Highsnobiety / Rahul Gowthaman

In retrospect, “SoundCloud rap” was never about SoundCloud as a platform. The moniker was a grappling hook; a desperate tag through which critics tried (in vain) to understand the rappers, as disparate and divergent as they were.

Instead, it was about a spirit. The frenzied, snarled sound of a youth who came of age at the convergence of social media, trap, and the return of grunge as a retro influence. Its nucleus was South Florida, but it lived on the internet; its sound characterized by distorted bass, punk abandon, and Percocet-numbed alienation. There were countless influences — Kurt Cobain, foremost, but also self-abasing shock-rocker GG Allin, tripped-out syrup-sippers Three 6 Mafia, rap provocateurs Odd Future, cloud rap free-spirit Lil B, deadpan trap-killer Chief Keef, and many more.

In 2020, SoundCloud rap is dead. The platform still exists, of course, and there are many artists who would call themselves “SoundCloud rappers.” But the spirit, which once felt so potent and intoxicating, has withered. Looking back, we can trace the genre’s viscous, lean-soaked roots; from the first time South Florida’s blown-out bass hit the charts to the melodic trap dominating the radio today. Here are the 15 essential albums of SoundCloud rap.

Denzel Curry – ‘King of the Mischievous South, Vol. 1’ (2012)

If Kurt Cobain was the invisible specter behind SoundCloud rap, then Denzel Curry was his earthly representative. Curry’s second mixtape, released back when he was a member of Raider Klan and under the tutelage of SpaceGhostPurrp, erupts with punk rage. Likewise, his instrumentals — flitting between bombastic and ethereal — predicted both the bass-doom of producers like RonnyJ and the frantic psychedelia of Pi’erre Bourne. He’s the father of SoundCloud rap.

Juice WRLD – ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’ (2018)

Juice WRLD closed one chapter of SoundCloud rap and opened another. Consigning distorted bass and lo-fi production to the past, Goodbye & Good Riddance coats trap with dazzling slickness. Meshing rough-and-tough hi-hats and bass with ecstatic Autotune croons and coruscating synths, this is the ultimate trap-turned-pop album. Juice WRLD whined in the vein of Trippie Redd with song titles like “All Girls Are the Same,” denouncing “hoes” and performing “heartbreak.” Like an anemone, Juice’s ultra-melodic emo-rap spawned clones by the score.

Lil Peep – ‘Hellboy’ (2016)

Taking his cue from the wallowing self-pity of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and subsequent underground rappers like Bones and Black Kray, Peep developed a lo-fi style racked with bars about drug abuse and suicide; the hip-hop equivalent to the tortured adolescent melodrama of emo rock bands like My Chemical Romance. Misery loves company, and before long Peep not only had millions of fans finding solace in his emotional flailing, but he was joined by emergent emo-rappers like Lil Tracy and Lil Xan.

Lil Pump – ‘Lil Pump’ (2017)

Lil Pump’s debut is a thrill ride through the shallow end of SoundCloud rap, replete with mind-numbing choruses and basic club-ready beats built to rile up pre-teens. It’s basically counterculture for Fortnite players, but it’s not bad — Pump successfully distills the mosh pit feeling into a two-minute formula: cuts like “Boss” and “D Rose” hurl you right into a body-slam maelstrom. Sadly, everything the human Doodlebob has made since has failed to live up, sounding less like music and more aural Four Loko.

Lil Uzi Vert – ‘Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World’ (2016)

It’s always been unclear whether Lil Uzi Vert counts as a SoundCloud rapper. Sonically, he sounds much different from everyone else — he can actually rap, has a unique aesthetic, a deft manipulation of Autotune, and a captivating array of electronic-tinged beats. Like Future and Young Thug, Uzi made his voice into an instrument — a mix of seething croons and fiery high notes. Uzi’s first major moment came on this album: “Money Longer,” a bubbling, infectious cut with the bounce of a pogo stick.

Lil Yachty – ‘Lil Boat’ (2016)

Lil Yachty was SoundCloud rap’s first performer with a clear public image: a goofy teen with beads and braids. Consolidating his appeal in one flavorful package, his debut tape gushed with absurd refrains and sprightly beats. It sounded like rap made for little kids — you could mistake cuts like “Minnesota” and “Good Day” for ice cream truck songs. Yachty set the pace for future stars like Lil Pump and 6ix9ine by infantilizing rap and whetting appetites for bizarro personalities.

Playboi Carti – ‘Playboi Carti’ (2017)

Playboi Carti’s debut unfurls like a many-hued, never-ending magic carpet. More about sounds than coherent sentences, the lean-realism of Future circa “Codeine Crazy” and DS2 reaches a dizzy climax here. Verses become word-puddles and slurred ad-libs smear the soundscape. Practically drooling over Pi’erre Bourne’s woozy beats, Carti’s streaks of sound glow like fireworks, scattering in the purple-twilight sky. Fans call his rap-moan style “Cartinese,” because it sounds as if he’s invented a new language, relegating English to the dustbin of history.

