Fake Wellbeing: The Rise of Easy-listening and Self-help Aesthetics in Popular Rap

Uploaded to YouTube on the 28th January 2011, Lil B aka The Based God lisps out a litany of self help mantras, like a blunted Ice Cube-meets-Tony Robbins polymer, on Motivation, the lead single to his Angels Exodus mixtape. Lurching triumphantly at 88BPM beneath the Based God’s gold grilled sermon is something just as interesting – Clams Casino. Ludicrously warm and satisfying in texture, the beat knocks forward and side to side, the plugins drenching the samples in cavernous effects enveloping the stereo field. The producer deftly poaches from an Amazing Thailand CD, recreating minimalist meditative trances characteristic of South East Asian samples in the style of a formal(ish) rap beat.

It’s important to look at the user reactions to this specific piece to properly contextualise its appeal: the top comment from from JBlizzyfan “5 YEARS LATER STILL LEGENDARY,” the second, from Geovanny Delgadillo reads “Lil B saved me from suicide, I love you based god thank you” and a third from Michael Holt “I Actually Cried To This Song When It Came Out. I Was Going Thru Alot. Now I Have A Wife And Son And A Great Job Providing For Them. Thank You BasedGod.” This YouTube page has become something of a shrine to the positive and therapeutic effects this song has had on its listeners, serving as converts to a self help ideology – for a moment they escaped the oppression, depression and melancholy that was plaguing them.

Following the success of Lil B’ and Clams Casino’s collaborations at the start of the decade, (Motivation, I’m God, Cold War ) the sub-genre of ‘Cloud Rap’ quickly formed, and was eventually absorbed into more mainstream incarnations with producers like Boi-1da, T-Minus and Dave Free. This adoption of ambient features – like the usage of filtering, reverb, delay and side-chaining – became a foundational brick in the compositional consensus of popular rap music in the 2010s. Months after Clams Casino achieved viral attention on YouTube he had half of the credits on A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape, “LiveLoveA$AP,” as well as serving as a clear inspiration for some of the other producers on the tape. Even prior to this release, the influence of Cloud Rap could be heard on singles like ADHD by Kendrick Lamar, a single in which Soundwave refines Clams’ muffled meditations into a smooth and codeinesque radio ready single.

“Hip-hop to me right now is really easy listening. It’s very easy listening, like there’s nothing abrasive about it.” (Pusha T, 2013)

DAWs like Adobe Audition, Garageband and Logic Pro X provide the means to create sensorially engaging music with tools like reverb, echo, digital pedal boards, stereo panning, layering and phasing. Because of the ease with which they can integrate soothing or euphoric sounds into a track, their employment as textural devices in the construction of easy listening and ambient-influenced rap music is something that has become so prevalent in popular music over the past decade that, as Pusha T asserts above, it’s almost a consensus. Mixing has become consensus, modern rap flows are consensus – especially examining the trend that over the last half a decade or so melodic ‘easy listening’ cadences have materialised rather than the traditional dissonant ones.

Versions and concepts of ambient music and marketised background music have existed for a while, most notably as “muzak” or “elevator music”. As J Lanza put it in ‘Elevator Music’: “Psychoanalysts might say that it displaces our attention from music’s manifest content to its more surreal latent content. Hearing it we are inspired to frame an otherwise disordered or boring existence into movie scenes whose accompanying soundtrack alternately follows and anticipates our thoughts and actions – but then shifts with a rhythm and logic indifferent to our own.” It’s clear that this background music affects people’s behaviour in a noticeable way – even in a day-to-day setting Muzak was meant to “help the consumer buy, the patient relax, the worker work; to render the individual an untroublesome social subject. Less critical, less ‘awake.’” While the self-help aesthetic that has developed in popular rap music isn’t as inhumanly inoffensive and conceived of as solely a ‘product’, I would argue that it often has one foot in this territory.

The ambient aesthetics of popular rap work on an ideological and musical level to essentially stabilise the freelancer-friendly neoliberal dystopia we live in. Several studies have shown that ambient and new age music effects relaxation and anxiety in positive ways. For instance, in research conducted by Ulrica Nilsson in regards to whether music reduces anxiety in hospital patients, results showed that across 24 studies, 50% of the interventions significantly reduced anxiety scores and 59% had a pain reducing effect. Other types of ambient music, genres like Muzak – music that was used to “regularize environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies” – and new age – a music is something that has historically caused an increase in relaxation, but a marked decrease in mental clarity – both find their timbres, tones and aesthetics being re-appropriated in much of the popular rap landscape. So rather than contemporary popular music existing as a space which directly challenges political and aesthetic homogeneity, conservatism and stagnation (which it historically has), this cloudy music has become a tool in which allows its listener to reach a heightened sense of relaxation in the midst of political and economic turmoil in the neoliberal era. It helps the subject being oppressed deal with their oppression by diverting their attention from it.

