No Reason To Pretend: Afrofuturism Is Alive And Well In Trap Music

Posted by Stephen Kearse on

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No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.

In 1993, writer Mark Dery coined the term afrofuturism to describe art that “addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.” Observing that black art had alternative stories to tell about technology and culture, Dery imagined afrofuturism as a way to assemble those stories and decode them. Part curation, part genealogy, part inquiry, Dery’s afrofuturism was a tool for exploring the relationship between black people and technology, in the present, in the past, and in the future.

In 2013, Martine Syms penned The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto a snarky rebuke of tropes in afrofuturist works. Modeled after The Mundane Manifesto published in 2004 by a group of sci-fi authors, Syms’ manifesto challenged afrofuturism to leave space and aliens and robots alone and come back to Earth. Syms looked out at what afrofuturism had become — a sprawling pantheon of androids, time-traveling slaves, star-crossed Egyptians, and everything else under or beyond the sun — and decided that these stories of aliens and space travel and transcendence were boof. Waving away a century’s worth of art and ideas as “Stupidities,” she called for afrofuturism to take on the humdrum.

Syms’ provocations are too reductive to take seriously — I doubt she set out to be the Tipper Gore of speculative black art. But even if she truly does despise tropes and symbols and conventions that are clearly metaphors for the alienation, desire, anxiety, and wonder that color black life, there’s still a way to take up her challenge without tossing out this rich heritage. It’s called trap music.

Ubiquitous to the point of unrecognizability, trap music is not only mundane, it’s utterly defined by technology, in execution, arrangement, and often distribution. Trap producers build beats from scratch, foregoing samples and session musicians and constructing their songs from splintered sounds sourced from software packages. (Producer collective 808 Mafia is literally named after a drum machine.) Trap rappers spit over and through these uber-digital tapestries in choppy, distorted bursts, contorting their voices to mimic guns, vehicles, cell phones, and other mechanical noises, often creating whole new selves in the process.

Trap music isn’t as discrete as it was 15 years ago, and it has a host of distant cousins (cloud rap, snap) and offshoots (drill, mumble rap) that it has since cannibalized or eclipsed, but the trap always stays booming, retaining the paranoia and trauma that birthed it. “Sometimes I go to Chanel and I sit in that bitch like it’s a trap,” Future raps on “POA.”

Future is probably trap’s biggest ambassador at the moment. Pluto, his debut album, introduced the Atlanta rapper as a charismatic cyborg. Future didn’t just rap with Autotune; he integrated the technology into his being, effecting a robotic drone knowing it would sound even more mechanized when it was mixed. If 808‘s-era Kanye was a sad robot, Future was a sad robot singing sad robot songs (and not always sadly!). He frequently amplified the ruptures in his voice, plunging into them rather than smoothing them over. And as odd as this sounds, the cracks in his voice are some of the album’s most endearing moments (Youtube covers of “Turn on the Lights” really don’t get the beauty of the song). Pluto was layered with allusions to space and astronauts and even ATLiens, but at its core was a desire to become a new person, through love, through drugs, or through sheer ambition.

Future’s recent releases, FUTURE andHNDRXX, are further permutations of these themes. Stripped of the cosmic signifiers and mostly featureless, the albums are lengthy explorations of Future’s past and present. Rapping and singing over glittering, cavernous beats, Future spirals through rage, desire, and guilt. At times his voice is utterly static. “I get idolized by these groupies, I treat ‘em just like they regular,” he deadpans on “Feds Did a Sweep.” Other times, his voices ascends with glee, even when being just as frigid. “I’mma need fresh air,” he croons on “Fresh Air,” turning the dismissal of a lover into a celebration, roused by his own coldness. Future’s relationship to technology is clearly not the the point of his music (except maybe “Stick Talk”), but the way he warps melody into language couldn’t be done without him so willingly becoming a machine. And his music wouldn’t be compelling without that sacrifice stiffening him, cruelly turning his vices and virtues into lifeless procedures.

Chief Keef’s Faustian bargain had better terms. His vocals and arrangements are just as scrambled as Future’s, but he seems to enjoy the ambiguity. His once choppy, anthemic flow has given way to fluid flurries that slither around dense swirls of sounds, largely produced by Keef himself. He spends much of his recent mixtape Two Zero One Seven amused at what he’s become. “Sosa, what’s your goals? I don’t really know,” he sings on “Empty,” tickled by his answer. ”Counting all this money killed the thief in me,” he observes on “Trying Not To Swear.” There’s a sense of dissociation in these songs, but also of satisfaction. Chief Keef spent much of his early career disparaging fame and after being dropped from Interscope in 2014, he really seemed to want to evaporate into anonymity. But he’s found fresh air in the smog of production, using the mutability of sounds to change himself. He had a record deal at 16, but only through producing has he sounded like the curious, tinkering kid he’s always been.

Rap has always been associated with afrofuturism, but writers have tended to dwell on the content or aesthetics of the music rather than its making, recognizing the affinities between The Neptunes, and Star Trek, but not those between Octavia Butler and Young Thug. Or FKA Twigs and Sun Ra. Or Milestone Media and D.R.A.M. Or Samuel Delany and Dr. Octagon. These might seem like pointless juxtapositions, but if the point of afrofuturism, mundane or cosmic, is to connect and hear black voices across space and time, trap music is worth adding to the conversation. It belongs on its own merits, but ultimately it earns it place because of how it refracts older stories into new forms, distilling generations of black hope and black strife into the triumphs and defeats of street life. The cosmos is only as small as you make it.