Hip-Hop Impressionists Shaping the Stream

Posted May 9, 2018 7:33 p.m. EDT

Remember the album? There once was a time when it had reliable structure and meaning: a collection of songs with a narrative arc, or a set of tracks that showed an artist attempting a range of themes and styles. A summation statement. The endpoint of a sometimes arduous climb toward self-realization.

That was before streaming, though, back when the album was the dominant consumption unit, with players — turntable, Walkman, Discman and so on — to match. The album’s primacy was in trouble as soon as iTunes and the iPod encouraged shuffling. In the current music economy, in which Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming ecosystems set the terms, it has become, as a structural concept, largely meaningless.

In hip-hop, especially, an album is now a data set — bytes first, music second. Not a complete, stand-alone journey with beginning and end, but a sort of formless middle, designed to lull listeners into slumber and trap them there, in hopes that they might never press stop.

Post Malone and Rae Sremmurd were made for this era, or by it — it’s tough to know which came first. Their recent albums — “Beerbongs & Bentleys” is Post Malone’s second, and the triple album “Sr3mm” is Rae Sremmurd’s third — are expertly designed for maximum absorption. These albums are category killers — it’s hard for other artists, or genres, to even compete. “Beerbongs & Bentleys” (Republic Records) just made its debut on the Billboard album chart at No. 1 with 431 million first-week streams, the most ever. “Sr3mm” (Eardruma), which was released last Friday, is certain to have a huge opening tally as well.

Call this hip-hop’s impressionist era, when rapping is really singing and singing is really smearing. Post Malone has been the king of this moment since his 2015 debut single “White Iverson,” a primal wail from the bottom of the seas.

“Stoney,” his 2016 debut album, was successful, but almost too distinct. Post Malone operates at the intersection of hip-hop, rock, soul, even a little country — on “Stoney,” he was making a bid for musical seriousness.

“Beerbongs & Bentleys” skips that altogether. It is a submerged — and submersive — listening experience. Strong, but rarely in a thrilling way. As a vocalist, Post Malone excels in syllables with blurry edges and tightly controlled melodies that lull. Just as one syllable decays, the next begins. He is perpetually narcotized, endlessly plaintive, borderline disoriented.

This melancholia is the new dream-pop, and Post Malone has found like-minded musical collaborators — Louis Bell foremost among them, and also Frank Dukes, who offers a more nuanced take on the sound — partial to gloomy tempos and synths that seep into every available corner of a track. At times, the thickness of the production approximates the tricks of new age music, sounds that encourage a kind of hypnosis.

Hip-hop has been moving in this direction for the last few years, from Future’s purple opiate haze to Travis Scott’s head-in-the clouds bleats — styles that lend themselves easily to ambient bliss. They’re ideal for streaming services, and the playlists that anchor them, which depend on consumption that doesn’t rely on a beginning or an end. That is part of the reason there has been a slow creep in certain corners of hip-hop toward longer albums. And it is at least part of the reason “Sr3mm” arrives as it does — as a set of three albums, one for the duo and one for each of its members, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi. (It is, however, shorter than the ne plus ultra of peak-CD-era bloat, Eightball’s three-disc “Lost.”)

Like Post Malone, Rae Sremmurd deploys a set of hypnotic strategies — stacked vocals for thickness, arrangements that drag at the edges. On “Perplexing Pegasus,” even alliteration is retrofitted into lullaby. Unlike the tragic-catatonic Post Malone, Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee can be a disarmingly sweet singer. His voice is chirpy-thin, making his stories of debauched after-hours excess sound like child’s play.

Unsurprisingly, his solo album here, called “Swaecation,” is the most liquid, the most soft-focus of the three. (The duo album is a close second.) At times it verges on the quiet-storm R&B of the early 1980s, though he is far more flexible with tempos than Post Malone, and sometimes veers toward ecstatic 1980s synth-pop. By contrast, Slim Jxmmi’s solo album, “Jxmtro,” is a more conventional contemporary hip-hop album, buoyant and loose.

“Sr3mm” is long, but listening to it in one sitting, on its own, from top to bottom, is not how it’s truly designed to be engaged with. It will be carved up and parceled out, used as chum for various playlists. (With its breadth and length, it is itself a kind of playlist already.)

In this world, album releases are just pretenses — or more to the point, album releases are what’s required for the fulfillment of record company obligations. But as they lose their centrality, so do the artists themselves, who now exist in service of a greater vibe. There are rewards for this, of course — the Billboard chart has rightly evolved to better reflect how crucial streaming has become as a delivery mechanism. But success on the Billboard album chart has become less an indicator of album sales than of how effectively data travels — do the songs bleed into each other, obscuring obvious pause points? Are the songs easily ingestible into the sorts of playlists that are central to the dominance of streaming services?

Disruption is no longer prized, which is to say, personality isn’t much prized either. What that makes for is not a generation of stars you’ll always remember, but a moment that will last until it evaporates, maybe taking everyone with it.