Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, weird tweets, fashion trends—and anything else that catches his attention.
Milwaukee’s street-rap scene is obsessed with maxed-out Auto-Tune, bringing to mind swag rap of the early 2010s, 1017 Thug-era Young Thug, and Chief Keef’s robotic warbles turned to 100. But much like their influences, these electronically enhanced MCs are using a tool designed for perfection to ratchet up their imperfections. They rap tales of credit-card scams and cooking dope over beats that could have been made a decade ago, all while sounding like cyborgs.
This isn’t exactly a new trend in Milwaukee. Back in 2019, Chicken P and Jigg released one of the city’s signature rap songs to date, “Fast Cash Babies,” which is drowned in Auto-Tune. Then there was Mari Boy Mula Mar, whose Auto-Tune-aided run of local hits in 2019 and 2020 mixed human sounds with digitally altered ones as well as any Thug descendant. So the scene’s current wave of distorted and mechanical crooning makes sense, even if rappers elsewhere aren’t exactly on their wavelength. In popular rap at least, Auto-Tune is most commonly used to sound somewhat naturalistic and to capture R&B sensibilities—think of the current incarnations of Future and Lil Durk. In Milwaukee, they use it to sound like freaks.
These are a few of my favorite Milwaukee rap Auto-Tune cuts from this year.
Big Pee is having too much fun with the power of Auto-Tune. It’s like when you teach a kid what inhaling the helium out of a balloon does to their voice and they won’t stop. Throughout “Farewell,” Pee can hardly get through a line without belting like he’s Chaka Khan singing the National Anthem. I’d tell him to chill out, but that overkill is part of what makes the scene’s infatuation with the tool so great.
For the last several months, Certified Trapper has been flooding his YouTube page almost daily, posting short, catchy songs with self-recorded music videos filmed in the same two or three locations. He doesn’t always use Auto-Tune, though when you’re as prolific as he is, mixing it up doesn’t hurt. On “Freak Like Me,” over drums and claps that could appear on a mixtape hosted by DJ Spinz, he experiments with altering his voice. His vocals end up overlapping, creating an eerie echo that causes lines to linger far after they leave his mouth.
If used in a certain way, Auto-Tune can make your voice sound cold—but used in another, it can help unlock a soulful, emotional side. Jonny Blves isn’t exactly saying anything that deep on “Lose By Yourself,” but it feels like he is. From the opening seconds when he murmurs “Let me talk my shit” to the whooshing ad-libs, details that may have originally been inconsequential take on meaning thanks to some crucial pitch tweaks.
1LilRB shares some traits with the pain rappers of the South, like NoCap and Rylo Rodriguez, except his music is way faster. He’s shot out of a cannon on “Who RB” and doesn’t step on the brake for the entire minute and a half. Compared to others locally, his use of Auto-Tune is reduced but still weird.
Two of the best rappers in Milwaukee with Auto-Tune, TrapBaby and Big Haulin, team up with two of the best without, MarijuanaXO and Joe Pablo. The latter may have a joint mixtape that belongs on 2022’s shortlist (Window Service), but TrapBaby and Big Haulin’s computerized melodies are the appeal of “P.O.D.” Big Haulin is not even concerned with hitting the notes, instead ranting about the power of brotherhood through a web of distortion. Check Haulin’s “Outside” for the full out-of-body experience.
Big Homie Dre Cash sounds like he’s been beamed in from the Twilight Zone. Not only is the Auto-Tune cranked up, but the unusually high pitch makes him sound like a cartoon alien. I particularly like how every line ends with robotic “uggghhhs,” which are catchier than they have any right to be. Strangely, the over-the-top use of Auto-Tune made me think of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow.” This is way cooler, though.
Throwback rapper movie corner: 2002’s Undisputed
Occasionally throughout Undisputed, a 2002 prison boxing drama led by Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, a Mannie Fresh-produced song will start to play, and every time it is frankly shocking. His distinctly skittering drum patterns aren’t normally what you hear in movies. The film’s original soundtrack was put together by Cash Money in the time shortly after Juvenile and B.G. left the label, which is to say it’s mostly C-list material. There is one particularly memorable song, though—the title track “Undisputed” soundtracks the opening credits and has a hard Lil Wayne verse and a punchy Mannie Fresh beat.