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Lo-Fi Hip-Hop Is Everywhere And Meaningless

After the lo-fi hip-hop boom, a group of artists is looking to bring meaning and narrative back to the genre.

Posted on November 27, 2018, at 6:42 a.m. ET

If you listened to music on YouTube over the past year, it's inevitable that you've encountered a lo-fi hip-hop.

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The mixes and radio stations are basically chill hip-hop tracks looped and put into playlists with anime or cartoon clips used as the art.

The numerous channels that created them have become sensations, raking in thousands of listeners and carving out a loyal fanbase who turn to the tracks and mixes for soothing background music as they work or study.

However, the popularity of lo-fi has brought a number of detractors, and some feel the genre has become a parody of itself.

IDK if it's a meme nowadays to hate on the lo-fi hip hop radio YT stations but honestly there are very few things in this world that put my mind at ease whenever I feel bad so just allow me to enjoy this shit yeah

How many times do I have to click ‘not interested’ on “lo-fi hip hop beats 24/7 stream for studying/relaxing” before youtube stops recommending it on my home page. It’s been doing this for over a year AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH I DONT CARE ABOUT LO FI HIP HOP BEATS TO RELAX STUDY 24/7

In the shadow of the lo-fi hip-hop backlash, a number of artists are trying to bring shape and story back to downtempo music.

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"To be honest I don't actually really hate lo-fi," said Maël, a 23-year-old from France, who currently makes music under the name In Love With A Ghost. The "About" section on their YouTube page ends with "ps: i hate lo-fi hip-hop."

"It's more of a running meme, but it's mainly that in its current states I find it very uncreative and boring.

"The main problem is that it started as a sorta subculture of boom-clap hip-hop ... but then every sampled music with static recordings was put in the same category, and then anything close to ambient and downtempo came in too, creating that big meaningless mess that it is right now."

The concept of In Love With A Ghost is downtempo tracks, but ones that capture specific emotions or stories.

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There are similarities to the lo-fi hip-hop craze — Maël occasionally makes what they'd consider lo-fi tracks, but is keen to find a way to put "soul" and concepts into the music. They also cite YouTube as a place where they have found popularity.

For example, two years ago, they had the idea for a track based around the concept of flowers.

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"I was in a cheesy mood," they said. "It gave me the opportunity to establish a character that a lot of people could relate to, and expect to act as they imagine it." They worked with others — vocalist Nori and artist Sarlisart — to bring the concept together. It resonated with people, and the YouTube video has since been viewed over 6 million times. In fact, numerous songs by Maël have racked up millions of views, as well as adoring comments from people emotionally connecting to the music.

Maël isn't the only musician trying to do something different with the broad, shapeless genre the lo-fi boom has created.

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City Girl, a project by a musician who prefers to go unidentified, explores the idea of being in a city, alone, among big groups of people.

"I think its pretty plain to see that lo-fi hip-hop has almost no meaning right now," they said. "I think the surge in this style becoming 'study' or 'chill' music has invited other types of ambient or instrumental heavy music to be defined as 'lo-fi'. Similar to how any movie nowadays with a disease or epidemic plot might be labelled as a 'zombie' movie, even if it has no relation to the history/tradition of said films... In this way, lo-fi has turned what was a river into an ocean."

For both artists, their music exists outside the confines of YouTube or playlists that lo-fi hip-hop thrives in. It stands on its own.

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Like In Love With A Ghost, City Girl relies on a basic premise and then allows listeners to add meaning or sense to their tracks from there.

City Girl does, in a way, see themselves as part of the lo-fi scene but thinks that music is far more complex than the limitations of what has become an internet meme.

"I think if fans and audiences find me through lo-fi then I inevitably am a part of it. I would say that genres have rich and complicated backgrounds, but at the same time they function as labels and in that way they also become meaningless," they said. They prefer being described as downtempo or electronic.

The main difference, it seems, between the viral lo-fi mixes and the work of musicians like City Girl is that instead of providing ambient background music, the latter wants listeners to connect and become immersed in the worlds of their tracks.

"The names I give City Girl's songs are just my interpretation of what story I think the music is telling. Like, 'Clair de Lune' by Debussy sounds exactly like the moon, but I can almost guarantee he came up with that name after having written the piece. Instrumental music is in such a unique position in this regard, as one song can tell so many stories," they said.

For both, their projects and music will continue and evolve as long as people still find a connection with them, whether or not lo-fi continues to thrive.

"I think as long as this world has the power to make people feel a certain way, I'll be happy," said Maël.

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