A year ago, Juice WRLD asked a rhetorical question: “What’s the 27 Club?” And then: “We ain’t making it past 21.” The we there is crucial. Juice WRLD asked that question, and gave his own heavy-hearted answer, on the song “Legends.” He released it in June of 2018, the day after the murder of XXXTentacion. More »
We’re entering a strange new period where there’s no meaningful distinction between rap’s underground and its mainstream. A regional scene can catch fire out of nowhere. A 16-year-old can blow up on TikTok. After the stultifying years-long dominance of Atlanta trap, other sounds are starting to get their moment in the rap sun. Things can … More »
With a cascade of releases spewing from the likes of DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, it can be difficult to keep up with the overbearing yet increasingly vital mixtape game. In this column, we aim to immerse ourselves in this hyper-prolific world and share our favorite releases each month. The focus will primarily be on rap mixtapes — loosely defined here as free (or sometimes free-to-stream) digital releases — but we’ll keep things loose enough to branch out if/when we feel it necessary. (Check out November and December’s installment here.)
As often seems the case, this month’s mixtape crop is a study in juxtaposition. Our selections both belie (gangway for navy) and support (Freewave 3) the notion of the mixtape as a haphazard assemblage or practice album. They compare and contrast Chicago with Atlanta (Still Swervin’), Oakland with Detroit (Bartier Bounty), and New York with other parts of New York. They evoke past (I AM ATLANTA 4EVER) and present (While We Wait), fringe (A Mercy Killing) and pop (Unplugged EP). They’re all over the place and all right here. Let’ see, what else… oh yeah — free 21 Savage, and Breez Brewin is the greatest (i.e., my favorite) rapper of all time.
Sada Baby – Bartier Bounty
The odds of me ever being able to buy a Sada Baby CD are slim, but this is a start. Confined until now to YouTube videos (and MP3 rips thereof), the Sada Baby catalog is a richly rewarding sprawl, a web of freestyles, small-name collaborations, and largely unpromoted singles tied together by the sheer strength of personality. Goofy dance work, deep-cut basketball references, and Detroit hyper-violence somehow co-exist — thrive, really — in Sada’s gruff, urgent delivery over the sort of beats, equally Bay Area- and techno-inflected, that have come to define modern Detroit street rap. “My personal YouTube playlist of Sada Baby videos” was the trendy wildcard for 2018’s year-end lists, and Bartier Bounty shows why; even if much of the new material falls flat, your 12 favorite Sada Baby tracks can more than hold their own against any album out right now.
Navy Blue – gangway for navy
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Some Rap Songs wasn’t a culmination of, nor an artistic dead-end for, the noi$e coming out of the sLUms/lo-fi crew. In the months since, we’ve already been blessed with a new MIKE offering, and here we have gangway for navy, an unassuming missive from sLUms-affiliate and Earl sparring partner Navy Blue. As with SRS, these tracks are brief and plodding, smudged and smeared out, but brevity need not signify aimlessness or abandon. Apparently, gangway has been gestating for a short while, and every bar, sample, and drum lick (hell, even the dead space at the end of “deathmask …”) seems poised and purposeful as such. And, while Navy might not quite have war in his pen, his impressionistic words and voice give form to the (just-about) beats, atop which his affect is one of malcontent. The ever-so-slightly sardonic “carlos” is a case-in-point – he’s ready to clear the air and he hopes for grace, only to stumble and pause on his “grief.”
Auset Bennu – Unplugged EP
“Is the hip-hop mainstream ready for a trans MC?” would be how to start this blurb if I wrote for SPIN or some shit. This would likely then be followed by mentioning how Beyoncé and Drake sampled Big Freedia. But SPIN this is not, and Auset Bennu doesn’t make bounce music. She does make exactly the kind of hard-hitting, dance-ready, feeling-oneself-heavy hip-hop that, to my ears, would fit seamlessly in Hot 97’s regular radio rotation. And while we’re shooting for the stars, why not a Cardi B collab? Auset reps Bronx Dominicanas too, and Cardi’s the new Drake now in terms of unavoidability. All armchair A&Ring aside, Auset Bennu’s music has so much pop appeal that cisgender embrace is essentially besides the point (though inevitable). This tape is certified dope no matter what else you call it and regardless of what kind(s) of shoes are in your closet. Mainstream or not, she’s already a star for this.
