Mini-Operas in Grind and Glitch

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  • While reading a Stereogum article on Tierra Whack, an adroitly online-poised glitch&B rapper who recently released a multi-media hip-hop opera called Whack World, the words of Trent Reznor burst into my head Hey Kool-Aid style. Old Man Reznor stormed his own fan forums to defend his decision to call Bad Witch, the most recent Nine Inch Nails collection, an LP rather than an EP. He refused to play along with the pedantic mewling of NIN fans eager to argue archaic and non-binding music/track length descriptions and format designations, ultimately exclaiming (as outlined by Kerrang!): “EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world…. Why make it easier to ignore? We’re not charging any more for it so why get so worked up about it?”

    The LP or full-length album is much less prevalent than it used to be, and Reznor’s defense that Spotify dumps EPs with covers and singles at the bottom of an artist’s discography was more than sufficient. But just because Spotify has no respect for a musical composition that lives between single and album doesn’t mean the format has totally evaporated. Which winds me back to Tierra Whack and Whack World, which as Stereogum lays out, is a 15-minute album with 15 one-minute tracks. Whack insists that each song is fully composed, and the whole thing is best experienced (at least initially) via the single-run Youtube video stitching the project together. The inspired reasoning behind the track-lengths is that one minute is the limit for Instagram videos, giving these a natural home on currently most-viral-able social network.

    Each video is drenched in neons and pastels, minutely arranged dioramas that are vivid and definitely feel complete to me. There’s little room for repetition but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The beats rarely branch out into two or more pieces but nearly every song carries a verse and a chorus at least. There’s a clear pop-lineage going on here, weaving between genres like country and bit-wave, hip hop and rnb with deft verses and that ever-present auto-tune lilt. Romantic despair feeds into a late night party banger, an ode to a loved pet layups into some Positive Mental Attitude grooves and then revenge drill. Each song vibrates through its own micro-universe that leaves the listener both slaked and thirsty, and the whole tells a complete and vivid narrative that the visuals absolutely supplant, though the songs more than survive on their own.

    Reading around about Whack’s work, I’m not surprised to find some handwringing about the nature of each track’s length. Compared to a large slice of commercial rap, which often has more minutes invested in skits than Whack World’s entire length, it’s no wonder that folks are getting lost in philosophical pontification on what a song even is or can be. But I find that I’m perfectly prepared to take in this album as an album, and each song as a fully-fleshed song, thanks mostly to grindcore and screamo.

    Each of these is one of many sub-genres of hardcore and heavy metal, and both trade in sub-minute songs stuffed to the brim. Napalm Death is the standard bearer for grindcore, bringing the genre to fruition with the Guinness World Record for shortest song “You Suffer” at two seconds with the lyrics “you suffer, but why?” There’s enough time for two notes from each instrument and something of an outro. But even the album that features this song doesn’t hit track 15 until nearly 20 minutes in.

    Though note quite grindcore (if only because the guitars skew a little cleaner and the blast beats aren’t clicked in), Ampere brings 11 songs in 11 minutes with their first mini-CD/10” record (inarguably a full-length album) All Out Tomorrows End Today. I could write at great length on this band (well, I have, and probably will again) and the epics they compress into flashes, but suffice to say that they craft songs that crash, shift, grow, ebb, and transform before most pop jams get through their introductions. These compositions take some training through repeated listens to really appreciate, but after that the nuances are clear as day and each song is a well-built architectural wonder. 

    It’s unlikely that Whack was influenced by any screamo or grindcore bands (but hey it’s 2018 and I’m enjoy a good surprise!) and Whack most likely isn’t the first artist to tighten the sounds of R&B and hip-hop into tiny diamonds. But she’s an artist that has proven she can thrive under constraint, that the simplicity of pop music is often deceptive and getting to the point of a work will often serve it just as much as a thousand repetitions of the chorus. Whack World is a masterpiece in miniature but that doesn’t mean it’s diminutive. She made Instagram serve her rather than the other way around, and if you just didn’t get enough the first time that repeat button is waiting ever so close.

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