As we revisit the rap climate of the year, we have a summer behind us and more than a number of strange and enticing records. While much of this column is dedicated to the revival of the city that was once hailed as the center of hip-hop culture, a like amount concerns the feeling of unease and confusion emerging from the current capital of the genre. From both coasts, many pockets in between, and even across the ocean, we cover rap that veers from the raw street-oriented material to the more elusive and experimental approaches. Now with the last few months of 2018 to anticipate, let us see where the year’s departure seems to bring us…
Future - When I Think About It
Despite arguably hitting peak after peak in the last few years of his career, 2018 was a surprisingly still year career-wise for Future. Besides his curation of the soundtrack for the remake of Superfly, most of his output has been limited to the occasional leak and a bulk of features across the musical spectrum that keep him in the loop but certainly don’t find him as abuzz as previous years. However, Future did opt to release a sequel to his 2015 Beast Mode mixtape this year. The most underrated of his supposed ‘Comeback Mixtape Run’ that culminated in the oft-praised Dirty Sprite 2, the Beast Mode tapes are most valuable for Future exclusively working with the production of legendary Atlanta innovator Zaytoven. While Future as a rapper feels remarkably spent and tamed after these massive career shifts, “When I Think About It” is the sort of street stoicism and heartfelt delivery that has been sorely missing in his commercial peak. With Zaytoven at his most orthodox, responsibility shifts to Future who must inject his personality and emotive sensibilities in order to propel the song, which he does with ease.
Skooly - Dope Fiend / Skippa Da Flippa - Don’t Play Me
For the city of Atlanta, 2018 felt exhaustingly redundant as the freshest waves of new rappers didn’t feel like developments in its many musical threads but rather echoes of ideas we’d already heard. The likes of Young Thug and Migos continued to falsely hint at receding from the spotlight before continuously bombarding us with #content while “Next Big Things” such as Gunna, Lil Baby, SahBabii and Young Nudy rehashed the all-too-familiar with little personal embellishment (unless you consider anime references some kind of improbable gesture). To the credit of the genre however, that previous wave is still being acknowledged and refusing to abandon their dreams of potential recognition in the tier of stars as opposed to regional chancers. Former Rich Kidz heartthrob Skooly appears to be diverting himself away from his brief excursion into straightforward rap back into the nasal yet enthusiastic R&B-style delivery he’d pioneered long before the likes of Future, Young Thug or YFN Lucci were celebrated for such. Meanwhile on “Don’t Play Me” one time Migos/QC affiliate Skippa Da Flippa demonstrates his already markedly technical approach to the trademark flow of his former collective, only this time marrying it to nakedly vulnerable content and a crystalline production from ILuvMuny that defies previous expectations. The city may be approaching a greater redundancy as a national trendsetter, but in its various niches one can still find incredible talents toiling away.
Bernard Jabs - Million Dollar Smile
One of the more curious developments of Atlanta’s status as the current vanguard of rap is that its alternative scene saw fit to emulate the more commercial hemisphere to translate to success outside their small scene. The career arch of, say, your FatManKey’s having gone from backpacker style hip-hop to trap was a common thread which quickly allowed for a new influx of talent in the lower rungs of Atlanta Rap, making the general trap scene feel both experimental yet also swiftly run-of-the-mill. Perhaps in recognition of this deluge, a few of the more ‘internet savvy’ acts have gravitated back into more left-field maneuvers in order to seem much less typical than say… any other rapper. Bernard Jabs’s “Million Dollar Smile” is one of these records, benefitting from Charlie Shuffler’s rock guitar loop being a cheap yet effective deterrent from the norms of the scene. Bernard’s melodic sing-song is both entirely suitable to the pretense of musicality, but also a driving hurried flow that stands out from the mechanical rolling triplets that threaten to dominate the scene in full. While it’s hard to say if “Million Dollar Smile” is a game changer or one-time score for Bernard & Shuffler, it’s hopefully an indicator of a new desire to push boundaries and refresh a stale Atlanta scene.
Young Dolph - Major (feat. Key Glock)
While the shoot dance and the Drake feature helped prompt the 15 minutes of fame for Blocboy JB, anyone with a dedicated eye on the southern rap culture could tell you that the Memphis revival has been mostly built on the back of rapper Young Dolph. Championed by the likes of Starlito and Gucci Mane, Dolph has been a consistent presence as far as making dark street raps that benefited from charisma and impact more than craft. Yet in the last year with his albums Bulletproof and Thinkin Out Loud (not to mention his infamy in surviving several murder attempts), Young Dolph appears to have transcended from regional to national star. Such a rise has led to the national eye moving focus to other younger Memphis talents such as the aforementioned Blocboy and Key Glock, who’s featured on the lead single for Dolph’s Role Model, “Major”. While “Major” is most certainly a no frills return to the familiar 21st century update of Memphis Fight Music that Dolph has mined for years, the generational link is a rare display of unity in a city that’s notorious for a crabs in the bucket mentality. Symbolic value aside, the contrast of Glock’s throaty bark and Dolph’s muted boasts serve as a nice display of versatility with such a simple formula.
