Justin Staple’s documentary examines how the online streaming platform launched the careers of influential young hip-hop artists, many of whom suffer from mental illness.
“What young people want from pop culture is not what old people want from pop culture,” New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica observes in Justin Staple’s documentary “American Rapstar.” The film traces the rise of a generation of lo-fi rappers driven by the advent of the online streaming platform SoundCloud, founded in 2007. Smokepurpp, Lil Xan and Bhad Bhabie are among the (living) talking heads, while that late rappers XXXTentacion and Lil Pump is also in the spotlight as the feature delves into the drug addiction epidemic plaguing the scene – from popping Xanax to the more serious and very often deadly fentanyl. Director Staple’s film features many big ideas, mostly successful, ranging from indicting Big Pharma for encouraging pill addiction to the generational divide between hip-hop artists who came of age in the early of the 1990s and today’s mostly Internet-based base. Although it’s a simple documentary in the classic sense, it’s polished, touching, professionally edited and packed with great personalities.
The most outspoken is rapper and internet personality Bhad Bhabie (she has more than 16 million Instagram followers, even if your mom has never heard of her), who rails against conformity in some dating animated and clearly observes: “This generation? All children are bad. She also speaks out against the widespread trend of face tattoos which she says are all starting to look alike. She is also candid about her own experiences with drug addiction. Indeed, “American Rapstar” paints a picture of a drug-addicted universe of children hanging on their phones and searching for a way to numb their trauma. It didn’t go over well for rappers XXXTentacion (one of Soundcloud’s early hits), who was murdered in 2018 after a life of depression and family issues, and Lil Peep, the Swedish-American rapper who overdosed on his tour bus in 2017. “Where are we going to find happiness?” Bhad Bhabie said at one point. There’s also Lexii Alijai, who overdosed in 2020, and references to Mac Miller, almost amounting to a buildup of very sad industry casualties.
“American Rapstar” takes dark turns as it unfolds their stories (encouraged by a rather ominous electronic score by Nathan Williams that sounds straight out of a horror thriller) as cautionary tales for the industry as a whole. While the film isn’t a hagiographic puff, it’s also careful to point out just how influential these artists were and how iconoclastic in their swear-filled message. (XXXTentacion’s songs leaned heavily on themes of alienation and depression.)
“The internet has become such a toxic place,” said 26-year-old California rapper Lil Xan. But it also allowed artists like him (“I am the new wave,” he says) to flourish. Oddly enough, for a documentary that takes SoundCloud, there’s little specific context here on the platform. It started in 2007 as a way for artists to upload and promote their DIY fashionable work, wresting control of their content from corporations. SoundCloud becomes more of a timely backdrop for exploring the larger cultural surfacings that have occurred among hip-hoppers and their fans from the mid-2000s to today.
Towards the end of the film, Caramanica offers an intriguing insight into the kind of complicated music the artists produce. Too often, their lyrics are seen as the product of generational unease – an “oh you the kind of stuff for kids – when we should be listening more closely. “You shouldn’t let your viewers feel good. They should come out of the theater scratching their heads a bit and trying to figure out how they’re also involved,” Caramanica says. The same could be said for Staple’s film.
“American Rapstar” is now streaming on Hulu and Utopia’s digital platforms.