“Turned the city where I’m from into a mini-Motown,” says ST 2 Lettaz on the new G-Side song “Higher.” He’s right and he’s wrong. Five or six years ago, Huntsville, Alabama, the city where G-Side are from, was the toast of the rap internet, a small nowhere town that suddenly seemed to be cranking out great rap music at an alarming rate. It had infrastructure, it had talent, and in the Block Beattaz, it had a production crew whose music put an indelible and identifiable stamp on the music that was coming out of the city. But Huntsville was a very mini-Motown, and the attention didn’t last. Huntsville produced a couple of underground rap hits — Jackie Chain’s “Rollin’,” 6 Tre G’s “Fresh” — but the people who made those hits never again equaled them, try as they might. And it wasn’t like these guys were dominating their city; I know people who lived in Huntsville and had no idea that Important Rap Things were happening in their city. Meanwhile, G-Side, the city’s best group, cranked out five very-good-to-staggering albums from 2007 to 2011, deepening and expanding their sound but never, in terms of national prominence, getting anywhere beyond the mid-afternoon set on the third stage of a smaller festival. They were great, they were staying great, and the world never noticed. The news, in 2012, that G-Side were breaking up, lent a certain finality, an oh shit, I guess that’s over feeling to the entire Huntsville rap story. (Or, at least it did to me, someone who’s never actually been to the city.) But then, a year later, G-Side were back. Any momentum they built up in their early years may have dissipated, and they may have gone through some internal turmoil, but G-Side are still, quietly, one of the greatest rap groups in the world. And Gz II Godz, their return, is a monumental work of grandly woozy Southern rap music. If the world doesn’t notice, that’s the world’s loss.
“Struggle rap,” as it’s commonly used, is a derisive term, a dismissive catch-all used to damn the rap-business cast-offs who insist on continuing to rap about what a hard, shitty deal they had. For the most part, it should be a derisive term. Great rap music can take so many different forms, but an all-consuming self-assurance — a belief that your own personal confidence is enough to conquer the world — is almost always a crucial part of it. Blue-collar-everyman rap tends to be a total nonstarter because you can’t really use it. And maybe that’s G-Side’s great innovation: They’ve dignified and elevated and redeemed the entire idea of struggle-rap. For most of the group’s lifetime, both ST and Clova worked day jobs — the former at a gas station, the latter in a barbershop — and they may still; I haven’t talked to them in a while. They’d rap about it, too. They don’t rap about any day-to-day issues quite that specific on Gz II Godz, but their moments of triumph and tribulation still feel close-to-home. They still have a fond disbelief that anyone would ever fly them out to Oslo to do a show. And while there’s some general talk about buying cars, most of the luxury-talk on Gz II Godz is the more workaday sort. They wear nice clothes and have really good sex, and they’re celebrating a decade of not smoking weed with haters. And they have a way of making those little minor victories sound huge and monolithic, like things they can store up for the winter. It’s inspiring.
It’s great to hear the group dynamic back in action, too. ST is the more animated, excitable half of the duo, sounding absolutely engaged no matter what he’s rapping about. He’s the one who pops out of the speakers, but even though he made good music on his own, during G-Side’s broken-up period, there’s something about his chemistry with Clova that elevates and focuses him. Clova is the more restrained, cold, and emotionless half of the group, and there’s a calm assurance in everything he does. The guests, too, come from the same Huntsville orbit as Clova and ST, and they sound just as comfortable as them. If you’ve been listening to the group for a while, the names are familiar. There’s Kristmas, gruff and jovial on “Dead Fresh.” There’s the singer Joi Tiffany, soft and airy on “Higher.” There’s scene elder G Mane, his booming voice radiating calm authority all over “Bassheadz.” With all these guys back working together, less trying to take over the world and more just throwing lines back and forth, there’s an appealingly casual and welcoming atmosphere to Gz II Godz. This is cool, calm, unhurried rap music — music content to fill up the air on a spring day.
Of course, the interesting part of G-Side’s conversational working-man Southern rap is that it somehow finds a way to coexist with the music of production team Block Beattaz, which is zoned-out starry-eyed psychedelic epicness. The way those guys layer sounds is a beautiful thing. Consider, for example, first single “Statue“: A percolating Tangerine Dream synth, a mournful ’70s-soul horn line, an eerie marimba, a thundering low end, some muffled chanting, all somehow blurring into something huge and overwhelming. “Bassheadz” has aqueous synth tones and corroded faraway vocal samples and drums that sound like the world exploding, and it all floats like a dream-image. “In Luv With Jhene Aiko” samples the singer named in the title and turns her into a lost space-echo. These are huge, suffocating sounds, sounds so lush and grand and expansive that it’s hard to believe a couple of guys knocked them out in a basement studio in Alabama. And yet both G-Side members and all of their guests calmly navigate this music like it’s no big deal. If you’ve been listening to G-Side for a while, it’s exactly what they’ve been doing for years, and it’s an impossibly great feeling to hear them back at it again. If you haven’t been listening, this is a great place to jump on board.
Gz II Godz is out now on Slow Motion Soundz. Buy it here, and stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Coldplay’s crystalline, gorgeous breakup album Ghost Stories.
• Conor Oberst’s warm, folk-leaning Upside Down Mountain.
• The Roots’ ambitious rap concept album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
• Crow Bait’s muscular, heart-on-sleeve punk rock debut Sliding Through The Halls Of Fate.
• Haley Bonar’s sparkling, eminently likable indie-pop debut Last War.
• Ed Schrader’s Music Beat’s spartan, garagey sophomore effort Party Jail.
• Emma Ruth Rundle’s intense, hypnotic folk album Some Heavy Ocean.
• Stereogum contributor Wooden Wand (known to us as James Jackson Toth)’s scraggly cult-folker Farmer’s Corner.
• Veteran post-rockers Trans Am’s pop-leaning Volume X.
• Syd Arthur’s psych-rock debut Sound Mirror.
• Constantines frontman Bry Webb’s solo debut Free Will.
• The Echo Friendly’s breakup-fixated Fuck It And Whatever.
• Cold Cave’s recent-singles collection Full Cold Moon.
• CFCF’s Outsiders EP.