It should have been an unforgettable image, except that I had forgotten about it almost immediately, and was only reminded of it when I came across the following words in my iPhone notes app over a month later: “CGI Bugatti on fire with skeleton with black and red braids and a black hat during Gnar.” “Gnar” as in Lil Gnar, the wiry 22-year old skateboarder turned clothing designer turned rapper from Atlanta; “during” as in the second day of the New York edition of Rolling Loud, a frenetic late October gathering of the brilliant, the notorious, the opportunistic, the blandly enjoyable and the inexplicably popular from across the current American hip-hop universe, held in the windswept parking lots of Citi Field in Queens.
To what category did Gnar belong? As an artist I’m afraid he’s nothing special: On “Missiles” he had the boldness to rap alongside Trippie Redd, showing that he has neither the personality nor the lung capacity of that formidable Chicago punk despite a shared affinity for dark red hair dye and face tattoos. But “New Bugatti” was one of my great guilty pleasures of 2021, the vocal reverb heightening the queasy late-stage acid-trippiness of the beat just enough to make me look past Gnar’s actual rapping, which isn’t lyrically or melodically clever, and feels strangely vaporous, as if one can only look past it.
Consigned to a brief midafternoon slot at the smallest of the festival’s three stages, Gnar tried to set himself apart by climbing one of the structure’s ladderlike support columns. He looked around at a crowd of about a thousand mostly teenagers and then swiftly descended, perhaps realizing that this climbing stunt was a dead end, and visually unremarkable next to the juxtaposed image of his skeletonized corpse at the wheel of an immolating supercar. Nothing on that stage could have compared to Gnar’s great visual masterpiece, a widely circulated bathroom selfie from 2019 in which the aspiring rapper holds aloft the heavy olive tubing of what appears to be a grenade launcher, his mouth pinched in concentration around the stub of a dying cigar, eyes pointed downward so that he could get the shot just right.
In an environment where nothing is so outrageous as to feel crass or calculated, can anything feel like anything? This is the question posed not just by Rolling Loud but by the present, dizzyingly bifurcated moment in American culture. If Rolling Loud is a fair sample, the culture warriors on both sides make themselves look freakish and out of touch by insisting on coherent stories with heroes and villains and calls to action. The idea that “narratives” govern reality is foreign to the floating world of transient memes and pure signification that Zoomers in fact inhabit.
Grinding intra-elite debates over the parameters of cancel culture and threats to freedom from the right and the left in fact obscure a crucial and much larger parallel cultural universe in which politics is an afterthought and the ever-expanding list of social treasons isn’t really enforced. As the exclusive heights of cultural production—the world of universities, newsrooms, tech companies, major publishing houses, film, television, and big nonprofits—become ever more cosseted and monolithic, subject to almost full capture by a self-perpetuating and self-protecting class of scolds and administrators who carefully proclaim their pronouns, there’s another sector which has happily blasted through every moral and aesthetic nicety: pop music.
Pop music, and especially hip-hop, is perhaps the leading institution in American society whose most famous public-facing participants have the advantage of never having passed through a “top” college or even any college. They provide us with our most powerful visions of a world without HR departments, of a domain of near-total license where almost everything is permitted and nobody gets canceled, proof there is an alternative to the rising unfreedom that characterizes American society. The unsanctioned, nonelite culture of pop commands greater organic loyalty among a much larger number of people than the parallel high-culture world does, along with limitless wellsprings of creativity, billions upon billions of dollars, and, most importantly, youth.
It is no accident that the aesthetic of this space, if it can be said to have one, is a chaos of imagery and sound, which reads in any conventional framework as ugliness. The ugliness of pop comes from overload and aimlessness, and is the opposite of the purposeful ugliness embraced by that part of the supposedly socially conscious elite that is willing to be seen in public in a Friend of the Pod shirt or thinks that Sally Rooney can actually write.
