With so many of the front runners in the contemporary trap scene opting for an opulent, glitzy production style, syrupy smooth deliveries and an overall ethereal tone to their music that is primarily centred around capturing a particular atmosphere rather than any degree of artistic depth, the current upsurge in the popularity and prevalence of a new breed of Floridian SoundCloud trap artists, which favours abrasive, overblown beats and aggressive, minimalist flows, could be said to be a natural counterbalance to the prevailing force of mainstream trap music. With such rappers operating almost exclusively in an Internet arena, whilst remaining largely self-published and focussed on releasing singles rather than entire projects, their meteoric rise to prominence in recent times could be seen as an attempt at a grassroots usurpation of the prevailing order of mainstream trap music from a small subset of the genre’s underground scene. Regardless of one’s personal preferences concerning the predominant brand of mawkish, atmospheric trap music, it would be hard to deny that this section of the market has become highly saturated with derivative artists who are all very much cut from the same cloth, to the point that an uprising of a new genus of trap rappers could be exactly what the industry needs to liven things up a bit. In this sense, the new wave of Floridian SoundCloud MCs is not the only movement to challenge the mainstream trap zeitgeist, and there is certainly a considerable amount of overlap between these subsidiaries, with XXXTENTACION having defected to the emo-trap camp on his debut album from earlier this year, 17. When it comes to the emerging trend of bombastic SoundCloud rap from Florida, frequent collaborators Smokepurpp and Lil Pump are essentially the style’s bread and butter, and the fact that Smokepurpp dropped his second mixtape, Deadstar, at around the same time as Lil Pump’s commercial full-length debut with his self-titled tape has really boosted the levels of discussion surrounding this subgenre, and a heated discussion it is.
Indeed, it’s hard to provide background for the likes of Smokepurpp and Lil Pump without mentioning the controversy surrounding them, but given that the latter has proven to be the more divisive of the two by far, this will be a topic that I plan on delving into further during my review of Lil Pump’s mixtape. Essentially, with many of the detractors of these artists pointing out the vapidity and one-dimensionality of their relatively bare-bones stylings, this is likely a point of criticism that would become far more prominent on a full-length release than a handful of viral singles and, in the case of Deadstar, the mindlessness of Smokepurpp’s music most definitely becomes an issue. Undoubtedly, the MC’s formula for constructing a song is a simple one. Harsh and hard-hitting trap beats are easy to put together, especially given that a Smokepurpp song is typically highly repetitive, and the rapper’s stripped-down flows and vague bravado in his bars are similarly unchallenging. Of course, this is by no means a problem in itself, as a minimalist set-up is integral to the Floridian SoundCloud aesthetic. What is an issue, however, is the fact that, across the 18 tracks that comprise Deadstar, Smokepurpp makes little effort to vary his style whatsoever, to the point that, as the mixtape lurches further into its 48-minute runtime, it becomes a rather mind-numbing listen. Even though there is a pronounced pivot partway through the mixtape, as the distorted bass and pattering percussion of Ronny J’s production are substituted for the sparser soundscapes favoured by the likes of SLIGHT and Harry Fraud, the presentation of these songs remains largely the same, with Smokepurpp doing little to accommodate for this change of pace. As an MC, Smokepurpp’s insipid braggadocio is too predictable to be as shocking as it purports to be and, given that this is the main quirk that the rapper has going for him, levels of engagement drop drastically as the tracklisting rattles on. The handful of featured artists that Smokepurpp enlists across Deadstar typically fare slightly better, but to the extent that the MC is consistently outshined by his more charismatic guests. With certain cuts also brandishing some questionable production choices, Smokepurpp’s second mixtape really struggles to gain any momentum and ends up almost entirely falling off the rails, as the rapper simply lacks the coherent foundation to his style to justify a project of this length and with this little variation.
