The process of making a musical masterpiece feels like a quest for perfection. Artists, producers, and engineers spend endless nights obsessively tweaking tracks, searching for the smooth, crisp audio that’s expected in the modern music landscape. But does music need to sound flawless to be high-quality art? Fans of lo-fi, a production focus that takes the raw elements of pre-mixed music and sprinkles them into the final product, would beg to differ. The technique of stripping a song of its polished parts may seem counter-productive, but as more high-profile hip hop musicians add lo-fi to their repertoire, the sound has taken on a new form that may prove that this re-emerging trend is here to stay.
Listening to an Earl Sweatshirt project from beginning to end nowadays is like Mike Tyson delivering constant right hooks to your eardrums. There’s nothing pleasant about 2018’s critically acclaimed Some Rap Songs or 2019’s follow-up EP Feet of Clay — from the depressing lyrical content detailing loneliness to the rough, dirty loops that nearly drown out Earl’s confessions. The bass is deafening. The distortion is stomach-churning. The mixing is disgustingly muddy. The California rapper takes the imperfections that define lo-fi music and turns the notch to the max. Both projects are exhausting listens — a feat in itself considering SRS and FOC clock in at only 25 and 15 minutes respectively — and each one requires a keen ear and multiple plays to figure out the intricacies Earl is attempting to present.
Earl isn’t the only artist to adopt a lo-fi vibe to his music in the latter half of this decade. Danny Brown, known for his otherworldly choices in production, dove headfirst into psychedelic lo-fi on his drug-fueled 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition. More recently, Tyler the Creator painted a gorgeous lo-fi ‘80s synth-pop backdrop for his breakup opus Igor. Even Frank Ocean tried his hand at an avant-garde lo-fi approach on his new single “DHL,” placing an abstract beat at the forefront and letting his rambling vocals take a backseat, fading off into oblivion. Each musician modifies the lo-fi sound to suit their own melodic talents, but they all circle back to the same core elements. The audio crackles, with voices seemingly swallowed up by dense, overwhelming sounds, and the production feels unfinished and purposefully neglected.
Dirty mixing, when done effectively, can invoke a set of raw feelings within the listener that mirrors the sound quality of the tracks themselves. Songs with a Grade A touch sometimes appear larger than life, with a polish that prevents you from fully relating to the musician spilling their guts. Somber tracks require a gritty aesthetic to fully hammer home the connection between artist and fan. Earl Sweatshirt’s solemn bars on his last two projects are further accentuated by its presentation. We can feel the withdrawn, suffocating nature of Earl’s emotions because the vocals are showcased in such an uncomfortable fashion.
Deliberately including lo-fi elements in your music can be traced back to 1960s garage bands, but the practice has jumped between different genres before fully embracing the hip hop sound during the rise of Soundcloud rap in the 2010s. Advancements in technology and simpler music distribution channels opened the door for anybody with Internet access and a decent microphone to post their tracks for the world to see. The result was a lo-fi resurgence as amateur artists combined with low-end audio equipment created a “rough-around-the-edges” aesthetic that resonated amongst a core audience. The sudden ascension of artists like XXXTentacion and Juice Wrld can be directly attributed to this movement, as the sound slowly trickled into the mainstream.
Although lo-fi has developed a solid following in recent years, the off-kilter style has its fair share of detractors. Some Rap Songs, although heralded by critics as one of the best albums of 2018, didn’t resonate as effectively with some listeners who pointed out the disorienting loops and abstract flows as distracting to the cathartic message the album was trying to present. It’s hard to blame them. The majority of the project sounds muffled as if Earl recorded it in a closet underneath a mound of dirty laundry. Igor, in all its sonic glory, has several harsh critics claiming the warbly chipmunk voice Tyler utilizes on a few of the tracks were poorly mixed in. When the goal of a style of music is to sacrifice crispness for a splash of authenticity and imperfection, you’re ultimately not going to please everyone.
The requirements dictating whether an album deserves to be considered timeless or not fluctuate depending on the type of music fan you talk to. Some believe that the replay value of a project greatly determines whether that body of work will forever be mentioned amongst some of the best music to ever be released. I firmly believe that an album’s worth is not indicative of how many times it spills through my headphones, but how much of an impact it has on my emotions and way of thinking during those few listening sessions. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is a politically-charged work of art that is too complex and deep for frequent visits, but I know when I eventually return I’ll be as blown away as I was the first time. Lo-fi music, while lacking in technical completeness, has the potential to be viewed in the same light if utilized in a way that captures the realness and rawness of flawed human emotion.
Heading into the next decade, lo-fi and it’s imperfect elements have found a sweet spot balancing mainstream artist attraction and widespread appeal. Igor is considered by many to be Tyler, the Creator’s magnum opus and one of the best albums of the year. Earl Sweatshirt has tapped into an audience and sound with his latest offerings that he wants to explore and evolve through time. Frank Ocean, one of the more impressive vocalists of the generation, has even muted his usual crooning in favor of a more dreamy, lo-fi sound. The music business can appear like a cookie-cutter industry of perfectionists, but more and more musicians are becoming willing to take major sonic risks to differentiate their art from the sea of other aspiring artists, even if it means muddying up the waters a bit. Lo-fi music has begun to capture the hearts and ears of music fans, and I don’t see the momentum slowing down anytime soon.