SoundCloud rap never really went away but it’s probably safe to say that it’s back after a period of uncertainty. For a time, it seemed that all it took for any rapper to get a major-label record deal was a song with a few million plays on SoundCloud, a colorful look (with dyed dreads and facial tattoos seemingly the dominant characteristic), and an ability to absolutely piss off resolute rap purists with unconventional sounds, beats, and disdain for hip-hop’s sacred cows.
Unfortunately for many of those freshly-signed acts, delivering mainstream hits went way beyond fiddling around in their home studios stumbling upon a meme-worthy “hit.” Artists like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Xan, and others hit major snags in delivering their major debuts, falling short of expectations or running into industry roadblocks that delayed their projects almost to the point of quitting in many cases.
However, in recent weeks, many of those former XXL Freshman and blog rap heroes (and villains) have returned to the public’s good graces — some in some unusual and unexpected ways — proving once and for all that there’s no such thing as an overnight success. It took a few years, but the wave of exciting young rappers that exploded onto the mainstream stage via the once-humble streaming service SoundCloud is finally making good on the promise they displayed way back when.
The easiest way to illustrate the shift in hip-hop between the “blog rap” era and the SoundCloud wave is to compare the 2015 and 2016 XXL Freshman covers side-by-side. Rap purists’ fears get a whole lot clearer when the differences are laid out in glossy full-color images. 2015’s cover was defined by spitters, seemingly serious artists with projects already under their belts and big-name benefactors co-signing their skills: Vince Staples, K Camp, Shy Glizzy, Goldlink, Fetty Wap, Tink, Dej Loaf, Raury. The cover scintillates with potential — potential many of those rappers have paid off since.
2016’s cover, on the other hand, seemed designed to give Generation X a collective stroke. Sure, it had Anderson .Paak, Dave East, and G Herbo, perpetual favorites of the bars-and-boom-bap set, but it also featured Denzel Curry’s Miami dreads, Lil Yachty’s beaded braids, Lil Uzi Vert’s purple locs, 21 Savage’s “issa knife” forehead tattoo, and Kodak Black’s… everything. Oh, and Lil Dicky, who looks like the lunch delivery guy got pulled into the shoot by accident and nobody noticed until it was too late.
Not only were “real hip-hop heads” livid at this colorful crew being cast as hip-hop’s next generation of future stars, but labels seemingly had little idea what to do with these kids once they’d signed them. Uzi was shelved for nearly three years after dropping his chart-topping debut, Luv Is Rage 2. Yachty’s Teenage Emotions was met with lukewarm reviews and commercially underperformed, only moving 46,000 units in its first week. Lil Dicky basically disappeared. While the South Florida boys Kodak and Denzel did alright, Denzel hovered just under the radar with artsy releases like Imperial and Ta13oo, while Kodak blew up his own career with criminal activities and social media miscues.
The next class after that seemingly returned to a more normal balance of serious artists and viral favorites, but the presence of Playboi Carti and XXXTentacion ruffled some heads’ feathers, while Lil Pump and Trippie Redd’s colorful looks put them off in 2018. But that first class of SoundCloud rappers seemed like the one that had the most trouble crossing over from their native app to the more curated and corporate Apple, Spotify, and Tidal ecosystem, where streaming numbers actually counted toward album units and A&Rs watched them like hawks to determine return on investment.
But this year, something funny happened. Actually, it turned out some of these artists were actually pretty funny. Lil Yachty returned to the spotlight with his “Oprah’s Bank Account” video, going full Tyler Perry and donning a wig and a dress to lampoon his own public perception with the help of the biggest artist in music today, Drake, and one of hip-hop’s hottest rising stars, DaBaby. Drake is no stranger to flipping the internet’s ribbing for profit and apparently, he gave the key to Yachty, who ran with it, letting both Drake and DaBaby roast him in his own video. It also seemed he used his behind-the-scenes experience writing “Act Up” for City Girls to sharpen his own pen, his confidence bolstered by garnering another hit, even if it wasn’t his own.
Lil Uzi Vert, after clearing up label issues and teasing fans with his Eternal Atake project for nearly three years, paid them back for their patience by dropping two albums in back-to-back weeks. Eternal Atake arrived seemingly without fanfare — at least, not from Lil Uzi — but shot to the top of the charts with the biggest streaming week of the year so far. That would have been enough to redeem him in the eyes of many, but then he followed up with a “deluxe” version that turned out to be the feature-packed sequel to his beloved breakout tape, Lil Uzi Vert Vs. The World. Uzi too seems to be making good, upsetting his critics’ expectations of him by rapping his ass off in the process.
Even Lil Dicky, who rubbed rap fans’ senses like sandpaper with his unserious, privileged approach to making hip-hop music, has found an outlet that better suits his comedic impulses: Television. On his FX show Dave, Dicky plays a (barely) fictionalized version of his awkward self, trying to shoehorn his way into the rap game by hook, crook, finesse, and wiggle (just watch the first episode, you’ll get it). The show’s cast of guest-stars who Dicky counts as real-life friends is better than any co-sign and Dicky’s willingness to poke fun at himself shows a self-awareness that didn’t come through in his music. An episode about his first performance — at the funeral of a 10-year-old fan — is basically a 30-minute setup for a joke about Macklemore being more popular than Dicky punctuated by the most hilarious “Thrift Shop” reference of the last five years. Dicky’s found his voice and actually become a little more endearing for it.
While Lil Pump and Playboi Carti have yet to drop anything this year, it’s been clear that many of the rappers we once wrote off as faddish or SoundCloud-only one-hit wonders are finally finding their way through the game. The aforementioned Pump even garnered praise for seemingly transitioning into Latin genres while rapping in Spanish, taking advantage of reggaeton and Latin trap’s tolerance for more colorful personalities. The potent punk-rap that Miami favorites pioneered has slowly become a staple subgenre, while the cartoony cloud trap that defined Lil Boat and LUV Vs. The World permeates the styles of fast-rising stars like Rico Nasty and Doja Cat. SoundCloud may not be launching pad it once was, but the artists who got their start there have finally broken through the atmosphere and taken their places among the stars.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.