As we begin to close out the decade, 2019 presents a number of daunting issues related to the future, namely those revolving around the internet. Like all music, rap depends on the internet for distribution and circulation as never before, and it’s been extremely apparent these days given rap’s status as the most admired of popular music. That said, all the utopian arguments that the internet would prove to be a boon to the genre and make things easier for artists and audiences alike have proven futile. History and information should be easier to get ahold of, but they’ve instead become easier to disregard. Nearly anyone can guarantee their music gets on the major platforms, but so much stratification for whose music is emphasized makes painfully noticeable the artists who aren’t heard. For all the promise that technology would make rap feel better than ever, it’s somehow managed to make it feel more difficult to explore.
The songs selected below do a great job at demonstrating how strange 2019 feels. It includes multiple generations, rappers from all across the nation, and even some from across the Atlantic. Similarities persist in some of the selections, but the differences are incredibly prominent and create a baffling sense of what can be considered “now.” So much of rap’s past is still impossible to shed, and so much of the so-called future feels illusive to point to with confidence. This isn’t to say that any one thing in particular feels exciting or enjoyable, it’s just difficult to do justice to it all with the endless sprawl of talent that continues to make itself known. For the readers: I hope these selections do their best not only to satisfy, but to confound. One can only imagine what the 2020s hold, but for now we have another year to marvel at and to endure.
A Spotify playlist containing tracks from this list can be found at the end of the article.
Birdman & Juvenile - Just Another Gangsta
Arguably one of the most important rappers to ever emerge from the city of New Orleans and the south en generale, Juvenile’s relationship with Cash Money Records and its founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams is as hot and cold as it is storied. That the duo have reunited with Juvie’s former mentor (who is supposedly low on artists to “allegedly” exploit) is a fascinating turn of events, especially with rumors of the ever-influential Mannie Fresh being brought back into the fold.
The trick of this is that no matter how far away Southern Rap ever seems to go from its points of origin, Juvenile can always manage to adapt to the present day rather seamlessly; given that his commercial peak was in itself a second-wind to his former incarnation in the bounce scene, it makes sense that he’s learned to sense the shifting tides and reapply himself at just the right angle. Hard to say how long lasting this partnership will be, but the throwback tinge of “Just Another Gangsta” is perfectly suitable for the recent resurgences of West Coast and Cash Money-leaning throwbacks.
Jose Guapo - Goyard
Last year, Pitchfork’s Briana Younger argued vehemently for the appreciation of the Rich Kidz’s Skooly as an icon of Atlanta rap. It’s a legitimate claim, and similar recognition should befall his former fellow Rich Kid Jose Guapo. Guapo having once been a considerable presence on records—appearing alongside the likes of Young Thug, Young Dro, Travis Porter and others, as well as having varying solo singles of note—recently fell victim to a career ceiling after a brief dalliance with the Migos’s QC camp. However, after reuniting Spiffy Global (co-author of Guapo’s biggest hit on QC, “Run It Up”), he’s returned with his strongest material. The ornamental rave-tinged beat feels closer to the more baroque material that Spiffy usually provided other frequent collaborator Johnny Cinco, but with a much more lush and electronic feel. Perhaps more records like this are on the horizon, which would make an additional case with so many career phases that Jose Guapo is deserving of some proper recognition.
DaBaby x Blocboy JB - Minivan / DaBaby - Suge (Yea Yea) / Blocboy JB - House Party
After Blocboy JB was the brief recipient of a co-sign from the ever gracious and magnanimous despot of rap known as the Drake East India Company, his prospects of becoming the next big thing felt next to nil. Once producer Tay Keith’s sinister edges (and the initial humor of Blocboy’s shoot dance) departed, much of his interest from casual listeners seemed to likewise disperse. However, after pursuing a hard-nosed rap style, the Memphis talent found a more suitable foil in the Charlotte-based prankster known as DaBaby. On the rise thanks to absurd records propped up with ludicrous music videos, DaBaby’s idiot glee has quickly captivated audiences who are a bit bored with the self-seriousness of much mainstream southern rap. In lieu of their dual collab “Minivan,” Blocboy appears to have learned how to harness his own eccentricity as the focal point of his music, providing a much more engaging listen than initial expectations allowed.
