There’s an apocalyptic hiccup near the center of this week’s Hot 100 — a distorted death-glitch called “Look at Me!” by XXXTentacion, a 19-year-old Florida rapper giving lessons in lethal logic: “You pull a gun on my mans . . . I put a hole in your parents.” Sonically, the entire track is blown out to a level that feels assaultive, but strangely, “Look at Me!” doesn’t seem to exist in our physical reality. Good luck hearing it in the club, on the radio, out the cracked window of a passing Chevy Malibu, or anywhere else in three-dimensional space. But there it is at No. 65, enjoying its sixth week on the charts, breathing down the neck of Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl.”
It’s all thanks to the fact that Billboard now compiles its weekly marquee singles chart by measuring online streaming alongside sales and radio airplay. So to land its current spot on the Hot 100, “Look at Me!” racked up 10.9 million streams across seven days, according to Nielsen Music — enough to compensate for the fact that radio hasn’t really touched it.
Such wild things should make our hearts sing. Streaming is making popland a more democratic place — a place where dissident sounds can rise up from the digital margins and make a more resonant noise. We used to call that heroic journey out of the underground and into the mainstream “crossing over,” but it usually required a record label’s muscle and a radio station’s consent. No more. In today’s digital wilds, if enough streamers suss out a song, that song turns into a hit. In a way, “Look at Me!” is a raw new reminder that the underground no longer exists. It’s all otherground now.
And because so many of today’s migrant listeners crave stories to go with their sounds, XXXTentacion has generated a jumble of keystrokes, too. Some say that the rapper owes his new fame to Drake, a superstar accused of biting the flow of “Look at Me!” on a new song called “KMT.” Others wonder if XXXTentacion’s rise has more to do with the public’s ghoulish interest in the repugnant crimes he may have committed. The rapper is currently incarcerated in Florida, facing a litany of charges after allegedly assaulting a pregnant woman.
Most of what anybody knows about XXXTentacion comes from an on-camera interview with the YouTube channel No Jumper — a chat that has racked up more than 2.5 million views since appearing 11 months ago. In addition to bragging about various assaults he had committed in vile detail, XXXTentacion also explains how he discovered music — everything from 2Pac to Papa Roach — through the speakers of a cheap Kyocera cellphone. Scroll through his SoundCloud page and you’ll find him re-creating that effect, pushing way too much sound through not enough speaker. According to the rapper, all of that sonic overload “makes the track genuine.”
Distortion this heavy is unusual on the Hot 100, but not so much in rap writ large. Human voices max out the gear in the music of XXXTentacion’s South Florida predecessor SpaceGhostPurrp; and in Chief Keef’s dead-eyed shouts; and in the doomsday growls of Death Grips; and on OutKast’s superlative “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2)”; and during every phone call the Notorious B.I.G. re-created in rhyme; all the way back to the ancient prophecies of Rammellzee.
In rap, distortion often signals high-volume, which signals urgency, which signals showtime — but fundamentally, vocal manipulation has always been playtime. As Dave Tompkins writes in “How To Wreck a Nice Beach,” his wild-swerving history of the vocoder, “Ever since the first bored kid threw his voice into an electric fan, toked on a birthday balloon or thanked his mother in a pronounced burp, voice mutation has provided an infinite source of kicks.”
Since T-Pain first materialized in Cher’s Auto-Tuned shadow a dozen years ago, the biggest kick in pop has been becoming one with the machine. In 2008, Kanye West used Auto-Tune to craft his bravest album, “808s & Heartbreak,” expressing the breadth of his humanity with the help of a voice-altering software program. Following suit nearly a decade later, Future and Young Thug have made themselves into the coolest man-machines alive.
Maybe that’s why the brutal distortion of “Look at Me!” feels like such a pivot. It’s not cool. It’s hot. Hot enough to burn your eyelids off. Teenage rage, teenage desire and teenage confusion in one big atomic fireball.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of a human being refusing to be contained by a machine — wetware triumphing over hardware. And that counts for a lot. Even if “Look at Me!” slides off the charts next week and plummets into the public register of great pop flukes, it’s already violated our sonic decorum, making room for more songs like it.
Meantime, the adventurous digital citizens who made “Look at Me!” a hit are still feeling enough ownership over the song to keep messing with it. Check out the meme-ish remix of “Look at Me!” that YouTube user Pockgor Ultimate posted back in January. The song begins in its natural state of chaos, but as the beat thunders along, the distortion keeps ramping up, blotting out the vocals, blotting out the rhythm, blotting out everything, until it enters a state of pure oblivion-buzz. Watching “Look at Me!” stomp up and down the charts for the past month has been a thrill, but this version of the song embarks on a different kind of trip. It erases itself and rejoins the void.