Words & images by Gabriel Spadaccini
For a few days in late May and early June, I spent time as a photographer with Norfolk, Virginia-based rapper Krown Vic, as he and his crew toured through a handful of major Florida cities opening up for none other than Lil Pump. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the colorful teenage rapper before embarking on the trip, but the string of insanely rowdy shows on “Lil Pump’s Florida Run” made me see him in a new light. Here’s to open-mindedness.
This young gun just might be the purest embodiment of the new school to emerge out of the burgeoning Florida scene, if not for his wilful disdain for lyricism, depth, and social consciousness, then for the astonishing fifty million odd plays he’s racked up on SoundCloud since beginning his career in 2016.
Despite incurring the wrath of fans of classic hip-hop, Pump has spent the last nine months or so selling out tour dates not only in his home state of Florida, but across the United States as well, delivering one of the rowdiest shows ever invented to one of the youngest audiences ever amassed. The man is sixteen years old.
Not that this is entirely new. In the last few months, many have written about the so-called SoundCloud Revolution, its overblown, obnoxious production style, and the legions of diehard teenage fans propping it up on social media. Pump himself is but one in an ever-expanding surge of hip-hop artists to have circumvented the traditional gatekeepers – the hallowed strongholds of record labels, radio stations, and press outlets – of any traditional rise to fame, so he’s not the first. But he’s also proof that rap in 2017 can exist in an alternate universe, a kind of meta world where the genre’s usual tropes are deployed for their own sake.
Verses about drugs, guns, sex, money – they really don’t need to have much grounding in reality as long as there’s an outrageous, magnetic character to give them life. And in Lil Pump there exists one, in the extraordinary neon dreads, vibrant face and neck tattoos, and huge endearing grin – not with grills, but with braces. A pre-packaged lightning rod for controversy, and so the fans really will come. In fact, they’ll turn out in droves, and with an unparalleled rabidity, at every stop of the tour, making Pump’s shows as chaotic and intense as anyone could ask for.
These kids are not at these shows to see dexterity in rapping, or to find cool new music in the openers. They want the sixteen year old with the dyed pink & yellow dreads, and the thick eyebrows, and the braces. And they want to chant along to those singles, the biggest of which have accrued at least ten million or more plays, each, on SoundCloud alone.
The booming, catastrophic ‘D Rose’ has more than seventeen million, while his most recent cut, ‘Boss’ has tallied up almost sixteen million since its release in April. The rap bangers that other artists release sparingly? Those are all Pump’s got. All killer, no filler. These aren’t tracks that reward careful replay – it takes one spin to learn the lyrics, so you get the most possible turn-up for the least amount of effort.
Even the tamest, most sparsely populated instrumentals and lackadaisical hooks can incite riots, morphing into vehicles of indiscriminate destruction and feverish aggression when there are something like three hundred teenagers screaming them back in the face of our dangerously high and perpetually manically grinning hero.
Not only that, but Pump’s material literally could not get more explicit. Within a catalog of less than ten publicly available songs, the vast majority of his lyrics revolve around sex, violence, guns, drug-use, and, well, flexing. Imagine those same three hundred teenagers screaming “Fuck school nigga I’d rather sell a pound,” or “Pop four Xans then I fuck a nigga bitch.” Or both of those and many more in the span of thirty minutes.
To say that hip-hop has always thrived on explicit content might be the greatest understatement of all time. What’s astounding here is instead Pump’s audience. Not only has he completely sidestepped the traditional channels of fame in the music industry, operating almost entirely through SoundCloud tracks and YouTube videos, but he’s also somehow managed to convince one of the youngest audiences in the history of rap music to take part, at least temporarily, in his unapologetic brand of recklessness, insolence, and mindless self indulgence.
On social media, Pump is a jokester. He’s got timeless videos of himself and other South Florida denizens wildin’ in the streets, firing off guns, and being incredibly profane. And then there are some unbelievably obscene, SnapChat-esque clips of him receiving oral sex, posing on Beverly Hills balconies with massive bags of weed, four-cup stacks of lean and $2000 backpacks. You get the picture. Pump also has a trustworthy cache of catch phrases, which are dazzling and addictive in their simplicity. For example, he has a penchant for roaring “esskketehhht” (a distortion of “let’s get it”) and he routinely claims that he’s about to “take your bitch to the movies.”
Live, however, the young gun is almost economical. Watching him jump up and down like his life depends on it, it’s hard to miss that he knows exactly what the fans want. Despite being hemmed in on stage by a mob of photographers, videographers, hype-men, managers, security guards, and friends who have suddenly flocked to his side, he’s clearly having a blast at each and every show.
The familiar big, wide smile surfaces just as often as the look of consternation as he’s shouting the choruses at the top of his lungs. Oddly enough, he barely ever takes a moment to talk to the crowd, choosing instead to soldier on through banger after banger, bass drop after bass drop. The one phrase he does end up saying over and over? “I love ya’ll.”
So take a step back. What were you doing during the summer you were sixteen? Whatever it was, compare that to Pump, who is living to perform onstage for just under thirty minutes. Not only that, but the kids who have come to see him are enthralled. Fans are waiting hours before the show begins, the rooms are always packed, and the lines for the meet & greets stretch around each and every venue.
Through it all, Pump has the advantage of superlatives on his side. There are hordes of [good] rappers coming out of Florida, but Pump is objectively the youngest, the most ignorant, and the most totally unconcerned with upholding any kind of (real or imagined) rap tradition. Put this all together and you’ve paved the way for a veritable loose cannon, dressed to the nines in designer, who can sell out hotspot venues artists twice his age cannot. And remarkably, he’s selling them out to an audience who, collectively, can’t even legally purchase alcohol.
At the end of the day, it boils down to a question of who the youth will choose to represent its generation. At sixteen years old, who would you want to be associated with? The gangster rappers, the thugs, maybe the lyricists? Or the youngest flexer, the self-proclaimed ‘Trapper of the Century’? A kid whose persona is already larger than life, and in whose very being is audacity and vitality? Maybe it’s the Generation Z in me, but I know who I’d choose.