How Rap’s Class of 2019 Lives and Dies by the Meme

How Rap’s Class of 2019 Lives and Dies by the Meme

In August, the Detroit rapper Teejayx6 made his way to California for his first Los Angeles concert, at Rarehouse. In videos from the event, he lumbers around the stage, head down, clutching his microphone like it was an enemy. But then something bizarre happens: Two burly men in navy jackets reading “U.S. Marshal” stomp onto the stage, speak some stern words to the rapper, then take him into custody. They march Teejayx6 outside to a waiting car and drive off.

Within minutes, footage of the incident hit Instagram and Twitter. And within hours, internet sleuths discovered a website with actors for hire playing police officers, including one who was photographed arresting Teejayx6, making it clear the whole bust was a sham.

And yet everyone got what they wanted, more or less. Fans at the show saw a concert, and also a bit of performance art. Fans on the internet got to solve a mystery. And Teejayx6 took what could have been a small show that left a minimal mark and made it into an event that ricocheted across social media.

In Teejayx6’s relatively rapid rise to internet notoriety over the past few months, he’s made scamming central to his music; his best songs are like “10 Crack Commandments” for online financial crime. But it also manifests in his image: He courts the meme economy assiduously, playing a character in an ongoing social-media drama that’s just as important as his music, probably more so.

The same is true of many of this year’s most important breakout rappers — DaBaby, Blueface, Megan Thee Stallion, NLE Choppa and others — who understand that in an era in which social media and streaming are interwoven amplifiers, playing a character is as important as making great music. Being loved (and sometimes laughed at) on social media — see 6ix9ine, Lil Pump and other anime characters of the SoundCloud era — is just as important as any song. Creating micro-moments that fans can organize around may be the most robust currency of all.

This is true even of the most technically skilled rappers of the current generation, DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion. DaBaby’s impressive new album “Kirk” just debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart. But just a couple of years ago, he appeared at South by Southwest wearing a diaper, planning to go viral. When he performed his breakout hit, “Suge,” at the BET Awards this summer, he appeared onstage in a muscle shirt, looking like a pumped-up Popeye. His compact toughness is a frequent subject of memes: There’s one that likens the shape of his head to a PT Cruiser, another that shows a furiously stomping Topsy Cat and reads “DaBaby on his way to beat somebody” up.

Megan Thee Stallion’s entry into the meme slipstream has been slightly less direct, but no less effective. Her catchphrase “hot girl summer” birthed endless tweets, Instagram captions and memes. And Megan leaned into the phrase, releasing a song with that title in August, and successfully applying for trademark protection for the phrase.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles rapper Blueface helped structure this pathway during the supernova that was “Thotiana,” one of 2019’s biggest yet most evanescent rap songs. As he was becoming a rap star, he was becoming a bigger viral sensation, nailing a few signature gestures — mopping the floor, slicking his eyebrows — that became easy memes. And he’s proven adept at maintaining a spot in the social-media conversation, even if he’s been less present on hip-hop radio, as seen in his recent public discussion about his throuple home life.

And he’s already sprouting influence. You see some of Blueface’s eagerness to entertain in NLE Choppa, whose breakout hit this year was “Shotta Flow.” In the song’s video, Choppa wields an improbably long gun, but he also dances with athletic verve and comic timing. And it’s those sharp-elbowed moves that have become his signature — in one hilarious clip circulating online, he previews music for the legendary music executive Birdman, one of hip-hop’s great stoics, herking and jerking wildly while Birdman maintains a cool distance. Unsurprisingly, the remix of “Shotta Flow” features Blueface. In the video, the two rappers go verse for verse, and dance for dance, each trying to out-GIF the other.

Teejayx6 has said that he, too, has looked to Blueface as an influence, especially in his rapping, which is more spoken than straightforwardly rhythmic. His best songs — “Dark Web,” “Swipe Story” — are like recitations full of hacker-speak and scam lessons: “The government tried to ban me from the dark web/I downloaded Tor browser and got back in/Went and got a VPN, just bought another BIN.”

He’s released three albums this year, and his music is improving. But he’s committed to stirring up online conversation as well. The day after the Los Angeles show, he stuck with the bit, posting a video of himself at a Wells Fargo with the caption “Bonded out back on the same [expletive].” Later, the caption was changed, and then the video was deleted — a cycle that’s become part of his strategy.

In late September, Teejayx6 came to S.O.B.’s for his first concert in New York. It was an unruly, almost reluctant show — brief and appealingly raw. The act of rapping for an audience appeared to irritate him. One member of his crew handed out ski masks to audience members like the one Teejayx6 was wearing so they, too, could become the meme.

The next day, his representative began circulating a #FreeTeejayx6 hashtag, suggesting he’d been arrested. Soon after that, a self-evidently fake mug shot made the rounds, as did a fake New York Times tweet announcing the news of his arrest: “He was caught with $50,000 cash & fraudulent bank checks.”

It was all false, but also plainly entertaining — how many times could someone fake his own arrest before diminishing returns set in? But Teejayx6 may be the ideal rapper for this age of pervasive disinformation, for an era of almost-true and could-be-factual. When you’re never certain what you’re seeing is real, an artist who freely bends and invents the truth feels prescient. And even if you can no longer trust your eyes, you can still trust your ears.

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