Kitty - Disconnect
2017’s Miami Garden Club saw the career of Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde) finally move past its gestation to something that was very much a product of rap yet something unfamiliar. Last year’s work alongside partner/collaborator Sam Ray in The Pom Poms & American Pleasure Club demonstrated a variable understanding of pop, but her own solo music felt akin to rap in the way Yoni Wolf’s Why? did, albeit filtered through the experience of living on Myspace.
In a way, Miami Garden Club felt oddly akin to records such as 17 and Luv is Rage 2 did that year, but upcoming album Rose Gold may drift in altogether new directions. Single “Disconnect” is perfectly stilted and strained, a continuing struggle of digital transmissions over the course of its duration that remains perfectly modern while harkening back to the 808s & Heartbreak era. It’s baffling to wonder what Kitty will sound like next after being a relentless shapeshifter over the course of her still-young career.
Xanman - Xan on 3 / YungManny - I’m YungManny
At least a few rap writers have noted the bizarre state of the DMV. Despite it being the very border of the North and South of the US, you’ll find that more often than not that their rap tastes swing drastically Southern. Specifically, it’s the flow of one Hoodrich Pablo Juan from Atlanta that hangs heavily on rappers from the area: Xanman, Yung Manny, Lil Dude, Goonew, and Lil Gray to name a few. Xanman in particular has managed to intrigue many with his relentless battery of punchlines and peculiar taste in samples. For example, on “Xan on 3,” the young rapper takes Mary J. Blige’s Dr. Dre-produced classic “Family Affair,” slows it down to a trenchant sounding lurch, and runs roughshod over the orchestrations.
Compare and contrast that to Yung Manny’s “I’m YungManny,” which is beholden to a nostalgia for a different time: the tail end of ringtone rap from the late 2000s. Armed with nursery rhyme melodies both in the production and from Manny himself, it’s a sweet reminder of the late days of Myspace Rap (RIP Myspace) that served as an unofficial training ground for so many of the current day rap stars. In this regard, the DMV has managed to blend the past and the present in ways more promising than much of what the scene further south has provided in a while.
22Gz - Sniper Gang Freestyle / Scrappy Doo - Silky Pt. 2 Undercover / YT03 - No Hook 1
Among the younger generation, rap in the 21st century feels like it could go in any direction. Following the debacle that was 6ix9ine’s musical career and the brief moment of NY Drill, much of the rap scene at large has splintered and gone off into odd directions. Now under the patronage of Kodak Black’s Sniper Gang, 22Gz of the Blixkys finds himself making more universal street rap for an aggressive “How To Rob” style harassment of several noteworthy names for attention. On the other hand, fellow Brooklynite Scrappy Doo remains firmly entrenched in drill production but continues to spiral off into weird idiosyncratic humor and self-references that suggest a very personal path for his vision of NYC street rap.
Venturing over to Queens, we find the YT03 Crew (who include column mainstays Dee Aura and Shawny Binladen) continuing to refine their hyperactive swag rap alongside crewmate Pablito on “No Hook 1,” a somnambulic cast off into the void from one of the most prolific yet underreported of NYC crews making a name for themselves. After 2018 consistently demonstrated the former home base of rap’s newfound potency, it’s encouraging to see that 2019 shows no signs of stopping their tremendous offerings.
DJ Muggs & Eto - Attics
Given DJ Muggs’s success at the end of last year from producing for underground rap icon Roc Marciano, it’s no surprise that the Cypress Hill mastermind would reap the benefits of his fruitful turn back to classic hip-hop production. He’s done so in this newfound minimalist, monochrome field where the likes of the aforementioned Marciano, Ka, and the Griselda Records camp have found varying degrees of success. However, it feels almost inexplicable that his next project of note would be behind the boards for the semi-obscure NY rapper Eto. The resulting album, Hells Roof, is certainly adjacent to the maudlin Nu-New York style being peddled, but at times returns us to the worst parts of 2000s True School Rap. Given Griselda’s commandeering of a majority of the underground scene—one with ever-diluting Wu Gambino cosplay and last year’s overkill of product from Marciano—it wouldn’t be unlikely that the style has been stripped for its last few gems. However, records like “Attic” prove that given the right alchemy, even lesser offerings can still achieve very similar potency.