Kehlani – While We Wait
Kehlani’s worst career move was staying “real” — in the three-dimensional, human sense that the laboratory-grown SZAs and Jorja Smiths of the world are not — and for that, we should thank her. Across a handful of tapes and one official album, 2017’s excellent SweetSexySavage, her most interesting work has consistently been her most personal and idiosyncratic; the greatest criticism of Savage was that it sometimes leaned too heavily upon revival and interpolation of well-worn 90s classics, and the greatest strength of While We Wait is, correspondingly, that it’s thoroughly contemporary (Dom Kennedy feature notwithstanding). Even the drawbacks are modern: the tape is nine songs long, ambiguously placed along the EP-mixtape-album spectrum, and already out of the public consciousness after its nearly-unannounced release last week.
Lucki – Freewave 3
Spare the braggadocio for another tape: apathy and agony are the prevailing attitudes on Lucki’s Freewave 3, an evocative glimpse at a low point in the Chicago emcee’s life. Clocking in at a fleeting 30 minutes, the record is a collection of 15 song-fragments held together by gritty 808s and bare honesty. Prescription drug abuse is an all-too-common motif for trap rappers, but Lucki confronts these demons with enough self-awareness to stand out among the genre’s most vivid lyricists. More of a scene-setter than a storyteller, Lucki plays the part of his own super-ego, wedging pangs of guilt and introspection between him and his self-destructive impulses. Thoughts fade into being, branching out into memories and faces. “I need grandma picture with me, I won’t sip if she near me,” he murmurs over aquatic piano chops on “2012 Summer.” Lucki’s family members and flames float in the marginalia of his verses, hinted at through purple fog. He’s trapped in a vicious circle; trapped by the trap; trapped beneath layers of compression. Dip a toe in the tarpit and you too might disappear.
Gorilla Zoe – I AM ATLANTA 4EVER
Here’s Atlanta trap legend Gorilla Zoe’s all-Zaytoven-produced new tape I AM ATLANTA 4EVER, a 10-track homage to the pair’s home city. It’s the fourth and final installment of Gorilla Zoe’s I Am Atlanta series, the first of which came in 2008, back when he was riding the waves that this made in the early days of Atlanta’s hip-hop/trap renaissance. A decade later, Zaytoven and Gorilla Zoe are working hard in true Atlanta fashion, Zaytoven as soulful as ever, same watermark tag and all, Gorilla Zoe still rapping with cool, stylistic ease. This tape carries a nostalgic, melancholic flavor (see “Built Like Me”), and it seems like the two are reflecting on what they’ve achieved, unconcerned about proving the legitimacy of what they’re doing. The Atlanta renaissance (that these two helped spark in no small measure) is still going strong, but as this decade draws to a close, perhaps it’s worth asking whether the South (and more specifically, Atlanta) will lose credibility as the referent for chart-topping hits, as happened with NYC hip-hop beginning in the early 2000s. But if this tape is any indication, it’s clear that, to legendary Atlanta rappers and producers like these two, the answer doesn’t matter. They’re gonna keep doing Atlanta no matter what, and they’re gonna do it well.
G Herbo & Southside – Still Swervin
After the relatively disappointing first draft of last summer’s Swervo, it’s heartening (and wholly unexpected) to see G Herbo and Southside continue to refine their creative partnership with Still Swervin. Originally conceived by Herbo as a path into Southern markets, the collaboration has staked out a real middle ground between Herbo’s Chicago and Southside’s Atlanta, giving the former sufficient distance, both sonic and spatial, from his comfort zone to try new personas and styles. Herbo’s still rapping offbeat, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and more power to him — it only takes a single appearance from Gunna (on “Trained to Kill”) to demonstrate how boring the alternative could be.
