Bali Baby’s latest mixtape demonstrates the aesthetic virtues of compression. As a spiky, multivalent contraption disguised as a tossed-off miniature, an epic breakup saga disguised as a genre exercise, the Atlanta rapper’s Baylor Swift, out since May, qualifies as several genre exercises folded into one. Rooted in the minimalist trap for which she first became known, it’s also a glitzy synthpop move, and an emo-punk move — a street rap record suffused with gleaming keyboard hooks and whiny, balladic choruses. These many conflicting elements aren’t combined into a unified synthesis so much as shoved frantically and impractically into the same limited space, made to cohabit by brute force; the resulting density is explosive. What the disparate ingredients share is emotional immediacy.
Bali Baby is still a relative newcomer in the rap game, releasing a reliably constant outpouring of mixtapes since 2016. Should she return to conventional Atlanta rap after her foray into rock, I doubt rap fans will complain — her straightforward rap songs are exactly as defiant and surreal as her genre amalgamations, embodying the same capricious attitude within trap’s sparer formal template. Her breakthrough mixtape, Bali’s Play 2 (2017), incarnates the title perfectly, as she snarls and giggles over a consistent set of jumpy snare drums and keyboard loops.
That record’s “Pretty,” bouncing nimbly atop ringing keyboard bells and buzzy drone, condenses a whole mixtape’s worth of abrupt shifts and funny impressions into two masterfully performed minutes. Her flow sputters and staggers, simultaneously energetic and hypnotic. Toward the end she impersonates a host’s introductions (“We’re going to welcome out Bali Baby, the number one female rapper in Atlanta”), and then an excitable fan’s valley-girl squeal (“Oh my god, it’s Bali, oh my god I love her”), before resuming in her own voice. The song’s magnificence lies in her tone — how smugly delighted with herself she is. She can sneer and it sounds like a smile.
That the mixtape remains somewhat uneven is no surprise, for moments of such total, conceited transcendence are rare even for performers as ebullient as Bali (especially when minimalist genre convention ensures a certain terse impassivity). Baylor Swift takes the same confidence into a more experimental realm. Initially, the record feels comparably slight, its eight songs lasting just under half an hour and playfully flitting by. After three listens, these songs assume dimensions broader than the format would suggest, while remaining as sharply tight and efficient as ever.
Baylor Swift will aptly garner comparisons not just to so-called SoundCloud rap’s current tendencies toward emo confessional, but to Lil Wayne’s misbegotten rock exercise Rebirth (2010). In keeping with SoundCloud rap’s pervasive aesthetic, Baylor Swift’s stylistic scramble declines commercial polish in favor of rap as junkyard, as creaky and fragile as a lo-fi demo, aiming to simulate recording in a home basement with pipes leaking and paint peeling from the ceiling. Even the synthpop hooks seem flecked with dust, chiming mechanically behind several layers of distortion.
More relevantly, Bali’s choice of the emo genre for a suite of breakup songs is consistent with just how many rappers — including Wayne, as well as Lil Uzi Vert, Ski Mask the Slump God, the departed Lil Peep, and others — have turned to “rock” as a mode more compatible with vulnerability than the surface toughness of rap. A generation of radio listeners in the mid-2000s, when “screamo” peaked and Linkin Park’s rap-metal saturated the airwaves, has learned to regard such music as the natural vehicle for expressing misery, depression, existential horror, emotional gush.
Many rappers who partake in this mode have also indulged in torpor and a sodden inertia. Baylor Swift’s synthpop side, while exploiting that genres as a channel for longing and intimacy, ensures upbeat energy and a sticky plastic surface; the title alone marks Baylor Swift as an arch pop move while signaling Bali’s embrace of the diaristic. Moreover, unlike the majority of rap albums incorporating rock, it rocks. Without the benefit of power riffs or epic solos, the catchy song structures and distorted, angular bits of guitar generate nasty propulsion. These tracks are the densest I’ve heard all year, choked with sonic ingredients.
“Tough” cruises assuredly, grounded in the contrast between echoey electronic bells and giant blasts of synth bass, as Bali’s looped vocal cackle mocks her in the background. “Backseat” is a compendium of abrasive, constantly moving electric gears, hissing and squeaking, always threatening to malfunction or combust — warped guitars, random shrieks and squawks, bleepy synthesizers scraped against a chalkboard. Whenever she gets a handle on something, the beat goes squelch and sends her reeling.
Bali demonstrates that abrasion and vulnerability are not opposites. If the record sounds chaotic, it’s a reflection of her feelings. The rickety instability of this music is riveting; it keeps you always on your toes, listening as things fall apart and — miraculously, against all odds — come back together. “Candy” starts as a chirpy ditty (“What to do, what to do when you’re in love?”), cooed over percussive pitter-patter and bouncy xylophone, before lurching hard into a dirtier, more whomping rock beat. Bali zigzags abruptly between matched bubblegum and distorto-electronica sections, and the initially sweet hook has morphed into a sharper, splotchier thing by the song’s end.
Such is Bali’s formal strategy: throughout the record, she regularly goes for the scratchiest textures, the whiniest tones, the most irritating noises. From the metallic drums, to the synthesizers focused into sharp points, to her own voice and the way she cultivates an exaggerated nasality, everything sounds out of tune, flattened into harshness. Rock defiance is one natural effect; another is that this coarse music, attuned to pain as well as elation, portrays her bleeding heart in unusually vivid colors.
“Electrical” is a plaintive new wave ballad, the record’s centerpiece, a vented confession of love and confusion. Every section builds melodically on the next, including the rapped middle verse, hitting a peak of agony in the bridge (“Electrical/ when I’m with you/ but now I know/ that I gotta go”) before settling back down to a more moderate level of dejected longing. It would have massive teen-throb potential if Bali didn’t perform it so abrasively, yet that’s exactly why the song resonates: the gravelly rhythm guitar, the shrieking, high-pitched keyboards, the individual words highlighted by her nasal sneer (“pedal”), all scratch the ears, and hence open them up.
The next three songs help her regain her footing in the real world, and by the closer, “Killer,” she’s again confident enough to deliver a feisty manifesto, but she remains shaken in the aftermath of her deep plunge into desperation. She opens several songs with her trademark sound effect, a reproduced kissy noise meant to represent feminine sass and poise. It also signals that she’s going to be singing about intimacy.
Baylor Swift is a triumph of pop hybridization and simulated expressionist outpouring, of runny eyeliner and joyful wail, a breakup song cycle that primarily demonstrates Bali’s versatility as a performer. In her her melodic sweetness, her fusion of distorted guitars and distorted feelings, her compulsion to fashion new sonic shapes out of recombined materials, her insistence on play, she’s brought together ache and sneer, defiance and insecurity, mess and stylization. The year’s most aching rock album is, weirdly, also the most inventive rap album. Feelings are electric.