FN Meka is the cynical low-point of the “A.I. rapper” debate

It only could have ended this way. On Tuesday, August 23, I began kicking around ideas for an op-ed on FN Meka, the virtual-reality rapper created by Factory Now who has drawn attention for the use of A.I. in creating its music. In recent weeks, Meka has been signed to Capitol Records and released the single “Florida Water” with incarcerated rapper Gunna and gaming personality Clix. Most importantly, the beige-tinted Meka and its creators Anthony Martini and Brandon Le have been criticized for the use of the n-word in old songs, an image apparently poking fun at police brutality, and Meka’s overall reliance on hip-hop excess taken to cartoonish levels. Just as I had settled on a direction for my piece, the news broke: Capitol Records had dropped FN Meka and issued an apology to the Black community for the signing.

In a way, the precipitous rise and fall of FN Meka perfectly reflects the kind of internet consumption it was created for. With his thick green locs, face tattoos, and ambiguous complexion, Meka could be mistaken for an artist’s rendering of 6ix9ine. If you had any exposure to rap’s clout era, Meka’s social media posts will bring those memories back and make them throb. The character’s animated videos are finely tuned to the trends of the day: he’ll brag about purchasing Animal Crossing-themed sports cars, a Rolls Royce with a Hibachi grill, and other luxury items that only exist in Meka’s world, a place colored by an exceedingly cynical view of rap. In a statement released hours before Meka was dropped, Industry Blackout called Meka “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.”

Yet despite the unoriginality, or because of its similarity to 6ix9ine’s tired antics, people seemed to be watching. Many were drawn to the slick animation that occasionally seemed to fool commenters into thinking that items like the Starbucks-branded PlayStation 5 that makes coffee were real things. A press release for Meka boasts of its 10 million TikTok followers and over one billion views — if even a fraction of those is authentic, that’s a significant number. It’s not difficult to see why major record labels would be interested: TikTok has been vacuuming up teenagers with huge followings for their dances or looks who are interested in trying their hand at music. Talent is a secondary concern when you’ve got a huge audience held captive on an addictive app.

And like many of his human contemporaries who started on TikTok, FN Meka’s music was bad. Much of it is hard to find and only appears on YouTube — “Moonwalkin,” which contained the heavily criticized line “I don’t see n***** like we playing hockey,” doesn’t endeavor to be anything more than a 6ix9ine b-side, and “Speed Demon” sounds like something Internet Money might begrudgingly release if they were on some kind of contractually-induced deadline. On “Florida Water,” the ostensible major label debut, Meka is relegated to the background in favor of Gunna, who sleepwalks through the track on his way to a check. (“Florida Water” has since been removed from streaming platforms.)

But Meka had an ace up its sleeve: A.I., how it was used (and not used) to create the music, and the general public’s broad misunderstanding of how A.I. functions in art. Let’s make one thing clear: FN Meka’s music is not performed by an A.I, or a robot, or even a cyborg. A human being raps on FN Meka’s music. It’s not exactly a secret. Factory Now co-founder Anthony Martini said so in a 2019 interview. The article claimed that “everything else” surrounding Meka is based on A.I., “from his lyrics to the chords and tempo underpinning his music[…] is based on A.I.” That’s technically possible, though it involves a greater deal of human involvement than the breathless headlines suggest. To generate material such as rap lyrics, neural networks need to be trained using the relevant information; for example, lyrics from existing songs.

But that doesn’t mean that it will spit out a track. In the case of TravisBott, an A.I. generated replica of Travis Scott that debuted in 2020 to its own controversy, a company called space150 fed thousands of Travis Scott lyrics into an A.I. model that had studied rhyming couplets. The lyrics that the A.I. produced were then winnowed down into a lyric sheet for a human performer to rap. It’s likely that a similar process was used to create Meka’s music, though judging from how much more intelligible songs Meka’s songs are compared to TravisBott’s “Jack Park Canny Dope Man,” I’m inclined to believe humans were even more involved in crafting Meka’s music.

Still, Meka’s marketing was an unambiguous success. Articles, social media posts, and videos that oversold A.I.’s importance to FN Meka flooded the music internet; many who followed the story were misled about what exactly Meka was. It was also a bit of a crutch: even if the music wasn’t all that great, it was still pretty impressive that a “robot” could come up with something so close to what a human would create. Like clockwork, the dystopian takes arrived: Robots were coming to replace rappers, mused Krayzie Bone of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

The ethics of A.I.-generated art is an important, loaded debate — any construct that takes existing art and creates new work that’s increasingly indistinguishable from human-generated creations is something that needs to be monitored and regulated closely. But Meka did nothing to advance the debate. Instead, the character escalated the most doomsaying takes on A.I. and art in a manner that wasn’t even aligned with the facts of its creation.

I wish I knew why Factory Now was so liberal with their use of n-word in their white-passing character, or why they decided to create a world for Meka with such an opportunistic view of rap, Black culture, and the struggle for civil rights that undergirds them both. But in a way, this ugliness is reflected in the quick demise of FN Meka’s major label contract — and hopefully, the character itself. FN Meka relied on short attention spans and atrophied critical thinking skills to spread across the internet, but its creation suffered from those same flaws. Meka may not have been a robot, but it was certainly a virus, wreaking havoc on our cultural conversation before the system flushed it out. Hopefully, the damage left behind will be limited to a few awful songs.