Of all the rappers who have come up from the internet underground (Soundcloud, YouTube, and wherever else) none have felt as pop as Lil Skies—not even artists like XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, or 6ix9ine, who have had greater chart success. Those artists went “pop” because they were anti-pop, writing songs that were catchy but in a way that seemed aimed to provoke, which is to say catchy in a way that heightened the rappers’ already inherent divisiveness. Take Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” the biggest Soundcloud rap hit, which has an instantly memorable chorus that dares you to call it annoying. There have been plenty of rap hits in the last 15 years in this vein, but something about the incessant repetitiveness of “Gucci Gang” felt especially like a prank—a whoopee cushion snuck under America’s collective ass. (Whoopee cushions, like “Gucci Gang,” are pretty great.)
Lil Skies’ two smash hits—the singles “Red Roses” and “Nowadays,” both featuring a collaborator named Landon Cube—are pop in form, powered by traditionally memorable, melodic hooks. A 19-year-old from a small town on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, Skies in no way stands athwart from Soundcloud rap—those songs are hazy, drugged-out, misanthropic, and still in the service’s 20 most streamed songs. Instead, along with fellow cloud-hopper Trippie Redd, he approaches the fledging genre’s spiritual center from a slightly different path than most of his peers.
His most recent single, though, says fuck all that. Titled “Welcome to the Rodeo,” it’s the first song on Life of a Dark Rose, the patchy but promising full-length he released in January. There’s nothing melodic about it; instead it functions as a statement of purpose, a pure rap song that gathers an intoxicating, careening momentum as Skies unravels his origin story. Over a darting, subterranean beat from Soundcloud favorite Taz Taylor, Skies sounds composed and confident, spitting raps that are conversational and direct instead of showy, allowing his personality to shine through without the filter of wit. You can hear the influence of Meek Mill in the song’s widescreen inspiration, as Skies nods towards the engine of Soundcloud rap and his desire to transcend it. “For a second lost myself, I was too busy getting faded,” he says. “Now they see me out in public and be knowing what my name is.”
The video—a tribute to Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” shot by Cole Bennett—makes him look appropriately like a star. Watch it below.