From the quirky and offbeat charm of an Ayoolii upload to Mula Mar’s playful experimentation with Autotune, Milwaukee boasts one of America’s most unique regional rap scenes. Embracing the nostalgia for a local micro-genre known as “jack music,” which gained popularity in the late 2000s for its fast tempos and distinctive clap patterns hitting on all four beats per measure, a new wave of Wisconsin rappers is propelling their city’s sonic history into the future.
In 2022, Certified Trapper emerged as a prominent figure representing Milwaukee rap’s insular and DIY ethos. He released self-produced, home-recorded music videos almost daily, carving a path into the underground’s collective consciousness through sheer determination. Although his music may come across as amateurish, characterized by quirky stock synths, unconventional flows, and detuned basslines, Trapper manages to break conventions in a way that’s uniquely his. While his music might be jarring initially, subscribing to his YouTube channels can gradually shift listeners’ perspectives. While some of Trapper’s cult following stems from the amusing quality of his music, his stripped-down approach challenges the norm in a time when producing polished trap music from a laptop is easily attainable, making his artistry stand out.
Despite Certified Trapper’s unceremonious release of numerous mixtapes on DSPs since 2020, “Trapper of the Year” marks his first full-length project of new material since signing with Columbia’s Signal Records last year. This album, also his sophomore record following December’s “I’m Certified,” which compiled hits from his extensive back catalog, features collaborations with artists from beyond his hometown, potentially in an effort to align his sound with the lively, punchline-heavy vibes originating from the neighboring Michigan scene.
The early single “Orthodox,” featuring a back-and-forth with Detroit’s Babytron over outsourced DamJonBoi production, was initially surprising upon release. The track pushes Trapper out of his comfort zone and into the realm of memeable rap, complete with a jittery beat that adheres to a rigid quantization. This shift accentuates the contrast between the two rappers, in contrast to the lo-fi Certified-produced version that appeared on Tron’s “Out on Bond” EP in February. While Babytron’s delivery is deadpan and technically skilled, drawing from his usual references to sports and video games, Trapper’s appeal lies in his punched-in bars that stutter, overlap, and flutter. His creative process seems to unfold in real-time, as if he’s hitting the backspace key or rearranging sections of his own voice. While this unconventional writing style often aligns with his unique beat choices, in this instance, it feels somewhat out of place.
Fortunately, the rest of “Trapper of the Year” delves deep into the distinctive aesthetic that he’s known for. The self-titled opener showcases this sound at its finest. Musically, Trapper weaves together buzzing lead synths, kitschy pianos, and arpeggios that sway in and out of key. The beat owes as much to early electro and Detroit techno as it does to the era of ringtone rap, both movements stretching beyond their equipment limitations to imagine a futuristic sound. While the accompanying verse involves vague imagery of firearms and street life, it’s the delivery that truly sells the song. Repeating the line “I’m the trapper of the year,” he allows the Autotune to wobble and linger at the end of each line. It’s unconventional, cacophonous, and oddly captivating, creating a trance-like effect, especially as one track seamlessly transitions into the next.
As the album progresses, Trapper ventures further into experimental territory by tinkering with his own formula. On parts of “Wassup,” he flows over little more than a soft sub bass and distant hints of synth, using a whispery, sing-song register. “Do the Extra” incorporates programmed guitar riffs that seem like they were borrowed from a late ’70s no wave record, carving eerie paths across a backdrop of droning 808s. Adlibs reverberate and intersect, hooks plunge into dissonance. Ultimately, this controlled chaos is contextualized by the steady 8th-note claps, showcasing the skill required to make such unconventional music work in a club setting.
In the tradition of artists like Lil B, Jad Fair, and The Residents, Certified Trapper’s music dances on the fringes of pop conventions, coloring outside the lines with a variety of hues until he’s invented entirely new shades. While the guest appearances of Babytron and BLP Kosher might feel slightly forced, the professional mastering and cleaner mix on “Trapper of the Year” amplify his eccentricity without compromising its raw edge. For those seeking a departure from conventional scales and patterns, the album provides an opportunity to explore avant-garde composition while pushing the limits of your car’s speakers.