At this point in music history, the Internet and hip hop are inseparable. Generally speaking, the Internet has a fruitful relationship with any genre of music that can be accessibly and easily reproduced en masse, hence the meteoric rise to prominence of niche microgenres like vapourwave and future bass in recent years, which can be replicated by practically anyone who has access to a torrent of a digital audio workshop. The edge that hip hop and its subgenres have over esoteric electronic genres, however, is the fact that rap is a hugely popular style of music, which can’t be said of drone, happy hardcore, mallsoft, or any other arcane genre of music to be found in the most obscure corners of YouTube. With certain derivative forms of hip hop, like trap, cloud rap and, in particular, its sample-driven subgenres, being especially easy to emulate, it’s no surprise that the highly-democratised nature of music distribution over the Internet, with some of the biggest online music streaming and distribution services being accessible to anyone, à la SoundCloud and Bandcamp, has seen a huge surge in the production of homespun hip hop. Of course, this phenomenon is a double-edged sword, in that it offers true, raw talent a platform on which to flaunt the fruits of their musical labour, regardless of the artist’s financial situation, but it also opens the floodgates to anyone and everyone being able to record and release their own music, with quality or expertise being of no bearing on what can be unleashed unto the world. A prime and topical example of the latter is the recent single released by YouTuber and ex-Viner Jake Paul, It’s Everyday Bro, which, from an instrumental perspective, features one of the most bland and inconspicuous trap beats to appear on any song from the year thus far, whilst the rapping abilities of Paul and his cronies are below par to say the least. Of course, It’s Everyday Bro is far from the first venture into making music — specifically hip hop — by a YouTube celebrity, with, just earlier this year, Joji Miller releasing Pink Season, the second mixtape from the YouTuber as his Pink Guy alter ego. Likewise, Digibro (born Conrad Collins) has been recording music under the alias of Trial of the Golden Witch for around half of his decade-long career as an Internet anime critic and analyst, or “otaku gonzo journalist”, in his own words. Digibro’s musical undertakings have progressed significantly since his early, amateur harsh noise, drone and industrial projects, with last year seeing the unveiling of his first full-length rap record, Bedroom Bedrock, written in collaboration with his younger brother, Shade, who produced the beats under the moniker of MZShaidu. Just as the YouTuber’s development as a rapper was evident from track to track on Bedroom Bedrock, even in the brief time between his last album and his newest endeavour, Gay and Dead, Digi has grown significantly, both in terms of his technical ability on the mic and his witty lyrical chops. As can be presumed by the title, Digi doesn’t take himself too seriously on Gay and Dead, but, at the same time, the way in which he deals with his existential anxieties as a reclusive, work-obsessed Internet personality, by finding a tragic and twisted comedy to his lifestyle, is rather thoughtful and commanding, and sees the MC deconstruct himself as a human being, with bars that are often self-deprecating and self-aggrandising in equal measure. With an eclectic array of beats brought to the table by a small selection of Internet hip hop producers, and with the rapper’s infectious flows, caustic wit and general charisma exhibiting improvements across the board, Gay and Dead is an admirably well-rounded and coherent foray into an array of experimental hip hop styles, with Digibro’s biting satire ceaselessly shining through.
Purely from a sonic perspective, Gay and Dead introduces a substantial diversification of Trial of the Golden Witch’s sound when compared to Bedroom Bedrock, both in terms of Digibro’s flows and vocal deliveries and the stylistic touchstones employed in the production from track to track. What’s more, for the most part, practically every different sound or style attempted across the tracklisting is executed with a clear vision that translates into an assortment of songs that are largely successful in what they set out to achieve. The samples of Hawaiian-esque lap steel guitar from Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight and gentle waves on Paradise (in name only), for instance, are not solely beneficial to the overarching imagery alluded to in the title and hook of the track, but such blissful sounds build on the cloud rap aesthetic of the cut beyond the archetypal hazy, lo-fi recording quality associated with the genre. Even as the lap steel is chopped and screwed atop the minimal, cycling beat, the tranquil ambiance created by the sample remains, making for an entertaining duality between the serene soundscape of the instrumental and the morbid reflections from Digibro and fellow anime YouTuber Endless Jess on their tendencies to overwork and the way in which they are idolised by fans, despite not having attained their own ideas of fulfilment. On the complete opposite end of the auditory spectrum, Fat And Dangerous boasts a thick, booming beat that lives up to the track’s title, with the growling, destructive sub-bass equalling Digibro’s bellowed bars with a fittingly heavy and abrasive instrumental. With the beat on this cut being so obscenely clamorous, the humour of this production choice reaches another level of hilarity due to just how absurdly good it sounds, especially with Digibro coming through with one of his most rambunctious and infectious refrains from the entire record. Overall, whether it be the inspiration from East Coast hip hop on Freak Power! or the brooding horrorcore veneer of The Bunker, the instrumentals across Gay and Dead cover a cavernous assortment of approaches to hip hop production, with each beat matching the last in terms of quality, regardless of what style they just so happen to be taking cues from.