Bryson Tiller - Canceled
After his sophomore album True To Self was met with resounding disappointment, singer/rapper Bryson Tiller fell from his inexplicable sort of overnight boom in popularity. To be fair to him, a majority of his field, consisting of Drakkonian soundalikes—whether officially recognized by the OVO camp (PartyNextDoor) or outer emulators (Tory Lanez)—all seemed to suffer in the wake of fairly picky audiences who meanwhile were more than satiated with an artist who was turning in more and more conservative material on further and further bloated projects. In any case, Tiller survived and endured by duetting with singer Jazmine Sullivan for the TV series Insecure’s soundtrack, and recently provided the first glimpse of future work to come in the single “Canceled.” Over a dissonant background sample akin to something Plaid would conjure, Tiller alternates between his frail croon and his saccharine romantic tales, whining with a particular millennial specificity that his clear progenitor has never bothered to strike. That particular sense of detail and effort is easy to miss, but an unquestionable strength in Tiller that fans would do best to encourage he further explore.
Xanman - Barman 2 / Lil Gray - Money Counter
The greater DMV region of America has occasionally seemed poised to blow for national rap recognition yet always seems to come short. Partially, this feels due to the fact that in previous eras, regional rap scene unity has often been spoiled by artistic differences of approach (let alone rivalries) that leave casual listeners confused as to ‘what makes them sound like them’. As the national rap scene seems to be falling into conventions in the underground however, this actually serves as a blessing for pockets of the country such as the DMV who’ve been struggling in the short-attention span theater era. Druggy street rap with a heavy smacking vibe, reverb heavy piano thudds as well as bombastic “Post-Pablo Juan” delivery seem to be par for the course, and most certainly provides for some great outings from the scene that could easily translate to the national rap audience with success if interest is garnered. Take either Xanman’s “Barman 2” which features sensational violence and a howling delivery, or Lil Gray’s “Money Counter” which relies on showboating tangents and weaving trick flows for differing methods to reach similar results. Should the continued gestation of the DMV scene continue, we may yet see more talents emerge to greater potential fame and even more compelling careers than one might expect from them historically.
Black Kray AKA Sickboyrari - Tearful / YSB OG AKA Kane Grocerys - “Gangland (feat. Sickboyrari)
With the so-called ‘soundcloud rap’ movement now well-established and possibly reaching its apex over the course of the last year, many a casual commentator has remarked upon the obvious historical debt some of these acts owe to progenitors such as Lil B, Spaceghostpurrp, or others whom often get the label ‘tumblr rap’ applied to them casually. Yet less discussed are those acts who bridged between the two eras, whom continue to toil yet fail to see the recognition for their ingenuity (after all, what are Lil Peep and XXXtentacion’s ‘emo’ inspired rap efforts without BONES to precede them?) Another such act is Black Kray, whose art-damaged drugged-out takes on trap feel like clear door-openers to lead to the current climate where the experimental and the grimy are so naturally combined, as his Goth Money Records crew often did. Clearly seeking to rebrand in the wake of his and his team’s innovations now being mainstreamed outside of him, Kray has changed himself to “Sickboyrari” and appears to be redoubling his efforts. Along with member YSB OG, “Gangland” features a folksy sample warped into a bass-heavy nightmare while his own “Tearful” features coy chiming synths to glide beside his slurred and elusive utterances. Given how the last generation has lost a number of their talents so tragically, certainly a few late bloomers could allow for glimmers of hope for such a lineage.
Queen Key - Ha (feat. Dreezy)
Arguably one of the first homesteads in this new wave of women in rap was Chicago. When the drill movement led to a national media boom for talent emerging from the city, plenty of emphasis was placed on the considerable amount of young female rappers such as Katie Got Bandz, Sasha Go Hard, and then more pop-minded dabblers such as Dreezy and Tink. However a late bloomer who’s garnered a useful amount of recognition is Queen Key. Recognizable for her laconic delivery and her wicked humor, Key’s Eat My Pussy tape did well to finally establish her persona and demonstrate her capabilities. Interestingly, the easy standout on the tape might be the Dreezy-assisted “Ha,” which features production that essentially bathes the record in sub-bass to the point of immobilarity. With the density of the stripped-back record offset by the vivid contrast of flows and boasts by the two ladies, it’s a surprisingly underrated outing in such a consistently fruitful field of rap.
