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Maintaining any level of mystery in 2019 is a hard feat to conquer. For that, we can thank the ubiquity of social media and a growing need from society for transparency, especially as it relates to our favorite artists. But, what happens when the veil is reinforced? When celebrities who would otherwise be subject to quotidian character studies vigorously sustain their anonymity and leave the public with no choice but to turn to their art for any clues? Such are the questions that present themselves within a small pocket of hip hop's rising stars: a niche of masked rappers making use of visors, ski masks and anything in between out of an effort to fortify the lost mystique of the public figure.
The history of masked musicians isn't too complex to navigate. Finding extreme popularity in the realm of rock and electronic music, fans of both genres have long been exposed to a string of artists who make use of excessive makeup, unique headgear and intricate storylines to tell a controlled tale. However, when peering into the realm of hip hop, the trend has been almost non-existent and only in recent times have we been exposed to repeated occurrences of the continual use of a mask as a placeholder of an artist's identify.
Hip hop's flirtation with anonymity is faint. As a whole, fans are delegated to major pop and electronic acts such as Daft Punk, Sia, Deadmau5, and Marshmello for a gaze into the art of musical mystery. We can find slight traces of the trend in the likes of Gorillaz; the animated crew of superstars who present a blend of rap, reggae and rock influences in their work. However, the most recognizable masked purveyor of our beloved genre arrives in the form of MF Doom, hip hop's notorious super villain, who's fashioned after Marvel Comics antagonist Doctor Doom. First appearing in 1997, Doom is the only mainstream emcee who has effectively managed to maintain his character for the span of his career, issuing at least six different updates to his signature guise by way of new colors and adornments over the years. In his stride, Doom effectively laid out a foundation that is only just being developed by new talent, as he navigated the pool of full blown anonymity in hip hop on his own for a while. Today, Doom's legacy has, for the most part, failed to attract a heavy slew of torchbearers with the trend of obscurity taking particular root within R&B instead, carving out a movement in which singers have chosen to lead with mystery.
Audiences watched on as singer Gabi Wilson transformed into the enigmatic H.E.R. before eventually conceding to an image that now incorporates a routine use of large sunglasses in public. Wilson's H.E.R. venture was the brainchild of RCA executive Carolyn Williams in an effort to rebrand the young singer and instrumentalist who had been with the label years before her breakout moment.
"We were able to tell this story without leading too much with an image, which plays into a lot of the problems young black artists in the industry go through," Tunji Balogun, the SVP of A&R at RCA Records told Billboard. "You're judged so much on your image and the way you look in addition to the music."
For Wilson, H.E.R.'s success became so concrete that when the time came for tour runs and Grammy appearances, there was no denying the young singer's talent regardless of how one may receive her image — a dream situation for most rising stars. If you're squinting hard enough, Wilson is perhaps the most successful at the moment, but is hardly the only talent in R&B to let mystery lead the way, with the genre particularly favoring the trend as seen in the likes of The Weeknd, dvsn, and even producer SBTRKT. While The Weeknd's own mysterious run would soon be overpowered by an unshakeable rise to pop stardom, dvsn and SBTRKT have had better luck in rolling out their identities on their own terms with both parties citing a desire to allow their music to sit at the forefront, laying down a foundation for future success. But, not all artists who have taken on the task have managed to echo the same benefits found in their mystery. Take for example 24hrs (FKA Royce Rizzy), the honcho of Private Club Records. After a mild run on SoundCloud, Rizzy put a hold on his primarily hip hop sound only to make way for the alluring figure of 24hrs, a faceless and melodic voice hopped up on autotune. The pull of 24hrs made way for an updated fanbase that far surpassed what Royce Rizzy built, and mapped out an effectively fresh start for the Atlanta artist, who now boasts a decorated catalogue of collaborations with the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Wiz Khalifa, Gucci Mane as well as a joint venture with Benjy Grinberg's Rostrum Records. In 24hrs' case, however, what seemed to be a premature unmasking of sorts coincided with a plateau in the young artist's cult popularity.