Smokepurpp hardly lives in denial of the simplicity of his music, with the artist, in fact, using the word ‘ignorant’ to describe his stylings, saying, “I don’t give a fuck when I make music”. As far as I see it, such an outlook is perfectly respectable, as a musician’s reason and motivation for creating their art can be as superficial or as deep as they want without becoming any less valuable, and bending to the whims of genre conventions or critical opinion is exactly the sort of thing that an artist such as Smokepurpp exists to resist. Likewise, inadvertent profundity is profundity nonetheless, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Smokepurpp’s expressly gritty and dark portrayals of his lawless lifestyle could end up offering some rather compelling or characterful snapshots into such an errant existence. Unfortunately, however, no such glimmers of hope show up across the course of Deadstar, with the mixtape being mindless through and through from a lyrical standpoint. Of course, this is no accident on Smokepurpp’s part, and to judge the lyrical content of the tape with any particular weight would be a mistake, given just how pervasive the MC’s “don’t give a fuck” attitude is for the most part. What’s strange, therefore, is the existence of tracks wherein Smokepurpp does, in fact, offer the odd glimpse of self-awareness, although this is disappointingly never used to any interesting effect. Streets Love Me, for instance, witnesses the rapper recall the warnings of his mother regarding his thug lifestyle during the hook, as if he’s setting himself up to justify his actions or explain himself during the verses, but the rest of the song simply sees Smokepurpp continue to list off his criminal antics as he would on any other track. Similarly, the title and hook of No Safety suggest that the song’s concept was inspired by the archetypal tale in hip hop of a gangster who has been driven paranoid by his immersion in an environment with inverted morals and values, but once again, the verses simply see Smokepurpp burn through references to guns, lean and drugs, as is the case on the majority of Deadstar. These occasional allusions in Smokepurpp’s lyrics to something more than the brainless ramblings of most of his bars leave the MC’s image at a slight crossroads at times. It’s certainly true that, for the most part, the rapper’s lyrics embody his ignorant attitude, in the way that he simply reels of rap clichés without giving any care to staying on topic or bringing any new ideas to the table, but the fact that he occasionally drops hints of self-awareness or a desire to provide some commentary on certain subjects shows chinks in his persona, and Deadstar would be considerably more compelling if he were to commit himself to one of these attitudes.
When it comes to Smokepurpp’s presence on the mic, the rapper, once again, very much emphasises the simplicity of his style, with a heavy use of ad-libs, minimal hooks that often see the MC simply repeat the track’s title for four bars, and flows that vary little from song to song — and which are often eerily similar to flows used by other artists in some of this year’s most popular trap songs, but there will be more on that later. Of course, such tropes come with the territory for an artist like Smokepurpp, with the deliberately dumb nature of his music being part of its appeal, but he often takes this simplicity to such an extreme that his performances can feel devoid of anything particularly engaging. When it comes to this branch of abrasive trap music, the job of the MC could be said to be to convey a primitive aggression in their performances to complement the overall tone of this style, with their punctuated flows being primed to emphasise the heaviness of the beats over which they typically spit. When it comes to Smokepurpp, however, his breathy delivery seldom captures much in the way of assertion or ferocity, to the point that it almost sounds as if he’s shying away from the microphone on occasion. On songs such as I Don’t Know You and OK, the fact that the artist raps alongside guest MCs who go considerably harder than he does only highlights how anaemic his performances can come across at times. In this sense, OK is a particularly disappointing example, as Smokepurpp is joined by his close collaborator Lil Pump, whose verse is unhinged and deranged, in a way that grips the listener instantly and uses this to constantly build towards a riotous peak. Smokepurpp’s performance, however, ranks as one of his blandest on the entire mixtape, with the rapper not even coming close to rivalling the personality and energy of his guest, and the trade-off from Lil Pump’s verse to Smokepurpp’s final hook sees the climax of Pump’s frisky performance come crashing back down to the low of Smokepurpp’s deadpan delivery. The use of auto-tune on songs such as Nose, if anything, only softens the impact of Smokepurpp’s performances, whilst it does nothing to disguise the rapper’s off-key whining and moaning on tracks like RIP Max and Purgatory. With Smokepurpp’s rapping being as dry as it is much of the time, this only works to bring attention to the weak writing across much of Deadstar. With songs such as OK, No Safety and Bless Yo Trap featuring hooks that see the MC repeat the tracks’ titles ad nauseam, whilst the end of the second verse of Audi. is comprised of Smokepurpp breathing heavily and making arbitrary noises, with the cut losing what little momentum it had gained up until this point as a result, the artist’s writing across much of Deadstar is not minimal as much as it is horribly lacking in any substance. What’s perhaps even worse than Smokepurpp’s weak writing, however, is the instances in which the rapper oversteps the boundary of being influenced by other artists, to the point of brazenly ripping them off. His flow on Audi., for example, is so similar to that of XXXTENTACION’s Look At Me! that it seems highly unlikely that Smokepurpp wasn’t inspired by this track, whether this be knowingly or not. Perhaps even more blatant is the influence from Playboi Carti‘s Magnolia on Krispy Kreme, with Smokepurpp even altering his usual inflection in a way that sounds far more similar to Carti’s semi-nasal, mumbled delivery, whilst his lyrics even display parallels between their equivalent lines from Magnolia. Although some genuinely coherent and competently written flows appear on the odd track, with Streets Love Me easily being the first example to come to mind, the overall trend of Smokepurpp’s writing and delivery across Deadstar alludes to a glaring lack of creativity and character that makes for a generally unrewarding and, at the worst of times, tiring listening experience.
