There are certain genres – drum 'n' bass or dubstep, for example – which stand alone, almost purposely in defiance of everything around them. Other genres are happier to mix and interact, acknowledging that dividing lines are often blurred. Cloud rap fits squarely into the latter category, drawing on and coexisting happily alongside a number of genres like trap, lo-fi and chillwave.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the name cloud rap had something to do with cloud storage or SoundCloud. There is an element of that (more on which later), but the answer is somehow much more in keeping with the often weird and wonderful sound of cloud rap.
The story goes that in a 2010 interview with Oakland rap duo Main Attrakionz, blogger Walker Chambliss referred to rapper Squadda B as “the king of cloud rap”. Chambliss reportedly had misremembered another blog post in which it was reported that Squadda’s fellow Bay Area rapper Lil B had shown Cocaine Blunts blogger Noz a CGI image of a castle floating in clouds, proclaiming: “That’s the kind of music I want to make.” Nevertheless, Chambliss inadvertently coined the phrase.
Best known for 2006’s minor crossover hit Vans as part of skate rap group The Pack (“Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers…”), Lil B was a walking meme almost from the word go. His heavily tattooed look, surreal lyrics, quirky fashion sense and slang (‘swag’, ‘based’) helped define the slightly tongue-in-cheek style of cloud rap.
Drawing on the classic 808 drum patterns of southern rap, the blissed out synths of chillwave, lo-fi production values and a creative approach to sampling, cloud rap could be seen as the weirdo cousin of the more hardcore trap sound from Atlanta and drill sound that was emerging from Chicago.
The first production superstar of the scene was New Jersey’s Clams Casino, who linked up with Lil B over Myspace in 2009. He went on to produce for cloud and cloud-adjacent artists including A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller (Youforia, 2013), Schoolboy Q (Gravy, 2014) and Lil Peep (4 Gold Chains, 2017).
Lyrically, the themes of cloud rap tend to skew significantly less gangsta than trap and drill, with any drug references more likely to be about getting high than selling. In the case of Swedish teen prodigy Yung Lean, an openness about teenage angst opened up a uniquely emotional new take on rap.
The diverse geographical backgrounds of its key protagonists hint at the fact that cloud rap was one of the first true internet-era genres, far less concerned with local scenes than hip-hop which came before.
The emergence of cloud rap coincided with the growth of file transfer platforms like Dropbox (launched in 2008) and WeTransfer (2009) as well as music-based social platform SoundCloud (2007). It says a lot that Lil B and Clams Casino began a prolific string of collaborations in 2009 but didn’t actually make music together in person until Based God featured on 2016’s 32 Levels album.
Although cloud rap was one of those classic genres where some of its most successful protagonists – such as A$AP Rocky – felt uncomfortable being pigeonholed in the genre, it had a huge influence on other styles of rap. The related mumble rap scene was later often known as SoundCloud rap for its use of the platform.
Similarly, mumble rap went on to evolve into the even more personal, openly emotional emo rap scene, which incorporated elements of instrumentation from punk and rock, and an even clearer lyrical focus on mental health issues. Cloud rap has only been recognised as a genre for around 12 years at this point, but already feels like a fixture of hip-hop and the broader music scene in general.
Three cloud rap classics
1. Lil B - I'm God (2009)
Always one of the weirder cloud rappers (in a good way), Lil B’s first collab with Clams Casino saw him assert his status in the game, via his own inimitable style: “My new name is Based God, ice cream paint job.” It’s all underpinned by a sultry, downtempo Clams beat built around a sample of Imogen Heap’s Just For Now.
English singer-songwriter Heap was an unlikely muse for cloud rap producers, not least Squadda B of Main Attrakionz, who sampled her on tracks including Legion Of Doom, Fuck The World and Blood Money.
2. A$AP Rocky - Demons (2011)
Speaking of which, Clams found further inspiration from the same sample source for Numb, a track from his 2011 Instrumentals showcase. Rising superstar A$AP Rocky jumped on the beat for Demons, released as part of his debut mixtape, LIVE.LOVE.A$AP. Rocky’s style evolved in due course, but the cloud rap calling cards are there on his debut, including the classic Peso.
3. Yung Lean - Ginseng Strip 2002 (2013)
Written when he was just 15, Ginseng Strip 2002 went viral on YouTube and established Stockholm’s Yung Lean as a new superstar in the cloud rap scene, spearheading the Sad Boy movement defined by its lyrical focus on depression, anxiety and drugs.
The flow on Ginseng Strip is rudimentary and childish at times (“Slitting wrists while dark evil spirits like Slytherin slither in with tricks, I’m sick”), but Lean’s monotone delivery and nihilistic teenage bars over trap-inspired beats helped define the scene and inspire emo rap.