But, where hip hop is concerned, we are presented with a class of emcees who let mystery control the entire span of their careers, following the precedent outlined by Doom. An early stab at repeating such ambiguity that precedes the height of the social media era is the creation of Flying Lotus' Captain Murphy alter ego in 2012. While short-lived in obscurity, Captain Murphy was a chance for FlyLo to get his feet wet in the realm of hip hop, shedding the preconceptions of a background primarily rooted in electronic and experimental work. Though successful, it didn't prove to be an enduring era for Murphy.
The closest that we've gotten to the motifs presented by MF Doom, however, is Brooklyn's Leikeli47, who makes use of a wide array of ski masks and paisley bandanas for her concealment. In Leikeli's case, the house that Doom built has been effectively renovated and sealed off from nosy neighbors. Where MF Doom's real identity as Daniel Dumile preceded the alias he's most known for, Leikeli47 leaves no paper trail of her own inception. Where Doom's alter ego was adopted off the strength of villainous origins, Leikeili cites her own disguise as one rooted in the strength of superheroes. "I feel like the Dark Knight," she once told Vibe.
According to her, the mask allows listeners to be just that: sonic observers unaffected by the stimuli of a personal life and social media check-ins. As for the effect it has on her artistry, we're presented with a rapper and singer laced in unquestionable confidence — confidence that we would not receive without the shield of a mask. "I'm very introverted and [keep] to myself. I'm more that way outside of the mask than in it," she previously told NOW Magazine. Citing a lack of interest in any sort of fame, Leikeli's movements on the Internet are limited to interviews strategically placed around album releases, music videos and performance clips. A Twitter page is non-existent and her Instagram feed hosts three posts at the time of this writing that block off the ability to leave a comment. It's a rare occurrence in a genre where broadcasted lifestyles of opulence have become just as important as the music at times, but opens the door to a growing trend of finding new techniques to project the focus back onto the art.
Another voice that's slowly emerging out of its hidden identity is Lord Felix's. A freshly pressed addition to the music scene, the emcee relies on a reflective visor to keep prying eyes away. For Felix, however, breadcrumbs are dusted lightly across platforms. Active on social media and surrounded by a consistent group of collaborators, the Brockton rapper relies on a closed off set of acquaintances rather than radio silence to preserve his own image. For him, emotion isn't withheld, as he freely discusses death and heartbreak in his music, while voicing his excitement for the next episode of "Game of Thrones" on Twitter — a luxury of transparency ironically credited to the power Lord Felix's lack of identity. Similar to Leikeli, and Doom before them, Felix's guise has become his image all on its own, citing a desire to remain undetected in his personal life.
Across the pond, we can find yet another parallel in U.K. drill rapper SL. While the drill scene is well-known for its inclusion of masks as a tool for aesthetics rather than self-preservation, the South London teenager has taken the trend and cemented it to be a source of refuge instead. "I don't put myself out there," he revealed to The Guardian. "I'm happy just chilling in the back." This strand of humility is the common thread that's bound the hip hop artists turning to the art of anonymity as a long-term solution. As a result, we have been presented with emcees equipped with undeniable talent, who would much rather allow this talent to remain at the center of their careers.
All the while, this choice still leads to the creation of a dominating image. While their identities remain a mystery, the masks sported by MF Doom, Leikeli47, Lord Felix and SL have all become the face cards each artist initially set out to avoid. In contrast to the trend of a completely blank slate found in R&B's new class, these masked rappers adopt the mission of allowing the artist to stand-alone indefinitely, free of Wikipedia spoilers or TMZ ambushes. It can be argued that a genre so deeply rooted in storytelling as hip hop cannot properly survive without a strong narrative, but with such effective executions of barring preconceived notions, it's clear that the vision outlined by MF Doom is finally getting its due.
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