New York rap is in the shitter right now. It’s not the worst it’s ever been, but it’s so stagnant that in 2014 the city had to put its hopes into Bobby Shmurda, who proved charismatic but ultimately not up to the task of being NY’s messiah. Meanwhile, the hopeless narrative of Bringing New York Back is helping solidify the city’s place at the bottom of the ladder behind Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis, Chicago – pretty much every other city in the country right now. It’s as if the weight of history has kept the birthplace of hip-hop from evolving.
There is, however, a new crop of MCs doing things in a completely different way. While most rappers tread water trying to ride one wave or another, these five bring something different to the table. Like not biting Hov or 50.
Maybe you’ll agree with us. Maybe you won’t. But here at WatchLOUD, we don’t care about your feelings. We don’t care about politics. And we definitely don’t care about trash rappers. There are other MCs doing their thing in the city, and just because they’re not listed here doesn’t mean they’re not dope. These five are just the best of the best right now.
Ka is New York’s secret weapon. He raps like he lives in the sewers, beneath the scum and grime of the superficial city, deep in the core of the Rotten Apple. He’d probably be Bane’s favorite rapper; Night’s Gambit could be the official soundtrack for the League of Shadows.
His secrecy is intentional. The other day he tweeted about how he hates promoting his work. Not only is he a lab rat, but he’s also obsessed with the craft; his attention to details shines through in his raps, and he doesn’t seem to care about anything beyond the music itself. The purity of his approach – he’s selling his new album Days With Dr. Yen Lo in person this Saturday (5/16) outside Other Music in the East Village – might make his music a little inaccessible to the masses, but since when have hip-hop heads wanted it any other way?
With a flawless discography of dirty rainwater rap, Ka has established himself as one of the most important MCs working in New York today. His work doesn’t go unnoticed by those with boots on the ground.
I caught myself leaving Heems out of the “New York rapper” category when I first started thinking of this list because that’s a minimizing label for his work. Himanshu is from Queens, but his proper full-length debut Eat, Pray, Thug traverses Indian music, EDM, and R&B. It is not only one of the defining albums of the post-9/11 generation, but it’s also a testament to the intersectionality of identity in 21st century hip-hop. One need only consider an ignorant NPR comment hinting at “the brown man” being a “recycled black man” to realize how narrow-minded listeners can be about who “should” and “shouldn’t” rap in 2015.
Heems is so New York, he made a whole song about it – “I’m so New York, I still don’t bump 2Pac.” His approach is tongue-in-cheek, but his subtle, clever way of illustrating what life is like in America for a Punjabi is startling at times:
“I’m so New York yo, I live with my momma
Had to leave Williamsburg and all the white drama
Had to leave my home, they kept calling me Osama
Had to leave my home, cause of drones and Obama”
More than two months after the release of Eat, Pray, Thug, I’m still wrestling with it, but if you can listen to “Flag Shopping” without feeling a sense of doom about this country, you’re stronger than I am. That song is a punch in the gut and a healthy reminder of why we’re lucky to have Heems to speak for the silenced.