In the past couple weeks, rap fans have been bombarded with nothing but top quality releases. Whether through hit singles or loyal fanbases, artists are beginning to get national platforms for their regional sounds. This week we highlight three of the best projects to come out of California and inspect why you’ll be hearing a lot more from these artists in the near future.—Max Weinstein
YG, MY KRAZY LIFE (DEF JAM)
It’s almost a wonder that YG’s debut album My Krazy Life is as good as it is. A steady build-up of quality mixtapes, including Just Re’d Up, 4 Hunnid Degreez, and Just Re’d Up 2, solidified his approach as effective, especially with DJ Mustard helming production. But amongst competition like other Cali products Problem and IamSu, the stripped-down stripper club sound seemed like a sandbox. Atlanta artists have made that kind of tunnel vision work by employing varied timbre in their vocals, but YG has none of that. So how would it work?
It ends up being a lot less hard to imagine when you listen to My Krazy Life. The formula that Mustard and YG have perfected is unmatched across the nation, and while ScHoolboy Q tried to please everybody on Oxymoron, YG sticks to what he knows and ends up knocking it out of the park.
MKL is rap’s G I R L, often lacking in lyrical depth but more than making up for it in hooks and beats. It’s odd, listening to MKL, because while the raps are the polar opposite of Kendrick Lamar’s intricate, dense rhymes, they’re still enjoyable. Not every rap song needs to serve a ‘deeper’ meaning in order to have value. YG’s verses essentially function as buoys amongst the oceans of sound that his producer evokes, and within the framework of the album, that’s perfectly fine.
YG isn’t a vapid rapper, by any means. However briefly, he does touch on the tension between Asians and blacks in Compton (“Find a Chinese neighborhood, cause they don’t believe in back accounts”), the familial guilt that burdens him as a gang member (“My whole family tried to save me but it didn’t work”), and even his personal solitude (“I went to sleep last night with no bitch, nigga, I was a loner”). His verses aren’t as vacuous as many make them out to be, despite being overshadowed by melodies, catchy hooks, and production.
DJ Mustard, who has staged a slow-burning yet simultaneously swift coup upon Mike Will Made It as the hottest rap producer working, is responsible not just for the rhythms and the bounce, but the texture. There’s a DJ Quik-like focus on the harrowing keys, the Phantom Of The Opera synths, the drama of the drums. Mustard maximizes the sparse sounds that signify “ratchet,” and though that dominant aesthetic is offset with sprinkles of sonic diversity (“Me And My Bitch,” “1AM,” “Sorry Momma”), the beats powering “Left, Right,” “Bicken Back Bein Bool,” and the ubiquitous “My Nigga’” stretch until they’re oases of thick, throbbing bass. It’s music that makes you horny for more music.
Sequencing is key to the album’s front-to-back accessibility, and the centerpiece, “Do It To Ya” is at once the highlight of the album (with it’s interpolation of DPG’s “Let’s Play House”) and perhaps of TeeFlii’s career. There’s no point in listening to that song and trying to keep it out of your head.
Many are calling YG’s album “bad kid, m.a.a.d city,” pitting it against Kendrick’s masterpiece as an extroverted, drop-top experience, or the kind of thing that Lamar would recoil from. But if Kendrick is for the thinker, then YG is for the drinker, and who doesn’t have a little bit of both in them?
VINCE STAPLES, SHYNE COLDCHAIN VOL. 2 (DEF JAM)
Early fans of artists are always faced with a dilemma when said artists reach certain levels of success. I’m not talking about backpacker syndrome, where stuffy-nosed nerds suddenly despise their favorite artist simply because everyone else found out about them. It has to do with the disparity between aesthetic qualities of an artist’s early work and those of their later work. They almost never match up, and rightfully so.
Take Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, a lo-fi, fragmented, roughshod project that sounded almost like it came to existence by accident. Vince claims he didn’t want to be a rapper, but only pursued it after being urged by friends. While the “I just started rapping three months ago” mythos has been perpetuated to exhaustion (and certainly falsity) by now, it’s plausible to think Vince stumbled upon a mic when you listen to his debut tape. It’s a revelatory moment when you realize that he’s nicer than 90 percent of rappers working right now, and he’s not even trying. That was part of his initial charm.
But the same thing always happens to exceptional talent: big wigs eventually prey on them and swoop down to offer bigger opportunities, if only for a return on investment. It remains to be seen whether Def Jam will be a good fit for Vince, but as of right now the label is home to popular acts like YG, 2 Chainz, Kanye West, and Trinidad Jame$. Only one of those artists has the power to ignore the label’s directives and shun their creative control. Vince is going to have to play ball eventually, and you’re naïve to think otherwise.
