It's hard to identify what exactly makes Makonnen compelling. The 25 year-old has aligned himself with the Atlanta rap producer guild (a.k.a. Mike Will, Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, Dun Deal, etc.). They're giving him beats for which most rappers would eat their collection of Versace belts—but he's singing on them.
He might sound like a gimmick at first. Vocals considered alone, you might visualize someone in the vein of Spooky Black, wherein attention to the aesthetic and the fact of its weirdness superseded the music (and then people eventually say "wow, this is actually tight"). The contrast between what you expect to hear after the "Metro Boomin want some more, nigga" signature and the crooning that immediately follows is jarring, approaching hilarious.
He's a Lil B stan. He worked as a hairdresser. He decorates mannequin (a word which I keep accidentally saying when I try to say the artist's name) heads. This particular one follows him loyally through his Instagram adventures and his music videos. In other words, he's 2014 Tumblr gold, as though devised by the internet gods as the next thing to satiate the Lil B, Yung Lean, and Spooky Black fans. Hints of his Lil B lineage are everywhere. The following video, despite being a sung piano song, bears a striking resemblance to a based freestyle.
But he's packaging his aesthetic very tightly. He and his mannequin, the surrealist iconography in his videos—it's all there. The tension surrounding Makonnen lies in the question, what do we do with this music? Does it make us feel any familiar emotions, or is it just evoking an "oh, that's strange" reaction? Would we rather just hear Young Thug rap over these beats? Perhaps the existence of Makonnen says just as much about the Atlanta producer collective as it does about him. The Mike Will conglomerate doesn't just want to do turn-up music anymore, and it's branching out through previously unknown channels. Take the trance induced by something like Young Thug's "The Blanguage," but throw a singer on it. See what comes out.
In that way, Makonnen feels like an experiment. The seemingly disparate elements at play (Atlanta trap production roots, vulnerable vocals, and that damn mannequin) don't necessarily tie together in an obvious way, but the result is fresh at the very least.
Such is the unfamiliar territory that Makonnen puts you in. You don't really get it because there isn't necessarily something concrete to get, or maybe there is and it went way over this author's head. He's doing something new and it's fun to watch. Whether or not his whole style confuses you, the fact is that the chorus to "Club Going Up On A Tuesday" will live and settle in your brain forever.
Alex Russell wants some more. Find him on Twitter @nonmogul.