Pre-internet rural America was a cultural wasteland for anything outside the mainstream. My metal and hip-hop knowledge came mostly from friends and MTV, with an occasional assist from my parents' scare literature warning about the evils of King Diamond, N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew, which helpfully offered lyrical excerpts. Older kids in my neighborhood turned me onto thrash in the late 80s, but I didn't hear death metal until 1993, when I borrowed a copy of Cannibal Corpse's Tomb of the Mutilated and dubbed it onto a blank cassette.
I'd heard about Cannibal Corpse due to its graphic album covers and lyrics, and even as a clueless teenager I was cognizant enough to recognize and be repulsed by its violent misogyny. I still wanted to hear it. The band's gnarled riffs marked a logical progression from Metallica and Slayer, but Chris Barnes' Cookie Monster vocals stopped me cold. Weird Al Yankovic had poked fun at Kurt Cobain's unhinged singing in 1992, dropping the lines "It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss/With all these marbles in my mouth." While Nirvana's lyrics could at least sometimes be understood, Cannibal Corpse sounded like garbled growls, provoking giggles instead of intensity.
Tomb of the Mutilated's wall of sound was catchy enough to demand repeat listens, and over the next few weeks, the album lifted its veil to reveal a musical style that not only conveyed a specific form of sexual frustration, but did so in a terribly catchy way. Today, nearly 25 years later, it sounds like death metal as pop—the genre stripped to its basics, a template that launched thousands of bands since.
For its many flaws, Tomb of the Mutilated opened a door. Any time a new vocal style intimidates with its seeming impenetrability, the Cannibal Corpse formula can be applied. It may take three or five or ten listens to wrap your head around a seemingly alien vocal. In the same way that listening to metal requires a mindset that's not always focused on the literal words being sung, so too can this mindset help newbies crack other genres that rely on garbled, processed, accented, or non-English words, like ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall tracks. Afrobeat, J-pop, Tropicália and the endless genres from the world of non-English-language music. The fountain never stops flowing.
The Cannibal Corpse formula applies to hip-hop and trap music, too. I grew up grounded in 80s and 90s hip-hop, but I've also appreciated the post-Lil Wayne slurring renaissance that's seen Chief Keef and Gucci Mane to take drawling to new heights. The sound beneath them has changed, too, shifting toward noisier atmospherics with ominous synths, frantic piano lines and disembodied orchestras. Combined with woozy, less enunciated vocals, it sounds denser than 90s rap. In this sonically thick mix, atmosphere counts for more than enunciated vocals—not unlike extreme metal.
Young Thug has taken the art of spitting indecipherable bars to new heights. He's built a career on warbling words, to the point where techies suggest he's actually evolving language. His mixtapes soar on their layered production and broad swaths of noise, but it's his innovative tones and cadences that grab the ear and make it all fit together.
In some ways, looking up Young Thug's lyrics on Rap Genius runs against his aesthetic. His lyrics work best when words and phrases unexpectedly emerge, sometimes seeming to vary between listens. Yet, with Pokémon Go still driving people outside, it felt important to know what words Thug was saying in the hook on "Picacho." According to Genius, it's "My diamonds, they say Pikachu, they say Pikachu / I'm a boss, I walk through the club and just peek at you."
Or that, on "Flaws", the hook goes as follows: "Rosé goin' right inside the kitchen / I might be a lame if I don't pay that ho tuition / I find out like two weeks ago that I was pimp / I don't stack that shit by the four 'cause I'm not a shrimp / Man I do it, put that shit on everything she know I do it / Fuck that work I might not do it (Psyche!) / Like my daddy or the school, I might listen to it."
An important disclaimer: These might not be the actual lyrics. The "Flaws" page lists 22 contributors. I'm still not sure they got it right, and really it doesn't matter compared to what's coming out of the speakers. At their best, Young Thug and his peers sound like jazz—not just the scat singing of Jelly Roll Morton and Ella Fitzgerald, but the relentless experimentation of players like Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, who pushed their art to unexplored places.
Sometimes these explorations don't process at first. Their unorthodoxy can be incomprehensible on the first, second, or even fifth listen. It took years for me to come around to Auto-Tune. Yet for the listener willing to endure and even embrace the strangeness, they eventually bloom into fully formed works of art. And if you're lucky, you can dance to it.
For all the difficulty in obtaining challenging music in pre-internet rural Virginia, its relative scarcity encouraged putting in the hours to appreciate it. Today, streaming services make it easy to find new music—and even easier to skip through tracks without absorbing them. It can be hard to make it through a full album even by a favorite band, much less one that challenges notions of what music can be. That's why many of my generation stick to 90s hip-hop over modern trap music—and it's why most of the kids who turned me onto thrash in the 80s couldn't transition into death metal.
It's worth sticking with difficult art, though. It broadens and deepens the musical palate, and it opens doors to new, unexpected places. It keeps you from becoming a jaded fossil complaining that music doesn't sound like music anymore. There's a reason you can find hip-hop and death metal throughout the world now: They both speak a universal language for those who know the code.
Cannibal Corpse's Tomb of the Mutilated doesn't get much play from me these days. It's a dated album hobbled by its violent, anti-women imagery and the fact it's been so imitated it now sounds almost generic. Yet it's pivotal for how it challenged my ears and taught me that music is about conjuring an idea with a sound. Now, Young Thug is proving it all over again.
Find Mason Adams bargle nawdle zouss on Twitter.