Baby Voice, Deterritorialization, Masculinity

[O]nly through their encounter in a place, and their conjunction in a space that takes time, do decoded flows constitute a desire – a desire that, instead of just dreaming or lacking it, actually produces a desiring-machine that is at the same time social and technical. (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus)

Last month, Genius uploaded a video titled “A Linguist Breaks Down Playboi Carti’s Baby Voice”, in reference to a popular vocal technique used by the rapper in a string of recent hits. Highlights include guest appearances on Solange’s “Almeda” and Tyler, the Creator’s “EARFQUAKE”, as well as Carti’s own “Flatbed Freestyle” from last year’s Die Lit album. (Complex also have a more detailed timeline here.) For a musical genre where the performer’s voice is their main tool of distinction, innovation is not uncommon – nor, for that matter, is novelty, especially in saturated, memetic, and personality-driven times such as these. But the baby voice has perhaps caught the imagination more than anything in the genre in recent memory, and has spun off into a meme culture or order of signs all of its own (Cartinese).

In the video, Dr. Sharese King (University of Chicago) identifies one or two components of the baby voice: the reduction of consonant clusters and the adoption of different personas. These aren’t Carti’s unique innovations, however. The baby voice, as a “semiotic resource”, is a fully realised example of a new kind of toughness or aggression, based on a confidence in pulling away from obvious and overused signifiers. King: “If I’m a tough rapper, I’m not using a deep voice anymore to do it. I’m gonna use this kind of voice – this baby voice, it totally redefines the landscape for what hip hop looks like”.

In some ways that aren’t immediately obvious, rap in 2019 is in an even more aggressive place than 10 years ago. The cartoonish exuberance of a hit like Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint” has somewhat fallen away in favour of a mellower, less pronounced, and melodic style of cloud rap reflective of an ever more interconnected digital age. I say “somewhat”, because it’s interesting to note what has changed, and what has stayed the same. Atlanta-born trap has for some time become the dominant rap style – productions that are all bass and hi-hat trills – and also has influenced mainstream pop in a big way. But the subjectivities enshrouded by these musical elements has been allowed to mutate. The progression, and even the name “baby voice” are inspired moves, because although they appear to deviate from the heaviest features of an overtly masculine culture, where they re-emerge is not exactly “feminine” either. Socially speaking, babies are largely gender neutral – they’re not thought of as men or women in most contexts, but unformed social entities that will accumulate and enact gender signifiers as part of their growing up. In “reverting” to a baby voice, Carti performs a bloom or Body without Organs kind of a move – returning to a primal state, opening up the virtual channels to enable the culture to reactualise itself in more creative, original, and unseen ways.

Of course, this implies that the baby voice doesn’t, in fact, really challenge the misogynist narratives and patriarchal flexes weighing down the genre in any substantial way. The innovation is therefore largely aesthetic, not political, which is probably what insatiable rap fans are really after in the first place. It feels as though the baby voice has been coming for some time, and at least in the instances we’ve heard it so far, is able to provide something that some fans have been craving. And the baby voice itself expresses this desire for the new: the feeding of desiring machines by production machines, the cybernetics of control, profit, connection through social media and celebrity/meme culture, alienation, fear of erasure.

Does this mean that Carti’s recent tracks, features, and leaks will form the basis of a new turning point in rap? Hard to say, but it’s important to note that these artistic decisions aren’t happening in a vacuum. Following distinctive trailblazers in both the mainstream and the underground (particularly Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Lil B, and especially Young Thug – note all the diminutive signifiers), the last few years have seen the breakout success of similarly creative rap vocalists (Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion) and producers (Metro Boomin, Pi’erre Bourne, and far too many others to name). Each occupy their own interesting distances from the all-too-entrenched paradigm: the DMX/50 Cent figure – tough as nails, raised on the streets, dedicated to the thug life. The new wave aren’t< the polar opposite to this, but are distinguished by a more introspective sound and subject matter. Rap sometimes has a little brother syndrome when comparing itself to older, traditionally better received genres – especially rock. So maybe, as others sometimes say, this is rap’s emo phase. Occasionally this music carries the “sadboys” tag, named after the crew of Swedish rapper Yung Lean. I want to cover this in more detail in a later post, as there are clearly a lot more factors feeding this trend. But I will end on saying that I think two tracks stand above the others as nascent sadboy/emo rap anthems, these being Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and the leaked “Pissy Pamper / Kid Cudi”, a Young Nudy track featuring Playboi Carti giving one of the best baby voice choruses heard yet.

Featured image credits: Complex.

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