Lil West Is the Delaware Loner Forging Rap’s Strange Future
Holed up in a small town, the 19-year-old rapper and a crew of producers he only knows online are creating a genreless utopia from leftover scraps of trap, emo, EDM, and a whole lot more.
On the surface, there’s not a whole lot going on in the small town of Bridgeville, Delaware. Even by the standards of local municipalities—most of which get their economic power from the First State’s favorable tax laws—it’s kinda slow. 45 minutes or so south of from Dover, the closest bigger city, the town is home to just over 2,000 people and its total land mass, per the census bureau, is 0.8 square miles. Its most notable recurring cultural event for was the World Championship Punkin Chunkin—wherein engineers with a taste for down-home absurdity launch gigantic gourds from trebuchets and pressurized air cannons. But even that esteemed competition chose to relocate in 2013 for a bigger city nearby, which is to say, things in Bridgeville can get a bit boring if you can’t find a way to make your own fun.
“There’s not too many people around,” says the musician Lil West, a lifelong resident of the town. Sinking into a big leather chair at one of basement studios at VICE’s Brooklyn offices, where he’s sitting during a break from New York’s fashion week festivities, and tugging at one of the many skinny braids that frames his face, he continues. “It’s real quiet and slow there. I don’t have too much to do.”
This has meant that over the last few years, the 19-year-old has had a lot of time to work on crafting a strange take on rap music. Using beats sourced from the internet’s finest experimental producers, he’s synthesized bits from seemingly disparate genres—de riguer flavors like emo and trap, but also drone music, East coast club tracks, industrial music, post-PC Music vocal warping and pure pop bliss—into a wonderfully fractured whole. When prompted to list off the genre’s he’s tried out so far, he begins: “hip-hop, rock, EDM…,” before grinning and trailing off, cognizant that the list could go much, much longer.
The best example of this patchwork sound is “Gum in my hair," a track produced by Osno1 that spins the energy of Hot Topic aesthetics, juke, black metal, and Travis Scott’s neon take on trap into one delirious, psychedelic swirl. Amid the chaos, West chirps a series of absurdist brags (“You take your bitch to the mall / I take my bitch to New York,” goes one memorable barb.) There’s little else out there like its glitchy, pitch-warped, otherworldly bliss, but it’s just one of ten equally distinctive tracks on last year’s LW17, West’s first full-length attempt to bring these influences and styles together.
This idiosyncratic approach means that he more or less fits well in any scene. He’s fallen in with pop experimenters like Lil Aaron and Dylan Brady, but he also plays well more mainstream songwriters, like the Vermont emo rap multi-hyphenate nothing,nowhere. West appeared on his 2017 album Reaper—one of The New York Times favorite records of the year—for a brief, brooding verse on “REM.’ The only other featured guest on that album was, of all people, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba. One of the main items on West’s fashion week itinerary was a party whose guests of honor included both the Floridian rapper Smokepurpp and HQ host Scott Rogowsky. Somehow this all makes sense. Or maybe it doesn’t, especially not for a kid from Bridgeville.
Most of the kids West went to school with immersed themselves in the usual distractions, going to parties, as well as local sports games, and other activities he deems “regular stuff” While he wasn’t above it, he says he wasn’t much cut out for that lifestyle. He was drawn to slightly more left-of-center hobbies. While everyone else was playing basketball, he was skating. While they listened to pop radio, he was listening to metal and alt-rock. He struggles to really explain why, but he always felt like he stuck out.
There were also other factors that made Bridgeville life complicated for West growing up. “It’s a small town with a Mayberry feel, but then you have the bad side,” West explains. “Bridgeville has its share of shootings, killings, and the drugs just like anywhere else. Of course bad stuff won’t be publicized like big city crimes, but trust me it exist.”
West himself says he was briefly wrapped up in that world, before his family moved to another part of town. “I was friends with the drug dealers, shooters, etc. so I got to see all the crazy shit that goes on,” he says. “For a little while, I actually was engaging in that activity because I had so much access to it and was around it so much. Late last year, one of my best friends got shot and killed over some drug shit. We went to school together since kindergarten so that tells you that it does get rough here.”
He won’t expand much beyond that, and still, he’s quick to clarify that the place has its charms. It’s a “friendly community,” with town parades and decorations get plastered across its facades during the holidays. He relishes the speed at which he’s able to move through the world there. Plus, it was Bridgeville, in all its glory, that ultimately pushed him to his real community, which he found online. He phrases it simply: “The internet was my escape.”
First, West found himself digging through blogs and illegal download sites, determined to get ahold of new music, new clothes, and new shoes, before the normies at school did. Though he got along well enough with people in Bridgeville, he says that most of his friends are people he met on the internet.“SoundCloud was like my homebase,” he said. Like a lot of aspirational artists, he’d obsessively message producers and artists he was into, hoping to find collaborators, or at least like minded operators with whom he could bounce ideas off of. To this day, there are people he’s worked with who he’s never even talked to on the phone, let alone met in person.
West still carries himself with the tentative, soft-spoken confidence of someone who’s spent their youth extremely online. In conversation, he tends to talk slowly, taking the time to form full sentences before he speaks, pausing with a elliptical rhythm that feels kinda like an iMessage conversation. The beauty of the music that he’s made over the last couple of years—posted in torrential spurts to a SoundCloud page that’s also populated with reposts from his similarly hyperprolific pals—is that it’s also become reflective of all that time spent logged on.
