At this point, “mixtape” pretty much means the same thing as “album,” with the crucial caveat that it’s available for free online and there’s a good chance that some DJ will be screaming over the track intros. With this column, I’ve considered anything that you can download without paying, including plenty of releases that venture far outside the bounds of rap music. It wasn’t always this way. Mixtapes have been through many different iterations in their history. For a while, they were actual cassette tapes of DJ sets, often made without the DJ’s knowledge. Then, the DJs took control, and they became compilations of whatever songs were hot at the moment, often with exclusive tracks or freestyles thrown in. Before they became straight-up albums, even single-artist mixtapes were collections of freestyles — widely circulated of-the-moment beats, with rappers attempting to build or maintain their names by going in over tracks that we already knew. The mixtape’s evolution into “straight-up original album” is a relatively recent development; it’s only been that way for about five years. Just before that, Lil Wayne was cementing his legend in a demented three-year run, wherein he’d swipe beats from everyone who mattered and improve their songs vastly. Nobody really does that anymore. There are lots of reasons for that — changing tastes, dubious lawsuits, that one RIAA raid on DJ Drama’s compound. And the change is probably a good thing; we’re now in an era where rappers can have long and fulfilling careers without ever releasing traditional albums. But when someone suddenly reverts back to that old freestyles-over-everything form, it can be a thrilling and unexpected nostalgia-blast, a reminder of how good it can feel to hear someone just rap. On his new Gunna Season tape, the Philly veteran Young Chris just raps. And it’s great because he’s great at it.
Young Chris is a product of one of rap’s weirdest, greatest moments: The time Jay Z decided to sign every halfway promising rapper in the greater Philadelphia area and to throw them all into one big supercrew. That group, State Property, was one of the era’s greatest sources of intense, guttural street-rap, and the 2002 State Property compilation might sound better now than on the day it was released. Chris, at the time, was half of the Young Gunz duo, who scored one major hit and a couple of minor ones before Neef, Chris’s partner, more or less disappeared. And even if Chris wasn’t a marquee name like Beanie Sigel or Freeway, it’s long been rumored that Jay stole his whispery, insinuating Blueprint-era flow from Chris wholesale. (Chris denies all that flow-theft talk, but it seems likely, listening back to all that stuff, that Jay at least picked up a couple of tricks from spending studio time with Chris.) Since Jay’s Roc-A-Fella empire crumbled, the State Property guys mostly slid back into the local Philadelphia rap underground, putting out new music consistently but not getting much attention for it. But all of them can still rap harder, with more purpose, than we have any right to expect from artists of their vintage. Gunna Season is an hour or so of Chris rapping like hell is chasing him, and whether or not you have any lingering affection for this guy, it sounds great.
There aren’t that many freestyles on Gunna Season, but beat-jack moves like that are so rare now that it feels like a rare thrill when Chris swipes YG and Drake’s “Who Do You Love” or Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar’s “Nosetalgia,” bringing a burning intensity that stacks up nicely when compared to the originals. And even when the songs are original, Chris still treats them like freestyles, barely paying attention to the hooks and just rapping instead. Memorable hook-lines and vivid imagery aren’t really what Chris does; it’s the sheer sound of his rapping that sets him apart. He’s thinking about the percussive sound of his consonants, the uncanny pleasure that comes from hearing syllables stacked up just so: “Carter like Nino / Tall glass of Pinot / Filipinos / VVS cuts: I’m that clean, though.” And there’s a raw determination, an urgency, in his voice that sets Chris apart. He still has things to prove, and he’s not willing to take a single verse off.
It helps that Gunna Season is an all-Philadelphia affair, and that practically every rapper in the city shares that intensity. A lot of the old State Property rappers are all over Gunna Season, and I’m not sure I can explain how good it feels to hear Chris, Freeway, and Peedi Crack attack a buzzing chaotic beat on “Reputation.” Philly’s big rap star of the moment, Meek Mill, clearly came up listening to Chris, and he shows up here a couple of times, showing that same chemistry with Chris that they had on “House Party,” Meek’s first real solo hit. There are guys I’ve never heard of here, too — Billy Blue, Kur, Santos — and all of them have that same fury. Philly, after all, has had one of the best rap scenes in the country for a long, long time. And even if there’s no Jay Z figure out there signing every rapper in town these days, the talent is still there. And it’s encouraging to hear all these guys brandishing their still-sharp weapons here. Philly is nowhere near anyone’s idea of the rap mainstream now, and you could probably ignore these guys without fear of missing the next insurgent rap movement. But why would you? These guys can rap.
Download Gunna Season here.