With half the year now resolved, we face the downhill slope as the last few moments of the 2010s are destined to rush past us. Likewise in rap, it feels like we’re hurtling towards a breaking point. More and more, the industry feels determined to serve up ideas that seem novel or fascinating at the start, but now feel exhausted and overly ‘familiar’. Soon, another generation will become the more prominent ‘young audience’ for the genre, and the next few years are going to signify a broader shift as musical styles and tastes will change—perhaps for the better of the genre, and all of us! It’s hard to predict accurately when any of these propositions will come into vogue with a more general audience, but even the most seemingly inane threads have served as useful genesis for ideas far down the line. For the moment, it’s simply a matter of granting due diligence to as much as possible while rejecting the eager desire to point to some self-appointed ‘zeitgeist’ which almost always fails to include a broader picture. This quarter finds rappers who are echoing the dawn of the decade’s trends through refinements, hint at breaking away from the pack, or have been the ones leading the jump the whole time.
A Spotify playlist containing tracks from this list can be found at the end of the article.
MIKE - Tears of Joy / Deem Spencer - Pretty Face
Last year, MIKE’s vision of underground east-coast style rap was inarguably at its most potent. His multiple projects were loaded with captivating yet isolating washes of sound, and were the clear influence on his mentor Earl Sweatshirt’s album from last year. Still in his teens, MIKE’s maturation has been hurried both by career ambitions and his personal life, but it’s made a greater impact on how the more ‘soulful’ and ‘lyrical’ realms of rap can sound. His newest release, Tears of Joy, feels like a step back in certain ways; compared to the severe stillness of last year’s release, he appears to be trying much harder to demonstrate rap dexterity. Still, he contains newfound discharges of gravity that offset the ego of his attempts at the demonstration of skill with that marked balance of poignancy with a serenity that never dips too hard into sentimentality or pomp. Frustratingly, his wake does not inspire a similar balance; a majority of the music made by his peers and progeny has just been face value ‘Grown Man Shit’ underground posturing. It’s translated to a lot of chest beating, mistaking ‘manhood’ for masculinity. More comparative to the spirit of MIKE is fellow New Yorker Deem Spencer. His new album Pretty Face is a record that takes the ‘deep fried’ approach of MIKE’s soulfulness and makes it woolier and more playful, like if Chance the Rapper tried to duplicate Robert Wyatt instead of Kanye’s debut. Albums like these suggest a whole new sonic language for rap that touches on the past, but defiantly points to a future without sounding ‘futuristic’ in cliche ways.
Sheff G - Tonight / Ether, Fivio Foreign & Swipey - Waka
NY Drill is currently in a transitory stage, feeling both on the verge of a greater presence in rap while remaining a niche of a niche. Sheff G, who at this point is a column mainstay, has been continuing his hard campaign while also expanding his music’s sonic palette. “Tonight,” with its haunting sample, does away with the rote minor key pianos that dominate drill to provide a new attitude to the genre’s usual war-raps. However, perhaps it isn’t the attitude of the music that necessarily needs to change, but the attitude of the performers. Enter Ether, Fivio Foreign, and Swipey: some of the lesser known but rising stars in NY Drill. On “Waka,” a tribute to the New York-born but Atlanta-repping Trapper of the early 2010s, the fight-energy of the classic “O Lets Do It” is still there. But in addition to this, “Waka” actually feels festive and enthusiastic; its boasts and threats provide an ‘‘inviting’ sense of conflict rather than an intrusive one. It’s unclear if and how the genre will ever reach that next step, but there’s still plenty of room to push the boundaries.
Tyler, The Creator - A BOY IS A GUN (feat. Solange)
Five albums later and it’s no longer conceited to assess Tyler, The Creator as one of the decade’s most defining rappers. The problem is the way he seems to suit the categorization and definitions prescribed to him by his audience. Previous album Flower Boy revealed his sexual orientation differed drastically from expectations determined from his on-record persona, which feels unimportant considering he spent a majority of his early years adopting a persona that was deliberately based off his fascination with serial killers. (The influence of Eminem and MF Doom on his rapping shouldn’t be understated either.) Yet fans and critics alike deemed it some sort of drastic casting aside of his ‘youthful transgressions’ and declared a sincerity to his new work that was either always or never there depending on where one looked. Take “A BOY IS A GUN,” one of the few rap-driven cuts off his newest album IGOR which features a psych soul-drenched sound. While many will decree this some sort of radical break from previous material, the song in question is a fragmented record with abrupt transitions, odd melodies, and Tyler rapping about obsessive desire: all more than familiar territory for him. With no doubt more music to come, I remain hopeless at the possibility that Tyler is an artist who’ll ever be placed into a proper context by the many who can’t help but check on him.
