21-year old Atlanta rapper SahBabii had a predictable, ultra-relatable journey into otakudom. It began, as all things do, with Bleach reruns, which dovetailed neatly into the feudal warfronts and ramen lunches of Naruto. To him, anime is all about the vibes—the serene, blue-sky hypnosis that can be summoned up by Miyazaki food scenes, or sepia Watanabe panoramics, or endless episodes of Shippuden on a bedroom carpet.
“I’m a big fan of nature, and I’m a big fan of animals, and Naruto has all of that,” he says, over a spotty cell phone connection. “It’s always sunny outside, and every time I watch it, my mind is in anime world.”
Years after his anime awakening, SahBabii started rapping. His first mixtape was recorded on a broken microphone and a copy of Cubase. It was picked up by WorldStar, and the rest is history. Today the rapper boasts nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram, making him perhaps the most famous weeaboo in the world. That’s at least the air that permeates “Anime World,” a delightfully twisted track pulled as a single from his latest record, Squidtastic. A plastic synthesizer twinkles in the distance, a few off-screen girls giggle in clarion Japanese, all while a zonked SahBabii details his happy place with one liquid bar after another.
“RIP Nujabes, nine tails a Jinchuriki,” “Orochimaru, snake a nigga, just like Gaara, can’t play with niggas,” “I dress like Akatsuki, they copycats, Kakashi,” you get the idea. The hip-hop paradigm has gotten progressively more eccentric in recent years, but a Naruto national anthem, released with the kind of unapologetic moxie that earns Pitchfork write-ups, certainly feels like a sea change.
There wasn’t anything unconventional about SahBabii’s rise. He was hyped in the way that young rappers are often hyped—through SoundCloud snippets, viral YouTube clips, and timely cosigns, adding up to that strange internet ubiquity familiar to everyone from Lil Peep to Jai Paul. More specifically, that means SahBabii didn’t attract the disposable virality that has historically infected anyone with the temerity, to, say, rap about Naruto.
“Anime World” isn’t a depressing, hucksterish Facebook video swerve in the “Epic Rap Battles of History” tradition. It also doesn’t belong to the wave of “nerdcore” in the early 2000s, where white men taped up their spectacles and unleashed referential, corny pent-up gamer id over innocent chiptune beats. Instead it’s very comfortable being a rap song, an equitable reflection of SahBabii’s identity, and definitive proof that in 2018, hip-hop and otakudom aren’t antithetical forces.
SahBabii is not alone, either. Before he got truly famous, Lil Uzi Vert flexed a rickety piano banger called “Super Saiyan Trunks.” Later, he’d give himself his own googly kawaii eyes in the video for 2017’s “Ps & Qs.” Lil Xan, the white San Bernardino 22-year old who’s approaching demigod-like status in the fuckboi pantheon, has been consistently candid about his weebness and how it’s seeped into his funereal raps. Teens have recently started superimposing Xan’s music on top of dour anime montages—which used to be the exclusive domain of bands like System of a Down and Linkin Park.
The late, profoundly problematic XXXTentacion was a huge fan of Ultimate Ninja Storm on PSN, Denzel Curry equated a grim hospital visit with the palliative care of a Dragon Ball senzu bean, one of the most exciting rappers in the world is named Kid Buu, and Danny Brown is currently previewing his new album while in the middle of Persona 5’s 100-hour campaign. You used to be able to track the contours of hip-hop by the sports references. These days, you might be better off asking for each emcee’s Best Girl.
The lineage here is clear—all of these rappers are young, and they all emerged through the primordial soup of SoundCloud, a platform that has systematically defanged many of the aesthetic and ethical bona fides that have defined hip-hop in the past. (37-year old Danny Brown is the exception, though as a lifelong oddball, he might be the precursor to the current moment.) By and large, these kids have poo-pooed the expected tithes to golden age icons like Tupac and Biggie—much to the consternation of Joe Budden-types— paving the way for a complete malapropism like Lil Peep to find success.
This revolution manifests in all sorts of ways—the physics of MCing are getting more abstract, but so is the content and topicality of the bars. The tired, masculine hegemony of what you are and aren’t allowed to rap about has fallen by the wayside. To this generation, there’s nothing transgressive or rebellious about, say, performing under a moniker like Kid Buu. SahBabii sums it up neatly when I ask him why, right now, we’re seeing more rappers be open about their otaku status. “My generation is more outspoken, a couple years back people would call [anime] lame. You’d be called a geek or whatever. [Hip-hop culture] is definitely changing. People are getting more weird. People are coming out and showing their true self.”
You shouldn’t be surprised—the rise of anime in mainstream pop culture was inevitable. Eventually, once they were old enough and bold enough, the scenesters who grew up watching Toonami were always going to inherit the earth and stand up for the sovereignty of the animation and styles they loved. Together, they’re forcing the culture to come to them, rather than the other way around. Those floodgates were eventually going to burst for hip-hop as well—Sahbabii just happened to be the vanguard.
There’s precedent for all this, of course. Lupe Fiasco is a humongous nerd, and Kanye has always been at his most charming when he’s tweeting effusive things about Akira. Even RZA, who came of age when hip-hop was at its most fraught and apocalyptic, shaped the future of the industry by splicing in clips from his favorite Hong Kong action flicks. I can’t imagine how they must feel, as the dorkiness they sowed is blooming right on schedule.
Still, I can see why there might be some residual old-head angst. Hip-hop is—rightfully—a guarded artform, and if a guy like Lil Xan is truly the next of kin, one of the people who will determine what rap music looks and sounds like for the next decade, I get why that’s concerning for reasons of heritage, statecraft, and outright taste.
What I would say to those doubters, though, is that you should listen to Sayzee, a Torontoan who’s released a series of stone-cold, traditionalist rap records directly to his Bandcamp that document each of the primary sagas in Dragon Ball Z: Frieza, Cell, and Buu. Sayzee is a traditionalist at heart—no autotune, no mumble—but he’s also uniquely in love with Akira Toriyama in the way that all of the kids his junior are. “Do you think hip-hop is getting nerdier?” I ask him. “Yeah,” he replies cheerfully. “These rappers are fucking dweebs.”)
Listen to him run roughshod through “Vegeta,” and you’ll be confronted with the unshakable fact that hip-hop and weebness share the same fundamentals. Power levels, tournaments, and intergalactic fights to the death. Rap nerdom and anime nerdom, working in constant symbiosis. As long as that remains the same, there’s nothing to worry about.