For now, however, Def Jam is testing the waters with SCV2. There don’t seem to be any songs that stick out like sore thumbs, though appearances by Jhene Aiko and James Fauntleroy are a little more than eyebrow raising. The assumed single, if there is one, is “Nate,” produced by Scoop DeVille, the same guy that produced Kendrick’s first street single, “The Recipe,” for good kid, m.a.a.d city. Seems like a conspicuous choice.
Maybe I’m looking for a fault where there isn’t one. Vince is still rapping low to the ground, even while money is the motive. “45” is an excellent El-P imitation, which would actually make a great collab, given Vince’s post-apocalyptic visions and El’s earth-crumbling beats. Childish Major provides a thumper under references to public housing and the fear of dying broke. It seems like Vince is trying to bridge the gap between artistic success and a heritage of crime. On “Trunk Rattle” he reminds us, “Never wished for better days, only wished a nigga would,” as if he’s conditioned for violence instead of upward mobility. That becomes the crux of his struggle–how can he overcome his past to become a new person?
Often times, fans want an artist to stay broke, hungry and hooked on drugs so that their music remains raw. Never is the separation of public and private more ignored than when heartless fans wish bad times upon artists in the hopes that they’ll produce more meaningful art. I find myself struggling with this tug of war with Vince’s music. On one hand, I want more people to recognize him as one of the illest rappers out, bar-for-bar. On the other, I’d prefer if his sound still had the raw qualities of tapes like Winter In Prague. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too.
He sounds like he’s actually starting to give a fuck about rap, and while I imagine it’s a positive step for him, I almost wish he gave less of a fuck, or at least sounded like it. If he starts treating rap like a job, it might end up sounding like a chore. Danny Brown still spits like he’s strapped for cash, perhaps because he sees rap as more than a hustle. How Vince approaches the art is yet to be fully understood.
It’s important to note that Staples doesn’t shy away from explicitly mentioning two colors that many mainstream rappers seem to forget about–white and black. Even on a project that clocks in at 28 minutes, he constantly references his tension with white society and his place within it as a black kid. There doesn’t need to be any analysis here. The fact that he’s putting these feelings out in the open is enough to consider him a potential game-changer. Even if we want to curl up with our teddy bears and our beliefs of a “post-race society,” Vince still isn’t comfortable. That he’s willing to say so speaks volumes to the kind of impact he could affect on rap music in the future.
100s, IVRY EP (Fool’s Gold)
If Too Short and Goldie melded into one person, they’d become Berkeley rapper 100s. In no uncertain terms, his debut project Ice Cole Perm was one of the most refreshing rap releases in recent years. Every rapper utilizes the word “pimp” in their lexicon, even if they’re only pimps in their own rhymes, but 100s delves into the specifics of the character, right down to every hair in his well-prepared mane.
On his debut, he was running reverse game and fucking up female minds by turning down pussy. He was an obstinate misogynist, and he still is, but the content of his raps aren’t what hold the most weight. The bombast of his rhymes are what shock you at first. He might sound like a lame on “Inglish Outro” the way he approaches a girl on the stairmaster, but when he follows that with, “So many white girls, they think it’s self-hatred,” you get the sense that 100s is winking at you.
What resonates after multiple listens is the touches that he puts on his music after the obvious is digested. He’s singing most of the hooks on IVRY, whether blaming his degrading behavior on blood for “Thru My Veins” or dishing it to his girl straight on “Fuckin Around.” What he’s saying is to be expected, but how he delivers the choruses show development that is at once throwback and futuristic. Nearly every song on the eight-track EP begs for a Ty Dolla $ign feature, if only because the two would make a perfect match, stylistically and topically.
Joe Wax was an integral reason to why Ice Cold Perm had such a singular sound, and though he’s joined by other producers like Chuck Inglish, Silvamore, League of Starz and Vaughn Oliver, it’s still Wax who stays cutting edge on songs like “Different Type Of Love” and “Middle Of The Night.” He’s got coke-tainted disco leanings with a touch of ecstasy–essentially, his beats make you wanna dance. Like DJ Mustard is to YG, Joe Wax has helped 100s sculpt out a unique sound for himself on the West Coast, and it’s ultimately the vocal risks that 100s takes that sets the new album apart from his old work. It might feed our baser desires, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t good music anyway.
California isn’t running rap right now—it is rap right now. They’ve got every area covered: the smokers, the sippers, the drivers, the dancers. Even Atlanta is starting to fall behind Cali in the race for rap domination in the U.S., but competition is healthy. Young New York is looking somewhat paltry in comparison, and even though Gangsta Gibbs lives in L.A. now, we still know him as that dude from Gary, Indiana, and his latest album Piñata might be better than every album discussed above. Yet in still, winter is about to be over, and the West Coast is ready to melt.