When Will Lil Tracy Break Out Of SoundCloud Purgatory?
Making the jump from URL to IRL
Here’s a 2017 rap dilemma: You do big numbers on SoundCloud and Instagram, look like a model, and set trends with your songs and your fashion—trends that ripple all the way to the mainstream. But it’s hard to turn your influence into checks.
“It’s like a weird purgatory,” says Lil Tracy outside his show at the Studio at Webster Hall, locating his place in the rap universe. “You’re big, but…”
Tracy has been pushing music forward since he was 15 (he’s 21 now), exploring new melodic worlds as a producer, rapper, and singer. While his style only partly conforms to genre conventions, he has become a leader in the Gen Z category of “SoundCloud rap,” and his nonmusical activities have increased his visibility. His savvy but flagrant social media presence includes iconic fit pics (Ed Hardy + bondage pants is a good one; poncho + sword is probably the GOAT).
Then there was the ill-advised beef with Lil Yachty on Twitter and Instagram (Yachty did bite his style, but so what?), and an out-of-nowhere spat with David Duke, formerly of the KKK—who objected to a pic of Tracy and Famous Dex because it offended his racism.
Interesting what FaceBook deems appropriate, up to (((their))) standards – and then, what they don’t.
Her parents failed, miserably. pic.twitter.com/lz4Lc7Fy96
— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) March 16, 2017
Too bad for David Duke that Tracy plays very well with young white people. He recently teased a song with viral sensation Matt Ox.
Tracy’s dad—Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces—just put out an album heavily criticizing social media culture. When I talked to Ish about that, he said social media rewards rappers portraying themselves in a gonzo manner. And while drama captivates an audience, the audience doesn’t care about the actual well-being of the person connected to the account. Ish is 48 years old, in a good position to make that analysis. Tracy says he’s in control though:
“I can walk away whenever I want.”
Right now he’s in career purgatory, but it’s a rock star purgatory. At Webster Hall he hits the stage with energy immediately at 10. He comes out to the trap ballad “Vampire in the Moonlight Countin Money Up” and kids stage-dive within minutes. Everyone moshes hard to “Hennessey,” and sways and shouts to “Witchblades” with Lil Peep:
“When I was in high school / I was a loner / I was a reject / I was a poser / multiple personalities / I’m bipolar.”
Somehow Tracy has made this his rallying cry as he attempts to make the jump from URL to IRL. His music is known for being emotional and gothic, freely swinging between intense feelings and sounds. While it’s a small show, the feeling is like an arena rock concert condensed onto the head of a pin, a 30-minute set with 30 different moods.
When Tracy was in high school, he bounced between his parents—he stayed with his dad in Seattle but mostly lived with his mom, Coko Clemons from SWV, in Virginia. You’d think music legends in the family would be an advantage, but he never shared his music with his mom or dad. He’s a fan of them as artists: he says he loves early Digable and cries every time he hears his mother sing. These days Tracy and Ish are even talking about making a song together. But for whatever reason as a teenager, he cut himself off.
“I was getting into trouble. My mom was like, ‘I’m gonna send you [from Virginia] out to where your dad’s at [in Seattle].’ But I’ve been homeless since I was 17. By choice, you feel me? My mom was mad. When I moved to L.A. she didn’t even know. But it worked out though.”
Before L.A. he was making unsung heat in Seattle—peep the genius ballad “Emocean,” recorded when he was 16, and mescaline-fueled “Neurotic,” the first song ever made by the rising producer Fish Narc. His group Thraxx House (named for the Lil B album I’m Thraxx) then moved to L.A. and merged with/developed into Gothboiclique. Tracy eventually made the slow burners with Lil Peep that made them both famous.
Tracy’s songs with Peep are anthems with millions of streams. Where a lot of artists in SoundCloud rap sound the same (lo-fi Auto-Tuned trap), GBC stands out with its authentic rock aspect. Tracy and Peep especially carved out a real sound as a duo, with melodic chemistry and shared taste for dark pop, yielding lullabyes, chants, and incantations that are catchy and affecting. Songs like “Cobain” and “Walk Away as the Door Slams” are undeniable. “Witchblades” from Castles II is pure GBC elegance, a very unique sound. When’s the last time music sounded truly new to you?
While he builds out his personas on the internet, (Yung Bruh, Lil Tracy, and Souljawitch all have distinct talents), crazily Tracy has no phone and no computer at the moment. He borrows friends’ devices and sometimes uses Twitter to sell $50 reposts on his SoundCloud profile—that most new-school of rap hustles—out of “a kind of desperation,” he says. And yet, this is a successful time. He’s in a position most of these rappers would kill to be in, collaborating Trippie Redd, Famous Dex, Uno the Activist, Fauni, Matt Ox…and he could probably also holler at Yung Bruh’s hero Balam Acab if he wanted to.
Music is a collapsed industry now, but if we were living in the ’90s back when his parents were in the limelight, Tracy would be balling out of control.
His ambition at the moment is “to keep pressing the line, make people catch up.” And his plan for that is to introduce the next chapter in GBC’s rap-rock saga, a project with Gab3 and Fish Narc that will be “real pop-punk, Sum 41 shit.” From early listens the music is outstanding and may be accessible enough to cross him over to the mainstream.
In the meantime, it’s another day as a successful SoundCloud rapper, a totally independent artist, walking the razor’s edge.