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Justin D Burton

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip-hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4 (Sounding Global Southernness) and Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Studies, and will be a regular contributor to Sounding Out! in 2016. His favorite rapper is Macklemore or Ryan Lewis.

“Safe Sex, Pay Checks, and Cracked Voices: Rae Sremmurd’s Disappearing Club”
Rae Sremmurd’s debut album Sremmlife concludes with the exuberant anthem “Safe Sex Pay Checks,” a tribute to free-flowing drinks, never-ending parties, and always-protected sex. Or, that’s the lyrical narrative. Listen closer, and the lyrics barely cover strained vocals and a glitching instrumental that suggest the party might be over. In each instance of the hook, rapper Swae Lee’s voice threatens to fade from the track altogether, sounding choked off as he reaches to the higher end of his register. Indeed, Swae Lee lays out the final two measures of each instance of the hook, conceding it to the instrumental track, itself reeling and stuttering, barely able to propel the song to the next verse. “SSPC” finally ends with a sharp fadeout on those two labored instrumental measures: the club disappears.

The club is central to Sremmlife and to the Dirty South more broadly, and its disappearance in “SSPC” offers a chance to pay close attention both to voice—the sonic reality of vocal technique—and to “voice”—the political audibility of certain bodies. What happens to the club in “SSPC,” and how does Swae’s choked voice relate to his choked off “voice”? I listen to “SSPC” as filtered through Robin James’s theory of the club as a space of recreational self-investment in I LOVE MAKONNEN’s “Tuesday.” If 24/7 economies use recreation to refresh workers like Makonnen for future labor—as a way to reproduce work—“SSPC” ultimately refuses future labor, punctuated by the mantra “safe sex, no babies.” In a political economy that mines wealth from criminalized Black men, the refusal to produce more Blackness as raw material is a refusal to contribute to a legible future. This refusal pushes Rae Sremmurd to the edge of legibility, their cracking voices choked off as the club disappears out from under them. 

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