The Alchemist gets meta

Also: the poolrooms, prize-winning onions, and Turtle WoW.

The Alchemist gets meta

EX is a research report about digital culture. You can learn more here. This week: subs vs. dubs, the first mech pilot streaming setup, and terrible life lessons.

1. Earl and Alchemist’s VOIR DIRE is almost good enough to buy crypto for

The Alchemist may be the most interesting man in hip-hop. A decade ago, he dropped the full-length Prodigy collab Albert Einstein, a throwback classic of dusty loops and grouchy bars, and hasn’t looked back since. These days, an Alchemist LP is a self-contained idea, a sort of pilgrimage emcees make to a custom content ecosystem. The album cover art, culled from a hand-picked group of artists, becomes austere, all the titles filmic. Fans covet merch like Supreme drops. Artists submit to the vision for one reason: Al’s preternatural ability to create loops they love to rap over. Everyone sounds their best on an Alchemist beat.

Earl Sweatshirt is his biggest get to date. They’ve teased a collaboration since 2019, even claiming to have uploaded an entire album on YouTube no one found. Whether the new VOIR DIRE is that album or something else is moot; it’s astonishing, drawing from the same golden-hour vibes of Al’s Larry June collab from April, and eliciting warm, lived-in bars from Earl, still full of obtuse phrasings and rhyme schemes but glowing with reflections on family, basketball, and art. (Navy Blue and MIKE have been good influences.)

The decision to release the LP exclusively on the web3 music platform GALA is sort of a bummer, just in terms of usability. Many similar platforms ask users to purchase some bespoke token to spend in algorithmically determined quantities, promising a new level of “digital ownership” that has become thoroughly undesirable in a post-slurp juice world. These platforms struggle categorically to communicate their value. On GALA, one must buy tokens to “collect” tracks, but one can also hold BEAMS against artists one thinks will become popular, generating POINTS that provide discounts on things one can buy with BEAMS, accrued POINTS, or $GALA. At press time, an Earl track costs $225 USD, which is too much to do as a joke for a Substack.

Still: It all makes sense for Alchemist, who was already creating his own internet economy outside of the music-hustle ecosystem. Quietly plying a singular trade and drawing generational talents into his orbit, Al’s a textbook example of an artist successfully carving a niche online and monetizing his efforts through superfans. The jump to GALA seems like something he may’ve eyed for awhile, a platform shift only conceivable with a unit-shifter like Earl onboard. Web3’s got a lot of problems, but if there’s a solution, it’s artists like Alchemist.

2. The subs vs. dubs conflict will outlive us all

via @hotepchungus on Twitter

Somehow, subtitles vs. dubs discourse has returned. It’s unclear whether this was caused by an unappealing clip of the dub for the anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! on Twitter, the recirculation of a parody dub of Breaking Bad on Twitter and Tumblr, or some cyclical internet phenomenon that returns every three years. The dub defender side of this debate usually seems about as formidable as the Washington Generals on social media, so it’s surprising to see anyone new willingly wade into it. While many Netflix and Hulu viewers happily watch dubs, the online discourse is dominated by hardcore fans, and they will track you down and kick your ass if you refuse to read. Even at EX, ⅔ of our staff agrees: when it comes to anime, we prefer subs to dubs.

3. One of the most chaotic-evil corners of YouTube

There’s a giant YouTube channel run by a guy named Dhar Mann (18.8M subs) who makes “after school special”-style short films with clickbait premises and tidy morals (“Gold Digger Dumps Broke Boyfriend, Then Regrets Her Decision”). The cornball acting and over-the-top comeuppances in these videos have made them reactor comfort food for streamers like Ironmouse. But in the wake of Dhar Mann, other lesson-teaching channels like Generation Hope have sprung up with a mandate to be even more provocative. They exist just to give stream chatters and Discord posters ammunition: “check out this one, it’s even crazier.”

Tomorrow’s Teachings (46K subs) is a pedal-to-the-metal Dhar Mann clone that hits the ramp straight into the forbidden zone. Their videos mix race-baiting titles, porn scenarios, and violent crime to arrive at trollish tales like “Hot Mom Takes Autistic Son's D**k Pic, You Won't Believe IT!”. To engage at all is to fall for the bait; the lurid stories are knowingly constructed to layer on twists and outrageous pause-the-stream moments for reactors. They still end with an actor turning to the camera to deliver an astoundingly insincere life lesson. It’s kind of tempting to salute this nihilistic channel for exposing the smarm at the heart of the Dhar Mann formula; but after actually watching their content, it’s clear that you do not, under any circumstances, “gotta hand it to them.”

4. WoW diehards are making their impossible dream of “Vanilla+” happen

When World of Warcraft players want something, they tend to make it themselves, which eventually prods the game’s developer Blizzard to add it a few years later. Private servers emulated mid-2000s “vanilla WoW” through custom realms like Nostalrius for years (here’s a video of its 2016 shutdown) before the 2019 launch of official WoW Classic. Players had to use mods like the Hardcore Addon (est. 2021) to simulate permadeath playthroughs up until the official launch of Classic Hardcore last week. The next frontier for diehard fans is the hazily defined concept of “Vanilla+,” or adding new content that matches the feel of the game’s first era.

