The next generation of underground rappers, electronic misfits, and jazz weirdos have flooded the internet with an approach that is both artful and inane. By Kieran Press-Reynolds
January 19, 2024
A 16-year-old from Argentina is blowing up with the most puerile plugg rap ever produced. AgusFortnite2008’s deeply overwhelming aesthetic teeters between creative and corny (think Chief Keef worship, graphics that look like diseased MrBeast thumbnails). He cites montage parodies, a video format made by defacing cartoons and video games by editing an hour’s worth of rainbow flashes and memes into every frame, as sonic inspiration. “Some 30-year-old man listens to one of my songs and kills himself,” AgusFortnite2008 joked to me over the phone. “They don’t understand the distortion, the references. It’s a generational appeal.” As someone who obsessively consumed and created montage parodies in high school, my brain nearly broke hearing him explain the way his style takes cues from shitposty internet culture.
Agus’ music is just one dispatch from the strange new world of what I’m calling shitpost modernism. Imagine if “shitpost” didn’t mean far-right 4channers spamming Dark Brandon GIFs but instead became a zeitgeist-defining aesthetic for music, a new frontier of profane genius that walks the tightrope between cringe and cool. That’s what we’re seeing with things like Yeat’s gospel of gibberish and the viral jazz cluster’s filthy gags, or the surprise hits of Lil Yachty’s “Poland” and Saint Mercator’s “Da Biggest Bird,” a pluggnB tribute to ornithology. Or whatever is going on with the stupendously unpredictable rapper RXK Nephew, whose catalog is a banquet of the bizarre, from a conspiracy-rap odyssey to a track he spends dissing its beatmaker.
Even megastars have gone silly under the shitpost spell, sidestepping polished musicality in favor of high-low anarchy. Kendrick Lamar vexed oldheads in 2022 when he repeated the phrase “top of the morning” seven times, for no reason, in a fierce tone on the Baby Keem collaboration “range brothers.” Ice Spice’s willfully weird slang has spawned endless memes: “I’m the shit, I’m that bitch, I’m Miss Poopie” is a recent highlight. Her zaniest song to date, “Bikini Bottom,” features her moonwalking over a SpongeBob sample so slapstick it’s like sample drill Charlie Chaplin.
While novelty tracks have long been a part of selling pop music—from the “Monster Mash” to the “Macarena”—this specific kind of trolly humor largely thrives outside the domain of major-label supervision. It is seen most clearly in rising rap, where the online underground encompasses a diffuse sprawl of scenes and standards that share a cracked sensibility. Take Texas rapper TisaKorean’s folly-filled anthems; his flamboyant silliness is the inverse of major-label rap’s too-clouted-to-care aesthetic, whereby stars like Travis Scott and Destroy Lonely act like resigned CEOs of trillion dollar tech startups.
The winner for the wildest vocals of 2023 is a man who imitated the constipated croak of SpongeBob SquarePants boss Mr. Krabs. What’s striking about 24-year-old rapper Audwin Gray’s “KRUSTY KREW ANTHEM” is both how convincing the impression feels and the way that, despite its joke-y concept, the song involves genuine skill. So many people thought the vocals were AI creations that Gray, who goes by the artist name Oddwin, had to add a disclaimer on his SoundCloud insisting the song was man-made. It became a hit out of nowhere, flying to No. 1 on Spotify’s viral chart in June.
Gray tried out his Mr. Krabs voice while messing around at 5 a.m., with no inkling it would infest so many brains. “You never know, some of the greatest ideas can come from having fun,” he told me over the phone. The basic premise is a perfect formula for zoomers, who grew up obsessed with SpongeBob, and whose shared comedic language is internet-fried surrealism. Next to some of the biggest viral trends of last year—people pretending to pass out after drinking Grimace shakes, AI edits of Trump and Biden playing Minecraft, Lizzy Dunne Just Rizzed Up Baby Gronk, the nihilistic mundanity of corecore videos—a rap posse cut stuffed with cartoon sea-animal imitations doesn’t seem so out of place.
There are modern precursors to this torrent of outlandish brilliance: Dadaist-gibberish cloud rap; the shoddy shimmer of vaporwave; “PISSCORE”; Myspace users and bloggers coining parodic genre names; juvenile YouTube glitch-graffiti. Rather than straight-up comedy music, the shitpost modernists aren’t often explicitly branded as “funny.” The humor and innovation is more oblique: It’s in the degraded structure of the track, the mutant vocals, the shock of a surreal high-low juxtaposition. What also separates this era of artfully inane music is the sheer volume of it and its wide-scale popularity. In a streaming world that prioritizes ephemeral dopamine hits and algorithm-piercing smashes, ideas like radio-readiness or conceptual heft can feel quaint. So instead of trying to appeal to the everyman or the critic, a mass of young musicians are fucking around. The result is a feast of freakiness that’s perfect for zoomer brains that have hatched to (im)maturity in a vat of digital absurdism.
When eccentric artists like Lil B, IceJJFish, and James Ferraro were rising in the 2000s and 2010s, they were mostly confined to having small cult fanbases who loved their idiosyncrasies. Today’s shitposters have the advantage of Twitter timelines and TikTok’s ForYou page, where personalized algorithms are designed for maximum engagement. There’s nothing particularly egregious about SEBii’s brand of hyper-rap with dopey rhyme schemes, but without fail his clips end up spiraling into full-on discourses because detractors quote-tweet him and say he’s ruining the genre. Shocking sounds that provoke polarizing reactions hold more currency than ever.
