Generation Z Is Making Music With Anti-Radical Tones

Recently, in the music video for "Keeping Tabs," the 21-year-old Chicano chillwave artist Omar Banos, who performs under the name Cuco, goes on a spiritual, mind-expanding journey. On an acid trip, he transports from the parking lot of a local Super A to an empty scene at Los Candiles Night Club, where two women play Lotería, the traditional Mexican game of chance that is equivalent to bingo. His final destination is the eden of Exposition Park, where men and women, arrayed in all-white outfits like apostles at the Last Supper, share a meal with an affable demon. Cuco, stewed in a hallucinogenic haze, witnesses the scene unfold, smiling from ear to ear. He's giddy, euphoric, and completely out of his mind.

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Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Already Encapsulates 2019 Watching the video, I was struck by Cuco's distinct sense of place, how, in both his music and video work, he carries a strong understanding for interiority, for home. There is the powder blue lowrider where he and Suscat0, who is featured on the song, drop acid. Signage at the club, which is located in LA's Cypress Park neighborhood and features drag performances, exclaims "Bienviendos." Throughout, King Foo, the social media humorist behind Foos Gone Wild, manifests as Cuco's conscience: He first promises him a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos if he sings on stage, and later he appears in the park wearing a ski mask and a red clown nose. These references are unmistakably and acutely West Coast, all the way down to the cholo-inpsired fashion. Threaded together, the scenes both perplex and greet the eye as fantastically mundane.Cuco is the son of Mexican immigrants, and was raised in Hawthrone, a low-key suburb southwest of downtown Los Angeles, and a few miles south of where I grew up, in Ladera Heights. In July, he released his major-label debut Para Mí, a woozy, playful ferment of psychedelic pop on which "Keeping Tabs" is featured. For the most part, the music is spacious and languid; Cuco's signature use of repetition imbues many of his songs with a genuine tenderness—themes of heartbreak and longing are tentpoles for the album, which mostly finds the 21-year-old balladeer explicating on young love. "I'm pretty sure I hate you, I'm pretty sure I love you," he sings on "Bossa No Sé."
Almost always cosmically vibrant, Cuco's songs oscillate between moods: They're grief-stricken, humourous, and searching (he is, at any given moment, foraging for love or drugs or enlightenment in one form or another), but he never loses sight of where he is. Which is to say Cuco is, too, at home in his music. It's something like a deep awareness, but more than that, too; there is a poise of self, a presence of form. It is a trait that he shares with a remarkable cohort of Generation Z artists that have similarly found a striking presence in their work, from the old-school delight of Normani and the freakish, mutating pop of Billie Eilish to the steely New York realism of Pop Smoke.
Artists who defined the tail end of the millennial sound underscored it with an obvious dispassion for structure—the music swooped and skirted and swerved in every direction, gorging on influences as disparate and as rich and as outright puzzling as anything I'd ever heard. A class of on-the-rise rappers, particularly on SoundCloud, built an entire aesthetic on fragmentation—piecing together dark, ambient sounds, and decamping from formulaic genre frameworks. There was the manic, early-career volume of Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott. Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, and Ty Dolla $ign became expert conduits for the pop-soul-R&B hybrid. With More Life and Scorpion, for all their skillful flourishes, Drake constructed streaming-era experiments that happily guzzled inspiration from global provinces.
At best, the millennial sound flirts with escape and experimentation (Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino); much of it has a taste for shameless maximalism (Ariana Grande, Rihanna). Even now, the music remains spellbound with movement. It won't sit still, it refuses to remain calm. In a time when the very idea of movement is cause for national outcry—the debate over immigration found itself at the center of American politics, and I doubt it will be unfastened anytime soon—Gen Z artists have decided to create music that, instead, finds power in creative equilibrium, in staying put.