London On Da Track & G-Eazy - Throw Fits (feat. City Girls & Juvenile)
As far as the decade’s white rappers go, G-Eazy is one of the most successful, but has the least distinguishable characteristics. To be clear, he is not as mechanical as Machine Gun Kelly (though likewise nowhere as proficient) nor does he have the insufferability of Lil Dicky. Likewise, he’s less ambitious than Mac Miller or Yelawolf and has seemingly settled into a dull platitude of cool that, while commercially successful, has felt unnecessary. Surprisingly, 2019 has found G-Eazy’s attempts to use his position for well-considered curation that benefit others (though just as easily himself). His earlier single “West Coast” featured ALLBLACK, Blueface, and YG, and found him reasonably competitive while providing equal opportunity to showcase the talents of those who would benefit from such guest spots. Meanwhile on “Throw Fits,” a London On Da Track-helmed throwback to the New Orleans bounce sound (complete with Magnolia Shawty sample), it finds G-Eazy beside Juvenile and Yung Miami of the City Girls, both of whom are more than suitable for the raunch that the style demands. Each of these singles finds G-Eazy rapping with more capability than he’s demonstrated before in the commercial sphere, and they don’t feature him hogging the spotlight. It’s odd to think that there’s a reasonable chance that G-Eazy might close out the decade with multiple hits and maybe even an album of the year under his belt.
Camden Malik - Wit My Hands / AD, AzChike & Sorry Jaynari - Bruce Lee
California’s rap climate has always managed to make the most sense to itself first before letting the rest of the world catch up. In many ways it can be too self-referential or insular, which leads to confusion as to whether the field is moving forward or backwards. Take a look at LA-based AD and his producer Sorry Jaynari of the League of Starz crew. Yes, they who emerged in the “ratchet” boom represented a break from the past, but recent single “Bruce Lee” finds them using all of their production techniques to refurbish the old classic “Ring My Bell” into a record that would easily sound as suitable for the roller rink or the strip club, perhaps the symbolic paradox of Los Angeles rap for decades now. Over in the Bay, we find Camden Malik—with producer Sporting Life—updating the ramshackle pulse of hyphy by turning it into a swirl of soulful stirrings akin to Malik collaborators Navy Blue and MIKE. Unlike his peers, however, the Sacramento rapper spits with a rushed dexterity to ride alongside the violently propulsive kicks. These songs show two ways in which styles that have long been familiar to California are evolving.
Bandgang Lonnie Bands - KOD
Bandgang is the crew most responsible for affecting Detroit’s present day rap scene, and its star has been quietly ascending. It’s fitting, then, that the member with the largest profile is also the most vocally quiet. Lonnie Bands is recognizable on record for his distinctive whining vocal delivery, and his voice often goes from a choked-up, crying yowl to hushed whispers as he raps about scamming, sleaze, and reckless drug use with glee. His most recent album, KOD, is currently his strongest release yet and it’s an immediate classic in both the Bandgang camp and for the city in general. The production remains terse and nervy, with grim post-Bay Area keys slammed over restless Cash Money-inspired drums, and Lonnie hisses endless threats and cruel jokes with an unmistakable air of menace. The self-proclaimed “Scam Man” is most certainly in his prime and, if we’re lucky, it won’t be long before Bandgang ascend to being one of the most highly regarded rap crews to date.
Rich Blue - Kikan / Rocaine - SconiScam
If there’s any thread of unification around Detroit Rap nowadays, it’s the notion that so many of their rappers willfully drift on and off beat. It’s nothing new, especially when one considers the lack of grounding in flows by recent Motor City rappers like Big Sean or Dej Loaf (or even previously scattershot rappers such as Esham and, yes, Eminem). However, more prominent has been a division of two differing camps, based on using either laconic or hysterical deliveries. Plenty of bloggers and enthusiasts are eager to hype the more ‘indoor voiced’ acts such as Babyface Ray, Peezy, or Payroll Giovanni for their recognizable ease with menacing money talk. However, just as much praise should be lavished on the extravagant and histrionic acts. Longtime mainstay Rocaine, skilled in both production and rapping, uses “SconiScam” to ramble along the boundaries of the beat as he issues threats and switches flows without any sense of organization. Meanwhile, with the cacophonous “Kikan,” Rich Blue raves and snarls in a Tasmanian Devil fashion as his juvenile glee feels more suitable for the various old school smash and grab collage production than any self-conscious throwback ever could.
ChaseTheMoney - On The Way (feat. Valee & ZMoney) / Queen Key - Evil
While once threatening to be the new epicenter of rap in the United States, Chicago’s stature feels diminished after so much of the drill wave from the city has either fallen into despair or diminished stature. Many have, of course, gravitated instead to the peer circle around Chance the Rapper’s more positive and alternative rap community including artists such as Pivot Gang and Noname, but a greater case can be made for those who exist in that no man’s land of street rap and the outre. With the slow burn of 2017’s “My Way,” Queen Key’s profile has finally transcended her city’s limits and now finds her most recent tape Eat My Pussy Again featuring some of her strongest and most varied work yet. “Evil” has Key rap along to a jazzy acoustic bassline sample just as easily as her more artificially bass-boosted material suited her effortless glide. Speaking of bass, the dreadnaught vibes of Chicago producer ChaseTheMoney are another return for the column (last heard supporting another Key selection in “Ratchett” last season), this time with his more frequent collaborators in Gucci Mane affiliate ZMoney and GOOD Music signee Valee. On “On the Way,” both utilize their hushed, murmury tongue twister flows to snake along a billowing dust kicked up by ChaseTheMoney’s creeping sounds. While perhaps not the zenith that it promised to be at the beginning of the decade, Chicago still has much to offer.