There is, however, a wider pool of creative ideas offered in the beats across Deadstar, but only in the sense that, whilst Smokepurpp’s performances remain relatively one-dimensional throughout the mixtape, there are, at least, two definitive sides to the production throughout the tracklisting. The willingness to instigate a drastic tone shift halfway through the mixtape, at the very least, comes closer to justifying the 18-track duration of the project than the very monochrome palette of Smokepurpp’s performances and writing, but even still, within the two distinct sides to the production across Deadstar are yet more disappointing displays of a lack of variation. The first half of the mixtape is very much in the style that one would expect to hear from Florida’s rap scene at this moment in hip hop history, with speaker-shaking bass distortion, rattling trap percussion and sinister lead melodies coming together to form a bleak and grimy atmosphere that reflects the depravity and immorality typically depicted in a Floridian SoundCloud MC’s stories of street life. However, the mixtape’s first half also highlights why the likes of Smokepurpp often struggle to adapt from a largely singles-based format to releasing entire full-length projects, with Ronny J’s production formula being left almost entirely unaltered from track to track, so much so that numerous songs feel like carbon copies of one another. The fact that the distorted bass is even punctuated in an incredibly similar fashion on cuts like I Don’t Know You and Audi. only brings further attention to this issue, and many of the stand-out songs during this leg of Deadstar are made more prominent when the bass is employed in a far less mechanical manner. The bass plays a much more subtle role on Streets Love Me, for instance, as it is mixed under the clanging siren sounds that comprise the lead melody in a way that bolsters it rather effectively, creating a track with some genuine texture to it, whilst the blown-out bass on No Safety is supercharged with a potent melody of its own, making for one of the most appropriately raucous beats in the tracklisting, although it’s a shame that Smokepurpp’s impassive delivery doesn’t live up to this. Then again, the rapper’s lacklustre performances become far more of an issue during the latter half of Deadstar, as the beats become more spacey and sparse, with hazy ambience surrounding some relatively rudimentary trap percussion, in a way that focusses nearly all of the listener’s attention on Smokepurpp himself. However, a great deal of these songs, such as Hold It, Different Color Molly, RIP Max and Purgatory, see Smokepurpp whimper and groan from start to finish, with the cushions of auto-tune doing nothing to disguise the MC’s excruciating moaning, instead only adding to the feeling that each of these tracks is nothing but a vague, cloudy atmosphere with no silver lining in terms of any songwriting substance, strong melodic tones or compelling performances. Unfortunately, this is a trend that doesn’t solely affect this stretch of the tracklisting. Just as many may criticise the current trend of smoky, atmospheric trap for offering little more than some obscure, wispy vibes, the brand of uber-abrasive trap music found across much of Deadstar can be boiled down to a general feeling of aggression and instability, rather than anything especially engaging or substantial from a musical standpoint.
Smokepurpp’s plea of ignorance is certainly appropriate and, in some ways, admirable. After all, the salient point of appeal for a project like Deadstar is its inherently dumb and nihilistic nature, with the entire purpose of Smokepurpp’s music being to act as a catalyst for going absolutely crazy. In this regard, thinking about Deadstar to any critical extent could certainly be said to miss the point of the mixtape. Then again, the fact that there seems to exist occasional whiffs in Smokepurpp’s writing of a desire to be something more than music for mindless violence leaves the project feeling at odds with itself at times, and a complete commitment to one of these conflicting ideals would have at least made for a mixtape that could be called consistent in its central premise of not giving a fuck. Likewise, if we were to gauge the quality of Deadstar by the extent to which Smokepurpp conveys these unhinged feelings of savagery and inhumanity, he seldom meets the ballistic heights of many of his contemporaries, with Lil Pump’s performance on OK almost putting him to shame in this regard. Ultimately, it can be quite difficult to shine a critical light on artists such as Smokepurpp, whose stylings exist almost as a resistance to criticism, but, even ignoring the problems relating to songwriting or diversity, Smokepurpp’s Deadstar simply seems lacking all around, even in the areas in which it most wants to excel.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4/10