Lil Zubin, Dizzy Santana, Matt Ox, Rare Boyzz, and Circle 5 affiliates. This is a scene with the Hood Goth sound and aesthetic of black clothes and dark trap beats that has composed the heart and soul of the underground since Spaceghostpurrp evolved past Triple Six Mafia covers and A$AP Yams could afford more than one outfit.
For some reason rappers like to pretend that they have no influences. When the question comes up in No Jumper interviews there is usually a lot of posturing and nonsense. It was telling that when Morgue!, Sub9k, Yung Mojo, Alvin Abyss, and 5G got invited to the On Some Shit store they weren’t afraid to give credit to everyone. They are a group that is steeped in the traditions of the post-Raider Klan underground and the history of East Coast rapping, and they actually give a shit about what their practices and output mean to both.
If you understand this, Behind Enemy Lines is a tape that makes almost too much sense. The simple synth loops, crawling pace, and bleak mood on every posse cut is classic underground traditionalism. If you want pop music, this isn’t the tape you should shop at. It’s a 2018 update to SGP’s early gothic phonk—turning north to Philly where Rocky turned west to Houston.
Often in “SoundCloud rap,” collaborations are impossible to locate geographically or are simply phoned in. These distant features almost always recorded on different mics, which makes the physical familiarity on Behind Enemy Lines shine through. All five rappers have distinct styles but they approach songs in coordinated and highly tactical assaults. “Enemies” sees Five introduce themselves, the album, and those trapping Philadelphia corner boy values with all the subtlety of a gun runner marketing his product in a Snapchat story.
Later on, “Percolate” is a simple pincer movement: Mojo, Morgue, and 9k circle around flexing as a troupe until the track is enclosed and exposed, with undistilled, sparse bleep bloops and repetitive monotone bars about diamonds flow through. They do more than just minimalism together in a more shiny and uptempo environment on “Run My Knot,” but that’s about the only time they let up. The project’s central flaw is that in attempting to be as raw as possible and never letting up, the tape starts to drag on, melting into one long ode to goth gangsterism.
It’s a really enjoyable tape for those who value the same things that these rappers do. For those that don’t care about the underground as a creative space with rules and traditions, Behind Enemy Lines is probably uninteresting. Either way, it deserves any rap fan’s respect.