While Blizzard has only made a few gestures toward Vanilla+, fans have taken matters into their own hands with servers like Turtle WoW. It provides a story expansion designed to recapture the elusive flavor of Old Time WoW, with new quests, dungeons, bosses, classes, and so on. They’re not up to Blizzard standards, but that doesn’t seem to bother the server’s devotees, who’ve been busy creating their own lore videos and news channels. The server has experienced explosive growth recently, leading to player counts spiking over 10,000, queue times, and complaints about “refugees” from China’s shut-down servers. Despite the constant swirl of server drama, Turtle WoW’s Nostalrius-scale population peaks show an undeniable demand for new old WoW content.

5. An ambient soundtrack for a POOLROOMS game that doesn't exist

The YouTube channel Zerofuturism might be onto something with their gaming-flavored ambient mixes. These mostly consist of slowed-down edits of original music or songs pulled from Silent Hill OSTs, sometimes running for as long as four hours. They anchor their music in distinct spaces, using thumbnails that depict desolate hospitals or fictional locations with names like "the Verdant Complex." While video titles like "FOREVER IN 2006 サイレントヒル" are easy to parse as lingering artifacts from the vaporwave craze of the 2010s, titles like "THE POOLROOMS" require a bit more explanation.

Few YouTube trends over the past few years have been as prominent as the OST mixtape and the Backrooms. The former is an extension of the Lofi Girl phenomenon, which positioned themed mixes as background music for specific activities. Nintendo OSTs became common sources for playlists centered around "studying" or "chilling," and soon horror-informed OST mixes became the equivalent format for cultivating darker moods. The Backrooms, on the other hand, stem from a 2019 creepypasta that describes a "liminal space" that one enters when "no-clipping out of reality." YouTubers began developing Backrooms lore via original found footage-inspired shorts and video explainers, making the Backrooms an icon of YouTube horror mythos. Both horror OST mixes and Backrooms content treat videos as places, resulting in the work of channels like Zerofuturism, whose videos track the common ground between the two trends.

6. Medieval extraction shooter Dark and Darker keeps gaining steam off Steam

Dark and Darker's upcoming mobile release represents a small victory for Ironmace, a developer that’s been struggling to find a stable way to distribute their game for the past year. Despite achieving a peak concurrent player count of over 69k on Steam, the game — an extraction shooter in the vein of Escape From Tarkov, only with zweihanders and magic spells instead of guns — hasn’t been available on the platform for months due to an ongoing legal battle. Ironmace has since released the game in Early Access on their own website and ChafGames, a Steam competitor. Their main concern at the moment seems to be fighting cheaters, which are an out-of-control problem in extraction shooters like Tarkov.

In spite of all of Ironmace's struggles, the mobile release deal is a sign that the game has managed to retain a loyal and sizable audience. Big streamers like SMii7Y and Pokelawls are still having a blast messing around and throwing drums at other players, and serious Tarkov grinders like Smoke also seem to be sticking around. The appeal has been evident since Dark and Darker made waves with its Steam demo back in February: it synthesizes the dark fantasy of FromSoftware games with the tense pacing of extraction shooters. Both Dark Souls and Tarkov are notorious for their exacting difficulty and steep learning curves, and by evoking the visual and mechanical language of both games, Ironmace has found a balance that clearly speaks to the hardcore crowd.

7. Exterior like fish eggs

via Vee/ParametricAvocado on YouTube

This past week, an animator named Vee posted a Metal Gear Solid recreation of the infamous "DOOR STUCK!" video from 2007. The original video is an artifact from a simpler era of multiplayer FPS games, capturing a player sabotaging their teammate in Counter-Strike 1.6 (the predecessor to esports juggernaut CS:GO). If the lyrics "exterior like fish eggs / interior like suicide wrist-red" sound vaguely familiar, that's because they're from Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot," another inescapably mid-2000s detail.

While "DOOR STUCK!" has been remade and remixed by plenty of meme-makers since its original upload, Vee's version is uniquely high-effort; it’s a testament to the artistry that goes into faking clips that look like in-game recordings. Though the video accurately mimics the unnatural locomotion of players moving through early 3D environments, it was all animated and choreographed in Blender. Everything from the malfunctioning door to the muffled voices are a showcase for the creator’s meticulous attention to detail.

Chum Box

  • The VTuber Shindigs created an immersive mech pilot overlay that put their avatar inside the cockpit of their mech in Armored Core 6; other streamers in the replies seem blown away. Shindigs’s channel is full of other creative gimmicks like CS:GO-style knife drops and musical experiments.
  • A Japanese railroad simulator for the PS3 used live-action footage to capture the Chicago Brown line in all of its mid-aughts glory. Many YouTube commenters are train guys just enjoying the ride. (via @goblinbanker)
  • Hooligans on Letterboxd have vandalized the poster for Sony’s Gran Turismo movie in an outrageous show of disrespect. Reviewers on there have been giving the “gamer film” the business.
  • Here are some beautiful prize-winning onions.
  • Generative AI's best use case, at present, may be creating remarkably yucky short horror videos. Here's a really, really yucky one. (Thanks to EX reader Jordan Keller for the link.)
  • Rocko's Modern Life creator Joe Murray noticed his out-of-print animation textbook was fetching high prices online ($300+), so he put the whole thing for free online. Pairs well with Disney's 12 Principles of Animation.
  • Starfield true believers (⅓ of EX) are throwing up on themselves and crying after the game got 7/10s from several big reviewers.

That’s it for this week. We’ll be relaxing at the Verdant Complex.