American Rapstar Assessment: SoundCloud Doc Chronicles Hip-Hop’s Rise

Justin Staple’s documentary appears at how the web streaming platform launched the careers of younger, influential hip-hoppers — a lot of whom battle with psychological sickness.

“What younger folks need from popular culture isn’t what outdated folks need from popular culture,” New York Instances pop music critic Jon Caramanica observes in Justin Staple’s documentary “American Rapstar.” The movie charts the rise of a era of lo-fi rappers buoyed by the arrival of on-line streaming platform SoundCloud, based in 2007. Smokepurpp, Lil Xan, and Bhad Bhabie are among the many (dwelling) speaking heads, whereas deceased rappers XXXTentacion and Lil Pepper additionally get a highlight because the characteristic dives into the substance-abuse epidemic plaguing the scene — from popping Xanax to the extra severe, fairly often deadly fentanyl. Director Staple’s movie introduces quite a lot of huge concepts, largely efficiently, from indicting Huge Pharma for encouraging capsule dependancy to the generational divide between the hip-hop artists who got here of age within the early Nineties to at present’s primarily internet-driven base. Whereas a simple documentary within the traditional sense, it’s polished, affecting, professionally edited, and bursting with huge personalities.

Essentially the most outspoken is rapper and web persona Bhad Bhabie (she has greater than 16 million followers on Instagram, even when your mother’s by no means heard of her), who rails towards conformity in some rousing sitdowns, and plainly observes, “This era? All the children are dangerous.” She additionally bashes the widespread pattern of face tattoos which, in keeping with her, all begin to look the identical. She’s additionally candid about her personal experiences with dependancy. Certainly, “American Rapstar” paints an image of a drug-addled universe of youngsters strung out on their telephones and on the lookout for any approach to numb their trauma. That didn’t end up properly for rappers XXXTentacion (one in all Soundcloud’s earliest successes), who was murdered in 2018 after a lifetime of coping with melancholy and household points, and Lil Peep, the Swedish-American rapper who overdosed on his tour bus in 2017. “The place are we going to seek out happiness at?” Bhad Bhabie says at one level. There’s additionally Lexii Alijai, who OD’ed in 2020, and references to Mac Miller, virtually amounting to a pile-up of very unhappy casualties of the trade.

“American Rapstar” takes darkish turns in unspooling their tales (abetted by a fitfully ominous digital rating by Nathan Williams that sounds straight out of a horror thriller) as cautionary tales for the trade at giant. Whereas the movie is hardly a hagiographic puff piece, it’s additionally cautious to emphasise how influential these artists had been and the way iconoclastic of their expletive-filled messaging. (XXXTenacion’s songs dwelled closely on themes of alienation and melancholy.)

“The web has develop into such a fucking poisonous place,” 26-year-old California rapper Lil Xan opines. But it surely additionally enabled artists like him (“I’m the brand new wave,” he says) to flourish. Curiously, for a documentary that takes on SoundCloud, there’s little particular context right here in regards to the platform. It began in 2007 as a approach for artists to add and promote their work in DIY vogue, wresting management of their content material from companies. SoundCloud turns into extra of a well timed backdrop towards which to discover the broader cultural surfacings that occurred amongst hip-hoppers and their followers from the mid-2000s by way of at present.

Towards the tip of the movie, Caramanica gives an intriguing perception into the sort of difficult music the artists are placing out. Too typically, their phrases are written off because the product of a generational malaise — an “oh you children” sort of factor — once we ought to be listening nearer. “You shouldn’t go away your viewers feeling good. They need to be strolling out of the theater scratching their heads a bit and attempting to determine how they’re implicated as properly,” Caramanica says. The identical may very well be mentioned for Staple’s film.

Grade: B

“American Rapstar” is now streaming on Hulu and digital platforms from Utopia.

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