Like the ravenous vultures they truly have become, music journalists are always eager to swoop in on unfamiliar sounds and declare them new genres. Some of their discoveries this year were legitimate and refreshing—and they might even make appearances on all those best-albums-of-the-year lists that are popping up right about now. Others, of course, were totally bogus. None were nominated for Grammys. For readers who don't obsessively comb through dozens of music blogs every day, we put together a guide to this year's musical micro trends, ranked on a sliding scale from "actually a thing" to "totally made up."
What it sounds like: The grittiest, most casually violent rap coming out in 2012. Drill is slow and heavy, laced with rhymes that are more agressive than technically impressive. Most of the Chicago kids who make drill are still young enough to be in high school. They make their own shot-on-the fly videos, waving firearms at the camera to compliment the superfluous gunshot noises littering their tracks. If this all sounds very testosterone-fueled, it might surprise you to know that drill has a strong female contingent.
Supposed practitioners: Chief Keef, King L, Sasha Go Hard, Katie Got Bandz, Lil Reese
How real it is: Too real. Chicago has seen a worrying uptick in youth violence recently, and while drill isn't to blame for it—whatever Pat Robertson says, music never directly convinces people to become killers—the music certainly reflects the mayhem. The connection between drill's biggest star Chief Keef and the murder of rival rapper Lil JoJo earlier this year remains unclear.
What it sounds like: Old Guard music writers are still enthralled with this newfangled dubstep noise, but Beatport lurkers have already moved on to a more brash, hyperactive sound called trap. Nominally inspired by Atlanta's gangsta rap scene (a "trap" is the house where drug dealers guard their stash), trap marries EDM frequencies with hip hop sensibilities. Because no nascent genre ever arrives without controversy, many of the rap producers who outlined the original contours of trap have accused this new breed of jacking their swag. Who's stealing from who aside, if you ever hear a dance track that features rattlesnake hi-hats and rapidfire snares skittering over a wub-wub bassline—all tied together with pitched-down rap samples—chances are you're listening to trap.
Supposed practioners: Flosstradamus, Baauer, TNGHT
How real it is: Real enough. The standards of "realness" aren't very high in EDM anyway. As long as DJs keep labeling their mixes trap, promoters keep putting together trap nights, and neo-ravers keep eating it up, trap will qualify as an actual thing.
What it sounds like: Message board denizens started grumbling about art school dropouts co-opting club music late last year, but it wasn't until 2012 that you started seeing the "hipster house" think pieces trickle out. Hipster house is usually defined as an artisanal approach to dance music, blending deep house, Italo disco, and vintage synth pop, stripping away any 21st century signifiers, and sandwiching it all between irony "quotes." Labels like 100% Silk and RVNG Intl. often get tarred as purveyors of the genre.
Supposed practitioners: Ital, The Miracles Club, Blondes, Teengirl Fantasy
How real it is: Sort of real, but not as a cohesive movement—and that genre tag needs work. The last few years have definitely seen club fare take a turn for the weird. And with groups looking like this, people were bound to scream "hipster." But each of these artists pursue very different styles, working independently from one another. And at this point, calling anything "hipster" only dismisses it. That's not quite fair to many of these adventurous producers, who deserve open ears.
What it sounds like: The kind of party rap that high schoolers listen to on their way to Homecoming. Lots of melodic synth lines, skeletal drum patterns, and obtrusive choruses that you can't get out of your head (once one enters Rack City, one can never leave). The term "ratchet" has been used to describe getting dumb/ignorant/silly for a while—Lil Boosie was doing the ratchet way back in 2007 before he landed in jail—but this year artists started using it to refer to their music itself. But no matter how hard they try to make ratchet a thing, it's hard to shake the suspicion that we've heard this all before. What separates ratchet from other party-down styles that emerged in recent hip hop history, like hyphy or jerkin? Not much, really.
Supposed practitioners: Tyga, YG, HBK Gang, Ty Dolla $ign
How real it is: It's a real term that real people use, but that doesn't mean it's really new. AllHipHop's slightly pervy Tim Sanchez summed it up pretty well when he wrote, "Ratchet Music is simplistic and even a reworking of previous musical trends, but there’s no denying its popularity, especially with the females."
Queer Rap / Homo Hop
What it sounds like: Music scribes had the best of intentions in writing about gay rappers this year. It was pretty amazing to see very out rappers finally storm the blogs, putting their sexuality front and center in a slew of stylish, daring songs. And with Frank Ocean's admission back in July about once having a male lover, we'll certainly look back on 2012 as the year being gay was no longer a career-killer in hip hop. But increasing acceptance isn't the same thing as a new genre, and rappers that get shelved in this category are too unique to be working toward the same sound. Le1f makes disorienting banjee-inspired weirdness; Zebra Katz takes things in a more stark, minimal direction; and Mykki Blanco is mostly trying to freak people out.
Supposed practitioners: Le1f, Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze
How real it is: It's true that gay rappers came out in big numbers this year, but grouping them all together based just on their sexuality distracts from the diversity of their approaches.
What it sounds like: Half-assed hashtag rap made by human memes, mostly as an excuse to upload highly re-bloggable videos to Tumblr and become Internet famous. Beats that sound like a sonic weed cloud. Cutesy girls rhyming about Adderall. A 17-year-old redhead from suburban Florida called Kitty Pryde epitomizes Tumblr-Wave. She mostly talks about her rapper crushes, high school, and drugs.
Supposed practitioners: Kitty Pryde, Kreayshawn, some Youtube phenomenon who has 15,000,000 views on her make-up tutorial video
How real it is: Not real. Someone tried to make a Wikipedia page for Tumblr-Wave, but the editors took it down. Because Kitty Pryde might be funny and clever when it comes to pushing all the right cool-kid buttons, but Tumblr-Wave is not real.
What it sounds like: Digital milkshakes blended with equal parts drum 'n' bass, '90s R&B, new age muzak, top 40, trance, and a bunch of other sounds recovered from the musical recycling bin of the last 20 years. Visually, seapunk takes viewers on a sea-faring voyage through a landscape full of Windows 98 and Sega Genesis graphics. It all started as a tweet from web-obsessed Brooklyn DJ Lil Internet. But people started taking it seriously, making frantic copy-paste beats accented with bubbling and splashing noises. Early this year, journalists started taking notice. And then Rihanna and Azealia Banks took notice, incorporating elements of seapunk into their shticks. The seapunks were not happy. Also, let's just ignore that this whole slimepunk offshoot ever happened.
Supposed practitioners: Ultrademon, Zombelle, everyone on Coral Records
How real it is: Completely not real. It's actually so unreal that it might be the realest genre of our increasingly hyperreal, inter-webbed world—a situation that hurts my brain. Sure, seapunk does have a somewhat defined sound. And people do go to seapunk shows, apparently. But imagining that a pixilated dolphin pirouetting to the tackiest music you've heard could perhaps be our generation's most significant musical statement? That's enough to make anyone seasick.