Taste boundaries have also eroded and exploded over the last few years as increasingly far-out hits hurtled out from niche siloes. Remember the outrage when Atlanta rapper 645AR started squeaking like Pikachu in the late 2010s? Yet after TikTok sea shanties, the demonic microgenre sigilkore, a Mario Kart theme song remixed into a trap beat with a fart sound, and countless other meme-y anomalies, barely anyone bats an ear when a song called “Sticking Out Your Gyat For The Rizzler” surges to the top of the algorithm. The viral hit, which consists of a squeaky voice mewling Gen Alpha buzzwords like “skibidi toilet” and “Fanum tax,” inspired a trend last year where people sung the lyrics over alt-rock and classical instrumentation.
The shitpost modernist virus has infected other genres, most surprisingly jazz, where a new wave of young prodigies are deploying their skills to silly ends. Check out Spilly Cave crafting a tune to soundtrack a bidet spraying and calling it a “WipeTok” tribute, or wunder-duo DOMi & JD Beck, who released a classy debut last year but also make testicle jokes in song titles and play fart noises in concert. Rather than dampening their musicality, the ridiculous gags and uncouth humor adds another layer to the duo’s performances and humanizes their seemingly inhuman dexterity.
The same strain of shitposter syndrome afflicts hyperpop and zoomer electronica—just listen to the live sets. For Boiler Room earlier this year, 100 gecs blended their future-bass collab with Skrillex into a Five Nights at Freddy’s theme song into Chief Keef’s ferocious “Faneto.” At The Lot Radio, Frost Children wed novelty hits like Ylvis’ “What Does The Fox Say” to pristine house and the sort of vomity brostep every 7th-grader worshiped in 2010. The goal of most professional DJs is to keep listeners hypnotized with a seamless mix; the objective of these producers is to spark sloppy grins when you hear the campy chaos fading in. Attend any 100 gecs show and you’ll see scores of teens and twenty-somethings awash in wizard hats, furry costumes, and colorful fishnets, with Nintendo 3DS cameras flying in the air. These musicians offer not just slapstick music but a kind of light-hearted outlook toward life itself; it’s a childlike retreat from the strictures of seriousness and a refusal to abide by conservative etiquette.
The music is just one piece of what has become a sprawling shitpost-media complex. Another layer is the Instagram and Twitter meme accounts that pose as news sources and create Biblical mountains of lore about scenes. One of the most influential pages, Hyperpop Daily, is basically the zoomer’s Hipster Runoff, with a focus on the ascendant, fractured wave of underground music instead of indie rock. Launched in late 2020, the page zeroes in on the most astonishing news items (real or alleged) about an artist, like how Destroy Lonely apparently walked off the stage at an in-game Roblox show, using descriptions that fall closer to shitpoems than shitposts. The page’s 24-year-old, Seattle-based creator tells me that his writing style is partly inspired by the adolescent melodrama of stories on Wattpad, a fan-fiction forum. He points to one piece in particular where the author fantasizes that Swedish rappers Bladee and Yung Lean went to his high school. “For some reason, Bladee started self-harming, and I just was like, What the fuck is going on here?” he recalls thinking. “If someone did this ironically, it would make for god-tier content.”
Consuming music content online used to parallel the analog ways of reading magazines, watching music docs, and chatting with friends. The 2010s were ruled by the casual drop-in-when-you-want vibe of blogs, YouTube videos, and forums. That mode feels snail-paced compared to today’s vortex of startling stimuli, where every career update, review, and beef related to an artist is converted into feed-flooding posts by influencer-blogs like Hyperpop Daily. All the world has become a shitpost: 2023’s hottest “dance” account features the human equivalent of a graduated cylinder bopping ironically next to toilets.
Despite the occasional work of daft genius drifting across the timeline, there have been countless shitposers. These artists often use painfully cringe aesthetics and shock tactics to chase viral tracks, so how do you discern mastery from milquetoast? Skillful shitposting reveals a thought-through aesthetic and an awareness of when the tastefully madcap turns to pubescent-puerile. Dev Lemons frontloads abrasive humor in her music (she has a collaborative project called QUEEF JERKY), but it’s basically a goading lure. Think it’s all just a cringe meme? Behind titles like “CEO OF MY ASS” are blasts of industrial bass and breakbeats.
The oddity must also be used as part of a larger vision. 645AR’s helium moans on “4 Da Trap” and “Sum Bout U” convey misery and yearning. Yuno Miles' ostrich-squeal-rap is built around dexterous and inventive flows. There’s a vulnerable realness to the way these artists defy expectations—of genre, gender, their past music—and risk ridicule. On the flip side, the truly bad shitpassé-modernism has few to zero redeeming qualities. It’s detritus like Mcap Steve’s ear-eviscerating Minecraft remixes of popular songs and the edgelord-core of Lil Darkie, who built an audience by offering shock (see “HOLOCAUST”) to tween boys with dumpster taste.
The greatest shitpost modernism seems to halt time. We’re living in an era of giga-accumulation: Big-ticket albums have largely been replaced by the monstrosity of 25-track data dumps designed to rack up streams; the daily experience of internet life involves a brain-glazing surf across tweets and TikToks we forget immediately; the music landscape has decentralized into niche nano-pockets But when something absurd like a bizarrely perfect mashup of PinkPantheress and Radiohead comes out, it creates an increasingly rare monocultural moment for the younger generation. It’s so freaky and new-sounding you can’t help but replay it and giggle.