Cloud rap feels like a crossroads, not so much in hip-hop itself as in hip-hop listenerdom. Scalar art criticism’s had its atomists at least since evaluation and archival became a private and vaguely autistic affair — the lyric vibe versus the ‘music’ vibe, overlapping but fundamentally occupying different ‘wavelengths,’ is somehow more intuitive and, perhaps correspondingly, more dangerous. Personally, I think this convenient parse can account for the overwhelming selection of Bob Dylan books in the music section at my local bookstore. Words last, we’re told. And cloud rap tempts us to decontextualize words because they actually sound decontextualized. I suspect that, for many, this leads to visceral enjoyment on the sonic level AND/OR cerebral enjoyment on the linguistic level. Like the Girl Talk-era mashup, cloud rap’s schism opens up entry points and, as such, appears to be win-win. But as Kelefa Sanneh suggests in his excellent review of Jay-Z’s Decoded, rap will never be ‘poetry’ in this cloud-shrouded ivory tower sense, because its words can’t be separated from their utterances. Rap can never be static; it can never ‘float.’ Which brings me to the other, knottier stance on cloud rap: that there’s always already a zero-sum unity to it, that Lil B’s stream-of-conscious or diary-like documentation and a fucking Goo Goo Dolls song smelted to soulful divinity can only go celestial hand-in-hand.
Even SpaceGhostPurrp’s narcotic rasp doesn’t really evoke him, Lil B, and the taut polarity of “I Hate Myself,” in particular, still provide Purrp’s debut with an interesting lens. Over a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois had already encapsulated the structural tensions and dissonances of black identity with the phrase ‘double consciousness;’ more recently, TMT’s Ajitpaul Mangat argued that hip-hop’s Swag Generation embodied uncertainty and artistic/identical process, problematizing the monolithic foundations of what it means to keep it ‘real’ in hip-hop. These issues wrestle well in zero gravity. So it would be off-Based (pardon) to accuse Purrp of contradicting himself on “Mystikal Maze” (“I hate this fuckin world/ Y’all can suck my dick” mere seconds from “Don’t accuse me to be a nigga who hate/ I always show love from city to state”) because certainty is for poems on a page or the sure-footed boom-bap of yore, not for beats that sound like drumming fingers and lo-bit shrieks garbled to an oblivion without prettiness/ugliness or happiness/fear. In “Osiris of the East,” Purrp navigates his fractured identity nimbly, darting through the track’s glorious negative space: he’s “living like a slave now,” then “living like a squirrel now,” then “living like a slut now.” It’s telling that the song’s conviction is built largely around the word “now;” Purrp is in constant chameleonic flux, but the “now” is certain.
“Osiris” is paradoxical, an integrated statement on the fragmentation of self and as such manages to balance detachment and urgency. Thing is, a lot of the album makes it easy to suspect that being fractured doesn’t sit so well with SpaceGhostPurrp. When he alludes to unconditional love or spouts, “Stay true to yourself, love yourself […] and you will be your own God/ And the universe will make your life better” (“The Black God”), his eyes are flashing in the direction of The Based God, but while Lil B uses his ever-lifting samples as a sort of metaphor for an expanding and ever-rising worldview, SpaceGhostPurrp’s cloud rap takes the sinister edge of the genre explored by L.W.H. on last year’s excellent Tape Hiss Hooligan another step towards the utter clamminess of Danny Brown’s XXX and Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin. “Suck A Dick 2012” is a disembodied affair, skin-crawling alien lab sonics, and even with the (backward, if you think about it) recordings of cunnilingus throughout, it is neither sexy nor triumphant in even a problematic/chauvinistic way. On “Danger,” the title screams through a Leslie speaker siren while Purrp is trying to get his mack on. The effect is a bit like witnessing vice through the warped candid camera of Purrp’s own superego. Far from providing buoyancy to Purrp when he’s drawing from classic rap braggadocio, the sonics complicate the hell out of his words.
The result is that Mysterious Phonk feels extremely private in ways that are powerful but not entirely sorted out yet. Purrp finds numerous occasions to talk about smiling in the face of a cold world, but even a facetious smirk never really cracks, and the world is cold in only the most brightly-lit, fantastical, and dystopic ways. He also has the spiderlike tendency (“Bringing the Phonk,” “Get Yah head Bust,” “No Evidence,” “Elevate”) to spin recursive phrases around the listener, a sort of minimalism that seals you in his brain without that sense of the utterance’s/moment’s immediacy that seems central to hip-hop. “Bringing the Phonk’s” incantation corresponds to the album title: the more Purrp repeats “Imma keep bringin tha phonk/ Imma keep bringin tha phonk/ And you niggas can’t stop me,” the more cryptic it becomes, the further “phonk” gets from whatever referent we had for “funk,” and the less anyone has any sense of how to stop him. And this is how he reinvents cloud rap’s sense of uplift: he “stay[s] to [him]self/ because [he] always must elevate;” he promises, “All I know is real shit, and I cannot lie,” but, like, there’s “no evidence” one way or the other. By design! Because “real shit” in hip-hop is now less concrete than ever. At worst, SpaceGhostPurrp could be accused of being too watchful, too aware of his options as a young hip-hop musician — and, arguably, a black youth — to really proselytize. But the friction, contradiction, and mystique at the core of Mysterious Phonk tells all: by chronicling his shifting allegiances to many Gods, Purrp becomes — or will always be in the process of becoming — his own.