Repetition only works in rap when you make it interesting. Migos’ “Versace” reiterated its title phrase so many times that it bled into the already hypnotic beat; Future’s “Same Damn Time” used high energy and rapturous, theatrical production to create something rowdy; and Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” got so deep in its own zone that it stopped mattering whether it worked for you or not.
By contrast, Desiigner’s debut mixtape, New English, feels like a formulaic Vox instructional on how to make trap songs. On the opening song, “Caliber,” he raps, “I make a lot of new different money / All my killas pull up and they gettin’ blunted / Finna drink up the mud, now I’m gettin’ mudded / Caliber, caliber, caliber/ Caliber, caliber, hit somebody / Silencer, silencer, ring somebody.” It’s a pretty good parody of a trap song. And if the record that came out of it didn’t sound like a tired derivative of a million other ones, you might look at it as great performance art.
Recently, during this year’s annual BET Awards, the 19-year-old Brooklynite commenced with his runaway hit “Panda,” and perform he did. To call Desiigner animated would be an understatement: He was running up and down the entire auditorium, pumping up his hands, dabbing, making goofy facial expressions, and generally behaving like a chicken that’s been lit on fire. It was fun to watch, so much so that the delighted and confused audience probably didn’t even notice that he barely rapped the actual song. That’s his appeal, more or less.
Much as the backlash against him has been powered by the question of whether or not he’s purposely stealing Future’s identity, Desiigner’s real problem is that his music hasn’t been nearly as interesting as his character or career trajectory. G.O.O.D. Music’s newest signee has been building a cult of fans via his brand of eccentricity and his offbeat persona, best exemplified in a XXL freestyle — he’s going viral off a line about Timmy Turner “wishing for a burner.” The internet — for as much as it’s constantly accused Desiigner of riding a wave — has also been his best tool for staying relevant.
Still, none of this creative energy shows up in the recorded music we’ve been given so far. “Panda” becoming a hit feels more to do with a Kanye cosign (and sample) than the actual power of the song itself. But nothing else off New English reaches even that level. Desiigner bites much of the style that his reigning purple antecedent made his name off of, for sure, but that’s hardly his biggest problem — younger rappers have borrowed from their elders plenty (try Jay Z and Big Daddy Kane). The real issue is that he does nothing except make safer versions of the songs he’s influenced by. Much of his tape owes its aesthetic to Chicago drill-rap with its rat-a-tat production and furious, mantra-like rhyming; but it’s more diluted and lacking the personality of the source material.
Most of the energy of New English is poured into his (trademark?) ad-libs. The staccato yeahs and machine-gun sound effects do a good job of convincing you that you’re listening to an exciting project. But after a while, it just starts to make your head hurt. Desiigner is a young kid and has all of the signifiers of other young rappers like Travi$ Scott and Lil Uzi Vert: a mesmerizing on-record persona, “rock star” energy onstage, and a discography that mostly showcases the most shallow, obvious aspects of much better rappers. People can go far thanks to sheer likability, and as that rambunctious BET awards performance showed, sometimes they even deserve to be there. But the rest will have to catch up if they plan to stay.