Rico Nasty – ‘Sugar Trap 2’ (2017)

You can imagine Rico Nasty as the princess of the shadow realm — soaring in the cotton-candy clouds, twirling an obsidian axe. Anime girl-turned-dominatrix, she made waves as one of the few female stand-outs in a male-dominated scene. She called her sound “sugar trap,” meshing bubblegum pop with trap beats. Sugar Trap 2 came on the heels (the spiky black stilettos!) of four other mixtapes and gave Rico her first hit in “Poppin,” an intoxicating, time-warping banger. Hypnotized by her sparkling, reverb-blurry verses, you feel yourself falling into Rico’s orbit, spinning helplessly around her star.

Ski Mask the Slump God – ‘Drown in Designer’ (2016)

It’s Yung Lean-gone-metal: an absurd parody of street rap and gangsterism. Ski trades gangsta rap’s steely braggadocio for freaky weirdness, like sampling the theme song from the Cartoon Network show The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy for a beat. He raps about everything from Runescape to shooting coke with the same grisly heat. Four years later, this tape sounds as fresh and frenzied as it did then — a wild 20 minutes of brolic hooks and blown-out bass.

Smokepurpp – ‘Deadstar’ (2017)

A manifesto of drugged-up hype, Smokepurpp’s debut is like thrashing in a jacuzzi of sizzurp. Each song hits like an instant high, and the album has enough textures and melodies to keep you sucked into its stupor. Deranged festival bangers like “Audi” rage alongside swirling, kaleidoscopic cuts like “To the Moon” and “Phantom.” Smokepurpp’s psychedelic vocal effects and intoxicating beats make Deadstar one of SoundCloud rap’s finest offerings.

Tay-K – ‘#SantanaWorld (+)’ (2017)

Although nearly every SoundCloud rapper has faced controversy at some point in their career, Tay-K is an exceptional case. His biggest hit, “The Race,” describes how he fled across the country after police arrested him for involvement in a home invasion that left a 21-year-old dead. Ironically, police found him the day after the song dropped, and its music video was used as evidence in his trial. Eventually, he was sentenced to 55 years in jail. Tay-K’s only album is an apt representation of his career: short, intense, and nihilistically violent.

Trippie Redd – ‘A Love Letter To You’ (2017)

Trippie Redd’s emo-rage flair (an unholy marriage of Chief Keef and Fall Out Boy) brought him quick fame. A Love Letter To You is so vicious and violent it sounds more like a hate letter. It thrills listeners with occult disaffection (“Deeply Scarred”), gleeful violence (“Poles 1469”), and spiteful anger (“Love Scars”). Trippie possesses the perfect vocal palette to express his regalia of feelings — a surreal panoply of shouts, howls, cries, and groans. He also looks like a mystical demigod (or perhaps an evil Teletubby), only adding to the allure. The electric energy and freaky versatility of this debut tape makes the case for Trippie as a true genre leader.

XXXTentacion – Revenge (2017)

The lead single “Look at Me!” is arguably the most influential SoundCloud rap song of all time — terrifying and unrestrained, it rattles and surges like a roller coaster whipping through the air. Revenge made XXXTentacion famous and roused a movement in its infancy: ignorant rap. Shunning lyricism and conscious rap, X reveled in hedonism and brisk, angry hooks, reflecting his real-life abusive and violent tendencies. For teens growing up in the age of hyper-slick Drake and pop-rap Macklemore, X’s raw rage and distorted bass offered a raw blast of ugly realness.

Yung Lean – ‘Unknown Death 2002’ (2013)

Ridiculed by hip-hop fans, chided by critics, and made into a meme: Yung Lean heralded the emergence of a new generation, the first of a group of rappers genuinely unconcerned with rap conventions. At 16, he released this masterpiece — a bumbling, surreal trek through the brain of a young Swede. What makes the tape so wild is that he projects no defined identity, just a masterful blend of irony and high seriousness. You can’t tell whether Lean’s obnoxious performances of sadness are honest or conceited, or whether his raps and points of reference (he claims to homage Tupac, for example) are meant in earnest or as a parody. The mixtape’s lo-fi texture, scuzzy beats, soulless tone, and post-2000s video game allusions would all become staples of SoundCloud rap.

6ix9ine – ‘DAY69: Graduation Day’ (2018)

6ix9ine felt like a caricature of a character, too awful to be real. His entire persona — virtually ink-stained from head to foot, hair drenched in rainbow hues, and scream-rapping in every song — was too ridiculous to actually signify “edgy” or seem threatening. Despite the obvious masquerade, pubescents boys fell for it, seduced by the vicarious hypermasculine thrills he offered, like gangbang exploits and, when he ran out of those, live re-enactments of gun fights: “Everybody gettin’ pop, pop, popped, nigga / the thing go ‘rrrah, rrrah, rrrah, rrrah, rrrah.’”

Words by Kieran Press-Reynolds