Bhad Bhabie is our era’s perfect musical antihero: a teenager forced into the spotlight via memeification and the internet hype machine, learning to rap as a survival mechanism lest she be eaten alive by gatekeepers and trolls. Whether her mixtape, 15, out since September, qualifies as a great album, is questionable. That it captures the ominous mood of our times is undeniable.
Although you’ve probably seen her mocked on various social media platforms, here’s the backstory: Bhad Bhabie, born Danielle Bregoli, is a 15-year-old from South Florida who was interviewed with her mother on the Dr. Phil show episode “I Want to Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried to Frame Me for a Crime.” When the live audience laughed at her, she responded from the stage: “Cash me ousside, how bout dah.” The video immediately went viral on the internet.
After a period of semi-exploitative media coverage (before she was Bhad Bhabie, she was “the Cash Me Outside girl”), she released a song, and why not? “These Heaux,” a menacing trap banger that revealed her ability to rap and her willingness to look ridiculous, marvelously showcases her chirpy singsong flow. The chart success of “These Heaux,” which reached #77 on the Billboard Hot 100, led to a record deal with Atlantic. Thus began her bizarre career as a rapper, provoking the skepticism of genre purists everywhere.
I find the backstory banal; there’s no rule that says you can’t be a real rapper if you’ve already become famous. Shaquille O’Neal and Jaden Smith have recorded good songs, too. And many musicians become stars only by chance. Bhad Bhabie’s music is valuable for documenting the arbitrary nature of celebrity.
Also, she can rap! Her sound is exactly what you’d expect from a 15-year-old white girl: nervous, playful, bratty. Her rapping accentuates the higher, jauntier qualities in her voice, making her sound even younger than 15, like early Rae Sremmurd. On “Gucci Flip Flops” she plays with rhythm and meter, as her bubbly rhymes flow over the space of a line. The minimal simplicity of the drum-clicks and keyboard loops highlight her own liveliness.
Several glittering keyboards intertwine on “Affiliated,” as one hook sets off another and bounces back again in a buoyant call-and-response. She raps with a grin to match the propulsion of the snappy drum machine. “Famous” jitters over plinky electronic xylophones and synthesized flutes, as the bass creaks as if it’s been turned up too loud on the speakers. Bhabie chatters a rapid sequence of brags in which she insists on being taken seriously as an adult — and, by extension, as a rapper (“Wanted me to stay up in a child’s place/but I just put the payment down on my own place”), although her anxiety about being seen as a child lingers.
15 fizzles toward the end. The token singy or “melodic” Ty Dolla $ign feature, “Trust Me,” and the seemingly endless spoken-word track “Bhad Bhabie Story (Outro),” in which she narrates her rise to fame, both feel tacked on: the former a rote sop to commercial necessity, the latter redundant because listeners already know. She should have included “I Got It,” the jumpiest and silliest of her standalone 2017 singles, whose percolating bounce and alternating choruses suggest pop hits in her future. Yet, thanks to a range of star producers like Ronny J and 30 Roc, the skeletal, aggressive beats click into a hypnotic sequence, and the album’s stark consistency does justice to her ringing, eccentric cadence.
There’s a pervading melancholy throughout 15. This is partially a genre convention — simple, midtempo, minor-key synthesizer loops are the foundation of modern trap — but partially a product of her own peculiar situation. She often sounds lonely. For instance, on “No More Love,” whose mournful piano chords cascade down in a teary spiral, she announces, “I got no more no more no more love,” while “I Got It” admits, “Lost a few homies along the way/but I never needed them anyway.”
Lamenting the price of success is also a genre convention in hip-hop, where the competitive nature of the game often breeds paranoia, but it seems different coming from someone who was forced into the spotlight. Although being white likely helped her land the record deal, she is a victim of exploitation — by her mother and Dr. Phil, who brought her on television to mock her, and by the subsequent media coverage that turned her into a punchline. Becoming a rapper comes across as a way of taking control.
Thus, the tendency of megacelebrity rappers to bemoan their own fame is here recontextualized as the product of a more universal anxiety about simply being seen. Given the deadpan, afflectless solemnity of the beats and her own energetic delivery, as if she’s trying to construct cheer as a coping mechanism, 15 plays like a lament. Her music suggests suppressed terror — not just of being watched and evaluated, as celebrities are, but merely of interacting with people, participating in society, getting out of bed in the morning, being an individual who is subjected to community and the outside world.
Adolescents have often made compelling music from similar crises of growth, as have recalcitrant indie-rockers and miserable singer-songwriters. If the weary tone of so much recent trap indicates some larger cultural exhaustion, as critics have suggested of other rappers, from Travis Scott to Post Malone (who has a face tattoo that reads, “always tired”), this correlates with increased technological surveillance and an attention economy that creates and disposes of celebrities/punchlines faster than ever. As the outside world encroaches further and further via social media, so does the public sphere become increasingly threatening. When Bhad Bhabie insists “I ain’t budging, I ain’t changing/it don’t matter that I’m famous,” this is not a boast, but a plea.
If novelty were her only virtue, 15 would still delight, for an album that comprises 15 short, snappy novelty songs is a wondrous thing. But it cuts deeper than that. Bhad Bhabie has so far handled exposure with grace — she’s crafted a bright, hooky, unnerving album that exposes the dilemma of public life. Will she sustain?