Spaghetti Blacc – A Mercy Killing
A Mercy Killing is the rare mixtape that — whether you’re familiar with its creator or not — feels fully realized upon arrival. From the cover art based on Picasso’s Bullfight, the death of torero to the track titles (“Consumed By Mushrooms,” “Talismania Devil”), it’s clear even before pressing play that there’s a very particular set of ideas behind all of this. Then, when you do finally touch that boxed triangle, your face melts and your brain explodes. If Nephilim Modulation Systems ever put out something on Deathbomb Arc, it might sound something like this, but the vision, voice, and vibe are all Spaghetti Blacc’s – intricate, raw and unrelenting. If you dig what you hear, you’re in luck, because he put out three other releases just this past January. Plus, there’s the extensive discography of Spaghetti’s Blacc Ski Weekend Industries to unpack. Get killed.
“Releasing a song on a cookie’s crazy.” That’s how Wiz Khalifa describes releasing a song on a cookie. If you watched this past Sunday’s Grammys and didn’t stare at your phone all through the commercials, then you saw Wiz and his miles-wide smile in an Oreo commercial, mugging with his kid and projecting a more … More »
With a cascade of releases spewing from the likes of DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, it can be difficult to keep up with the overbearing yet increasingly vital mixtape game. In this column, we aim to immerse ourselves in this hyper-prolific world and share our favorite releases each month. The focus will primarily be on rap mixtapes — loosely defined here as free (or sometimes free-to-stream) digital releases — but we’ll keep things loose enough to branch out if/when we feel it necessary. (Check out last month’s installment here.)
Rap tightened its waist this month, brought in the belt a few notches, squeezed back into its G.O.O.D. jeans, and burst onto the scene with more surprise releases than a zoo covertly infiltrated by eco-terrorists. While Yeezy and co. continued their string of seven-track Fridays, a gifted young lady came blazing out The City that Bombed Itself, with 15 minutes of audiovisual rap that stand to reclaim the word “lean” from woozier realms. Meanwhile, Bey and Jay dropped the album. Rothbarth shrugged. I bugged. XXXTentacion died. Then Gibbs got one. Southern cooking more your flavor? Both Zaytoven and DJ Michael Watts threw new summer sizzlers on the grill. Plus, now we’ve all these mixtapes to run down! What’s a rap columnist to do? Perhaps Beyoncé hubby S. Carter said it best when he mouthed the Migos ad lib, “skrrt, skrrt, skrrt.”
Queen Key – Eat My Pussy
To think of Queen Key as a persona is to do her art and her existence a great disservice; even cursory investigation will confirm that the image put forth on Eat My Pussy is the genuine article. It’s a new sort of rap authenticity, skipping “realness” and proceeding straight to fantasy; Key’s primary concern is not what others think of her but rather, to quote “Tell,” how best to tell this bitch she wants to fuck her husband. She’s an endearing figure, a sort of incarnate id, and it’s no surprise that her ascension has come about organically rather than through any reinvention. It was last September that the “My Way” video started to get attention, and a mere nine months later, Key finds herself not only recording, but also holding her own with Chicago mainstays like Tink and King Louie. Despite showing significant improvement over the run of YouTube loosies with which she closed 2017, Eat My Pussy is still just the beginning for Queen Key; nine more tracks are set to be added to the tape on Thursday, and it’s a safe assumption that work on the next is already underway.
EvillDewer – 13
In response to the sea change in how music is consumed, distributed, and (mercifully, reluctantly) purchased, independent Boston-area rappers and producers have secured the bag by refashioning the mixtape into a luxury item. These tapes can feel like stately public affairs, brimming with artistic self-assurance, collaborative joy, and emerging regalia. Netherrealms, the second most recent, cassette-only offering from Boston-based producer and “waveform scientician” EvillDewer, featured architects of this local insurgence like Estee Nack and Paranom. On his latest, 13, EvillDewer scraps guest verses to foreground his chopped, flipped, and time-stretched MPC juggling. Though a solo effort, the result is hardly insular: it’s a glimpse into the librarian-like mind of someone who pulls from actual library records, jingles, karate flicks, krautrock, and public access clips. Don’t let the erudition fool you; 13 is as fit for the subwoofer as it is for the gala.