YG - Deeper Than Rap / Mozzy - Thugz Mansion (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & YG)
Since initially forging their relationship a few years ago with YG’s “City Mad,” YG and Mozzy have found surprising kinship in each other despite a wide disparity in approaches. Mozzy, a classic Bay Area lyricist and street rapper, comes from the Livewire school by trade and specializes in vivid imagery tied to classic West Coast-style production that often remains in a depressive mire. Meanwhile, YG is one of the more enthusiastic rap chameleons who can easily redirect himself into stream-of-consciousness gushing and confident slick talk pending the need. Interesting indeed that as the summer tails off, YG releases an album characterized with morose self-introspection in Stay Dangerous while Mozzy’s upcoming Gangland Landlord finds him moving into more commercial approaches. For the former, “Deeper Than Rap” finds YG frothing with paranoia and loathing, while he and collaborator Ty Dolla $ign help boost Mozzy on the latter’s Tupac-indebted “Thugz Mansion” to a more universal message of gangster melancholy. Supposedly both of them have a collaborative project in the works, which sounds like one of the more appeasing prospects not only for both of them, but from the West Coast in general.
1TakeQuan - New Olympics / 1TakeJay - Hello
Hailing out of Los Angeles, the 1TakeCrew are a rapidly developing group of rappers whose unmistakable rawness feel like a breath of fresh air. On the one hand, their spontaneity and aggression could easily be paralleled with the Bay Area’s SOB x RBE; yet additionally the ‘back to basics’ approach of their music feels like throwbacks to the pre-’Ratchet’ era of Jerk and post-Hyphy, whose generation have now started moving into the elder statesmen role for the West Coast. Interestingly, despite the closeness of the team, already their rappers have been honing in on making themselves distinctive voices and personalities. With his trademark “waitholup!” tag, 1TakeJay updates the format of YG’s “AIM Me” to the smartphone age on “Hello” to portray himself with all the cockiness that your average LA Rapper is supposed to be overflowing with. On “New Olympics” however, 1TakeQuan charges in with rabid ferocity and wicked punchlines, feeling like the Los Angeles response to SOB’s Daboii in cruel humor. The 1TakeCrew are most certainly names to keep an eye on as their profile continues to rise, but in general it seems time for the Los Angeles rap climate to cycle into yet a new phase for the coming future.
Hermit and the Recluse - Atlas
Brownsville native Ka is generally recognized for his gifts as a rapper and producer; his gravelly voice, stark lyricism, and haunting beats see his work frequently regarded as the more esoteric cousin to friend Roc Marciano’s fossilized take on ‘Boom Bap.’ However, while many have gravitated to Roc’s signature tropes, Ka’s path has felt particular to him and him alone. A certain amount of critical success and recognition has been granted, thus allowing for his own very singular career that, while indebted, finds Ka’s writing growing much more arcane and abstracted from the earlier parallel he was able to forge alongside Marciano. These distances are only furthered with his outsourcing of producers for collaborative projects such as last year’s Dr. Yen Lo and this year’s Hermit and the Recluse. Featuring production from Animoss that is clearly in the vein of Ka’s own solo work, the rapper blurs the lines between street lessons and mythical allegory with a soundtrack more baroque and moody than Marciano’s cinematic soul. A track such as “Atlas” seems reminiscent of both classic Killah Priest and the latter day and more ‘experimental’ ambitions of the late Prodigy, pinpointing to the reach of ambition within Ka that hopefully more fans will come to appreciate and admire.
Flee - She Fucked My Son (Interlude) / Deem Spencer - I Was Talking to God
With NYC rap’s new bloom of talent, we find even the city’s more alternative scenes have benefitted from a relentless influx of fresh faces and takes. However, thanks to the relentless openness and vastness of its rap climate, there is no singular direction that feels the most valid or inviting. Even in a borough such as Queens, there isn’t one signature sound the way NYC boroughs tend to skew towards a particular method like the history has dictated previously. Two examples come from rappers Flee and Deem Spencer. The former’s “She Fucked My Son (Interlude)” produced by Cash Cobain, is an energetic and vividly technicolor swag rap tune with a bizarre sense of humor latched onto typical sexual antics. Meanwhile, Spencer’s “I Was Talking to God” takes the proverbial ‘ex-girl’ tune and manages to make it ooze into lo-fi rap territory similar to the efforts of MIKE and similarly hammer in oddly esoteric bits to his sense of oddball comedy. With such a boundless dimension of the city still proving fruitful, even deeming a few choices as being particularly effective seems downright unfairly limiting to such a surprising scope of rap talents.
