First Quarter Report 2018: Rap


By: Maxwell Cavaseno

Ever since its inception, rap has benefited from being one of the most unique genres of its time, and the last few years have proven such is still the case. Despite how accessible various forms of rap have been made thanks to the internet, the narratives and attention more often become dominated by market forces. Rarely do we get to sit back and study the genre in an overall view gauged not by success or recognition but for resonance. So, here are at least a few examples of developments in rap that are most certainly worth keeping an eye on...


Tay-K - After You / Jai Daytona - noface…?

The unfortunate saga of Tay-K feels like yet another moment in the now four decades of rap which demonstrates how America’s mass consumption of the music often reveals darker habits that are harder to shake, no matter how hard we try and reflect upon them. “The Race” as a cultural phenomenon of fascination has many worrying implications, but one of the few positives is that by forces outside of Tay-K’s control or benefit, a single of pure rapping ability has managed to succeed and leave impressions upon younger artists to follow in its footsteps. NYC’s Jai Daytona reflects that on “noface…?”, an East Coast alternative to Tay-K’s grimness, while the latter’s own recently leaked single “After You” brings forth an unexpected revelation: while the young man’s future feels overwhelmingly damned, his potential as a writer was astonishingly underestimated. May we only hope that this, and not the other elements to bring him to infamy, become further entrenched in the minds of aspiring young artists.


Tyler, The Creator - Okra


A decade into his career and Tyler, the Creator still manages to feel surprisingly underrated despite Grammy nominations and a loyal cult-following. Part of this is due to the fact that the majority of his Odd Future collective have long since abandoned him, with Earl Sweatshirt making art-ravaged introspective rap and others diving into neo-soul indulgences to middling results. Tyler himself often oscillates between a cartoonish post-00s form of insular rap extravagance and his more lavish interests in soul jazz fusion composition (which is still in 2018 being compared to the much less impressive amateur outings of Pharrell Williams). “Okra” is, by Tyler’s admission, an effort inspired by recent Kanye West signing Valee’s breathless cluster-like flows, and is perhaps the first time since “Yonkers” that a rap-focused single by him doesn’t fall into self-parody (or feel burdened by his music video auteurist Hype Williams tributes, the more accurate and genuine moments of his so-called derivation). It’s spartan and irreverent, but shows an impressive technical ability that Tyler often leaves by the wayside in favor of his more self-indulgent world-building instincts.


SL - Tropical


Last year’s “Gentleman” was an astonishing debut for the rising road rapper SL. It was a muted record that transferred menace with calm and deliberation rather than boisterousness and rambunction, instantly placing him in a higher echelon of UK street rap than a majority of what the booming drill scene had produced. This year, his follow-up “Tropical” practically abandons drill and gloom altogether in order to see him ride atop music-box like ornamental sounds as his gleeful viciousness finds a more atypical home. By use of this baroque, minimal production, the Croydon-based rapper is able to cut himself a sound all the more unique, allowing his particularities to come into magnification.


Rich Blue - Hands Hands / Bandgang Lonnie Bands - Adidas

Detroit has spent the last few years becoming one of the biggest underground nexuses in American rap. Despite churning out talent at an accelerated rate, none of this has resulted in major media focus, possibly due to Detroit lacking the media infrastructure of a Chicago or the cheap novelty of a "drill" scene. Tragically, the city’s biggest success in the last few years, Tee Grizzley, mostly benefited from duplicating the success of Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares.” While a landmark moment for the city, it was not indicative of any discernible recognition for the scene at large. In the last few years, Detroit's street rap—such as the Bandgang/Shredgang collective— has started to gain a cult following with praise from the likes of Chief Keef and SOB x RBE. Yet at the same time, alternatives have started to emerge as a counterpoint, one such example being the irreverent prankster rap of Rich Blue. Over a Tag Team lift, “Hands Hands” is the sound of masturbatory woodshedding to immeasurable glee. Compared to Lonnie Bands’s druggy wastrel cries on “Adidas,” it's seemingly more lucid despite lacking any sort of detail or sense of trajectory. Who’s to say which of these approaches will prove the more fruitful, if any.


