Tyga is not an especially good rapper by any metric, but he still made my favorite single of last year, in any genre, with “Rack City.” That track seems to hover in space. Its evil wobbling synth-bass, icy fingersnaps, mechanized hey chants, and perfectly places snare smacks are all just as important as Tyga’s nasal sneer, which itself is more purposeful than it is on any other Tyga song. The chorus is a stutter, meaningless enough to become a mantra. And the man who really deserves credit for “Rack City” is its producer and co-writer DJ Mustard, who’s lately turned himself into a cottage industry by making cold, minimal strip-club bangers not too tremendously different from “Rack City.” Atlanta guys like 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy were among the first non-Californians to realize what Mustard had going on, and Mustard’s now made hits for both of them. But that spaced-out snap — Mustard himself calls it “ratchet music” — has effectively become the default sound of commercial West Coast rap music, the same way Dr. Dre’s symphonic G-funk whine was two decades ago. And Mustard’s new compilation mixtape Ketchup is probably the closest he’ll ever come to making a Chronic.
Of course, Ketchup isn’t The Chronic. Mustard doesn’t have Dre’s widescreen imagination, and Ketchup mostly consists of a series of expertly rendered strip-club anthems. YG, Mustard’s favorite collaborator, is a central-casting knucklehead with none of the dark magnetism of the young Snoop Doggy Dogg. Mustard doesn’t rap, so he can’t anchor his compilation the same way Dre did. But Mustard, like Dre, has a fiendishly powerful ear for a hook and a powerful signature sound. Like Dre, he’s staffed his entire comp with unheralded or under-heralded local voices, guys who don’t have big national profiles but who come off like stars at home, and that cast of characters makes Ketchup sound like the start of something rather than just a collection of leftovers from a producer’s hard drive. And even if Mustard doesn’t necessarily have a classic on his hands here, he’s made an endlessly fun and replayable tape of summertime jams, a mixtape that will get endless burn in my car until the weather turns cold again.
Ketchup is a furiously fun tape, and one of the best things about it is the fact that you can actually hear the rappers. Mustard leaves oodles of empty space in his tracks, keeping things moving with subtle little propulsive touches but mostly letting the rappers stand on their own. And at their worst, Mustard’s collaborators do a nice job filling up the space he leaves them. At their best, they do way better. The most famous person to rap on the tape is probably the Bay Area legend E40, who gets in a fun and vivid riff about how his pockets are so pregnant that they need a C-section. But it’s even more of a joy to hear total unknowns come through and leave a deep impression — like the female rapper Cocc Pistol Cree, who ferociously gum-snaps her way through “LadyKilla,” or the lackadaisical Royce The Choice, whose opening verse on “Midnight Run” is so nerdily smooth that he can say “I’m never off, Garth Brooks hat” and make it sound cool.
R&B singers like Teeflii and Candice also sound great on Mustard beats, since they get plenty of room to slide around with their own tricky melodies. (Candice even gets a reduced remix of 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” to play with.) But if Ketchup has an MVP vocalist, it’s probably the post-Future Auto-Tuned sing-rapper Ty$, who’s only capable of singing things that are both gleefully immature and catchy as fuck. When Ty$ is singing on tracks like “Put This Thing On Ya” and “Paranoid,” Mustard’s beats, already carefully pared down to almost nothing, sound positively prim and fussy, each little sonar beep finding its own melodic purpose. These guys just sound amazing together. Also of note: On “Paranoid,” Ty$ sweetly and quietly croons, “All my bitches look good as fuck / You bitch look like a booger, what.” (I could be mishearing that last bit, but I pray that’s not happening. A couple of rap lyric sites have the line as “bug of waf,” which doesn’t make any sense.)
But even without all those collaborators, even as an instrumental tape, Ketchup would make it clear that Mustard’s signature sound is durable and malleable enough to stay sounding great after an hour. That works because he keeps finding room for new flourishes: The old-school Too $hort synth-bass stroll on “Midnight Run,” the lush R&B pianos that show up halfway through “Straight Ryder,” the warm cloud-rap Rhodes-wafts on “Nothin’ Like Me.” And Mustard’s sound is so spare that every one of those new sounds makes a real impact as soon as it shows up. It’s an energetic, inimitable sound, one that turns out to be ideal for amoral, attitudinal strip-club thumps. He doesn’t give us anything more than that on Ketchup, but that alone, when executed this brilliantly, is more than enough.
Download Ketchup for free at DatPiff.