It’s an approach to songwriting that could only ever exist in the internet era, when—between streaming services, private torrent sites, and Discogs—the whole of the recorded history of music is more or less at an enterprising kid’s fingertips. In just the last couple of months, West’s issued subterranean trap (the Dmac-produced “Beliefs”), autotuned power balladry (the Dylan Brady-helmed “45min in LA, tee hee :)”), and a track that’s more or less a third-wave emo song built around a cover of a song by scene-y metalcore stalwarts Killswitch Engage. He even put out a song that feels a little indebted to David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ambient ballads. Often West and the producers he enlists are pulling the best bits from all of these sounds and more at once.
To West, this boundary-free approach basically just feels true to the way he’s always interacted with music. Even before he was digging through forums for sketchy download links, his dad tried to give him an expansive music education. He showed him old school rap, as well as newer stuff like Waka Flocka Flame and Wiz Khalifa. His dad also exposed him to Gorillaz, which became his first favorite band—which makes sense, their genre-agnostic approach to pop music seems more or less a prototype for the sounds he plays around with now. On his own, he discovered metal (he names Cradle of Filth as an early favorite), and poppy emo-leaning bands like All Time Low, which would become just as important a part of his musical DNA as the rap he was listening to. “It’s from [my dad] saying, ‘Rap’s cool but you should see what else you like,'” he says. “There’s other good music than just rap.”
“That’s why I’m so comfortable with switching different styles,” West says. “It’s just how I was living regular life, chilling with different crowds.”
Growing up, West didn’t have many friends he could bond with all of this stuff over, at least not all of it. “My older friends, the ones who was teaching me [to rap], I couldn’t listen to heavy metal around them,” he remembers. “They were like, ‘What is this? No no.’” So he spread himself out between cliques, performing different versions of himself for different people. Around the cool kids, he had to act more normal. Around his older friends, he had to be more mature. He had a few friends his age he could listen to metal around, but the internet, and then his music, offered a solution to this bifurcated personality. It gave him a space where he could be all the versions of himself, at once, and allowed him to connect with people who resonated with his varied interests. “That’s why I’m so comfortable with switching different styles,” he says. “It’s just how I was living regular life, chilling with different crowds.”
Since West doesn’t directly produce himself—though he does engineer most of his vocal takes himself alone at his house in Delaware—he relies on a vast network of producers to craft his diverse style, all of which he’s met online. Part of the joy in following his music is that he has an incredible ear for what sorts of sounds will work best with his voice, even when those sounds are really out there.
Osno1, a Chicagoan producer and songwriter, met West through Dylan Brady, a mutual internet pal and fellow traveler in pop’s outer realms. She says, via email, that she was first drawn to his music because his voice was “instantly recognizable” and that he “wasn't scared to pick beats that were more left-field than regular.” When making “Gum in my hair,” she says that he had an idea of what sounds would work best for his voice, and worked with her through the process, snipping some parts and asking her to add others. “He was just like ‘OK this is sick, but let’s lose this sound and this sound, and you should just go crazy for the end,’” she says. “And my favorite thing to hear in the world when I'm working on a song with somebody is them saying ‘just go crazy.’ He's very confident in himself and the people he chooses to work with.”
West’s other close collaborators talk about his process in similar terms. Distance Decay, a fellow Delawarean musician with a taste for synth lines that feel like frozen cotton candy, says he was first drawn to West’s music because of his taste for distinctive beats. “He wasn’t afraid to experiment from the start.” Dmac—a producer that favors dark and doomy 808 obliteration—praises both that “versatility” and the speed with which he works. “I can be making a beat and say to myself, ‘West would kill this’ and I'll send him it and we'll have a track done the next day,” he writes via email. “[He’s] really receptive to the beats that he receives, whether it's dark beats from myself, or a melodic, upbeat sound from Distance Decay.
True to West’s prolific, genre-hopping form he’s presently at work on two EPs—one with each of those two producers. Later this month, West will put out Vex, his release with Distance Decay, which finds him further embracing some of the downy ambience that he’s explored on previous collaborations. While other producers tend to push him toward experimental extremes, Distance Decay wraps West’s voice in these cocoon-like synth lines, creating pockets of calm in a catalog that’s otherwise embraced chaos.
Tracks like “O.K.,” premiering here, demonstrate that there’s room for softness in West’s songs too, singing of desire for domestic bliss (“She want a relationship like Cardi B, Offset / I know that / I want that”) as an beatless electronic melody plinks along like a malfunctioning music box. His old pal nothing,nowhere. finds a place in this complicated bliss too, dropping in for a floaty feature looking back on someone he’s lost—adding to the the track’s dewy melancholia. Presumably his EP with Dmac, titled Yu going be tha death of me, due later in the year, will explore other realms entirely, because that’s just what West does.
"It shouldn’t be like, ‘when you do outsider shit it's weird but when you do trap shit its regular,’" West says. "This should be the new trap."
“That’s definitely what my mind is on,” he says. “Making it cool to do this type of shit. Making it normal. It shouldn’t be like, ‘when you do outsider shit it's weird but when you do trap shit its regular.’ This should be the new trap. Everybody should be able to fuck with this.”
Whether that’s a possibility remains to be seen—he acknowledges that he’ll have to win over a few suits in the process—but he’s willing to try, and to keep pushing himself until then. And if it gets him out of Bridgeville in the process, all the better. “Everybody’s trying to stay in this one little box, and I don’t wanna do that. I can do a lot more with my voice,” he says. “So I think I’ll try.”
Olivia Locher is a New York-based photographer. Follow her on Instagram.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.