Asian Doll - Road Runner


One of the more curious developments in the last few years of rap has been an astonishing overflow of newfound female MCs. Granted, the success of Cardi B in the last year could account for a great deal but many other ladies such as Bali Baby, Molly Brazy, Queen Key, and Rico Nasty have been enjoying concurrent or even preceding career notoriety in recent times. It's hard to say what could be the definitive "cause" of this change or if this will result in any sort of profound "movement" per se; as far as I’m personally concerned, the majority of acts earning major label deals (or of course being secretly signed major projects) are for the most part incredibly rudimentary as rappers, and feel like rehashes of the provincial Lil’ Kim model. Coming out of Texas by way of Detroit, Asian Doll has managed to provide several standout freestyles and original singles that indicate a growing competency as a rapper that few male peers would be encouraged to keep up with. “Road Runner” is a minimal stripped down affair that benefits from a glitchy multimedia video and Asian’s own stylistic flair, but her tongue-twister double-times display a sharp mastery for someone her age, serving to demonstrate how she should continue to be recognized among the higher tier of names.


Diplo - Wish (feat. Trippie Redd)


We're approaching roughly 6-7 years since the bloggers Walkmasterflex & Softmoney (of the now-defunct Space Age Hustle blog) coined the nonsensical label “cloud rap” based off a throwaway remark made by Lil B to rap writer Andrew Nosnitsky. The label was a term taken with surprisingly literal audience interpretation afterwards, despite the fact that it was used to shoehorn left-field country rappers, 1st to 3rd string post-hyphy participants, and a now informally dissolved L.A. hipster rap collective under one ill-fitting and ultimately counterproductive umbrella. Nonetheless, even in 2018, traces of cloud rap still manage to linger along in future generations. “Wish” sounds like a fully-realized version of Lil B’s I’m Gay-era material, or perhaps even an accidental modern progeny of P.M. Dawn with its drifting melancholy pop. Furthermore, it becomes surreal when you recognize that the substrain of rap that this single so easily coincides with was from a time when Trippie himself was barely in his teens. Records such as “I’m God” were certainly jarring in their approach even at the time of their release, and perhaps the hyperbole was overwhelming for what were essentially outliers. But when those songs manage to be mere steps removed from the present day, it manages to testify to their genuine impact and quality.


SOB x RBE - Paramedic!


Arguably both the boon and albatross of Kendrick Lamar is his particular dependency on conceptual weight via segue: a habit most likely originating from Kanye West and then spread more prominently through Drake, who even featured Kendrick on Take Care via this exact gimmick. It’s now dominated a great deal of his solo work to the point of inevitable bloat on subsequent releases and, most curiously, even his curation of the soundtrack for Black Panther. Theoretically, such ornamentation is an excessiveness that should interfere with the stripped-down and direct approach of the Bay Area’s SOB x RBE. Yet in a perhaps inspired gesture, Kendrick’s insistent need on dressing is particularly effective in granting individual impressions for a group undergoing a rapid magnification in exposure under his showcasing (the “Anti”-style synth interlude used to summon Daboii is a particularly excellent homage to the group in their natural presentation, away from the trappings of Kung-Fu Kenny). It's a rare case of curational embellishment working to one’s benefit.


Don Q - Trap Phone (feat. Desiigner)


Success in rap is arguably one of the biggest Catch-22s in the age of an attention climate warped by virality and easy access. Within a matter of months an artist can debut, rise, and become irrelevant unless they maintain a steady schedule of engaging releases. Brooklyn rapper Desiigner spent last year reaping the benefits of his “Panda” routinely, but the more he deviated from the simple formula of his breakout single, the less rap fans deemed him worthy of engagement. Ironically, his biggest follow-up success has manifested in an unlikely remix verse for Korean boy band/rap group BTS, but an admiration from “ARMY” does not translate into respect in your own neighborhood. On A-Boogie affiliate Don Q’s “Trap Phone,” however, we see Desiigner adapting his southern-influenced freestyling to the rising NYC sound to great success. If he’s smart we may see the L.O.D. use his commercial positioning to ensure he can become a key figure in this burgeoning scene should the continuous deluge of G.O.O.D. Music-officiated singles fail to connect with a larger audience.


