Rae Sremmurd: They Like What They Like

Unguarded boyishness is too rare in pop music. Girl sounds take fixed yet pliable shape in double-dutch rhymes and cheer routines that pop can mine for inspiration, but boys’ unruly shouts roam with an unmetered freedom that’s hard to songify until the rigid, manly discipline of fraternal sports chants overcompensates. Early hip-hop, like doo-wop before it, offered young men an outlet for elastic vocal acrobatics, but the demands of machismo and art intervened.

Which might make SremmLife unexpectedly old school, except that Rae Sremmurd don’t dribble, pass, and shoot like early rap crews, but distend simple hook phrases like they’re trying to distract themselves till detention’s over. A chanted “Unlock the swag/ The swag unlock” escalates gradually from a faux-screwed drawl to a frantic squawk as the possibility that the swag may never, ever be unlocked encroaches upon our heroes. We live in a golden age of ridiculous rap voices, but unlike Young Thug or Future, Tupelo brothers Swae Lee (19) and Slim Jimmy (20) groan with a glee unperturbed by a need to express their deeper selves.

Subtract those goofy, self-amused voices, though, and Mike WiLL Made It’s outdone-himself tracks would be some moody shit. On “Lit Like Bic” Papa Roach guitar zigzags behind a cursed music box while evil chorales haunt “Unlock the Swag.” “My X” even works a belated new twist on that old-timey g-funk Bernie Worrell siren. And you already know “No Flex Zone,” with its four note keyboard shimmer-hook and its hi-hats tumbling backward into drum fills.

What keeps Rae Sremmurd from being Mike’s Kris Kross isn’t just their advanced age, but the showy dickishness with which they overcompensate for their cuteness — “A ho just gonna be a ho/ A slut just gonna be a slut” and all that. Still, at least there’s a cuteness to be compensated for. There’s even a flirty ballad: “This Could Be Us” (“but you playin’,” like you had to ask). True, Prince’s own recent “This Could Be Us” is better, because unlike the Sremmurds (or is “Sremmurd” already plural?) he doesn’t turn to Project Pat for dating advice. But they’re entitled to the title. In fact, everyone should write a song called “This Could Be Us.” That’s how hashtags work, right?

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