atrocity exhibition games

On some level all the music I’ve tried writing about this year has been based around intensity, be it the roars from some MAX/MSP monstrosity, the catharsis of tacky screamo, or the pure dread induced by the uilleann pipes. It feels as if I’ve always been obsessed with art that reaches the logical conclusion of its respective genre, if anything just because of how easily it can unsettle the audience. What was once familiar is presented in stark, uncomfortable terms – shocking us into finding new perspectives in the process. These harsh deviations further our understanding of genres we love by actively demolishing them, an experience that lends itself well to overanalysis and one that brings us to this specific moment in time. This week I’m going to cover some of the most intense music released this year, if anything just in the hopes of capturing this feeling of annihilation.

jokingly pointing to heaven over a 1,000 miles sample

For better or for worse, ‘Who I Smoke’ was a song almost tailor made for social media. The track blew up on account of sheer audacity – with musicians Yungeen Ace, Spinabenz, Whoppa Wit Da Choppa, and FastMoney Goon rapping about killing teenagers over ‘1000 Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton. This audacity was reinforced by the now infamous music video that accompanied the single, depicting the rappers messing around on a golf course and playing with water pistols as they threatened a rival gang. To quote the tweet that initially piqued my interest, this song showed why rap as a genre arguably remains undefeated. “The amount of effort other genres pour into sounding Evil and these lads just rock up jokingly pointing to heaven over a 1,000 miles sample going ‘it is funny the following named teenagers from the same city we’re from were murdered lately'”. It’s hard to believe this track actually happened, something which probably enabled its virality.

To say that this track was attention-grabbing would be an understatement, it suddenly felt as if the whole planet was singing about smoking Bibby – even if nobody knew who he was. What was once intended as a way to rile up rivals was now a product for mass consumption, providing vulgar reaction channels with a decent way to kill time and boost their engagement analytics. The so-called “blip culture” described by Mark Fisher suddenly hyperfocused on the musicians arriving out of Duval County, with viewers trawling the internet for SparkNotes summaries in order to understand years of gang violence. ‘Who I Smoke’ shocked an audience into paying attention, evoking the exact actions sought after by the all-powerful algorithms that define our online lives.

this is the future of entertainment, for better or for worse

What one learns while watching heavily breathing YouTubers explain Jacksonville, Florida is fairly stark. The city holds a poverty rate of 16.4%, with almost one in six earning less than $36 a day. Those on the receiving end of deprivation are consequently exposed to near-constant violence, with the city recently being crowned as the “murder capital of Florida”. This violence fundamentally shapes the lives of young people in the area, with rapper Foolio (the person that ‘Who I Smoke’ was targeting) supposedly getting his first gun in the seventh grade. It’s quite easy to focus in on the lurid details of this vicious cycle of brutality, if anything just as the music coming out of the city sometimes feels like a glorified roll call. The names of dead opps are recounted and made fun of, something which in turn inspires (an often violent) response from those left behind. Getting into Jacksonville drill can sometimes feel like opening a Russian doll, rapidly googling the taunts of a dead man seconds after hearing of their fate.

a state of voluntary, gleeful sociopathy

One of the craziest aspects of this music is how selectively cruel it can be – rappers aim to induce as much rage as humanly possible, going to insane lows as a result. In an extremely blatant example of this, Foolio shot his response to ‘Who I Smoke’ in a cemetery, pouring champagne over what the viewer believes to be the grave of Yungeen Ace’s brother. Another example of this pure disrespect relates to Corbin Johnson, an eighteen year old who was kidnapped and murdered while attending job interviews. Or as Foolio put it, “Corbin got kidnapped, they found his bones he was rotten (where’s Corbin?)”. The rappers coming out of Jacksonville often feel like next-level internet trolls, forcing a reaction by any means necessary.

This comparison to trolling is arguably essential to understanding the thought process underpinning this genre. In his extremely blackpilling book ‘The Twittering Machine’, writer Richard Seymour claims:

Detachment is a survival strategy in a world where one can expect to be abused. Trolls, having ostensibly purged themselves of attachment, express disgust at the attachments of their victims. […] Public displays of grief are regarded as a facade for, as one troll put it, ‘boredom and a pathological need for attention’ […] To put it another way, the troll tries to have it both ways, claiming to be both magnificently indifferent to social norms, which he transgresses for the lulz, and often at the same time a vengeful punisher: in his fantasies, both the Joker and Batman.

As the book’s quotation of Encyclopedia Dramatica claims, “lulz is engaged in by Internet users who […] view a state of voluntary, gleeful sociopathy over the world’s current apocalyptic state, as superior to being continually emo”. Perhaps these endless provocations, derisions, and disses serve as a way of shielding the musicians, asserting a crude form of strength to cover up the pain of loss and guilt. This often concealed pain is most clearly unveiled in ‘Bibby Story’, a track Foolio released in honour of his slain sixteen-year old friend. Foolio directly deals with the complicity he feels in Bibby’s untimely demise, expressing a rare vulnerability in the process. “You don’t know that fuckin’ feeling watchin’ your homie die […] then his mama and his sisters and his brothers put the blame on you […] why the fuck you die for me and I ain’t even die for myself?”.

