Love Is Rage and the Ugly Face of Pop

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In a year full of cosmetically pretty pop songs, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” rose to the top as the ugliest hit of 2017. The drums creaked. The synths bled. And there was the rapper’s croak, drenched in effects, but instead of correcting the flaws, it further obscured his vocals. Reeking with a putrid, ghoulish fume, it’s no surprise the beat is actually a re-animated version of a three-year-old beat producer TM88 once abandoned.

The album that best describes the textures ubiquitous in pop in 2017 may be Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1. The album’s vaguely tropical and eternally chill climes smoothed the songs out to the point of banality. The blankness is reflected in the generic titles: “Slide,” “Feels,” the album title itself. But the hollow funk synced so well with other balmy, passive-aggressive hits reaping the successes of Kygo, Drake’s Atlantic imports, Justin Bieber’s work with Skrillex and Diplo, and most recently, the Chainsmokers.

Lil Uzi Vert preferred comparatively imperfect sounds for not only “XO Tour Llif3” but also his album, Luv Is Rage 2. The pipes of “Feelings Mutual” give one flatulent blurt. The synths in the blurry “Pretty Miami” echo as if someone dunked the record underwater. Yet no sound appears more warped than Lil Uzi Vert’s voice. His pipsqueak curves into surreal forms post-edit with the sharp, emotional pitches especially exaggerated.

The vocals in “XO Tour Llif3,” however, blurs the line between the heavily produced and the all-natural. It’s difficult to tell what’s exactly inspiring these noises to emerge. Emotions bleed over the song’s margins. Heartbreak slurs his speech. Eventually the chorus dissolve into pure sound and melody. Even before effects, he already pushes his voice well past what it was naturally made to do.

While mainstream pop leaned towards smooth and polite gestures of emotion, records warped as the feelings they carried became vital, personal cornerstone for my year. More crude the surfaces, the more homely it became. Music sounded best loud to the point the sounds turned into pure noise. Big-time producers might doctor the track, but I wanted it served raw as the artist intended.

Certain corners of rap music favored a more bruised form of the genre in service for unfiltered catharsis similar to “XO Tour Llif3.” Trippie Redd ran with the ideas pitched in Lil Uzi Vert’s single for his own heartbreak in “Love Scars.” Elliott Trent’s corrosive beat sounds less refined than “XO,” especially the blown-out bass, though the distortion has nothing on the self-destructive nature of Redd’s voice. “Girl, you got me real saaad / Devil in me make me maaad,” he sings, pushing the end rhymes to its emotional extremes.

The painful stretches of syllables are only the result of Trippie Redd’s voice not being enough to properly process his hurt. The noise comes from the body’s failure to express whatever he intends to share, and “Love Scars” derives its emotional power from expressing this failure. Same goes for Uzi Vert: as overbearing pain pushes the artists to the edge, the machines, too, get worked to the brink of their capabilities.

Trippie Redd and Lil Uzi Vert’s stress in their vocals also resembles a physical purge, and the emotions they try to relieve often feel vile for the body. While the former’s music handles a murderous level of rage triggered by betrayal, the latter deals with a deep self-loathing in “XO Tour Llif3.” The misshapen production providing the foundation for both rappers stand like fun-house mirrors that exaggerate the worst of their inner reflection. The outside reflects and emphasizes the perceived ugliness of their insides.

The resulting music by the likes of Trippie Redd and Lil Uzi Vert gives a language or at least textures to help put some dark, personal emotions into an image. What the world of these records helped define in particular for me was my own self-disgust.

While it’s not hard to define the make-up of popular musical expressions of self-disgust, it can also be just as easy to reduce into a specific aesthetic: unfriendly sounds, untreated production, a disregard to orderly structure. Squarely as some artists’ music fits into these characteristics, determining the seriousness behind their intent can be tricky. How true is their pain in relation to how they communicate it?

Trent Reznor’s work as Nine Inch Nails serves the cliche pop template of angst and self-disgust at this point. And back in 1999, he indulged upon the format into its deep extremes in his third album, The Fragile. My first listen of the 100-minute double-disc this year confirmed why the response was divisive upon arrival. Reznor’s openness sounds so earnest, and the supporting metal screeches so fitting, cynicism might deny his output as honesty but instead claim it as performance. But how vivid he expresses this certain head space shows why it was also embraced intensely for many.

The similarities between most ugly records I liked this year was that they were hard to approach not necessarily because the content was offensive, but because the artist put my personal darkness to words or music almost too exactly as I experienced them. Benjamin Power brought an intensely accurate one with his Blanck Mass album, Dumb Flesh. Through electronic beats of punishing volume, disassembled voices and cover art of skin, the 2015 album breaks down the failure of the human body and its supporting machines to their physical essence. Things don’t look right nor do they fit neatly as they should. Touching up the flaws only makes them shriek louder.

While Powers’s Blanck Mass project gives ugliness a familiar physical form, it also aims for transcendence through the power of noise. The broken beats from his new album this year, World Eater, projected its bursts outward as it tried their best escaping out of the muck. But introverted or extroverted, voices and sounds intensify in volume in Blanck Mass projects as if they’re inspired by a certain personal purpose: maybe if they become loud enough, they can break free from their limited form.

The most popular line in “XO Tour Llif3” to sing along to is the song’s most terrifying part: “Push me to the edge / all my friends are dead.” The rapper’s voice delivers it with a mix of several emotions: panic, worry, sadness, fear, and the list can go on. His pained “yeah” ad lib sums up his agony more than any metaphor.

As “XO Tour Llif3” became an anthem and crept into public playlists, there was the unshakeable irony of singing about all my friends being dead with the company of my friends. While not all of the song was easy to recite, he made sure people sang along to the most brutal parts. My friends and I repeated that bit about him blowing his brains out. We shouted back his ex-partner’s deadpan comeback: “I don’t really care if you cry.”

We also imitated Lil Uzi Vert’s singing voice, each of us shaping our already-imperfect voice to resemble that gargling croak in “XO Tour Llif3.” A lot of Lil Uzi Vert impressions were done this year, and voices, if not whole bodies changed shape to make sounds close to his. Throats let out coughs to get out a series of number fours to “444 + 222.” Faces crinkled into a smirk to recreate his successions of yeah’s from Migos’s “Bad and Boujee.”

These are no doubt ugly noises in an empirical sense. No record by, say, Drake or Justin Bieber would leave a blemish like one found in Lil Uzi Vert’s songs. Emotionally wrecked as they may be, they prefer to deliver their inner mess smoothly as they can. But the overall prettiness of the production leaves these records too sanitized and gestures of feelings too engineered in comparison.

“XO Tour Llif3” also went through a re-recording, though fans rejected the new version in favor of the old one. Lil Uzi Vert’s singing sounded too clear. No longer did his voice bleed to obscure his bleak lines. The producers cleaned up the song for accessibility for public consumption via streaming, but the fans instead wanted it as ugly as they first heard it.

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(Essay re-posted from Ryo Miyauchi's ongoing '2017 Favorites' series. Read more here.)

RYO MIYAUCHI