In MC Frontalot’s track “IWF,” which stands for “Internetting While Female,” MCs Starr Busby, Miss Eaves, Lex the Lexicon Artist, and E-Turn explain over plucky, vaudevillian piano how toxic masculinity overtakes their daily online lives. “Every dude wants to show his little nub and call me fat and ugly, what the fuck?” Miss Eaves complains. Frontalot is outnumbered as the song’s lone white male voice. Yet, as to be expected, he lands the final word on this phenomenon: “Well, actually! Not all of us [men] are as you say!”
“IWF” appears on the Brooklyn-based rapper’s new album Net Split or, the Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself. He started writing Net Split at the same time as his last release, 2014’s fairy tales-themed Question Bedtime, which meant he alternated between writing about Brothers Grimm trolls to the sort that lurk in comment sections. “Now having to listen to assholes is half of what online means to me,” Frontalot raps in Net Split‘s “Internet Sucks.”
It’s not the boldest statement in 2019. But it is disheartening coming from Frontalot, who—like Soulja Boy—proved the internet’s power as a means of democratizing hip-hop: in this case, through the genesis of an entire subgenre.
Enter nerdcore hip-hop, a style most people associate with lyrical references to Star Wars, video games, and data encryption. MC Frontalot, the subgenre’s creator, has rapped about all of those topics, on multiple occasions. But when Frontalot first coined the term with his 2000 track “Nerdcore Hiphop,” he was primarily excited about how cheap recording hardware and bandwidth could even make that song possible: “Based on my web server traffic, I think I have 30,000 fans,” he boasted in Nerdcore Rising, a 2008 documentary chronicling his first nationwide tour.
In 2002, Frontalot submitted a song about a spam email that someone mistakes for being real to online rap competition Song Fight!; Net Split features a new live version of what is now “Message No. 419,” showing how the internet has always been a nefarious place. The album title is another handy reminder—the most literal read references how hackers used to overtake Internet Relay Chat rooms.
To that end, Net Split makes it tough to resist being overly nostalgic for the internet’s past. As the album gains momentum with “Dating Profile,” “Extremely Online,” and “DDoS,” the arrangements grow increasingly sinister, with Frontalot venting his anxiety over how the internet has rewired our brains against blaring, industrial rock instrumentals.
Later, on a skit titled “The Internet Police,” Frontalot plays an police officer who arrests Feminist Frequency founder and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian for “harassing the men.” It’s easy to laugh along with the fourth-wall-breaking absurdity (“This is why I told you we shouldn’t have gotten high first,” Sarkeesian quips at one point). Its backstory, on the other hand, is wrought with violence and misogyny. As a result of her rise to prominence on YouTube in the early 2010s with Tropes Vs. Women, a video series addressing the frequently problematic ways in which women are portrayed in video games, Sarkeesian faced severe harassment from 2013 onward, most infamously by proponents of “Gamergate.” She’s received innumerable death threats over the past five years, and was even forced to cancel one of her speaking events in response to a threatened mass shooting.
It’s a lot for Frontalot to wrap his head around. “When I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, being a nerd was this shameful thing,” he says, speaking over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “You would do whatever you could to get out of it. You try to wear a leather jacket and not pull it off, or get contact lenses, whatever. Then we have the first dot-com bubble; we have the internet coming into everyone’s lives. The mainstream, big money parts of pop culture all spend 10 to 15 years aligning themselves around things that used to be just nerd properties: Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man.”
“For a while it seemed like nerd was never going to be an epithet ever again,” he continues. “The whole idea behind nerdcore was that it would be ironic to be proclaim a nerd identity instead of hide in shame. Part of the reason why the press can’t approach nerdcore as a novel idea anymore is because that idea is no longer surprising or ironic to people. I was so excited for nerd identity to slowly shed all the shamefulness that it once had, and now all of a sudden there are so many visible bad-behavior nerds.”
He laughs nervously. “I am worried that I ought to feel ashamed about being a nerd again.”
Net Split doesn’t provide any easy answers to this conundrum. That said, for all his depictions of the internet’s threats to a more peaceful existence, Frontalot still doesn’t want to be offline more than he wants to be online. “I don’t write songs with a paper dictionary on hand,” he says.
What he might do instead is write another album, based on the core inspiration behind “DDoS,” where he and Quelle Chris compare the internet’s stimulus overload to a cyberattack of sorts: its chorus goes, “All heads saturated by internets / Get progressively overwhelmed / And oh yes, we’re nearly over now.” When Frontalot first thought of the song’s conceit, he was thinking about President Donald Trump—namely, how he rendered the New York Times expose on his tax fraud obsolete “because he was double-bound in throwing children in cages and voilà, everyone has talk about that.”
MC Frontalot calls Net Split a break-up record, but “about a relationship that is never going to be over, no matter how much you complain about it to your friends.” All he can do is ruminate on the heartbreak.