Outside recordings from scam robocallers and the muffled noise of butt-dials, what’s in your voicemail archive right now? It’s not like we’re ringing each other up for chats these days; the smartphone generation prefers to keep communication muted. Consequently, voicemail — a groundbreaking technology just four decades ago, when answering machines hit the market — is said to be going the way of beepers and fax machines. The networking site LinkedIn drew mockery for adding a voice messaging feature last month, and the only people who still leave voicemails appear to be isolated lunatics looking to threaten politicians.
And yet, and yet. Voicemails have held onto their relevance in music, from N.W.A. sharing their fans’ harshest criticisms of ex-member Ice Cube to Frank Ocean sampling a message from his friend’s mom, who urges him not to smoke weed.
The sleaziest version of this move, however, entails the exposure of an ex or potential romantic interest: Ariel Pink’s “Put Your Number in My Phone,” at its bridge, transitions into a voicemail from a peeved-sounding woman named Jessica. “We met at the taco truck in Silver Lake,” she reminds him. “I don’t know if you’re really busy or something, but I haven’t heard back from you.” And then there was “Marvins Room,” the Drake hit that sparked a lawsuit over credits and royalties from Ericka Lee, the vocalist who can be heard asking him “Are you drunk right now?” between verses. (The case led to a settlement.)
All of this trickled down to the SoundCloud hip-hop scene, where artists including Lil Yachty and Smokepurrp got their start with streaming tracks. But the signifiers that make you a “SoundCloud rapper” aren’t limited to the platform; the genre also assumes sleazy trap beats, facial tattoos, excessive Xanax consumption and a strong dose of fuckboi behavior—including, of course, putting sexual partners on blast in song.
The possibility of having your voicemail appropriated by one of these dudes is now so accepted, it’s a meme.
Voicemail’s role as filler in up-and-coming musicians’ mixtapes raises some curious legal and ethical questions. Although anyone leaving a spoken message is given to understand they’re being recorded — meaning they’ve automatically consented to it — ownership of that recording can be contested, as in Drake’s case, since the caller created the content, while the receiver captured it.
Meanwhile, in a state like California, it’s technically illegal to eavesdrop on “confidential communication” between limited parties without the consent of everyone recorded, which hilariously suggests that even someone who listens to a non-approved voicemail sample has committed a crime. But through it all, we seem to expect that our privacy will be violated anyway. It’s part and parcel of our obsession with “receipts,” which are gossip (or “tea”) in the form of hard evidence — a text thread, horny DMs, the incriminating deep-Instagram like. (Despite the stereotype, men particularly love gossip.)
Unlike those digital fingerprints, the voicemail has retro appeal. It can be grainy, smudged and formally awkward in ways a Facebook status can’t be, no matter the misspellings. That you’re leaving a voicemail in the first place can also be taken as a sign of desperation — and that, I believe, is why male rappers use them to flex on their past hookups and former girlfriends.
What does the lowly voicemail reveal about us? A voicemail can be you at your most vulnerable, trying to find the delicate words it would have been weird or inappropriate to text, and without the advantage of reactions by which to guide the statement. You’re talking, theoretically, to a person — though it’s more accurate to say you’re talking to yourself, or an indifferent machine. And so, sharing an intimate voicemail is a brag that says, “Heh, she went through this discomfiting ritual to get in touch with me, just because I ignored her!”
The only assurance of not being embarrassed in this fashion is, as women keep pointing out, not leaving voicemails. Or not dating SoundCloud fuckbois, whichever is easier. I guess, as a third alternative, you could deliver every message as a devastating, diss-laden freestyle the guy wouldn’t dare make public.
I doubt he’s really worth the effort, however. And the sooner we give up voicemail as a format, the sooner we can starve his half-assed hip-hop of this crucial oxygen.
Unless he starts recording your FaceTime conversations. That could be a problem.