The Zoomer pop aesthetic is disconnected from any previous age’s idea of aesthetic beauty or pleasure. There’s almost nothing that’s actually considered cheesy anymore—nothing can ever be considered too pixelated or distorted or slowed down. By the same token, it’s become even harder for this generation to separate freedom from anhedonia and anomie. Rolling Loud was populated with demographically diverse hordes of real-life teenagers who had just spent their formative years under a kind of house arrest, gaining an acute and probably lifelong sense of how craven and vindictively stupid everyone is. What else to make of the baggy distressed Goth jeans, the green hair and dark eye shadow, the abundant Grateful Dead gear, the pimply white guy in a Stop Snitching On The Woo T-shirt? The kids came ready to rage at Rolling Loud—the frequent invitations from the stage to form a circle and slam dance were almost never rejected, as if a lot of the children were there seeking temporary oblivion.
Maybe the incoherence of the aesthetic on display at Rolling Loud possessed the key to what it all might mean. “This is everything all at once,” a professional musician friend of mine, someone who’s seen just about every live musical context you can dream of from the employees’ side of the footlights, said as he scanned the moshing crowd for the horrorcore cap duo City Morgue. Later in the afternoon, the antenna-haired Orlando rapper Hottboi, who is currently under federal indictment for racketeering, invited a hype-man onstage who was dressed in bright blue jeans and a denim jacket. Hip-hop has created a space where even the alleged criminal-conspiracy-adjacent talent can wear a Canadian tuxedo without the slightest whiff of irony.
Was irony needed, just to remind people that there were actual moral stakes attached to the things we were seeing? A pitifully incomplete list of shocking or otherwise unexpected events at the three-day festival includes the following: Fetty Wap, the legendary but semireclusive hitmaker best known for the “Trap Queen” phenomenon of a few summers ago, was arrested in his green room by the FBI on charges of drug trafficking shortly before his scheduled performance. Bobby Shmurda, a New York icon who vanished into the criminal justice system just as his career took off, was given all of maybe 15 minutes for his homecoming set after seven years in prison and was aggravatingly cut short before he could play either of his big hits. Rumor had it the crowd of dudes conspicuously looming in the wings during Shmurda’s performance were plainclothes cops. Kodak Black played the main stage—his popularity has rebounded after outgoing President Donald Trump pardoned the incarcerated Florida mumble-rapper for a federal gun charge, although he is still on probation in South Carolina over an alleged sexual assault. The entourages for the beefing rappers Kay Flock and Ron Suno brawled backstage. The beloved Young Dolph performed in front of seemingly tens of thousands of people, and then was gunned down outside of a bakery in Memphis just 18 days later. The music’s great—in some ways it’s never been better. But does any of this make sense, except as the product of an American culture in which “values,” whether moral or aesthetic, are simply another transitory meme?
The specter of death hovered over the festival’s monumental closing set, which remains, as of this writing, the last performance by the psychedelic rap populist Travis Scott in which nobody died. Scott bellowed an hour’s worth of soaring crowd-pleasers from within vortices of fire and light, screens the size of basketball courts lowering him above and inside an erupting volcano and hurtling him through the vacuum of space. I was witnessing a kind of generational aesthetic in action, a phenomenon that might have helped explain the carnage at Scott’s Astroworld set in Houston a week later, when negligent festival organizers, oblivious onstage talent (Scott and megastar Drake), and the unreality of the full-on hyperstimulating Travis Scott festival experience resulted in the mass suffocation of 10 fans.
Scott’s pixelated acid mountains intruded into my idle moments for days to come, and even flashed their way into a dream. There is an addictive quality to intense sound and light, which imprints itself on regions of the brain you aren’t consciously aware of. As my eyes bulged to unblinking full deployment, my brain fired into gaping attention. Knowingly or not—probably knowingly, given how often I find myself listening to his music—Scott plays on a dark human desire, which isn’t specific to the Zoomers or to any other generation, for maximalism separated from meaning, whose equal and opposite signification is the void.
It is no accident that Scott joins some of rap’s grandest sonic statements to some of its breezier lyrics. In his world, scale and grandness doesn’t need anything but their own massiveness to justify themselves, and the fact of being stimulated feels oddly disconnected from the moral status of whatever’s stimulating you. Perhaps it’s this interchangeability of negative and positive inputs, exploited by the music-industrial complex and trained into us by the enforced blandness of lived reality in the lockdown era, that creates environments where music fans helplessly compress each other to death—an environment in which where you can see video of a violent backstage brawl on Twitter and think “ah, I was at that festival today.” It’s lit!