Lil CJ Kasino - X3
Fort Worth-based Lil CJ Kasino is one of a new breed of Texas rappers (along with former collaborator Go Yayo) who specialize in a sort of one note blast style of rap. Thudding beats meant to simply slam and dishevel while the rappers just bark and bop along to the record. It’s a simple formula that’s since disseminated in other pockets across the south, but has been a secret flavor in Texas for a couple years now. “X3” by Kasino might be one of the most broadly appealing displays of this formula, and most overtly because it jacks Britney Spears’s “Toxic” instrumental. A record that practically demands a radical rap facelift, “X3” finds Kasino turning the hysterics of those rushed James Bond-esque strings into pure calamity as he bounds and bellows haphazardly before switching into a deft double-time. The whole of the record feels like a loping swarm that’s impossible to channel, but ever so satisfying to be swept up by.
70th Street Carlos & Sauce Walka - Drip on 70th Street / 70th Street Carlos - RIP (feat. 1TakeJay) / 70th Street Carlos - Ball State
Over the last few years, the city of Baton Rouge has made a hard push to replace New Orleans as the current rap capital of the state of Louisiana by abandoning trap templates and returning to a more jump-up ‘Bounce’-like style pioneered by the likes of Jungle Muzik Larry, Que Almighty, and one of the scene’s biggest stars in 70th Street Carlos. While he once specialized in this field’s similar arms race of bellowing and galavanting, Carlos has spent recent time draining the volume from his voice while his boasts still keep a wiggy sort of manic energy. Recent singles demonstrate this quite well, but just as interesting is bearing witness to out-of-towners slowly get drawn into the orbit of Baton Rouge and demonstrating the potential for crossover. On the one hand, the swampy and low-key “RIP” doesn’t quite suit 1TakeJay’s LA prankster antics, despite his personality being a suitable compliment to Carlos’ similar energies. Meanwhile on the bombastic “Drip on 70th Street” the Houston firebrand Sauce Walka actually manages to overpower and outshine his host with lunatic glee. If this style continues to attract more foreign talent and others besides Carlos, perhaps we will see a breath of new life take to the southern rap climate with the trap template having become so seemingly exhausted.
BlocBoy JB - Mercedes
As mentioned in previous writings, BlocBoy JB’s refinement is less a transition out of novelty and more of a necessity. The fact is, it’s uncertain if and when the benevolence of Drake should ever come back to him and boost one of his singles. As such, his pleasant charm and exuberant dancing can only carry him so far, and without producer Tay Keith constantly supplying him, there isn’t anything to distract from JB’s more clumsy moments. However, “Look Alive” felt too early for him to seize his moment, and 2019’s JB is proving more and more capable. “Mercedes” relies on tinny 808 cowbells (a Memphis staple) and little accompaniment while it’s all up to BlocBoy’s rapping to grant the record any sense of dynamics or urgency, which he does to surprising aplomb. Of course it’s still uncertain if BlocBoy’s efforts are in vain or not with the fickle attentions of his audience, but he’s going out swinging, and making the kind of music to start swinging on other people. You can’t fault him for trying.
Xanman - Hell Yeaa / YungManny & Xanman - First Day Out
Briefly incarcerated, the now infamous Xanman’s star has proceeded to generate more and more shine alongside his frequent collaborator YungManny. On “First Day Out,” the duo perfectly compliment each other, competing with a sort of schoolyard one-upmanship in their giddy punchlines. As a solo artist, Manny displays a broad appeal and sensibility to suggest easy crossover, but it’s notably Xanman’s relentless dark humor that’s caught on with listeners both in and out of the DMV. Over on “Hell Yeah,” Xanman’s goofball charm actually manages to overpower the menace of tracks from earlier in his discography, suggesting that there’s room for a potential crossover for his monolithic style. However, it’s the more rough-edged showcasing than the smoother (and more silly) Manny on “First Day Out” that shows Xan in his prime. Right now, it’s incredibly confusing with how to best showcase this formula for a broader audience, but nevertheless it’s clear that Xanman is leaving an impact on his fans and suggests that he might have what it takes to become a more wide-spread artist. Perhaps the compromise will have to be put on standby...
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You can listen to a Spotify playlist containing tracks from this list below. Note that some songs are not available on the platform.