Last month Genius chief content officer Brendan Frederick spotted something funny in Soundcloud’s streaming rankings. “Love that all the millennial Hot Topic rappers tag their songs as ‘Alternative Rock’ on Soundcloud,” he posted to Twitter, including a screenshot of the top 11 slots on Soundcloud’s alternative-rock chart—every one of them filled by a rapper. I can’t get behind the use of “Hot Topic” to describe someone’s music, but I’ve seen the same thing—young MCs, among them Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Peep, are making melodic, sometimes lo-fi songs that bear the influence of 1990s/2000s pop-punk and emo and then uploading them as “alternative rock.” Using that Soundcloud tag is as much a playful way to ruffle the feathers of traditionalists as it is a serious claim on reshaping hip-hop’s future. Chicago rapper Carmelo Cianflone, aka Melo Makes Music, is among the up-and-comers calling themselves “alternative rock” on Soundcloud—in a December interview with hip-hop podcast Chicago Sleepers, he mentions that when he was a kid his mom provided him with a steady diet of the Cure and Nine Inch Nails.
Yesterday Cianflone released the single “Sleepless,” with a weightless instrumental by rapper-producer Martin Sky and a guest verse from Taylor Bennett. Cianflone’s rap-singing blurs the lines separating hip-hop, pop, and alt-rock—he sometimes breaks into an anguished yelp that sounds almost like Nirvana or Alice in Chains. The song reminded me of a recent A.V. Club oral history of Chicago’s 90s alt-rock, specifically the bit where band manager Wes Kidd describes first hearing Local H’s “Bound for the Floor” on the radio: “It sounded immediately like [something I’d known for a long time].” In much the same way, the first time I listened to “Sleepless,” I felt like I knew all its subtle shifts in advance.