The fetish for massiveness embodied in Scott’s music, which provides listeners with the comforts of feeling weak and overwhelmed, extends beyond Zoomer tastes in popular music and percolates into nearly every other area of our exhausted culture. The superhero films that dominate popular filmmaking are loud, bracing, and numbing affairs. One stands in the uninvitingly angular vastness of the new Moynihan Train Hall in midtown Manhattan and feels nothing, as if one is arriving nowhere and going nowhere. Perhaps that’s the point. That omnipresent redoubt of nonfeeling, the internet, produces waves of sickly sweet mental calm without conveying anything that could be called beautiful.
The enforced feeling of smallness and nothingness is the ideal mind-state of the would-be authoritarian. But Scott’s performance didn’t bring Mussolini to mind, just as content on TikTok feels organic and even democratic, despite the platform’s connections to the totalitarian Chinese regime. The hyperpixelated stream of morally liberated yet nerve-dulling incoherency that amounts to a Zoomer aesthetic is better explained through psychedelia than through some hidden will to subservience.
For someone in the grips of a mescaline trip, Aldous Huxley wrote in the 1956 essay “Heaven and Hell,” “Significance ... is identical with being; for, at the mind’s antipodes, objects do not stand for anything but themselves. The images which appear in the nearer reaches of the collective subconscious have meaning in relation to the basic facts of human experience; but here, at the limits of the visionary world, we are confronted by facts which ... exist in their own right. And their meaning consists precisely in this, that they are intensely themselves ... manifestations of the essential givenness, the non-human otherness of the universe.”
Huxley might as well have been writing about the image of a middle-aged man boogieing to a Russian rap song while pouring melted cheese over broccoli, a user who now has 6.7 million followers on TikTok. If everything now feels like it exists in a realm of nonhuman otherness, perfect according to the pure criteria of its own being, then almost nothing is inexplicable because nothing needs to be explained. Instead, all things are united in a kind of acid logic that’s conveniently beyond any higher meaning. You can enjoy Travis Scott and the occasional TikTok binge, as I do, and still fear the encroachment of the uncannily disconnected into the center of the mental map.
The artist who has most effectively harnessed these contradictions into a coherent sound and image, the 25-year-old rapper Playboi Carti, also played Rolling Loud. In his performance, the audience was offered a chilling alternative vision of the present, one in which social or historical or intellectual context is still shrunk to comedically miniature scale, in which everything is rendered tiny and dumb. You could also sense a moral element to overstimulation that is unrealized in Travis Scott’s volcanic bombast but understood on subconscious frequencies by seemingly anyone under the age of 23.
In 2021, Carti pulled off one of the most satisfying feats that any musical artist can achieve in the internet age: He put out a record that was too far ahead of its time to be appreciated at the moment of its release, and then watched as fans, critics, and other artists rushed to catch up with him.
When Whole Lotta Red dropped on Christmas Day of 2020, Carti’s long-awaited sophomore full-length was derided as abrasive, overlong, and sonically cold. “#WholeLottaSkips,” as one memorable hashtag put it. The beats were like dark pixels in sound form, a haunted eight-bit video game soundtrack playing atop a constant deeper-than-deep bass roar, like the flat rattle belching from the world’s most distressed subwoofer. It was a hip-hop synthesis of dark house, Goth, punk, and drone, a total commitment to possibilities that Carti’s earlier, more radio-friendly work had only hinted at. The vocals were, like much of the rest of Carti’s beguiling output, post-verbal and practically post-musical, shrieks and ejaculations and snatches of otherworldly nonsense that existed only on the level of pure texture. But his voice had become clearer, more forceful, and even more outwardly confrontational than on his other records, which now looked like roadmaps leading to this strange new sound he’d invented.