Tierra Whack – Whack World
Tierra Whack is here with that quick fix. Compact, efficient, just how we like it. Fifteen tracks in 15 minutes. Stop it. Don’t waste a moment thinking it’s a gimmick. You don’t have any time to lose. There’s no fat on this record; all of that’s been sliced up and disposed of. Whack World arguably packs in as much as any of 2018’s G.O.O.D. releases. The North Philly rapper pulls u-turns, changes vehicles, jumps a bridge, and still has time to swing through a fast-food drive-through on her way to the award show.
ShoZae – Coffy
So firstly, if you haven’t seen the 1973 film Coffy starring Pam Grier, written and directed by Jack Hill, please do so before it inevitably gets remade. Second, if you haven’t listened to the Roy Ayers soundtrack, take care of that too. You good? OK, now you can function in a society and begin to appreciate what Midnite Society producer/recent Stones Throw signee ShoZae is doing with this, his latest tape. I don’t mean to pose barriers to entry — you can enjoy the 2018 Coffy without knowing its precedents — but at least in hip-hop, there’s something to be said for plotting courses of inspiration. They don’t have to be chronological or linear and often aren’t, but the dig is key. To that point, Coffy is entry-level blaxploitation, but maybe from there you check out The Final Comedown. Likewise, maybe this tape leads you to the Patron Series, Beneath the Mantle Vol. 1, the catalogs of the artists featured therein, and ShoZae & Grandmilly’s forthcoming Stones Throw LP, Adventureland. That’s how this record we call Earth spins.
Lukah – Chickenwire
Humor and braggadocio are two methods of dealing with trauma in the places America chooses to ignore. On Chickenwire, South Memphis rapper Lukah claims he saw his first murder at age 12. This experience hardens him for a life in an unforgiving landscape. Simultaneously, he emerged from the womb clutching two backwoods and a pound of gas, with “handsome features” and a sensuous voice that’ll make you tingle. “Why you praying to God when you about to pay him a visit?” he asks. Lukah’s delivery is well-enunciated and confident, with quip after quip sliding off of his silver tongue over a half-hour of hook-less verses, as fluid and loose as backseat freestyles. “Bounce,” according to DJ Squeeky, is a necessary component of the Memphis rap sound, which by now has come to be acknowledged as the precursor to many of hip-hop’s hottest trends. Chickenwire contains no bounce. Some tracks betray their R&B samples in clipped slivers, but most are wordless, tangled loops, with production shared by the MC himself, Suni Katz, and Memphis avant-rapper Cities Aviv. Lukah is both menacing and hilarious; he remarks on many things that are “fucked up” about the world, but singles out a series of mental images that are absurd and shocking, like “Precious wearing a thong,” “a Blood Crip-walkin’,” “having thugs at your door dressed as Jehovahs,” etc. This tape is the sort of thing you can play all the way through while puffing a backwoods on a porch in the sweltering, humid heat, but the MC never fails to remind you: don’t let your guard down.
Chief Keef – Ottopsy EP
Ottopsy listens like an EP for Keef fans, a sort of gift from Sosa before he drops his next project, Mansion Musick, due out in July. It contains the type of forward-thinking hip-hop we’ve come to expect from post-Interscope Chief Keef, and if you enjoy his more creative (dare I say avant-garde?) side, this is for you. The beats are inventive as ever (especially the instrumental for “Randomly” ft. Tadoe), the autotune hooks catchy as all hell (lookout for those high notes on “I Need More”). Keef has endured some tough losses in the last year (RIP Fredo), and I hope his creative outlets are helping him push through. Not suggesting that Keef is using loss as an impetus to make music — I’m just happy to see him putting out quality tracks during hard times, which is inspiring.
Navy Blue – From the Heart
Flipping through the playlists of collaborators like MIKE and Adé Hakim, you’ll likely find a fair share of aesthetically common ground between them, Navy Blue, and other members of their SLUMS NYC collective. But general nouns like aesthetics, mood, honesty, and intimacy are about as far as those comparisons can fairly go, because upon arriving at the latter two, shit gets personal. With bars like “My uncle had a junior and he named him the third/ Won’t show up at your communion ‘cause auntie has some nerve/ Mommy did it all by herself/ Mommy buried grandma by herself, ain’t none of y’all helped,” From the Heart is not just aptly titled, but also keeps faithfully close to that most vital organ.