I’ve spent some ungodly chunk of my adult life attempting to write critically about rap music, and one of the hardest things about the genre to approach is one of its simplest elemental building blocks: The simple idea of flow, of words tumbling intuitively over each other. Some rappers have it, some don’t, some have it and lose it, some build entire styles from conscious rejection of it. Writing about the music, it’s easier to address the on-paper vividness of the lyrics or the ways the beat might move than it is to talk about cadence or meter or delivery. But the way those words sound is, if anything, more important than what they say or what music might sit under them. For example: Consider the moment on “100 Grand,” a song from Richmond, California rapper Iamsu!’s new $uzy 6 $peed mixtape, where Juvenile shows up. Juvenile, he of the elastic singsong New Orleans drawl, is one of rap’s all-time great flow artists — the melodic snap in his voice is a thing of beauty — but his style and persona are so out-of-step with 2012 rap that, other than his latent influence on old crewmate Lil Wayne, it’s almost like he never existed. Here, though, none of that matters. Juvenile and Iamsu! sound nothing whatsoever like each other, but Juvie’s appearance here still makes perfect sense, since both he and Iamsu! know exactly how to make rhyming words sound amazing even when they’re saying nothing. It’s a case of flow recognizing flow, and there’s a whole lot of flow to be heard on $uzy 6 $peed.
Every great song on $uzy 6 $peed, and there are a lot of them, is about partying and/or being awesome, and Iamsu! doesn’t have anything especially new to say about either subject. (That said, “I’m so deep up in your girl, might leave my phone up in that bitch” is a pretty great line.) But Iamsu!’s brilliance is in his innate grasp of where his voice should go, his total knowledge that he needs to cram a couple more syllables in here or leave an extra measure of silence there. His delivery moves around, switching up every few bars. He’s got a thin, angelic singing voice that he pulls out whenever he feels like it, but it’s not the central focal point in his delivery; it’s just one weapon in a packed arsenal, like the double-time he effortlessly pulls out here and there. There’s an easy, conversational warmth to his voice; when he’s spinning tales of epic dominance, it’s almost like he’s just calmly and factually relating what he did last night. Iamsu!’s all over Wiz Khalifa’s recent Cabin Fever 2 mixtape, and there’s a bit of mutual influence there; you can hear the smoked-out everykid that Wiz was playing a couple of years ago in Iamsu!’s fluidity. Mostly, though, you hear a young artist completely in control of his instrument, one who understands exactly where his lane is.
The cool thing in California rap right now is the ratchet-music sound, a minimal club-rap sound built from cheap synth patches and handclaps and empty spaces. Its greatest anthem to date is Tyga’s “Rack City.” That track’s producer, DJ Mustard, is credited with being the force behind the style. But Iamsu!’s a producer too, and he and the various other beatmakers in his Heartbreak Gang crew have as complete a command of the sound as Mustard does. If I called Iamsu! a standout in that whole scene, I might be dooming him with an expiring gimmick, and he’s too talented, too strong a songwriter, to fall into that pit. He seems to know it, too; after first six or so songs on the tape, he mostly switches to a melodic plastic-funk sound that’s a bit busier than the spacey thump of ratchet music. He sometimes gets more sincere, too. But as admirable as his branching-out aspirations may be, the tape loses focus a bit when it stops concentrating on insinuating bangers. That stuff is still pretty good, but when Iamsu!’s on, he’s making some of the catchiest and most pleasant music in all of rap right now.
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