Photo Credits: Kiyomi Watson / Aggie
Four artists from the past and present have made their mark going against the grain
Countless musicians have immortalized themselves and their work by breaking genre norms or combining elements across genres. While Complex has put together a list of sorts and the Wall Street Journal claims 2019 to be the year of Genre-bending (Insert bad Avatar joke here), there really isn’t a comprehensive list of who has done it best or when the practice itself actually began. Naturally, I decided to pick four standout artists that have mastered the art of genre bending.
Gustav Åhr left the world in November of 2017, but his presence in music is relevant today as ever. Known by his stage-name “Lil Peep,” Åhr pioneered what is known as “emo rap” which combines elements from emo, punk, indie, rock, rap, trap, hip-hop and more.
In June of 2016, Peep released his “Crybaby” mixtape which includes samples from Radiohead, Oasis, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Postal Service, Brand New and a few others. Fusing whiny unhinged vocals with quiet yet heavy rapped verses often over samples from artists like the aforementioned makes for a sound that gives the listeners a simultaneous sense of profoundness and familiarity.
Peep was part of a group of people who are now known as “SoundCloud Rappers,” coined after the streaming service SoundCloud that he and many others used when they first began to release music. This group is often characterized with face tattoos, chic yet at times questionable fashion choices, romanticization of heavy drug use and vulnerability. Emo Rap has created a new genre and a new type of artist which takes the relatable sound of Emo quite literally at times, along with unguarded lyrics, while maintaining the trope of a lavish and intoxicated larger-than-life attitude.
Justin Vernon had his breakout moment under the name of Bon Iver (Good Winter in French). In 2007 his folk-like album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he chose to write and record in his father’s Wisconsin cabin after a breakup. Vernon’s voice offers a range that maintains a certain softness to it that can either tower over his acoustic guitar or simply coexist with it in songs such as “Skinny Love” or “Re: Stacks,” begging the question: Does the voice compliment the guitar, or the guitar the voice? Both, likely. Regardless, the brittle voice carries a weight that feels as though it is ready to break at any moment but doesn’t.
His self-titled sophomore album is more or less a continuation of the previous album that further develops the sound of Bon Iver into a blending of folk, acoustic, electronic (sparingly used) and autotune in which the natural harmonious aspect of Vernon’s voice evolves. There are, however, slight hints of a shift to come in the future, but so seamlessly that they are only just that—hints. In “Minnesota, WI,” trumpets give the track a fanfare-like aspect, only to be paired with bass that gives listeners an ominous feeling that juxtaposes the sound, but effectively somehow.
In 2016, Bon Iver released something almost unrecognizable: “22, A Million” is a far cry from “For Emma, Forever Ago,” purposely disrupting a tradition of a linear narrative within the album (each song name is accompanied by a seemingly random number), with heavily manipulated vocals and an obvious use of more electronic sounding instruments. Samples from gospel artists like The Supreme Jubilees in “666 ʇ” and Mahalia Jackson in “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” intermingle old and new school sounds with ease. Each song (with the exception of “8 (Circle)”) distorts Vernon’s voice, purposefully and beautifully—using autotune and other synthesizer techniques (including the Messina, engineered just for him) to create a sound that not only is unlike Bon Iver, but of anything prior to it.
Jamie Thomas Smith found his way to the limelight in 2009 with his bandmates in The XX with their self-titled debut. Behind the boards, Jamie keeps the beat (the band has no drummer) and mixes in real time while Romy Croft leads guitar and shares vocals with bassist Oliver Sim. Later in 2009 he began using the name Jamie XX for accreditations in remixes he did for a FACT magazine mix in order to promote the band’s debut. In 2010, Jamie XX released a remix of Gil Scott Heron’s “NY is killing me” marrying the soul, jazz and spoken word with an electronic, pop and club-like sound. His first solo full-length, “In Colour” was released by Young Turks as he toured in promotion for the record on May 29, 2015. The DJ’s sound here is more distinct, but nods back to the sound in the XX with songs like “Loud Places” and “Stranger in A Room,” in which his bandmates Romy and Oliver feature in. It’s an electronic record in essence that incorporates other artists that influence Jamie’s work such as The Persuasions who are sampled in a collaborative track with Young Thug “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” and Lyn Collins whose “Think (About it)” was sampled in the single “Gosh.”
On Oct. 23, 2000, “Hybrid Theory” was released through Warner Bros, the debut album from rock-rap group Linkin Park. That’s right, rock-rap. The dynamic between MC Mike Shinoda and the late Chester Bennington is something that by any means shouldn’t work, but does so seamlessly. Tracks like “In the End” and “A Place for My Head” display the perfectly executed back and forth of Shinoda’s rapped verses and Bennington’s clean, sometimes screamed vocals. Joe Hahn, or “Mr. Hahn” under his DJ persona, manns the turntables, scratching, sampling and programming every song—adding another unique feature to the band’s sound that is spotlighted on “Cure for the Itch.” The entire album (with the latter being the exception) is a perfect example of how vastly different styles of voice like Shinoda and Bennington can come together on a single track and make something extraordinary. The group went on to release six more studio albums until the death of front man Chester Bennington in July of 2017. The other band members alongside other prominent musicians such as Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker of Blink-182, Machine Gun Kelly, Oliver Sykes of Bring Me the Horizon, Jeremy McKinnon of A Day to Remember, Jonathan Davis of Korn and others put on a memorial show on Oct. 27, 2017 at the Hollywood Bowl. According to Shinoda the group is likely to continue without Bennington, explaining in an interview with Rock Antenne that “We all thrive making and performing music.”Written by: Cameron Perry — firstname.lastname@example.org