Today's rap music always sounds like tomorrow. Inherently innovative, fundamentally American and unequivocally black, it's the great futurist pop-form of our time - a sonic yearning to escape the oppression of the present.
This year, that macro-idea felt thrillingly micro, with a rising class of rappers from across the map - Blueface, Teejayx6, Goonew and others - rhyming brazenly ahead of the beat, pushing hard into the unknowable future. As fresh as they sound, they're not the first. Back in the '90s, E-40, Suga Free and Silkk the Shocker each found new ways to melt the clock, cramming their lines with lumps of molten syllables, reminding us how mouth-music can loosen our sense of temporality. But this year's most individualistic young rappers hit that idea even harder, inviting us into their own timelines.
When Blueface scaled the Billboard charts earlier this year, he seemed to be launching a one-man mutiny against metered rhyme. Skeptical ears heard the California loudmouth playing loose and fast, sliding haphazardly off the beat as if he didn't know where it was. He knew. He just didn't care. Every slip, skid and stumble in Blueface's phrasing is completely intentional, allowing himto take illicit sneak-peeks into the near future. It's rebel mischief with metaphysical implications.
On the most exhilarating song Blueface circulated this year, "Bleed It," he plays along with his detractors, feigning carelessness while taking great care to insult anyone currently leasing a Ford Focus. "Dozing off in this Benz 'cause I can afford not to focus," he smirks. Fusing car-talk with trash-talk, his tongue hydroplanes off the beat, jamming the center of the line with extra syllables so that it feels like a series of rear-end collisions on an overcrowded freeway. His time travel does damage, but the whiplash won't hurt if you're willing to go along for the ride.
While Blueface wrecks couplets for kicks, Teejayx6 hacks meter for cash. He's a teenager from Detroit who raps almost exclusively about cybercrime, telling tales of digital fraud in such precise detail, his subject matter has overshadowed his style. People call this music "scam rap," and while most of Teejayx6's outlaw hacker narratives transpire online, he's a radical out in the real world, too. At a performance in Los Angeles earlier this year, the rapper appeared to fake his own arrest, and was escorted out of the venue in cuffs by brawny men sporting law enforcement windbreakers. Was Teejayx6 actually scamming the fans who had paid to see him perform? It felt like meta-theater at the highest levels.
Still, none of Teejayx6's stunts would be worth paying any mind were it not for his ability to lean out in front of the rhythm in his over-enunciated, explanatory deadpan. He begins one scam tutorial, "Swipe Story," rapping loud and clear, "Let me tell y'all about this one time at Walmart." And as our hero forges into the lawless unknown, that bluntness becomes its own weird kind of poetry. His lyrics show us how to cheat banks, creditors and big-box stores, but when his words barge into the air as music, they show us how to cheat time.
For Goonew, time is relative. Space, too, maybe. Whenever the Maryland rapper walks in front of the beat, his feet stop touching the ground. He tends to vocalize just above a whisper, which can make his most street-hardened rhymes sound as if they're evaporating into another dimension. On the title track of his latest album, "Back From Hell," he claims to have "died twice" - but he insists that his music is still of this world. When asked about where his wraith-like phrasing comes from, Goonew once told me, "That's just how I rap. I feel how I feel. It's just regular."
A conspiratorial mood saturates "Back From Hell," as if Goonew is drawing us out of time, into a "regular" that feels nothing less than extraordinary. The intimacy of it all feeds into another long-standing trope in rap music: every rapper's claim to be "the realest." If we take that collective proposition at face value, it transforms this teeming art form into a realm of competing realities. And now an entire generation of young rappers are reminding us that in each of those realities, time flows differently.
Today's rapscape becomes tomorrow's multiverse, an opportunity to listen in on timelines within timelines.