Listening to this song for the first time is a deeply surreal experience – the same person happy to ironically shout “where’s Corbin?” is suddenly depicting their experiences of mourning, hinting towards struggles with suicidal ideation. Part of the listener might want to view this song as a turning point – a brief point of lucidity where the reality of endless violence dawned. But life doesn’t provide us with narrative arcs like that. The guy currently facing trial for murdering Bibby then recorded himself singing the track in order to take the piss out of Foolio. Things continued on as they did, perhaps as they always will.

all watched over by machines of yungeen ace

On some level it feels as if the YouTube recommendation algorithm serves as the antagonist of the last five years. Google’s 2015 decision to use artificial intelligence has become controversial over the past while, in part due to their decision to use unsupervised learning. According to a report from ‘The Verge’, “[Google’s] algorithms can find relationships between different inputs that software engineers never would have guessed” – enabling it to account for “more than 70 percent of the time people spend watching videos on the site”. “Each day, YouTube recommends 200 million different videos to users, in 76 languages. And the aggregate time people spend watching videos on YouTube’s home page has grown 20 times larger than what it was [in 2014]”. The algorithm is so effective as it’s pretty much given free reign, gradually working out what makes us tick in order to keep us hooked.

“What keeps people glued to Youtube?”, asks sociologist Zeynep Tufecki. “Its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with — or to incendiary content in general”. Jacksonville drill is defined by a constant upping of the ante – there’s no diss too extreme for those in the scene, no blow too low to inflict. I think you can see this most blatantly with ‘I DON’T SMOKE KENDRE’, a track from 1200 affiliate Spinabenz. The rapper essentially throws everything but the kitchen sink at their opps, jumping from uncovering footage of one twerking to threatening to put the mother of another back on cocaine in under twenty seconds. This erratic approach to dissing creates content actively impossible to look away from – exactly what the algorithm sets out to amplify.

An argument we’re all sick of hearing is that drill music somehow promotes violence. This bullshit perspective mainly pushed by the UK Government can only really work due to major social stratification – for those in power the violence that haunts those living in poverty is safely tucked out of sight until those on the receiving (and giving) end start making tunes about it. On account of this a false assumption is made – by getting rid of the music, the brutality will follow. But perhaps this train of thought ignores the objective reality for those in communities in Jacksonville. Perhaps the active choices made in the name of austerity helped create these conditions. Perhaps instead of putting an end to this cycle of violence, the capitalist system turned it into a spectator sport that generates profits for firms like Google. Jacksonville drill is such a depressing genre on account of this pervasive sense of fatalism – everyone involved knows how it’ll all end but nobody has the power necessary to stop it.

and i need you

To quote Seymour once again:

[The algorithm] works only because of the response. There has to be something in some viewers waiting to be switched on. The algorithms, by responding to actual behaviour, are picking up on user desires, which may not even be known to the user. They are digitalizing the unconscious.

This concept raises obvious questions about our collective obsession with Jacksonville – what desires are we sating as we consume this utterly nihilistic music? I guess this brings us to /r/DuvalCounty, a glorified warzone of a subreddit where obsessive fans go into concerning levels of detail as they discuss going ons in the area. For the past two months I’ve found myself occasionally staring into this abyss, in part just in the hopes of understanding the demographics driving it. Like a majority of online spaces covering rap, /r/DuvalCounty is almost defined by a pervasive sense of faux-masculinity – people talk out their holes, projecting forms of strength that don’t actually exist.

What fascinates me the most about this fandom is when the veil of chauvinism slips, something best seen in the following post from user u/Gatekeeper106. Gatekeeper tried showing off a letter he received from Slugga Tee (a rapper mainly known for looking uncannily like the 🤡 emoji), inadvertently opening himself to ridicule in the process. “This is cool an[d] all but, what do you do for a living? You’re 20, and the only thing I see you do is send letters to locked up rappers and fanboy hilltop”. This question lead to an oddly frank airing of vulnerability, with the original poster talking about being unemployed and stuck at home on account of the pandemic, mentioning being hospitalized against their own will. Unsurprisingly letting the veil drop lead to Gatekeeper being mocked even further, something best seen in a more recent post. “What happened to the jitt stressing dying at hilltop would be an honor? Last thing I remember is he was dicked out. I never see anyone mention him anymore”.

According to Seymour, “the popular fascination with the sociopath rests on a fantasy of social mastery”. “If I was a sociopath, I wouldn’t be so awkward, so gullible, so inhibitively moral: in a word, so vulnerable”. On some level it feels as if the people on this subreddit are actively buying into a fantasy, imagining themselves as heartless killers in a weird search for meaning. One of the main things that struck me as I wrote this piece was how late capitalist everything about this scene feels – it’s extremely depressing to hear calls for people to like and subscribe after a graphic depiction of a murder, if anything just because of how second-nature it can initially seem. When writing about art there’s always an urge to seek a simple narrative to explain things away, to find a neat conclusion so you can close the door on a former obsession. Jacksonville drill is so fascinating to me as it actively refuses any of these narratives – there’s no positive culmination or lesson at the end of the day, just an endless upping of the ante until all involved have wiped themselves out. The music coming out of Duval County is so engrossing as it mirrors the world we live in, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.