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The tragic demise of the SoundCloud Generation

That of Juice WRLD is the last of a long series of death in the music industry. We asked ourselves why

The tragic demise of the SoundCloud Generation That of Juice WRLD is the last of a long series of death in the music industry. We asked ourselves why

In August 2007, two Swedish musicians, Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, stationed in Berlin, created SoundCloud, the musical platform that helped shape the aesthetics associated with the American Musical Generation Z - for some - the biggest revolution music of recent years. Soundcloud Rap, that DIY rap subgenre made of lo-fi productions and characterized by a sound that did not exist before, spreads in fact in the United States, where it is used by the youngest to establish itself on the American music market, without passing brokerage of the music industry.

A revolution that has many of the canons that accompanied the digital revolution of the '10s, and that comes in many waves - from the premiere of Odd Future, to that of Chance The Rapper and Tyson Briller to the last, which symbolically begins with the explosion of Lil Uzi Vert. This latest (and most thunderous) explosion comes strangely at a time when Soundcloud's business model seems compromised, and makes Soundcloud Rap bigger than Soundcloud itself. There is, however, a problem that will stop this growth: all members of Soundcloud Generation are dying or ending up in jail, an endemic disease that will inevitably lead to the physical end of Soundcloud Rap.

A few months ago, rapper YNW Melly was arrested and put on trial that could cost him the death penalty for a double murder - that of two members of his gang. The story caused quite a stir, due both to Melly's age, 20, and to his recent collaboration with Kanye West, which had in fact made Melly "great" even in the eyes of the music industry. The two had collaborated on a wonderful single "Mixed Personalities", accompanied by a video directed by Cole Bennet, another young artist member of a very interesting collective, Lyrical Lemonade, of which he was part until a few days ago Juice WRLD. Juice WRLD - whose real name is Jarad Higgins - died of an epileptic seizure during a search at Chicago airport. Higgins was carrying drugs (marijuana and codeine) and weapons (guns and ammunition), and according to the Chicago Tribune, he had been searched for contraband materials.

Especially the use of drugs - as well as a certain propensity to be too close to arms - have been for several years the main features of that SoundCloud Rap that defined the sound of Generation Z. SoundCloud Rap, in addition to precise musical canons, responds to fairly defined social styles, often focused on a relationship with synthetic drugs and psychopharmaceuticals very explicit, which is often cited as a solution to every problem. It was one of the cornerstones of Juice WRLD's music, for example, as it was of Lil Peep - one of the brightest stars in SoundCloud Rap, who died two years ago from overdoses of fentanyl and alprazolam. Their deaths were added to those of XXXTentacion, controversial and talented SoundCloud Generation artist, who died as a result of a shooting. XXXTentation's life was composed of excesses and public violence (for which he ended up several times in jail) and domestic for which he had been repeatedly accused by his partner.

All these deaths were the trigger that triggered the end of SoundCloud Rap, as the critic Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times:

"Just because a musical style reaches widespread popularity does not mean that it is not built on a paper castle. The era of SoundCloud Rap - once full of promise - is over. When the worst happens, in fact, there is no data and successes that can be worth the fall."

Caramanica's is primarily an indictment of the music system that has squeezed and exploited the borderline attitude of these artists, promoting it for the realization of albums, concerts, clothing lines and an entire quasi-Trumblr aesthetic that has had a very easy grip on Generation Z. He didn't build a parachute that could contain the obvious fallout. As happened in the mid-1990s, when the East Coast-West Coast feud pulverized some of the most incredible talents in rap history just because the show-biz around that feud had gone further, SoundCloud Generation was unable to stop.

Only in early 2019, Carrie Battan on GQ had perfectly described SoundCloud's moment in her essay "How SoundCloud Rap Took Over Everything", in which she reconstructed the transition to SoundCloud Era both from the point of view music industry as much as social:

«If you haven't listened to these kids, you have almost certainly seen memes depicting them in your Instagram feeds, poking fun at their signature ad-libs (“Aye!”) and candy-colored hair. As they overtook rap, and rap overtook the industry writ large, these guffawing, sometimes Xanax-loving teens suddenly seemed less like a passing threat to mainstream norms and…well, more like the mainstream».

