Last year the self-professed “communist farmer” and “saxophone kisser” known as Oedipus uploaded a song to SoundCloud, the artist-first music streaming platform that
launched in 2008. Titled “Please B Okay,” it was a bright, horn-driven melody that sampled vocals from Japanese soul-pop singer Taeko Ohnuki’s 1977 album Sunshower. I first came across the song because I’d been having an atypically unfavorable week and a friend messaged it with the hope of it being a momentary cure-all. “This instantly makes me feel better,” she said. Looking back, her remark shouldn’t have been a surprise: Oedipus had tagged the two-minute track as “selfcarecore”—a sure nod to its calming, feel-good properties.
By conventional industry standards, selfcarecore is not an established music genre, but it carries significance just the same. On SoundCloud, genres thrive on amorphism, defined more by a song’s uncompromising sentiment—rage, anxiety, body-rolling euphoria—than the pulse of the beat or musical composition. (A casual listener might be inclined to label “Please B Okay” as simply house music.) This has given the Berlin-based platform a unique advantage not just in breaking unknown talent but in becoming a breeding ground for experimental sounds.
A cursory scan of the streaming service reveals a deluge of genres: from kawaii trap and Nu Soul to
swooz, broken beat, and
stresswave. There are also artists like Sugg Savage, an ascendant Maryland newcomer who’s creating some of the best music of the moment and has become something of a Picasso in this regard: She’s mothered genres as disparate as lowkey gospel (“Let’z”), spirit bounce (“Funk Bounce”), midnight boogie (“Party Dawg”), and bleep bloop blop pop (“Fill In The Blank”). Collectively, her songs could fit somewhere within the expanse of R&B, but a truer estimation of her work shows how each song belongs to a singular classification. “Let’z” draws from a multitude of sources—a Motown-soul-meets-Chicago-juke jambalaya of sonic bliss—but its core is imbued with the essence of gospel music: uplift, faith, a dogged optimism. “You better know he’s got a plan for you,” she croons just before the song’s conclusion, a sweetly sung aphorism that could just as easily have been pulled from the Bible. Hence: lowkey.
In early July, SoundCloud was reported to be on its last leg, having laid off 40 percent of its workforce in a move that, at best, felt reasonably apocalyptic. But cofounder Alexander Ljung remained confident, saying the digital music service, which had hoisted cultural forces like Chance the Rapper and Lorde to national audiences, was still solvent. SoundCloud was “completely unique,” he said. “You can can find artists there that don’t exist anywhere else. Many are the next ones to accept Grammys. There is tremendous financial and cultural impact on SoundCloud. It will stay strong.”
There was a sound for everybody. Stresswave not your thing? Try Chillwave. Or Funk Wave. Or Future Wave.
In spite of the company’s nebulous future, Ljung was right about one thing. The platform is an utterly one-of-a-kind domain. If SoundCloud set out to build a business model on community-oriented music streaming for DJs, musicians, nascent podcasters, and mixed-media artists, it soon reflected that plurality in every regard, a network whose parameters seemed borderless. There was a sound for everybody. Stresswave not your thing? Try chillwave. Or funk wave. Or future wave. You would be hard-pressed to find a platform that has allowed for organic discovery as seamlessly as SoundCloud. A handful of my current favorite artists—Nick Hakim, Kwabs, Sonder, and Kaytranada, whose novel flip of Janet Jackson’s enduring ballad “If” I still spin weekly—I first came across on the platform.
In time, too, the service fulfilled its own pledge, becoming a genre itself: SoundCloud rap, or what The New York Times recently deemed “the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip-hop thanks to rebellious music, volcanic energy and occasional acts of malevolence.” It’s a sound predicated on dissonance that prioritizes “abandon over structure, rawness over dexterity” and has been adopted by a crop of Florida upstarts, including Smokepurpp and Lil Pump, whose track “Molly” was one of the highest-played on the platform this month.
Like Chance the Rapper and Lorde before him, the Philadelphia-born rager Lil Uzi Vert parlayed his titanic success on SoundCloud—the company anointed him their most followed artist of 2016—into mainstream sustainability, a major-label deal, and a headlining tour. I shadowed Uzi for a day last summer, from the edges of New Jersey into the heart of the Lower Manhattan, just moments before he took the stage for a sold-out show. He’s been compared to Young Thug and Lil Yachty, rap eccentrics who have come to define a nontraditional hip hop sound. Currently, Uzi’s “XO Tour Llif3” ranks as the fourth most-played song for the final week of July—coasting just above 1.4 million listens in the span of seven days. It’s a hazy melody about suicide, substance abuse, and his rocky relationship with his ex-girlfriend. But it’s not rap. Not really. On his SoundCloud page, Uzi tagged the song “alternative rock.”