Tell me – have you seen the video for Yoga, the latest single from New York rapper 645AR? Visually, it’s insane – a spiralling vision of a world on the brink of a pandemic-induced delirium, directed by BRTHR, the influential duo behind uber-stylish, uber-expensive, uber-frenetic music videos for Travis Scott (goosebumps) and The Weeknd (Party Monster). The video begins when 645AR is greeted at the window of his NYC apartment by “Flexo-19”, a Funko Pop-esque embodiment of the… coronavirus? who wants nothing more than to turn up. The visuals are a trip, but when the beat drops, that’s when the fun starts: out of the void, a shrill Mickey Mouse-sounding voice lurches through the mix. It’s as if this demented creature has possessed 645AR and forced him to rap entirely in the dialect of Animal Crossing. It’s impossible to look away, even if it is like nails on a chalkboard.
Like many of rap’s breakout stars of late, 645AR’s virality is derived not from what he’s saying, but how. On paper, 645AR is just doing normal rap songs. But filtered through his signature “squeaky voice”, the material becomes something else entirely – elevated, transcendent. Rap tropes become indecipherable, fodder for the style. Because of that, watching the Genius Verified video for his breakout viral single 4 Da Trap feels like being primed for an all-time comedy sketch show. The contrast between the sonic quality of his squeaky lyrics and the earnestness with which he unpacks the grim reality of their content is a masterclass in absurdity. SNL could never.
Is this all a cheap ploy for virality? Compared to 2019, this year’s viral rap moments feel completely absurd, stretching generic trends to new, unique heights. As perplexing as 645AR appears at first, it’s totally unsurprising that rap has reached this stage. 645AR’s squeaky voice feels like the logical endpoint to this post-Lil B, post-Young Thug, post-Playboi Carti rap world, where so many of the genre’s most popular songs now kneel at the altar of melody and largely forgo lyricism. In the time of TikTok, especially, weirdness is an asset. That’s how you stand out. You’ve gotta be doing the craziest thing.
Atypical vocal delivery is, by now, a staple of the genre – Young Thug’s popularity is built on the way he uses in voice in often unsettling and irregular cadences, most infamously on Rich Gang’s viral hit, Lifestyle. Playboi Carti’s polarising “baby voice” has become a cult object in and of itself, only intensified through its appearance on a slew of unreleased tracks floating around dedicated corners the web. Applying digital filters, Frank Ocean kicked off Blonde in peak chipmunk mode, and Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR is laced with awkward tonalites and pitched-up vocals.
Unfortunately, where there’s pitch shifting, there’s also pitch-correction. Something that haunts many a recommendations tab is that emergent YouTube trend where someone has, often poorly, booted up some editing suite and attempted to restore a version of Frank Ocean’s Nikes and Tyler, The Creator’s EARFQUAKE to their supposedly original pitch. It’s an interesting experiment, but too often are they warbly and without polish, and correcting the pitch in one part of the song means squashing the rest along with it.
To apply this kind of ‘fix’ to a 645AR song would be to miss the point entirely. As the comments of one video suggest, it’s a futile gesture. To do so would be to overlook the very thing that makes him different, the key to his popularity. Besides, 645AR raps squeaky with nothing but the strain of his voice box and a dash of autotune: there’s little post-processing involved.
New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica has written at length about rap’s surrealists: Lil Uzi Vert, Thug, Carti; figures who’ve melted down the structures of the genre, contorted the edges and forged an entirely new weapon. However the the absurdism of 645AR marks a point of no return, a perfect crescendo to this wave. What could possibly outdo the squeaky voice? Where does the genre bend from here?
Another mark on 2020’s viral map is RMR, the balaclava-glad crooner behind Rascal, a body-swapped trap inversion of a Rascal Flatts mid-00s classic, Bless The Broken Road”. If you thought country trap was gonna stay in 2019, you were sorely mistaken. In essence: Lil Nas X walked so RMR could run. In the song’s video, RMR raps a remixed, fuck-the-police rendition of the heartfelt ballad as he and his masked posse tote guns lovingly at the camera. In that way, Rascal feels like a studied appeal at the same type of virality Lil Nas achieved last year, materialising mysteriously on the internet with a video that amplifies its absurdity with a knowing grin.
Just as Lil Nas banked a record deal after striking viral gold, there’s news that RMR has signed to Warner Records with an EP, Drug Dealing Is A Lost Art, in the pipeline. Amid the viral hangover, Lil Nas fumbled around in the spaces between genre, trying to wear as many hats as possible on his follow up record, 7, but RMR seems to have hit the ground running. Released last month, Dealer is as catchy as anything currently charting, a silky smooth R&B hit that makes perfect use of RMR’s voice and a sitar riff – equal parts rose and thorn. “It's like he’s writing a love letter and a ransom note at the same time,” say the YouTube comments.
Somehow, RMR proved the lightning-in-a-bottle Lil Nas model replicable, if only on a micro scale. But Rascal had to out-do the absurdity of Old Town Road for RMR to survive the algorithm. Weirdness is a necessity in 2020, and for his first live performance, he performed his breakout hit on a gloomy rooftop backed by a sun-glazed skyline for The Fader’s Digital FORT. To bank on the virality, Dealer just got a remix with Future and Lil Baby.
In 2020, rap virality seems infinitely more absurd, as culture becomes an ultra-adhesive Katamari ball of styles and signifiers. So be it – this year’s viral players provide the perfect gel to living in these bizarre times.