Likewise, Digibro’s heightened spitting skills lend themselves well to the variation in the production across Gay and Dead, in that the MC is able to adjust accordingly to the diverse beats over which he finds himself rapping. During the bridge of Fat And Dangerous, for example, Digi executes an impressive imitation of Danny Brown’s signature, high-pitched, nasal rapping style, which is only appropriate, given the fact that Brown’s last album, Atrocity Exhibition, stands out as inspiring much of the overall tone of Gay and Dead, at least in its experimental philosophy. Similarly, on the succeeding cut, Nihilistic Suburban Void, atop a noisy, industrial instrumental that unequivocally pulls from the Death Grips playbook, Digi’s attempt at capturing the howling, punctuated vocal delivery of MC Ride is astonishingly accurate, to the point that it can take some time to identify some semblance of the usual lilt to Digibro’s voice to confirm that it is, in fact, him. Of course, whilst his ability to replicate the unique vocal styles of his influences so precisely is certainly impressive, there is no doubt a level of sacrifice that comes with this regarding the extent to which Gay and Dead carves out a definitive musical identity of Digibro’s own. Thankfully, his fine ear for fast flows on tracks like Quarter and effective use of enjambment, such as on Paradise (in name only), demonstrates that Digibro can undoubtedly flaunt his diverse vocal deliveries without directly mimicking the signature sound of another rapper, even if he is exceptionally skillful at this. With a lilt as distinctive as his, just Digi’s regular rapping is most definitely recognisable as being him, so a significant step for him as an MC going into the future could be to find a way of exploiting this in such a way as to form a definitive style of delivery that is uniquely his.
With the overall auditory aspects of Gay and Dead aside, perhaps the salient point of appeal of the album is the way in which Digibro deals with personal topics relating to his lifestyle as a nocturnal workaholic who’s almost ceaselessly producing content in some form or another. Despite seemingly fulfilling the role of a brief introductory cut to set the tone of the record, the opening track, Broken Brilliance, acts as a compelling mission statement from Digibro regarding his work ethic, which demands he works “between three and eight a.m.”, as to not be distracted by anyone. The MC ensures to remain detectably self-aware at all times, which results in some especially funny moments, such as when Digi addresses the stereotypes associated with young men like him, but assures the listener that he doesn’t “shoot schools, / Just eat[s] noodles”. If one underlying concept were to pin Gay and Dead down, it would surely be one relating to the work-obsessed lifestyle that Digibro leads, and one that Endless Jess also discusses across his guest verses, with his phrase from Paradise (in name only), “Ambition is a prison”, simply but potently encompassing the extent to which one can fall victim to their own prolific aspirations. The indisputable stand-out track when it comes to this overbearing theme of workaholism, however, would surely be the final song, Who The Fuck Is Conrad?, with the title itself being a reference to the fact that Digibro is now taken aback in the rare occurrence that someone should address him by his legal name of Conrad, as his online persona consumes so much of his existence that he is, first and foremost, Digibro, the otaku gonzo journalist. With poignant one-liners like, “It’s easier to buy a flight than it is to say goodbye”, the rapper considers his forgotten past life as Conrad Collins, weighing it up against his life as Digibro and trying to reach some kind of closure regarding which path has proven to be the more fulfilling. Ultimately, the only conclusion that Digi reaches is the fact that he couldn’t even return to being Conrad should he so choose, as his art has now completely eaten him. Whilst the MC’s ruminations about the direction his life has taken are endearingly honest, well-balanced, witty and self-aware for the most part, the place of much of the album’s absurdist allusions are somewhat questionable at times. Whilst the record’s recurring refrain of being “gayer than God and deader than Christ” is integrated perfectly smoothly into songs, such as Gayer Than God and Fat And Dangerous, that are deliberately risible from front to back, when songs with a more serious undercurrent, like Day Dreamer (Sad Gay Boy), see the abrupt incorporation of this motif, or similarly absurdist overtones, it can sometimes come at the cost of the consistency in tone that makes some of the record’s best lyrical moments so arresting. Outside of this, however, Digibro proves himself to be just as adept at varying his lyrical approach as he is at switching up his vocal delivery, with the album’s lyrical high points ranging from the epigrammatic sexual witticisms of Buttfuckers Anthem to the ridiculous comedic highlights of cuts like Fallen to Pieces, which has too great an abundance of provocative quotables and droll references to mention.
For a man of as many artistic commitments as Digibro to have progressed so significantly as a musician and a rapper in well under a year is an incredibly impressive feat in and of itself, and Gay and Dead is surely the pinnacle of the YouTuber’s musical undertakings thus far in the existence of Trial of the Golden Witch. Of course, the album nonetheless displays room for improvement, ranging from Digibro’s establishment of his own definitive approach to rapping to a more airtight tonal consistency on the lyrical side of things, but based on the artistic growth exhibited by the MC between the release of Bedroom Bedrock and his newest record, many of the creases will likely be ironed out by the time of the unveiling of whatever musical project he should set his sights on next. For all of the variance across the album, in terms of lyrics, performances and beats, the fact that very few songs stand out as being evidently inferior to those surrounding them in the tracklisting is a sign of a well-rounded and cohesive rap project. Indeed, as all over the place as Gay and Dead may be in numerous regards, Digibro’s usual thoughtfulness and attention to detail anchors the album in a multi-faceted arc that makes for a consistently arresting and tragically amusing analysis of internal disintegration.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10