Around the time rap reached its 30s, its attitude changed. Gunplay, bling and trap-music stars receded like a codeine dream, paving the way for what feels like hip-hop's second golden age. George Watsky benefited from the door left ajar, leveraging his viral "Pale Kid Raps Fast" video into a credible rap career.
How does this happen to a kid so white-bread that he could be mistaken for Michael Cera in a hoodie and backward ballcap?
"This might be a contentious point, but I would make the argument that Kanye West played a huge part," says Watsky. He describes Kim Kardashian's hubby as the missing link between late-aughts underground "backpack rap" (Def Jux, Rawkus, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers) and present-era artists like Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Machine Gun Kelly, and Drake.
"There wasn't a guy bringing that flavor to the mainstream until Kanye West came along and really raised the ceiling."
Watsky has been rapping and writing slam poetry since his teens, when he grew up idolizing underground hip-hop artists like Atmosphere, Sage Francis and El-P, among others. His slam credentials grew during high school, and in 2007, at age 20, he appeared on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Slam on HBO.
Four years later, he was touring the country doing slams and appearing on college campuses when one of his videos went viral. "Pale Kid Raps Fast" finds him explaining that "the beat still knocks when I sort my socks." After a couple million views, it had served its purpose. In fact, Watsky doesn't even host it on his channel anymore.
"I didn't want it to be the first thing that popped up when people typed my name into YouTube," he explains. "I made a very conscious decision to try to use the momentum from the viral video, but not allow virality to become my career. I didn't want to be left a YouTuber forever."
Watsky has made a decent transition since, releasing his third and fourth studio LPs, a concert album and three mixtapes to increasing critical plaudits.
Sometimes he cracks wise, as on "Kill a Hipster": "I'm at the taco truck looking like a mack / I roll my Rs hard like I'm busting off a gat / It's like, 'Hola mama, I'm your papa / May I please have dos horrrrrrrrrchatas?'"
Elsewhere he ponders the road life ("Picked the faint praise of strangers over one who truly cares") and complains that moving to California "turned my semen to soy milk." On "Ink Don't Bleed," the lead single off last year's fourth album, All You Can Do, Watsky turns a foolish stage dive that hurt a fan into a meditation on how we regard our political, religious and pop culture icons.
"Since I was 15 years old I just try to speak from my own experience and not to make assumptions about my audience," he says. "To be able to point the finger at myself is very important. Because it's annoying for people to hear they're living their lives wrong, from a performer that's pretending to be morally pure, when nobody is."