In the past few years, the Beatles have become an odd point of comparison among rappers and the people who love them. In 2014, rap fans flooded Twitter with only half-joking insistence that Migos are better than the Beatles, the Atlanta trio having purportedly eclipsed the legendary group’s catalog on the strength of “Versace.” A year earlier, the comedian Desus Nice famously tweeted: “John Lennon got shot and died. Cam’ron got shot and drove to the hospital in a Lamborghini. Not even a contest.”
I can think of a few reasons Black Twitter might find such great and inexhaustible joy in taking the piss out of Lennon and Co.: The Beatles are the original pop revolutionaries, and pop revolution is a timeless aspiration among kid musicians. Hip-hop and rock naturally antagonize one another. The white, classic-rock canon is oppressive. Rap fans can’t help but clown the legacy of pretty white schoolboy–types with mop tops. In any case, the Migos said they were flattered by the persistent comparison to the Beatles. Rae Sremmurd then went and made a song to name themselves successors to the Fab Four.
“Black Beatles” is the saving grace of Rae Sremmurd’s sophomore album, which has otherwise flopped pretty hard since it dropped in August. SremmLife2 sold just 27,000 copies in its first week, despite last year’s massive success of SremmLife and its smash singles, “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” (Their debut album fell just a bit short of 50,000 copies in first-week sales.)
The lead single from SremmLife2, “By Chance,” has a relatively standard trap cadence, with a hokey and exhausting hook. The second single, “Look Alive,” does the boys one worse by sounding so winded and generic. Neither song made an impact on the Billboard 100 (the former didn’t chart, the latter peaked at no. 76). But now arrives “Black Beatles,” currently no. 41 and rising, a quirky trap karaoke song produced by Rae Sremmurd’s mentor-producer Mike Will Made-It and featuring Gucci Mane. A song full of dark but youthful exuberance, “Black Beatles” is the single that underscores Rae Sremmurd’s core strengths and key distinction from other trap music, setting them apart as the best group to happen to Southern party rap since Travis Porter.
In the carefree spirit of dread-headed kids who refuse to rap over DJ Premier beats, Rae Sremmurd make songs that are childish and bizarre, but nonetheless intelligible. Swae Lee’s sense of melody is a midway point between Young Thug, who mumbles, and Fetty Wap, who belts. “Getting so gone I’m not blinking / What in the world was I thinking?” sings Swae, and his voice nearly cracks. “I’m a fucking black Beatle / Cream seats in the Regal / Rocking John Lennon lenses, like to see ’em spread-eagle,” he later raps, in a manner that drifts between choppy and low, swift and high. Meanwhile, his partner Slim Jxmmy boots his usually flat rapping style on “Black Beatles” to an energy level unheard since “No Flex Zone.”
However, it’s really Swae Lee’s style that defines Rae Sremmurd and distinguishes the group’s sound. Swae doesn’t rap so much as pout; he doesn’t sing so much as he hollers on key. The best Swae verses — and “Black Beatles” is one of his best — blur the ever-dwindling line between hip-hop and R&B with playful, high-pitched, cherubic abandon. It’s a tack that you’re now increasingly likely to hear in popular songs from other artists, such as Swae Lee collaborator Madeintyo on his breakout single “Uber Everywhere.” I also count Portland rapper Aminé’s streaming hit “Caroline” in this whole, post-snap redux wave. The singer Jeremih’s recent single, “Pass Dat,” cowritten with the young L.A. rapper Starrah, is the best example of Rae Sremmurd’s immediate influence writ large. What you’re hearing in all of these songs is contemporary hip-hop’s equivalent of recess; a playground for black hipster swagger.
Swae Lee is a favorite rapper of the Knowles sisters, and he cowrote “Formation” with Beyoncé. More recently, he says he’s written a song with Katy Perry. It’s a promising career track for a kid who many rap fans initially discounted as one-half of a one-hit wonder, and it’s gratifying irony for a group who’ve had to defend themselves against claims that they don’t even write their own songs. Swae Lee stands out as a potential solo artist with his own peculiar talents and quirks, such as his cartoonishly yappy vocal highs, or his romantic, if perplexing, way with words. Despite the commercial disappointment of SremmLife2, Swae Lee’s future is bright. “Young bull living like an old geezer,” he sings on “Black Beatles.” Somewhere, I imagine Sir Paul McCartney might already be whistling the hook.