One thing I find fascinating about hip hop is that it lets you become the biggest musician in the world while releasing basically no music.
Isis Naija Gaston exploded in August 2022 with “Munch”, a 1:44 minute long track. Since then, a year has passed; an eternity in Social Media Time (read Wikipedia’s page of 2022 internet memes and marvel at how they already seem covered in the dust of ages—remember Morbius? The Liz Truss lettuce?). In those fourteen months, hip hop’s hottest new star has managed to release a single EP, titled Like..? It has a runtime of 13:08.
By way of comparison, from August 1968 to August 1969 James Brown released seven studio albums, plus a live album, totaling just under five hours of music. Is that unfair? Yes, but what’s staring me in the face here is that Ice Spice has become the “crown princess of Bronx drill” (Richdork Media’s words, not mine) off the back of less than half an hour of music.
She appears to be speedrunning (slowrunning?) the career of Cardi B, a woman described by Wikipedia as “one of the most commercially successful female rappers of her generation” and whose total recorded output over eight years consists of one album and three mixtapes. You can put a positive spin on this, or a negative spin. The positive: young rappers are at the cutting edge of a changing musical business, embracing a social media-driven world where “albums” and “physical media” are increasingly less relevant.
The negative spin is that maybe music isn’t very important to these people. That they view it as a hook to hang a brand on. Whatever value “Munch” has as a song—with its rapid shuffling hi-hats over deep smears of bass, and Ice’s cotton-batting soft voice—it has far more as a vehicle to get Ice out in the public eye, so we can notice and respond to her swagger, her style, her physicality. Some people want to be celebrity rappers. Others want to be celebrities who are rappers. There’s a big difference.
In How Brands Become Icons, marketing expert Douglas Holt lays out his theory that brands aren’t built on products, they’re built on spectacles. A successful musician doesn’t make good music (lots of people do that and nobody listens to it) but instead transforms their music into something bigger than itself: a splashy, attention-grabbing event. That’s what a lot of rappers amount to. Event merchants. They aspire to create as much hype as possible with as little music as possible. They are tiny pebbles that cause tsunami-like waves.
An “event” can be anything. It might be a hit song. It might also be a feud with another rapper, a shooting, a car accident, an overdose, or a death. Anything that bleeds, anything that makes it impossible to look away. The album cover of We Can’t Be Stopped by The Geto Boys shows rapper Bushwick Bill being wheeled out of hospital (an odd promotional choice: he’d been injured by a firearm while attempting to murder his girlfriend). In his review of 50 Cent’s The Massacre, Alexis Petridis noted that the album seemed to be banking on Fiddy’s reputation for violence. Your success in this game depends on how well you can deliver a drip-feed of exciting “events” to your audience without crossing a line and ending up dead.
And that’s how we get to the situation today: the average rapper’s Wikipedia page has a two line discography and then 3000 words on their Arrests/Legal Issues/Controversies/Sexual Assault Allegations. It’s not that they’re good boys who went down the wrong path. The wrong path was the point. That’s the product we’re paying for: shock and outrage. No beat goes as as hard as a bullet.
But here’s where Ice breaks the mould, because she’s mostly notable for not being controversial in any way. Raised in a comfortable middle-class family, she has no gang affiliations and no criminal record. Maybe this is another sign of hip hop becoming gentrified. More likely, the industry is sick of building up new talent only to have them die face-down in a puddle of Xanax vomit two years later.
Is Like..? any good? Glad you asked. Not really. It’s an EP of songs written around Tiktok and Spotify playlists. Each track is a tiny, self-contained manifesto on who Ice Spice is, demonstrating her strengths and flow. She’s getting paid! Guys are hitting up her ‘Gram! She’s from the Bronx! Each song is a miniature “intro” event, designed to be the first song you’ve ever heard by her.
The trouble is, after 5 or so tracks, we already know who Ice Spice is. We don’t need to meet her, over and over. Ice’s lyrics are limited. We see no signs that she’s a born storyteller, or has a perspective, a sense of humor, or any other quality that might be desirable in a rapper.
If this shit’s drill, I need Novocaine. The constant “Grrah’s!” and “Raggh!’s” get annoying. Nearly every song is produced in the same mannered, sterile way. Indeed, it’s probably smart that Ice hasn’t yet released an album. Her strengths (energy and steel-cool confidence) stop being interesting after a few minutes, and her weaknesses (her voice) become impossible to ignore. Ice’s intonation is petal-soft. As soon as the beat does anything other than “soft bass and hi-hats” she gets stomped to oblivion. The music has to stay kiddie wading pool shallow, or she drowns in it.
I’m old enough to remember arcades. They had games that seemed compulsively addictive, and always left you wanting more…but as soon as you bought them for home console, you were bored of them instantly. Ice Spice seems to be the rap version of that.
In the end, she just feels too well-behaved in the end. Like a rap robot, with some of the mannerisms of the real thing but none of the essence. Not that I like the essence, in any event. I’m probably just not a rap person.
(Also, Like..? sounds like a file designed to annoy Unix sysadmins. You wanna throw some asterisks and slashes in there, too? Maybe a “rm -rf /” while we’re in business?)$i;?>
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