“I feel like God,” Carti exclaims on “M3tamorphosis,” Whole Lotta Red’s unsparing, five-minute centerpiece. Excuse me, like what? On “Vamp Anthem,” Carti eschews any attempt at song structure and shouts the titular phrase over a loop of a low-fi synth rendition of a Bach fugue. By the end of the year, an album that had once had fans scratching their heads in confusion was still one of the 10 most-listened-to rap releases on Spotify, ranked alongside far more recent titles.
Nobody’s skipping anything anymore. Carti is now touring arenas for the first time in his career. A major festival-headlining gig feels inevitable for the taciturn Atlantan, who is tantalizingly reticent in interviews and barely posts on social media. A yearlong burst of Carti imitators (including, one could argue, Whole Lotta Red executive producer Kanye West, who dabbles in a Carti-like dark trap sound throughout his recently released Donda) have made it clear that the album is being understood by creators as a hinge moment in American music.
Until recently, the ideal American pop artist was Frank Ocean or maybe Lana Del Ray—introspective, abstract, revealing of their deepest and truest selves, and sonically lush, perhaps even florid. Enough of that whiny millennial crap, counter Carti and Billie Eilish and other Zoomer exemplars, walking mysteries who mold the sparest of musical matter, who drill into some lower bedrock of sound and feeling with little consideration of whether what they achieve is “beautiful.” Indeed, the closest thing to aesthetic reverie one feels in the Carti canon is the moment in the music video to “Sky,” which the rapper directed, in which a mob of skater punks trashes a convenience store pharmacy in greenwashed slow motion.
At Rolling Loud, over the course of 39 mind-flattening minutes, it felt as if Carti had been sent from whatever realm he lives in to expose the mode of perception that lies behind the screen of memes. He appeared in flashes against an almost exploding white background, beneath rapid lightning from the stage rafters. The color came from cones and forests of blue and red lasers; his voice broke through in bolts of howling nightmare reverb against what sounded like heavy backing tracks. The unfortunate current vogue in hip-hop performance is for artists to play the album version of their music while shouting ad-libs and crowd instructions—“rage!,” “yeah!,” “open that shit up!,” “let’s go!” etc. Finally, after two whole days of mostly nonperformance, I was too astonished to care about what I was or wasn’t seeing and hearing. Only with 10-odd minutes left did I notice the black-clad and fogged-out Carti had a guitar player with him onstage, laying live slabs of aural concrete between songs.
The music itself was an intense staccato drone—in person, and in an intensifying rainstorm, the roller coaster undulations of “On That Time” seemed to travel between the lower and upper realms of being. On his albums Carti seeks out some spare essence of sound, something clean and stripped down, but whose simplicity reveals harshness instead of beauty. Live, it was more like the bones of reality had been uncovered—the cries of “never too much,” shouted over the colliding bass sludge and electric organ death rattle that open “Rockstar Made,” didn’t seem like a throwaway anymore. Nothing is ever too much, went this bold new theory of existence.
The crowd of youngsters agreed. Everyone lost it, jumping and dancing and body-checking each other in the rain. I was reminded of 285 Kent, that long-shuttered little world on the Williamsburg waterfront, when half-forgotten chaos agents like Monotonix or Team Robespierre would play. The crowd was one giant mosh pit, heedless of a downpour that made Carti’s faint outline even less solid, even less there. I experienced a kind of pure negation achieved in clashes of flesh and sound. Carti made almost everyone else at the festival seem silly, like they belonged to another, much stupider era.
What kind of era are we in, though? Carti raised the possibility that there is something deeper hiding just behind the simultaneous Zoomer embrace of everything and nothing—strip away the frivolity, abandon any hope of relief, plunge into the aural and aesthetic grime and the ambient vulgarity would suddenly fall away, replaced by a new world of freedom and feeling.
Maybe that’s why seeing Carti proved so disembodying for a slightly older music fan standing in a rainy stadium parking lot in late 2021—the rapper’s set realized a miniature version of seemingly everyone’s dream these days, the hope that the nastiness is only temporary and that visible reality is a surmountable obstacle, perhaps even a trifling one. In Carti’s case, the dream wasn’t filled with video game mountain ranges, and it didn’t bring to mind the psychedelic flatness of isolated perfect objects. Here, instead, was the promise of the void: What gets built within it is still anybody’s guess.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.