Past their primates
Rappers and their Bored Apes.
Today in Dirt, Lily Goldberg opines on hip-hop in the metaverse.
Timothy Zachary Mosley—more commonly known as rapper and producer Timbaland—has scooped up four Grammys (out of 21 nominations), churned out a parade of Top 100 singles, and lent his producing chops to artists from Busta Rhymes to Björk. But while Timbo continues to rack up production credits, his solo career has slowed; the artist behind the masc half of “Promiscuous” hasn’t released a song as a lead artist since 2016. So he had his Bored Ape sing one for him.
On June 30th, Timbaland premiered “Has a Meaning,” a song (and 100-edition NFT music video) performed by his “NFT alter ego,” Congo, aka Bored Ape #590. Timbaland has owned the 2D version of Congo—a Bored Ape Yacht Club representative who sports a gold lamé jacket, tinted aviators, and a gold chain—since October 2021. And in “Has a Meaning,” a song originally written in 2020 for the VR music game Beat Saber, Congo becomes a 3D extension of Timbaland himself.
Using motion capture technology, Timbaland animated the Bored Ape’s dance moves for the video, while rapping lines like “Riding shotgun with me / Going Nobu to eat.” (Maybe, given his penchant for fish, Congo is an orangutan). In a behind-the-scenes video of the motion-capture process, Timbaland sits in front of a green screen, gushing about his experience becoming an avatar. “What just happened in this room for me,” he explains, “is that I came alive again by actually being the character.”
There’s money in this resurrection.
“Has a Meaning” isn’t a chart-topper, but it is a decent proof of concept for a compelling idea that Timbaland and others have been pushing for some time: that high profile musicians should conceive of NFT characters—specifically Bored Apes—not just as financial investments or status symbols, but as potential alter egos, performative avatars who can continue (or reinvigorate) the careers of their real-life owners in the metaverse. Such a concept has potency in the hip-hop world, where artists have long adopted alter egos to realize creative visions.
Congo’s debut has been a long time coming. In November 2021, Timbaland co-founded Ape-in Productions, an entertainment company and Web 3 record label described in Variety as a “virtual community that will launch and promote Bored Apes as successful music artists in the metaverse.” Ape-in Productions currently represents one group only: TheZoo, a quintet of Bored Apes who have a healthy number of views on their debut music video “Apesh!t” and a tiny following on their seemingly inactive Instagram.
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KINGSHIP, an entirely separate “Bored Ape Yacht Club band” represented by Universal Music Group’s label 10:22 PM, has done a little better for themselves, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they haven’t actually released any music yet. Recently, KINGSHIP made headlines for selling out a collection of 5,000 NFT “key cards” which provide buyers access to KINGSHIP’s “virtual world”; the day of their release, these keycards earned the top spot on NFT marketplace OpenSea’s “Trending NFT Collections” list.
Echoing a larger debate about NFTs, critics have argued that forming a band like KINGSHIP, where musical talent is secondary to branding, defeats the point of a band entirely. As Will Stephenson put it in GQ, KINGSHIP is “something like Gorillaz, perhaps, but starting from the cartoon avatars rather than any demonstrable musical value or audience.”
Gorillaz happens to have emerged from talented, real musicians. But other successful virtual bands have taken off without technical artistry: from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Hatsune Miku, virtual artists have charted hits and built franchises based on appearances rather than musical gifts. The question isn’t whether you can propose a virtual band based on appearances alone, but whether the Bored Ape Yacht Club visual identity—which TheZoo and KINGSHIP are inextricable from—is the right appearance to pick. From their outset, the Bored Apes (basically a collection of 10,000 algorithmically generated monkey pictures which have made their owners obnoxiously rich) have garnered eye-rolls and takedowns from skeptics who have called the primates and their fanbase “stylishly moronic,” “gimmicky,” and even racist. How could a Bored Ape musical group really ever take off in light of the wide-reaching public disdain for the brand? A performer like Congo—part Ape, part alias—might be the company’s answer.
As Timbaland’s “alter ego,” Congo is the latest addition to a long, long line of rap alter egos, a list including but not limited to Eminem’s Slim Shady, Madlib’s Quasimoto, T.I.’s T.I.P., and Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolanski, Martha Zolanski, Harajuku Barbie, and Queen Sleaze. These alter egos have taken various visual and vocal forms, often emerging from an aspect of the performer’s identity that isn’t traditionally front and center. In the case of Congo, Timbaland is highlighting his identity as a “Bored Ape holder;” Congo is both emerging from Timbaland, and marketed as existing independently from him (“Formally under Timbaland’s wing but he can’t hold me!” reads Congo’s Twitter bio). Congo’s performance in “Has a Meaning” offers a vision of what the Bored Ape Yacht Club wants Bored Apes to become for their celebrity owners: not just collectibles or pets, but embodiments of essence which might complement or replace traditional alter egos as an outlet for celebrity alternative personas.
Is Timbaland setting an example for other artists to follow? Eminem, at least, already owns a Bored Ape—the artist and his Ape alter ego recently appeared alongside Snoop Dogg and his Bored Ape alter ego in a music video. Neither rapper is putting out music yet as their Bored Ape. But it seems plausible that Snoop or Eminem could follow Timbaland’s lead into the metaverse wilderness, blazing a path for more artists to consider Bored Ape alter egos for the sake of keeping up with industry trends. And, more importantly, for the sake of cashing out.
After all, Bored Apes—even when remixed as rap alter egos—are fundamentally assets, assets that will increase if the BAYC can gain wider cred outside of crypto circles. Getting artists like Eminem or Snoop Dogg to promote the brand through Ape alter egos feels like a no-brainer for the BAYC; in their vision of the metaverse, every musician can experiment with the creativity of translating themselves into a cartoon while racking up a profit. But the obviousness of this scheme might be off-putting enough to backfire with musicians’ real-world fanbases, if their embrace of Apes looks more like selling out than experimenting with form (which it does).
Still, why throw the baby out with the bathwater? During the pandemic, musicians like Soccer Mommy and 100 Gecs proved that musical concerts in virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Minecraft could be a source of novelty and excitement. The delight of these performances came from their gleefully democratic energy—when Charli XCX took a Minecraft stage in 2020 for a DJ set, she did so in a nostalgic virtual commons rather than in a token-gated metaverse.
There’s tangible interest in normalizing these types of concerts, even outside of a pandemic. The startup Condense just raised $4.5 million to stream live performers into metaverse platforms using Unreal Engine, the same motion capture technology Timbaland used to animate Congo. Digital musical alter-egos like Congo could find their place in the metaverse, but only if performers have full creative freedom to create diverse and genuine expressions of self. That won’t happen if Bored Apes are the only aesthetic option. — Lily Goldberg
The Dirt: Will Timbaland get a Bored Ape for Nelly Furtado?
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