This self-help aesthetic in a lot of cases is solely an auditory phenomena, a deployment of ambient facades for temporary solace, but in many instances there is a lyrical element. The literary motifs often are rooted in the basis of individual conquest with an entrepreneurial attitude. “I’m going to break every box they try to put me in,’ raps Nav on his viral Soundcloud single Myself , a song which follows the self-help aesthetic to the logical end – providing lush soundscapes while also fetishing the individual. “All I want is Money and the Power – fuck Respect I don’t need it.” This really exemplifies how this aesthetic has been informed by a radical individualism, a cultural phenomena prevalent within the neoliberal space – particularly reflectant on the social media spaces the public inhabits. This idea that we are in control of our destinies and can become millionaires if we just are focused enough is something that has been called Magical Voluntarism by psychotherapist David Smail, the idea that “we’re all free, we can make ourselves anything we want to be – which we know isn’t true – is the flipside of we don’t have any choice but to adjust to neoliberal reality, the only reality.”

It’s interesting that Nav points out that he can do without the ‘respect’ – this amplifies the disengagement of individuals with wider communities. The idea of respect is something that (usually) doesn’t result in monetary reward so – what’s its use – who needs that? – That’s not efficient. I also think it’s apt that the song tries to capture the feeling of drug use and drug addiction through its timbre and lyrics, “When I’m sober I just don’t like who I am,” when this type of music in itself promotes a light addiction to the self-help aesthetic in order to be able navigate through late stage capitalism as a disenfranchised millennial. The song provides the listener with a mirage, this music is pleasing and soft, and soon I will also attain money and power, I just need to struggle a little bit longer . This psychology is welcomed and upheld because it’s good for business, because it motivates those that are disenfranchised by poverty to act as though their prize for their work is immanent. I mean, what other choice do they have? Being opposed to the system could potentially take more mental and physical energy than just accepting a business ontology and all the good music that comes with it.

Self-help literature is a $10 billion dollar industry, complete with a cohort of motivational hustlers making their way into celebrity status, famous on the basis alone that they can make a lot of money. Its recurrence in the lyrical notions of popular music and in the book industry could potentially also be that bibliotherapy and musical therapy are cheaper than seeing your local psychiatrist, and quicker than waiting months for a face to face appointment on the NHS. And while this idea of self-help in rap music is something that has been prevalent for a long time (think Get Rich or Die Tryin, Thug Motivation etc) but it’s not until recently it became so relentless in its evangelism. I think the reasons for this are to due with the neoliberal organisation of work and the relentlessness of the internet matrix, inducing a cultural content nausea and feeling of a constant work-life presence.

In 2014, JD Taylor’s ‘Anxiety Machines’ explained that “47% of teenagers owned a smartphone, and of these, 60% felt ‘addicted’. The cyber-environment that never switches off has intensified labour into a continual ‘timeless activity.’” This sort of ‘never off,’ living condition sort of feeds into the idea that we should be savvy technological entrepreneurs, even against our will. It should also be noted that mental health issues are positively correlated with the rise of social inequality. This, I think, is one of the foundational reasons for the rise of the self-help aesthetic. Since the Great Recession I have become more aware of the prevalence of mental health issues and how common they have become – and not all of this can be put down to young people’s greater willingness to open up about it. A 2011 study showed that “mental illness was more common among college students that it was a decade ago. ” The results of another study showed that “From 2008, there was a clear deterioration in the mental health, especially among men. Neither changes in employment status nor social class accounted for these changes. In women, poor mental health significantly increased among the unemployed. Students were also especially affected. ” It was in the wake of the Recession that I first became aware of the usage of ambient music being used in rap music – and I’m not convinced that’s a coincidence.

I do love cloud rap, but I’m conscious of the need to remind myself that this cultural softening has stemmed from something more serious. In no way am I advocating boycotting the incredible music that this climate has produced – I’m just worried that it’s working so well as a mood enhancer that we’re losing sight of what it’s helping us to survive.

*This article is adapted from a longer essay “Fake Wellbeing: The Rise of Easy-listening and Self-help Aesthetics in Popular Rap as a Response to Neo-liberal Stressors” (Chatha, 2017)*

Words by Symrun Chatha of Plush Media and Red Haus Books

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