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TisaKorean’s Lunatic Dance Rap Is Made for More Than Just Memes

The music video for TisaKorean’s 2017 single “WERKKK” is an uncanny viewing experience. The young Houston rapper and dancer dips his head from side to side like a dead body being pulled around, holds his limp arms in front of himself like Frankenstein, and dances on the ground in stylized tremors. The camera jerks queasily, mirroring TisaKorean and his crew, whose convulsive moves create the illusion that the frame rate is glitching. (Like most of TisaKorean’s YouTube clips, it was posted by Dallas-based YouTuber Jmoney1041, who was coming to prominence at the time by filming videos of young Texas dancers.) Over a top-heavy, ringtone-thin beat, TisaKorean growls the word “work” ad infinitum, sometimes in a way that sounds more like “verrrrkk”—a Rammstein refrain in both accent and timbre. At the time, the artist (who is now 23) had relatively little work to his name: some short dance videos, and an embryonic 18-minute mixtape called Stupid Dumb Geek. It wasn’t even clear that he was primarily a musician. In some sense, the song and video for “WERKKK,” the title of which would become a prominent adlib in TisaKorean’s later songs, felt primarily like a vehicle for his choreography. Two years later, “WERKKK” feels like an announcement of an artist who had arrived with a fully-formed idea of their own bizarre vision.

As it turned out, that song was only one among a collection of even more unorthodox self-produced experiments to come, from “Bagel Chips” to “Butnotwheat” to  “Dip,” But TisaKorean’s biggest hit to date is one of the songs that helped popularize the “Woah,” which was the biggest dance craze in Texas last year. (Here’s a video Drake botching it.) The dance is derived from the Texas style of jigging and is enough of an open-ended concept to accommodate all sorts of bizarre extrapolations. On “Dip,” TisaKorean’s opening line is indelible if unsavory: “Bitch, Uber to my dick.” It’s not a standard jumping off point for a song, but then again, maybe that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. These brief songs, designed to be disseminated on your social media platform of choice, never feel like they really end or begin; instead, it just feels like we’re being dropped into the middle of something.

Late last month, TisaKorean released his first full-length project, A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman, which makes a perplexing but convincing case for the rapper as a lot more than a YouTube and Instagram curiosity. (It features none of the aforementioned hits.) The tape also properly distinguishes him from the larger scene of Texas rappers and dancers—such as the more widely co-signed Dallas dance video star 10k.Caash—that first helped bring TisaKorean to prominence. A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman stands out in part because of Tisakorean’s refusal to take himself too seriously. The tape, after all, is lightly themed around getting up to no good in high school. Devoid of somber Autotune melodies or moldy Migos flows, it doesn’t include anything that sounds significantly more expensive than the damaged, hastily assembled self-productions that initially won him a fanbase.

The music on Freshman is part of a strain of contemporary rap music in which the ad-libs feel nearly as important as the lead vocal, with central lines emerging from a chorus of onomatopoeia and yelps. In this respect, Playboi Carti’s recent music might be the closest analogue. But TisaKorean’s music feels more comprehensively homemade than that of most of his contemporaries, built from scratch to precisely fit how he speaks and moves. (There is no Pierre B’ourne here.) His own productions are precarious, with unidentifiable sound effects—a white board being erased, a bike wheel being spun, a dinner bell being rung, high-pitched giggles—establishing a beat almost in spite of themselves. Sometimes, the synths are almost inaudible, steamrolled by a punishing low end; sometimes, there’s hardly any bass at all, just treble sounds like toys being wound up. This homespun self-produced quality also points to Soulja Boy as a spiritual forebear. Across the tape, TisaKorean engages with the more fun and exuberant side of early-’00s Southern rap in ways that separate him from some of his more self-serious contemporaries: on “Where’s Ms. Juicy (Hamburger Booty),” synth horns and a backbeat that suggest the Baton Rouge dance rap Mouse (on tha Track) and the Trill Entertainment family; on “Southside of the D (Mood),” a refrain (“What’s goin up? / What’s goin’ down?”) that sounds like a Yung Joc tribute.

The single “Watch Out (1st Period)” is one of the most drastic instances of TisaKorean’s atypical approach to production. The chaotic beat is pitted against some of the tape’s most batshit and quotable lines: “Baby, who put the sauce in the pasta? / These n*ggas lame, they put the N in lasagna / Can I be the goalie if we play soccer?” On “Lost and Found,” the closest TisaKorean gets to sentimental on Partying Freshman, the substance of the production is a keyboard line reminiscent of a gently swaying baby mobile and the sound of iPhone Instagram notifications. The music often actively seems to be subverting the fundamental groove, as if the dancer is meant to establish their own logic amidst the chaos. It feels appropriate that the visual illusion created by one of the central “Woah” moves—described in a popular instructional video as “putting your car in park with the emergency break on”—is so surreal.

Tracing TisaKorean’s ascension in the Texas dance scene may make his erratic style seem less bizarre, or isolated in its own universe, in the way that watching the dance videos that helped popularize Lil Uzi Vert, whose music still seemed unusual just a few years ago, might. (Fittingly, Lil Uzi is TisaKorean’s most important celebrity booster at the moment, remixing the Houston rapper’s songs and posting videos of himself dancing to them.) But TisaKorean’s music and larger internet presence goes beyond dance crazes, in which he claims to be disinterested. In an interview last year, the rapper explained: “‘Werkkk’ and ‘’Dip weren’t meant to be dancing songs. I was dancing in the videos because that’s what I do. I was dancing to the songs when we made them. I am going to dance to them, but I am not going to tell people to do a [specific dance].”

One of many brief, mission-statement-like videos by TisaKorean distills the teen-movie-like universe of A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman into 30 seconds. Wearing a backpack and wandering down a quiet neighborhood block, TisaKorean turns an exaggerated version of walking to school into a dance: “High school swag like I’m a freshman / I passed the test but I didn’t learn my lesson / Homework, pshhh, got a n*gga stressin’ / I’m tryina talk but the bitch like textin’.” With Partying Freshmen, TisaKorean explodes the concept of himself as a one-trick viral figure, and creates a dramatic universe that works for his style, one that’s all about breaking into the football field at night and throwing paper airplanes in homeroom. It’s emblematic of the sense of playfulness and party functionality which makes TisaKorean’s experimentation particularly fascinating: He’s helped create a new normal in his circle of influence, and made everyone else feel like they have to catch up to him.

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