Maine Musik - Soulja Slim Flow 2 / NBA Youngboy - Outside Today

Already a mainstay of the southern rap climate, Louisiana has been seeing a new renaissance emerge not from New Orleans but the less admired city of Baton Rouge. Despite already earning a deserved amount of focus thanks to the successes of the likes of Boosie and Kevin Gates, the newer breed of rapper seems determined to make it despite providing material that seems too gritty for the polish of the last few years' mainstream "trappers." Former New No Limit signee Maine Musik appears reverent to the New Orleans memories as his “Soulja Slim Flow” single series demonstrates a nimble-tongued skill at wordplay that’s become a rarity among younger rappers, while possible new Cash Money artist Youngboy Never Broke Again provides a panoramic sense of paranoid anthema on “Outside Today”, a record undermined with his growing reputation for violence in his private life. Both of these artists display the creative promise from the younger generations, but demonstrate how frustrating it is that such talents often are weighed not only by their distaff position in the rap culture at large, but also with the baggages of their own backgrounds.


Young Scooter - Bread Crumbs (feat. Young Thug & Vl Deck)


Years have passed since Young Thug’s initial promise of commercial breakthrough, and thanks to a number of factors complicating matters, no such breakthrough has managed to occur. As a result, Jeffrey has promised that he’s spending the majority of the year avoiding solo releases which, given he’s already dropped a collaborative tape with Future, doesn’t exactly feel like a commercial sabbatical. However, this gives his guest features for peers who lack his media access a certain mystique, doing much to improve the luster he’s lost in the failed realizations of so many attempts to establish his superstar status. On “Bread Crumbs,” the opener for Young Scooter’s Trippple Cross mixtape, Thug shows his melodic instincts and rapping ability are still top notch, while managing not to overpower newcomers like Vl Deck or Scooter’s necessary central relevance. It serves to indicate that at the very least, the last few years have helped him hone in on his instincts for practical purposes in the commercial hemisphere. With a chance to feel like the onslaught of his careerism has momentarily been placed on hiatus, there’s a chance for audiences to regain their appreciation of him and perhaps finally prepare to accept a more matured and inviting Young Thug.


Sheff G - Play For The Members


Despite initial outings from artists such as the GS9 collective being dismissed as flukes or trend chasing, last year demonstrated that drill at large appears to have migrated to NYC and London in addition to remaining a substrain of the current Chicago rap climate. However, while Chicago’s contributions to this “international” drill community now feel less and less vital with acts such as Chief Keef and G Herbo branching away from the sound that brought them their initial successes, it's become Brooklyn and London who have managed to truly keep the sound fruitful. Amusingly, Sheff G is one MC who demonstrates a particularly trans-Atlantic mindset to the genre with a pronouncedly UK-influenced model of Drill (in contrast to the more American workings by his rivals in the Blixkys camp). He and his peers are often found listening to and borrowing instrumentals from South London acts such as Moscow17 for their tracks. And likewise, Sheff himself has begun to favor an intricate, technical flow with endless modulations that are more beneficial for attacking the Brixton-style complex drum programming. It's a gesture of stylistic virtuosity that has helped establish a particular uniqueness to Brooklyn as London has gone the way of more formulaic and pared down approaches.


Skengdo & AM - German Swerving


Though benefiting from an enhanced media profile, the UK Drill scene appears to have begun approaching an overall peak in the last year or so. Most of the successes in the commercial sphere was found by road rappers choosing to embrace an afrobeats-influenced pop-rap style (a la J-Hus/MoStack), and the majority of buzzing crews/camps are often found releasing middling follow-up singles making audience interest in the scene grow erratic. Of the few success stories, one that deems a troubling note is that of Skengdo & AM, who found themselves able to thrive thanks to honing themselves down into a basic formula for easy digestion. While AM is most certainly proving time and time again to be a capable MC, and the idea of the 410 being an alternative to the main Brixton camp is enticing, songs like “Macaroni” and “Mansa Musa” are frustratingly formulaic, bordering on rote. Yet this paint by numbers approach has reaped them considerable rewards, and appears to be their course for the future. The best feature of new releases such as “German Swerving,” however, are deviations from former producer D Proffit, which hopefully indicate that the duo themselves have grown bored of their habits and might be willing to stretch out in order to extend their commercial vitality, thus preventing their instincts to become the norm for the rest of the scene.