The change introduced by SoundCloud Generation is in fact first of all aesthetic and canonical: composed of members of Generation Z, the soundCloud era was the first to be born immersed in the culture of Internet and social, memes and Instagram. His young talents grew when rap was at the peak of its media exposure and when social networks had distorted reality to their liking, transforming the music industry, the relationship with mental illness with anxiety and solitude. On the digital cover of nss magazine, Jordan Anderson highlighted the connections between Generation Z and meme culture:

«Memes and similar forms of digital communities provide an open, though not always productive or healthy space to deal with depression and anxiety».

All members of SoundCloud Generation were sooner or later victims or integral parts of meme culture: Lil Pump built his fortune on the "eskere" and the ability to make pieces that soundlike like memes - "Gucci Gang" for example - in the same way Lil Nas X and his "Old Town Road" have exploited what in some ways is the communicative evolution of memes, the TikTok challenge, to achieve success that has grown off the scale. On the other side of the barricade, there is 6ix9ine. Daniel Hernandez was the brightest star of the SoundCloud era. With his multicolored hair, rainbow grillz and tattoos on her face, he seemed to be as far removed from the gangsta aesthetic as he flaunted in all her videos. 

«The 6ix9ine identity, previously just provocative, was now radioactive. “Gummo” was released the same month the #MeToo movement emerged, and after decades of looking the other way, nobody, anywhere, was now willing to normalize a convicted underage sex abuser», Stephen Witt writes in Rolling Stone in January 2019.

In fact, in 2015 6ix9ine had already been convicted of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, while just in the first months of 2019 he was arrested and sentenced to 46 years in prison for crimes related to organized crime. To avoid a semi-life sentence, 6ix9ine began to cooperate with justice, becoming what in English is called a "snitcher", and, soon after, a meme. . “Know your meme” catalogues the 6ix9ine Snitch as « refers to a series of memes parodying rapper Daniel "6ix9ine" Hernandez exposing details on the Nine Trey Bloods gang, including his claims that rappers Jim Jones and Cardi B are gang members».

One way or another, many of the members of SoundCloud Generation seem to be finished, consumed by substance abuse and a violence that has returned to very high peaks, among the highest in the history of rap. It is difficult, therefore, to believe that SoundCloud Generation can simply be a mirror of Gen Z, as the critic Alexis Petridis has tipped in the Guardian:

«Perhaps SoundCloud rap simply offers a voice to marginalised, disaffected American youth, and that it’s easy for marginalised, disaffected American youth to slip into criminality and violence. Almost too depressing to countenance is that these artists’ behaviour is instead inspired by a desire for notoriety».

Add to that the arrests of Trippie Red, Tay-K's arrest for aggravated murder, or the previous arrest of Bobby Shmurda - one of the first rappers to become famous thanks to the Internet - and the pattern of a generation of rappers is slowly destroying, and that cannot simply be referred to as narcissistic or suffering from an uncontrolled desire for fame. The United States is experiencing its worst ever time in the number of overdose deaths, which in 2017 surpassed those from firearms, traffic accidents and AIDS, in what President Trump called a "national shame and human tragedy". Craig Jenkins, one of America's most attentive rap culture journalists wrote on Vulture:

«People are dying because there is pain in the world and not enough knowledge about mental health or tolerance or toxicology. People are going to jail because they lack opportunities and guidance. Treating the symptoms of disorder as the root causes is like prescribing cough medicine for a lung infection»

Trying not to simplify reality and to rediscover the causes of what can in all respects be called a human failure even in the structure of the music industry that should succeed in preserving the health of its artists, where the institutions and the societies have undoubtedly failed, but ended up erasing one of the most disruptive and generational phenomena that music had seen to be born in the new millennium.