Scrappy Doo - Juug / Sheff G - Panic Part 3 (feat. Sleepy Hallow & Fresh G)
Establishing itself as a scene proper was seemingly easy for the NYC branch of drill despite the various infighting and other issues that plagued them (not too unfamiliar from the histories of drill proper in Chicago or off in London). Yet to establish the rappers of the scene outside of the local theater has been a step that’s remained elusive thanks to spotty output along with a seemingly hot-cold focus via the media. To their credit, the Brooklyn Drill scene hasn’t appeared to take the memo of disinterest as a note to give up, but rather continue to develop themselves into something unique to themselves. Newcomer Scrappy Doo’s videos are punctuated by bizarre in-jokes, the bewildering “L-Bop” dance and his own rambling, off-the-wall style of delivery that feels incomparable to any contemporary rapper. On his single “Juug”, Scrappy takes the spaciousness of UK beatsmith M1OnTheBeat’s production as an invitation to ignore convention and rules. For the returning Sheff G and his partners Fresh G and Sleepy Hallow, relentless refinement and craft remain paramount as “Don’t Panic Part 3” finds them working as diligently as ever to leave a lasting impression based on their considerable rap skills, only this time with a less conventionally monochromatic beat.
CBlack821 & Shawny Bin Laden - CBSB / Dee Aura - AR-15
In particular, Queens has managed to display a surprising vitality for new upcoming talent in this wave of rap emerging from NYC. Emerging out of Hollis, The YTO3 Crew (whose Dee Aura has been mentioned in previous coverage), are one of particular note for how effortlessly modernized they feel without submerging the hardheaded NY Rap tendencies like one might expect. Often this would be attributed to their frequent collaborator in producer Cash Cobain, who keeps the rappers of the crew sounding spritely with vivid hypercolor 8-bit sounds to provide a less organic but surprisingly anxious version of the more minor-key moments of Zaytoven’s output. However, Dee Aura and Shawny Bin Laden in particular have been refining an urgent sounding, blurting delivery that drives in emphasis with stuttering hooks and rollercoaster flows that cram tough talk into surprisingly agile methods. On “AR-15” you have Dee Aura’s boisterousness cutting over the buggier production on his lonesome whereas Shawny pairs up with fellow Queens native C Black of the group 821 on the drill-inspired “CBSB” for effective extracurricular chemistry.
Kojo Funds - Who Am I (feat. Bugzy Malone)
Oft-paired against his arch-rival in J Hus or against his friend and frequent collaborator Yxng Bane, North London’s Kojo Funds has been just as often supplanted from his place as a pioneer in the ‘afro-swing’ sound that dominates much of the UK Rap Industry. While his Golden Boy album features hit singles boosted by Bane or pop singer RAYE, the bulk of the material finds him establishing the sound he’d grasped early on with singles like “My 9ine” that combine dancehall-derived pop sensibilities with gritty content. Yet it’s perhaps the most radical curve ball of them all, the garage-inflected “Who Am I” that feels like an eye-opener from the MC. While the presence of the ‘hardcore continuum’ has been as strained as possible with the newest generation outside of the grime revival, “Who Am I” finds Kojo effortlessly plying his trade over a robotic sounding 2-step tribute and recycling old jungle bars into what’s expected from him. While the guest verse by Bugzy Malone is functional at best and unnecessary at realistic, it provides a sense of historicism to the universal and self-celebratory nature of the afro-swing movement. The record shows that even away from his more predictable strengths, Kojo is a talent who deserves equal footing with his peers.
DigDat - Air Force / Lowkey (OFB) - GTA II
While NY Drill is redeveloping itself in order to reach another level, its British cousin finds itself in a state of severe disarray. Groups have been isolated and suspended thanks to federal investigations banning rappers from performing in groups, not to mention the various arrests and murders which have thinned out their ranks in just the past year. More and more, rappers are turning to more commercial means of recording with drill’s novelty becoming an imposing trap blocking any potential career. The genre has also arguably reached a point of peak saturation, with the ability to stand-out amongst the chaff ruined for even established names within the scene as the top tier talents such as 67, Headie One, and Loski are continuously making material far from their origins in drill. Yet still, the hard-edged sound appears to have value to some who are determined to get the last drips of value from the genre while the going is good. Dig Dat, a nimble barrist from South London, relies on his wordplay and virtuosity as greatly displayed on recent single “Air Force.” However, Tottenham’s Lowkey—from the same OFB crew that counts Headie and RV in their ranks—instead harnesses the booming harshness of his patois-inflected delivery for uniqueness in delivery and rather effective intimidation with his own “GTA II.” UK Drill might be at its final moments, but it seems the scene is not quite finished delivering moments of interest.