Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Time to strap in.
Let’s talk about trends for a second. When a trend’s first starting, it’s usually the result of one or more genuine artists advancing/refining a sound that eventually catches on with influencers and audiences, and breaks out. Inevitably, it peaks, and you get a slew of low-brow imitators who emulate the sonic and visual hallmarks of the trend, but do so with entirely commercial intentions and crappy music (not that the original artists aren’t trying to make a dollar, but artistic vision is still the top priority).
Sometimes, when a trend lasts long enough, you get artists in the middle of these two extremes: they aren’t quite the genuine creators who labored over a sound for months or years, nor are they the chart-chasing carpetbaggers peddling the most commercial form the music possible. Usually, these are the folks leaning a little harder into a trend’s pop abilities, but it’s still coming from a place of artistry; think of it as the “inspired by” standing between “genuinely inspired” and “derived from.” A couple of examples of these middle-brow types are Sixteen Stone-era Bush as the missing link from Nirvana to Nickelback, or the first two Mumford & Sons’ albums bridging the Fleet Foxes/The Lumineers gap
All that is to say that Desiigner is the middle guy for the 808/Atlanta iteration of trap that Future lords over, and my reaction when I hear “Panda” is the same as hearing “Machinehead” or “The Cave”: I’m dimly aware that what I’m being sold is a knockoff, but wheeee. The rise of “Panda” is tied to, among other factors, Future hitting his commercial ceiling; if assists from Drake and The Weeknd aren’t going to get you higher than the 15th spot or so on the pop charts, that’s it. And it’s not like Migos or Young Thug are going to start making radio chasers. There’s clearly a pop market for songs with deep bass, hard snares, and croaking rap deliveries, if only someone was willing to tap into it.
Enter, if unwittingly, freshly 19-year-old Brooklyn rapper Desiigner. When Desiigner released “Panda” last December, he didn’t expect to have the number 1 single in the country for a few weeks, but life had other ideas. And even setting aside the circumstances of how it got here (which I’ll get to in a second), I can see why it caught on: “Panda” for all its faults, is a stupidly good song to hear loud. Desiigner holds his own as performer, but the song’s made by those apocalyptic bells, divebombing snares (both care of producer Menace), and Desiigner’s own so-over-the-top-they-should-sound-dumb-but-oh-wait-they’re-awesome machinegun ad-libs. Now, these are the cheapest of trap thrills, and I start getting antsy 3 minutes into “Panda”‘s 4 minute run time (plus Future is still objectively better at this stuff), but for those 3 minutes? Sure, let’s have broads in Atlanta.
Arguably more than Future, Desiigner owes his success to Kanye. The first time 96% of us heard Desiigner wasn’t on “Panda” per se, but on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” during the Madison Square Garden premiere of The Life of Pablo. Eight minutes into the album, Kanye delivers an AutoTuned verse about Hollywood destroying his soul and his dad that drops off without warning as a loosely familiar voice croaks “I got broooaads in Atlanta”, leading into a heavy sample of “Panda.” Kanye tosses a few digitized wails and sings “I just wanna feel liberated” between Desiigner’s verses, but otherwise just plays a no-name’s song for a minute in the opening salvo of his record.
The more I think about it, the more I think Kanye made the Desiigner-Future connection as implicit as possible. TLOP‘s previous track (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”) actually uses Future’s voice for Metro Boomin’s DJ tag, and barely a few minutes later, you’ve got a Future soundalike dropping his most Future-biting line; the common reaction during the Madison Square Garden livestream was “Why’s Future sound so weird?” “Panda” benefited from unique exposure again, as it was widely available as a single while there was no buy (and only one streaming) option for The Life of Pablo for the album’s first month of existence. Had Kanye made the album available right away, people might not have latched onto “Panda” the way they have.
But it’s not like Kanye had to stretch to underline the point. Desiigner’s jacking of Future’s inscrutable delivery feels less like a creative choice, and more like covering his own weaknesses as a writer, much like Bush aping Kurt Cobain’s famously marble-mouthed vocals to hide their own bullshit lyrics. And when you can hear him, he’s rapping about Tony Montana, lean, designer names, and Percs–aka Future’s preoccupations. The guy lives so deep in Future’s shadow that his transparent non-answer to the comparison my be my favorite thing about him. But that’s not enough to make me interested in hearing more.
If it feels like I’ve written more around “Panda” than about it, that’s because the stories around it are more interesting than the song itself. Like I said, it works well enough as radio-trap, and Desiigner’s lively if nothing else (his second verse is actually pretty slick), but right now he doesn’t look built to last. He’s not like Fetty Wap, who broke through on a long-gestating banger and arrived fully formed; he seems like a right place/right time deal. If his career goes on, great, otherwise I hope he at least gets to joyride an X6 before it’s all over. 19 years old with a national hit and a Kanye West cosign; what a time to be alive.