A$AP Rocky's much hyped third album is set to feature experimental, genre-twisting collaborations with T-Pain, Chief Keef and DRAM. It's a world away from his roots in cloud rap, one of hip-hop's freakiest mutant children, borrowing elements from chillwave, trap, and emo rap to create a hazy, narcotic fever dream of sound. One of the most influential (and much-maligned) micro-scenes in hip-hop, it accidentally united nerds, gangstas, introverts, party fiends and pop stars alike, and brought artists like A$AP, Lil B, and ubiquitous producer Clams Casino into the mainstream.
It was also a scene – invented and advanced by music critics and bloggers – that no actual rappers wanted to be part of. But that hasn't prevented the sound from continuing to permeate contemporary hip-hop. Here we explore how it all got started and where it's ended up.
What does it sound like?
The sound started life in the late-00s as a mutation of southern hip-hop – specifically the trap sounds coming out of Atlanta, Houston and Memphis – from which it borrows the codeine-laced drawling sing-song rap style and worship of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The slow, viscous flows are underpinned with the double-time snares and booming kicks of trap. The beats are then layered with collages of hazy, psychedelic samples. It was more like being haunted by a rap song than listening to one.
Where did its weird sounds come from?
It's safe to say cloud rap is like a no-kill shelter for weird samples. Anything from J-pop to video games and anime soundtracks is fair game. New age and ambient music, which is pretty much the opposite of hip-hop's traditional source material, was another fertile patch, with Friendzone's classic RETAILXTAL sampling Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol I. But cloud rap producers loved making music out of nothing. Clams Casino has said he's "drawn to textures and sound design. Something that sounds like it came off a cassette tape with a bunch of hiss on it or like something was recorded outside and you hear the natural noises of life in the background". Plus, as his use of bird noises on All Nite proved, you don't have to pay a nightingale royalties for sampling its songs.
What was everyone drawling about?
The vocal hallmark was barely conscious rap which flows like molasses. The subject matter ranged from traditional sex, drugs, and more sex and drugs stuff from A$AP, while Swedish auteur Yung Lean trades in heavily treated rhymes about being lonely and depressed (eg "Sad boys they be shining, shining/Focus on whining, whining" from Lightsaber/Saviour). Samples of female vocals are a popular way to offset the dankness. British confessional singer-songwriter Imogen Heap is possibly the only singer in the world less hip-hop than Dido, but she has been sampled on numerous tracks by artists like Lil B, and, most famously, on A$AP Rocky's Demon. Meanwhile Main Atrrakionz's Illest Alive plays it relatively sane, using a snatch of Björk's Batchelorette.
How did this come about?
Most hip-hop scenes tend to be products of their environment, referencing the musical identity of a region where artists meet, share influences, and collaborate/playa-hate. Cloud rap came from a very different place. Its traditional home turf was SoundCloud, with producers and MCs swapping components of tracks by email. Removing the need to shoot or render expensive visuals meant SoundCloud replaced YouTube as hip-hop's preferred underground incubator, producing internet emo Gs like Lil Tracy, Lil Peep (RIP) and their Goth Boi Clique collective. Walker 'Walkmasterflex' Chambliss coined the term in a 2010 blog post describing Main Attrakionz's Squadda B as "the king of cloud rap", referencing an interview in which Lil B described his sound by displaying a CGI picture of a castle floating among the clouds and saying, "that's the kind of music I want to make".
Who were the major players?
The bloggers and music writers so fond of using cloud rap initially bunched together Clams Casino, Lil B, A$AP Rocky and his A$AP Mob crew, Yung Lean, and Main Attrakionz. Arguably the first cloud rap masterpiece was was Lil B's I'm God, which introduced the scene's credo and catchphrase "based", meaning staying true to yourself. But the sound first came to mainstream attention with A$AP Rocky's Peso. The centrepiece of his Live.Love.A$AP mixtape, the track was picked up by influential hip-hop station Hot97, despite him being unsigned. At the opposite end of the wealth scale, SoundCloud fundamentalist Bones won a huge fanbase by refusing to sign to a label or charge for his music.
Who has it influenced?
The pigeon-holing name might be despised by its major players, but the influence of the cloud rap sound has been felt from the deepest rap underground to the highest ivory towers of the mainstream. Artists including Rihanna, Beyonce and, in particular, The Weeknd have shown its influence. RiRi even appeared in a video version of A$AP Rocky's Friendzone-produced Fashion Killa. While bro-rapper Mac Miller took a sharp left turn for the better, exploring the cloud on his seminal album Watching Movies With The Sound Off. More recently, R&B stars SZA and Miguel have taken sonic elements of cloud rap in new neo-soul directions, while XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, and Smokepurp keep its spirit alive in noisier, angstier ways.
What are the scene's OGs up to now?
A$AP isn't the only member of the cloud rap crew who's moved on to bigger and better things. Raider Klan member Xavier Wulf has blown ears and minds working with Skepta, while that collective's lead rapper SpaceGhostPurrp has birthed a bouncing baby genre of his own, called phonk, launching the career of rising star Lil Uzi Vert. Meanwhile, Danny Brown recently described Lil B as "the David Bowie of hip-hop". His slo-mo flow is an obvious influence on slurring mumblecore MCs like Future and Kanye-protege Desiigner, and by starting the hip-hop trend for cross-dressing, he's also spiritual stylist to the likes of Young Thug. B also hit the Top 10 of the US New Age chart with his debut ambient album (one of 50 he's put out since 2009).