Lunchbox - Triflin / Zatin - Jug n Finesse / Baby Blue - 1NIGHT
In the NYC Soundcloud underground, the loose collective of rappers known as the Horror Squad have been fairly consistent mainstays on the scene. Based out of East Harlem, rappers Lunchbox, Zatin, and Baby Blue have often popped up on each other’s surreal dread-soaked records, providing maudlin utterings of despair and negativity that are married to icy minor key melodies. On his own “1NIGHT,” Baby Blue’s gravely gurgle feels miasmic, equally vulnerable and repulsed. On Zatin’s “Jug n Finesse,” his minimal wisps of sinister synthetic orchestrations allow the other’s dead eyed tales of street life to sound like a Grand Theft Auto tackled by Keiichiro Toyama. Likewise, Lunchbox’s self-produced “Triflin” is a crystalline production that sounds both comforting and eerily sterile to counteract the relentless maliciousness of its creator’s rhymes. Thus far, none of the Horror Squad are attracting major attention beyond Lunchbox producing for the likes of Sheck Wes, but their particular nocturnal vibe feels rather overdue for recognition.
YVNCC x TrippJones - Pout
One of the most noteworthy aspects of this decade was the phenomenon of Memphis Rap aesthetics replacing East Coast Boom Bap as its go-to formula. It’s hard to determine if the genesis for this supplanting emerged from the possible cultural influence of: SpaceGhostPurrp, SALEM, the Juicy J comeback, or various other factors from the beginning of the decade. Nevertheless, it has exploded beyond the Raider Klan’s mere retro-fetishism and extended into the spheres of pop-punk, noise, and the more left-field arenas of traditional underground hip-hop. One might think that with the 2010s coming to a close, many have exhausted the potential to hurdle Memphis Rap styles and habits into the modern age, but one merely needs to look to the Mutant Joe-produced “Pout” to learn such is not the case. Featuring NYC based rappers YVNCC and TrippJones, “Pout” features flows undoubtedly influenced by the likes of Three 6 Mafia, but it instead marries gothic triplets to horror-themed breakcore a la Hecate or Christoph de Babalon. It’s a bizarre track that demonstrates just how much unmined potential this thread of classic rap actually has, and how it’s moved beyond its unadulterated raw 90s formulas.
Queen Key - Ratchett
Given the explosive acclaim that Valee received in 2018, why wasn’t his frequent collaborator ChaseTheMoney given similar recognition despite being just as prolific as your Kenny Beats or Tay Keiths or Pi’erre Bournes? No answer is sufficient, but he appears to be spending 2019 equally eager to stake his claim as one of the most consistent providers of slumpers. Here, we find him paired up with another talent from Chicago in Queen Key, a rapper whose 2018 ultimately felt slight compared to her promise from the year before despite a mouthful of raunch and playful punchlines. On “Ratchett” (supposedly an advance track from her newest project Eat My Pussy Again), the listener gets to be doubly assaulted by exclusively low and distorted bass drum kicks and Key’s obnoxiously boisterous attitude. Ever the wild-eyed prankster, Key’s eagerness to switch from lewdness and hedonism to buying her grandmother a new house demonstrates her boundless personality. It makes the foundation on which ChaseTheMoney’s unstable production bountiful with absurdity. Perhaps the only complaint beyond the dueling versions (which feature varying levels of distortion), is the brevity of such a track.
FMB DZ - Give NGO (feat. Daboii) / Sada Baby - Honest
While my initial reports in 2018 suggested trepidation regarding Detroit rap being able to push itself forward and make itself nationally known, the beginning of 2019 has made clear that any sort of hesitation was unfounded. After a particularly fruitful year, the likes of Drego & Beno, Sada Baby, Bandgang, Shredgang, FMB DZ, and dozens more are establishing themselves far beyond cult audiences. Thanks to the benefaction of fellow breakout Tee Grizzley, Sada Baby’s mercurial energies have become widely recognized, hinting at potential for crossover into the broader rap sphere. Meanwhile, on a more local level, his grittier sparring partner in DZ seems committed to traditional displays of menace. All in all, the scene still feels fruitful if a bit formulaic. Regardless, it feels on track to finally be in a recognizable place in the greater rap dialogue.
