Emo-rap has opened a new emotional space. Ten years ago, attempts to fuse rap and rock were seen as isolated novelty moves, but now they’re everywhere. Critics who panned Lil Wayne’s rock experiment Rebirth (2010) and ridiculed crunkcore groups like 3OH!3 and Brokencyde might be surprised to learn that the same exact synthesis has become hip-hop’s surreal, SoundCloud-inflected future. Be careful who you mock, lest their ghost come back to haunt you.
Trippie Redd’s new Neon Shark might have been hailed as a Rebirth-esque rock move had the Ohio rapper released it as a standalone album. Instead, it’s a deluxe edition: 14 bonus tracks tacked onto his previous album, Pegasus (2020), which was conveniently rereleased as the composite Neon Shark vs. Pegasus. One of the music industry’s more expedient recent practices, deluxe rereleases are designed to artificially manipulate streaming algorithms and Billboard’s chart rules to send the original album rocketing up the charts a second time and nudge it closer to gold or platinum status; they usually consist of leftover throwaways from the original album’s recording sessions.
Redd has already released another augmented version of Pegasus, bundled together with his Halloween-themed Spooky Sounds EP, which is basically a collection of glorified sound effects; minute-long tracks like “Laugh” and “Growl” sound exactly as you’d imagine. Conversely, Neon Shark deserves its own billing. Produced by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, it establishes a totally new distorted rock sound, louder and crunchier than Redd’s previous genre collages. If Redd or his label were concerned about commercial risk, they needn’t have worried. It’s a pop-punk gem.
Redd surfaced as one of many SoundCloud rappers with a predictably eclectic stylistic palette encompassing hardcore rap, emo ballads, and psychedelic haze, with a particular fondness for vulnerable R&B crooning. He moved between modes sequentially rather than blending them, as if looking for a sound he could call his own, and only occasionally did he sound fully committed to a form (“Topanga,” soaring over garrulous piano chords and a chipmunked snippet of gospel singer Maurette Brown Clark’s “It Ain’t Over,” was a delightful single). Pegasus itself was the sort of overlong album designed to rack up streams; constantly changing moods, its 26 meandering songs hardly belonged together except insofar as all were dragged down by the same torpor. The relative tightness and focus of Neon Shark gratifies — he’s found his groove. Perhaps the album’s status as a bonus project relieved some creative pressure on him, and allowed the music to breathe.
The album’s garish electronic colors and evocations of runny eyeliner spring from the rainbow-tinted emo-rap aesthetic defined by Lil Uzi Vert (who has played the deluxe-edition game too), but Uzi has never assembled such a rousing set of power riffs — Neon Shark rocks hard. Driven by Barker’s powerhouse drumming, it flows like a punk album, cresting and exploding over one raucous guitar figure after another. Yet it still feels conversant with hip-hop, thanks to Redd’s signature ad-libs (“Bah!”); so too does his squishy sense of where verses stop and choruses begin follow the conventions of melodic rap.
Redd lets out a considered groan (“Ahhhh!”) after each chorus on the catchily miserable “Swimming,” exhorting the drums and guitars to push even harder; had an emo band released it in 2005, it might have topped every rock chart on the planet. On “It’s Coming,” the guitars work up such a rumbling churn they almost drown him out as he consoles himself in an echoey whisper (“Face your fearssssss”); when he switches to a scream, the tension startles (“Run awaaaaaaay!”).
Redd’s singing embodies his synthesis, combining the garbled, pitch-corrected drawl common among SoundCloud rappers with pop-punk’s characteristically nasal whine. The hybrid voice, consisting of two fused archetypes, sounds eerie, like you’ve heard it before but can’t place where. On “Sea World” he duets with himself, entwining his Auto-Tuned warble around his death growl, as Barker frantically rattles off drumrolls.
Songs as dense as these point to the ultimate futility of disentangling the genre strands. Since rappers (and some rock bands, too) have been blurring these gestures for a decade, sorting songs or even individual instrumental flourishes into separate rap and rock buckets is like engaging in revisionist history. What fascinates about albums like Neon Shark and Machine Gun Kelly’s recent Tickets to My Downfall (a flatter, more one-dimensional pop-punk move, also produced by Barker) is their lens on how rappers conceive of rock, and especially emo, as a vehicle for raw and therapeutic outpouring that sits uneasily with rappers’ typical self-presentation; it’s as if the live drums and electric guitars provide cover for venting feelings their peers might otherwise consider unmanly.
Straightforward rap also abounds with anxiety — about romance, drugs, mental health, existential panic, daily horrors, anything at all — but usually it’s sublimated, concealed by other, boastful speech acts that adhere more strictly to genre conventions. By switching to what they consider an expressionist form, rappers like Redd and Kelly (who contributes several guest verses to Neon Shark) can write about those topics directly. Since emo historically has been a site for self-aggrandizing displays of masculinity as well, the gendered anxiety behind these gestures is particularly salient: on Tickets to My Downfall, Kelly’s macho bluster is hardly more palatable presented as earnestly expressed emotion.
Redd, thankfully, is a gentler goofball. Lyrically, his confessions of dread are so simple they cut deep (“Life’s full of lies, and then you damn die”), and his love songs ache. “Female Shark” glides over a diaphanous, glowing riff, as his voice shudders; when he declares “You’re so emotionless, freaky girl, you show no emotion/and I love you, I can’t denyyyyeyeyeyyyyy,” while nearly lurching into vibrato, it’s almost embarrassing, like you’ve heard something too intimate to share. “Leaders,” the requisite acoustic ballad, plays through a wispy sonic cocoon: while croaking a childhood reminiscence, his voice softens into a warm blur, shimmering in the fading light; you can hear him smile.
As a deluxe add-on, Neon Shark will likely give Pegasus another chart boost while remaining unnoticed itself, thus once more consigning rap-rock to novelty status. The most plaintive moaners moan alone.
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