Parisian producer NxxxxxS was among the first wave of artists who shaped the aesthetic of SoundCloud’s phonk scene in the early 2010s, finding equal inspiration in the dreamlike stillness of filmmakers like Tarkovsky or Jarmusch and the atmospheric mixtape curation of DJ Paul and DJ Screw. Like his online peers DJ Smokey and Mr. Sisco, NxxxxxS sought to meld the nascent underground microgenres of that moment—cloud rap, vaporwave, and Memphis hip-hop fetishism—into hour-long soundtracks for late-night drives and smoke sessions. His work, however, aims beyond the movement’s traditional palette of library music and lo-fi vocal chops, exploring sci-fi bass music, chillwave production, and the synth arrangements of horror soundtracks over the course of fully realized concept records.
Though NxxxxxS and co. have managed to maintain a devoted cult following over the past decade, the rise of “drift phonk”—an unusual fusion of distorted house beats, Memphis a cappellas, and the repetitive 808 cowbell samples popularized by Russian TikTok edits of street-racing footage—has eclipsed the popularity of its SoundCloud forebears. You can detect traces of drift phonk’s influence in NxxxxxS’ recent streak of high-profile co-signs, from a noticeably drift-y collaboration with Beyoncé’s Ivy Park brand to the release of his latest album, Short Term Agreement, on Diplo’s Mad Decent Label. The latter represents a significant departure from NxxxxxS’ established sound. In contrast to the cinematic direction of previous full-length efforts, it feels like channel-surfing through a series of one-off genre experiments that lack a distinct identity.
There are some solid offerings front-loaded into Short Term Agreement’s first half. “Slump” and “No Witness,” collaborations with horrorcore revivalists Freddie Dredd and Apoc Krysis, respectively, embody NxxxxxS’ best traits. The former transforms a comfy lounge-music loop into a sinister tableau, mashed kick drums warping both the sample and Dredd’s double-time rapping beyond recognition, while the latter is more overtly evil, weaving cowbell riffs through a mist of synthesized strings. Neither reinvents the wheel, but each foregrounds the ambient, hypnotic effects of ’90s Southern rap production. It’s downtempo, but still rattles the trunk.
NxxxxxS’ ability to conjure immersive atmospheres makes the fickle sequencing of Short Term Agreement feel all the more jarring. “Grub,” built around brooding verses by London emcee Jeshi, would make for a good one-off drop on SoundCloud, but its pristine mix and drill-adjacent drum programming sound incongruous wedged between the two aforementioned tracks. The remainder of the record’s first half veers into largely instrumental ambient trap, bookended by fizzy synth sketches that sound like the opening bars of a classic Bones cut. While these brief interludes toy with evocative analog textures, the space in between them feels somewhat empty. “The Room” and “External Memories” are nondescript, flooded with goopy synth pads and buckets of reverb. Once the 808 drops, there’s not much more beyond a few snare rolls and sound bites of evil laughter to keep you engaged—it’s Muzak for the background of a vlog.
On the album’s second half, NxxxxxS abandons cohesion for a kitchen-sink approach that doesn’t play to his strengths. Co-produced by Iceland’s Lord Pusswhip and composed of crisp percussion and atonal industrial synths, the quirky West Coast bounce of “Find the Bag” is unrecognizable as NxxxxxS’ own. Guest rapper Baby.com’s performance is creative and charismatic, but without an infusion of NxxxxxS’ vaporous sound design, it’s not enough to feel like more than a gimmicky foray into club rap. Aside from the eerie harpsichord buried deep within the mix, “Mosh O’Clock” feels similarly removed from his wheelhouse, plugging sounds into the same skronky template used by EDM/rap fusions like Duckwrth’s “Start a Riot” and label boss Diplo’s “Welcome to the Party,” both written for blockbuster superhero flicks and far cries from NxxxxxS’ Tarkovskian subtlety.
Aside from a flaccid attempt at emo-pop with Pollari, whose cyborg delivery would be better served by more dynamic production, and a pair of amorphous cloud-rap cuts, this final stretch includes a couple of cracks at new-wave phonk that pan out surprisingly well. Drift phonk is formulaic by nature, but “Head! Shot!” finds plenty of room to tinker within the subgenre’s structure, deploying enough filters, ominous chants, and pitch-shifts to keep you guessing throughout its two-minute runtime. “Panic!” uses a wafer-thin Memphis cassette rip as a springboard for NxxxxxS to test out complex drum patterns. Each loop is peppered with a unique blend of squelching bass and cartoon sound effects: It’s sensory overload, but it feels as inventive and playful as the Tennessee source material he’s appropriating.
Though the many iterations of phonk that have arisen over the past decade can vary drastically in terms of tempo and intensity, the style’s ethos remains roughly the same. It’s about meticulous scene-setting and creating a coherent aesthetic—like furnishing a haunted house with 808 hits and a hard-drive full of Lil Noid mixtapes. There are pockets of phantasmal intrigue interspersed throughout Short Term Agreement, but listening to the record in its entirety feels more akin to sitting in on a focus group than exploring an immersive space. When you’re on board for a cinematic experience, being used as a test subject really snuffs out the vibe.