Mixtape Forensics — April 2024, Part 2: Ngyn, “just can't help it”

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I want to invoke a gentler version of Sturgeon's law: 90% of lo-fi hip hop sounds interchangeable. That's not a knock against the genre: I, along with tens of thousands of people this very second, have chosen lo-fi hip hop (or its hacker cousin, synthwave) as my ambient music of choice. It's what courses through my ears when I read on the couch in the wee small hours. The idiom is still in its infancy, still evolving out its clichés, making it reasonably easy for an artist to stick out. One of my favourites, the Finnish musician Kupla, sets himself apart with waltz times and free reeds. “just can't help it” by Vancouver-based producer Ngyn grabbed me with a simple, evocative vocal hook. Sometimes that's all it takes to end up on a playlist.

Lo-fi hip hop's fuel is nostalgia. Yours, someone else's, real, fictional, it doesn't matter. Now, if I were younger and more guileless, “just can't help it” would have 100% inspired me to make my own track, one sampling, say, Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea saying “I can't beat it,” so I understand the impulse to make of this kind of art. It's the same impulse that drives people to make AMVs soundtracked by “Somewhere Only We Know” or similar, nightcore versions of Rural Alberta Advantage singles, or sadboi moodboards set to the score of Minari (I believe the technical term is “webweaving,” which appears to be the Tumblr arm of the TikTok Sadposting Industrial Complex). People on the internet are often sad, so they create these digital pamphlets and readymades that are conduits for their own aches and lightning rods for those of others, all refracted through the lingua franca of a pop culture, if not the pop culture. The only difference between then and now is the tools used to perform these microcultural emotional exorcisms got easier to use.

In other words, lo-fi hip hop at its worst is kitsch, gunning for unearned pathos using trite shorthand. But at its best, it can evoke a whole world, not just your childhood bedroom. It can come by its resonance honestly like any other kind of music: through the alchemy of instrumentation, performance, arrangement, and production. Hell, even a good song title can help; “Rat Salad” kicks ass in no small part because it's called “Rat Salad.” The same is true for “Mist Beneath Your Apartment.”