Nothing exists in pop culture without a mutation. Artists have borrowed (or happily stolen) from their contemporaries for centuries, but with the way meme culture raucously spreads online, every bit of today’s pop art—rap songs, Marvel characters, memorable scenes from Bravo reality shows—ends up repurposed by fans through add-on. A 25-second clip from The Real Blac Chyna is reframed as an Oscar-worthy performance on Twitter. Netflix’s psycho-dating drama You finds surprising resonance on YouTube, where it’s morphed into a multi-episode “hood” parody shared in group texts. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” takes on new meaning through countless homemade videos. The mutation is becoming increasingly corrosive on TikTok, where white teens recklessly lampoon black culture under hashtags like #CripWalk and #Ghetto. These alterations live as fragments, glittery shrapnel in a constantly expanding ecosystem of cultural products, but they also point to how art gains new meaning, in both fantastic and poisonous ways, when it’s modified by others—especially on the internet.
The thing about creating culture out of mutations, particularly when they’re done by fans, is that the end is never clear or predictable. A song like “Old Town Road” experiences its first life on SoundCloud, where it’s uploaded. It then catches fire on TikTok, where it becomes a global trend. The trend feeds into another bubbling phenomenon on Twitter, The Black Yeehaw Agenda, both now playing off one another. As a result, other stray digital ephemera are sucked into this eddying body—fashion photos of NBA baller Chris Paul, a random clip of someone’s dad—all of them in conversation with one another. All of them helping to create a larger macro-narrative.
Online, pop art is chiefly experienced through a cross-contextual lens. Only, instead of bringing culture into focus—it blurs and complicates, it becomes a sponge. In time, though, it gives us a better understanding of the world around us. It’s why a flurry of TikToks can best crystallize, more than any music review could, the ingredient-rich production of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.” Or why a scene from The Circle, the cheeky Netflix reality series about fame-guzzling internetters, is able to sharply capture the essence of app-hookup culture in one shot. Today, the speed at which we consume culture demands that it live across context, endlessly applicable. It is art, and the perpetual experience of art, in the overload.
Sometimes art is created for this very reason: to go viral. Money-drunk suits, or even artists themselves, want to seize the moment and reach as many people as possible. That’s just business. But a Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber documentary doesn’t add much—to their own work, or the larger narrative. Occasionally, though, art is created that stands on its own, proof that the principal vessel needs no addition. The only context for it is itself. Kesha and Lil Wayne’s just-released albums exemplify this. The records work differently—on High Road, Kesha offers up a carousel of atomic party anthems, where Funeral finds Lil Wayne tapping into his rap demigod status of the late 2000s—but both are human in all the ways you’d hope: real and messy and surprisingly touching.
Funeral is the better of the two—mostly because it presents Wayne in a glorious polyphonic: seesawing between his more free-associative AutoTuned gurgle and the pop avant-garde, all of it over trap-thick beats, syrupy screw-pacing, occasional soul flourishes, and granite-hard cool. Take your pick: “Harden,” “Mamma Mia,” the Mannie Fresh-produced “Mahogany,” or the final minute of “Piano Trap”—each one is Wayne at the mountaintop. Vulnerability informs some of the album’s rougher edges; he cycles through drug use, health issues, and past mistakes with what seems like more coherence than he’s been able to muster on previous projects.
Funeral is Lil Wayne’s 13th major-label release but his first since ending the Carter series, his years-long legacy epic, and escaping the legal fight he’d been locked in with former mentor, Brian “Baby” Williams. There’s a lovable volatility to how Funeral unfolds, which adds to its charm; listening, you feel like the former Greatest Rapper Alive is stampeding forward—sometimes spiraling, sometimes soaring—but in complete control. Collectively, the album is more than brilliantly gonzo one-liners and head-cracking turns of phrase, it’s the first release in a very long time, perhaps since that legend-cementing run in the mid-2000s where it felt like Wayne was dropping an album or mixtape every few months, where he again transcends easy category.
The beauty in both projects is how they test the idea of immortality. How many lives can one superstar live? For Wayne, his album’s title makes the metaphor literal. (Thankfully, the album is more of a rebirth moment than a casket-closer.) On High Road, Kesha is focused on outliving the limits placed on her by critics and fame vultures. It’s probably why the album leans heavy on immodesty: It’s got a punk-party spirit, all the way down to the videogame plink of “Birthday Suit.” Kesha just wants to have fun—an act that feels that much more courageous because she’s chosen personal well-being over pain. (She’s been in an ongoing legal battle for years with Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, her longtime producer and label boss, whom she alleges sexually assaulted her, a claim he says she fabricated to get out of a recording contract.)
In this way, the album mirrors the neon self-gratification of Animal, her 2010 debut, but with a pinch more canniness. “My Own Dance,” finds the 32-year-old singer battling an internal dialog—at points true and comic. “‘You’re the party girl, you’re the tragedy,’” she sings on the chorus, conjuring past criticisms. “But the funny thing’s I’m fucking everything.” It’s easy to laugh at lines like that, and there are many that might very well raise eyebrows, but what separates High Road from past projects is that Kesha has come to this personal reckoning on her terms. If Rainbow, an album very much colored by trauma and heartache, was about collective healing, High Road is purely for Kesha.
Still, High Road’s best songs are bright testaments to perseverance (“Shadow”; “Resentment”), and a reminder that Kesha isn’t easily counted out. The context here is herself. So much of our art depends on fitting into the broader pop culture framework; without that, it lacks robustness. Kesha and Lil Wayne don’t have this problem. Free from past tormentors, they’ve subtly redefined the breakup album, where the frame is the work itself. Even if Funeral or High Road were to take on some mutation—parodied in Instagram Stories or memed to death—as they likely will be, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to how art is repurposed online or even inauthentic to our fragmented times. It just wouldn’t be how we deserve to hear them.
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