Daboii - Pressure Applied / Almighty Suspect x AzChike - Legend Killer
Over in California, the age-old saga of complaining has emerged again. Yes folks, again we have rappers blowing up in Los Angeles while rappers in the Bay Area claim they’ve not been paid respect. I’ve personally heard this argument close to a dozen times in my own lifetime, and I’m more than prepared to hear it a number of times until either I’ve grown too old to comprehend the rhetoric, or California has finally been cracked off the continent by tectonic shuffling.
Granted, this sub-regional tension has led to a number of collaborations and rivalries that in turn led to incredible music. From outside the Californian microcosm, though, it feels like unnecessary division as L.A.’s newest crop of talent finally feels able to stand up beside (or against) their neighbors. After an already prolific 2018, Daboii from Vallejo’s SOB x RBE has continued to release impressive songs and verses. On “Pressure Applied,” the young rapper floats between a wisdom beyond his years and being an impulsive juvenile with little visible sense of cognitive dissonance.
Down in Los Angeles, we find the pair of Almighty Suspect and AzChike—rappers who are among the city’s many rising stars, including 03 Greedo, DrakeoTheRuler, Frostydasnowmann, Blueface, the 1TakeCrew, and countless others. Yet, Suspect and Chike have a particular notable chemistry which the pair determined to showcase for their AlmightyChike EP. On the lead track “Legend Killa,” the duo peel off back to back 8-bars with an eagerness to outdo the other’s impressive displays of viciousness, all in complementary fashion.
Carns Hill - Why (feat. K-Trap, LD, Headie One & Blade Brown) / LD x Mental K - 6 Lords
Having existed for roughly a decade now, the UK Road Rap scene finds itself with no direction to indicate logical progression, especially after the drill movement seems dispersed of momentum due to a 2018 marred by policing. More curiously, thanks to the youngest generation having managed degrees of commercial success and resonance, a number of older MCs have returned to the scene seeking a chance to be at the forefront once more. Whether having resolved legal issues or returned from unofficial retirements, the likes of Tiny Boost, Yung Meth, Mental K, and Blade Brown are all eager to lay claim as the fathers to the current generation of UK Street Rap.
While some are more successful than others in updating themselves to the modern climate, perhaps those who have it the easiest are those who spent much of their careers collaborating with South London’s Carns Hill. After all, who better to bridge the gap for many of these elders into the modern climate than one of the men responsible for the blueprint to both early road rap styles and UK Drill. So on Mental K’s “6 LORDS,” a collaboration with 67’s LD, one sees one of the godfathers of road rap treated as an underground icon. Meanwhile on “Why,” a selection from Carns’s 2019 album Hurt Your Parents Feelings, Blade Brown manages to keep pace alongside the likes of LD, K-Trap, and Headie One to prove that despite teaching the ‘drillers’ what they know, he’s still capable of adapting to the current day and age.
Dizzee Rascal - Quality / INCH x STAR.ONE - Duppy & Done
While Road Rap itself is also dealing with its newfound sense of history, almost every aspect of UK MCing is finding itself at a crossroads with over four decades of musical cultures. Dizzee Rascal, now approaching close to the 20th year of his career, has ultimately proven to be less than reliable beyond the brilliance of his debut, with numerous glimpses at a comeback failing to spark the same excitement and energy as before. “Quality,” however, is a bizarre turn of events. It’s a straightforward rap hijack of the hardcore rave classic “Sound of Music” by Gavin “Nookie” Cheung, transposing the early pirate radio anthem into a modern day trap banger. Meanwhile, generations down the line, Itch of the Smoke Boys (formerly known as Section Boyz) has left the crew’s more Road Rap oriented sound for much more Grime-influenced material. His single “Duppy & Done” feels like a modern update of tougher So Solid Crew-era tracks, a brief refresher on the familiar pleasures of grime after it felt like the scene had been stripped of all remainders of nostalgia.
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You can listen to a Spotify playlist containing tracks from this list below. Note that several songs are not available on the platform.