“Struggle rapper” has become an internet epithet in the past few years, an easy shorthand term for the hordes of no-names who are in constant irritating self-promotional mode. But there are struggle rappers, and then there are rappers who struggle. Consider Boosie Badazz, the former Lil Boosie. Boosie’s struggles aren’t typically of the label-pushed-back-my-album variety, though he’s certainly had those. I flew to Orlando eight years ago to interview Boosie before a show, and I found him in a deeply surly mood because his management had fucked up his hotel reservation. When I interviewed him, he went into full rant-mode, talking about how his label didn’t believe in him and how every rapper who’d promised to help him out was a fake. He knows those frustrations. But he knows other frustrations, too.
Consider: Boosie was born in crushing Baton Rouge poverty. His father was murdered when he was young. He has type 1 diabetes. He’s lost many, many friends over the years. (He had three guys with him in that Orlando hotel, and I lost track of all the Boosie’s-friend-died news to the point where I don’t know how many of those guys are still alive.) At the peak of his career, he went to prison on a drug charge, and he didn’t get out for five years. While in prison, he was tried for murder, a charge that could’ve sent him to the gas chamber. He beat it. And last year, right around Thanksgiving, he announced to all of his Instagram followers that he had kidney cancer: “I need all my fans to pray for me Doctor just told me I have cancer on my kidneys prayer is power that’s why I’m letting the world know prayfaboosie.” Last month, he had successful surgery to remove the tumor. The cancer is gone now, and he’s down to one kidney. Boosie has been through so many struggles in his life that he’s basically rendered the word “struggle” inadequate.
That’s what’s going on on Boosie’s new album In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It), a self-released LP that showed up on iTunes on New Years Day. The cover is an X-ray, presumably Boosie’s own, and the whole album is about struggle, both cancer-related and otherwise. The second song is literally called “Cancer,” and even the relationship songs on the record are about going through pain, hoping there’s something better on the other side. Throughout the album, friends die and family members die and depression looms around every corner. The album came out less than a month after Boosie’s cancer surgery, and it’s hard to tell when he wrote all these songs, but it sounds like we’re hearing Boosie processing his life circumstances in real time. The lyrics are scattered but direct, like things you’d scribble in a diary during your darkest days: “It’s hard to make a nigga think strong / I probably need to put some pink on / This shit gon’ probably make my team strong / How long I live after my kidney gone?” He raps about telling his friends about his diagnosis and watching them cry. He raps about listening to his mother lie to other family members about how severe his illness is. He rattles off the names of family members — lots of them — who cancer has already claimed. It’s visceral and heavy and almost uncomfortable to hear.
When I met Boosie all those years and life crises ago, I didn’t like him much, mostly for petty reasons. (He was a combative interview, and when we smoked weed together, he made fun of me for getting too high. Also, when he opened for Lil Wayne, he left the venue immediately after performing, and I had to go with him and miss Wayne’s set because he was my ride.) But I did that interview before I really got to know, and live with, Boosie’s music. Back then, he was riding a string of big, obnoxious, fun-as-hell hits, but there was always more to his music, and I was just getting to know it then. That obnoxious sense of fun is gone now, and Boosie has spent the time since his prison release — on the Life After Deathrow mixtape and the Touch Down 2 Cause Hell album in particular — laying bare the anxiety and anger that was always there in his music. On Touch Down, the last track is called “Sorry,” and it’s made up entirely of him apologizing to his kids and his fans for all the years he was locked up. It’s some of the most real and personal rap music I’ve ever heard, the work of a weathered soul who operates without a filter. And when I heard about that cancer diagnosis, I got that same stomach-punch breathless feeling you get when you hear about something bad happening to someone who’s really in your life.
So in a way, it’s cathartic to hear Boosie processing all this on In My Feelings — almost as cathartic as it must’ve been for Boosie to make the album. This is clearly a quickly slapped-together affair, and it’s nowhere near as end-to-end strong as Life After Deathrow and Touch Down 2 Cause Hell were. The beats are all thin and rudimentary. There are no guest rappers. The mastering job is shaky; the volume varies wildly from one song to the next. Boosie clearly just wanted to get this thing out into the world as quickly as possible, without overthinking it. And I’m glad he did. It’s something to hear, an indication that Boosie isn’t going to let his illness compromise the run he’s on right now.
And while Boosie isn’t one of the driving forces on the Southern rap underground, the way he was when he went to prison, his influence is still everywhere. Would fellow Baton Rouge native Kevin Gates rap with the same feverish emotional intensity if he didn’t have Boosie as a precedent? Would Meek Mill have the same sense of urgency? And would we have Kodak Black, the Florida kid who seems poised to have a huge year in 2016?
Kodak has a chirpy voice and a mean disposition, just like Boosie. Last year, he made a couple of spookily catchy internet hits, and he scored the coveted Drake Instagram endorsement. And on Christmas day, he released the new mixtape Institution, a massive 24-track splurge that’s as messy as you’d expect from a teenage rookie rapper. Institution has great moments and terrible ones, but the overwhelming impression I get from it is one of intense realness. Kodak is new to fame and success, and he’s not sure how to deal with it. He thinks all his new well-wishers don’t really give a fuck about him. He thinks people are after his money. He keeps focusing on time spent incarcerated, flashing back on feelings of helplessness again and again. On the title track, he’s writing a letter to a girl he left behind when he got locked away, hoping she’ll be there for him when he gets out. He doesn’t sound very hopeful about it. It’s a very Boosie sentiment.
1. Busta Rhymes – “Hello” (Feat. Chance The Rapper)
The sort of pure-rapping workout that we almost never get from Chance, followed immediately by one of those oppressively athletic Busta fast-rap exhibitions, all over the “I Got 5 On It” beat. Come on. Like anything else ever stood a chance.
2. Rae Sremmurd – “Long Live The Chief”
Is it just me, or does this beat have the frantic, buzzing intensity of prime early-’00s underground rap? Is Mike Will Made-It a secred Def Jukie?
3. Bankroll Mafia – “Out My Face” (Feat. Shad Da God & London Jae)
T.I. and Young Thug have an absolutely nuts on-record chemistry, and I like how T.I. raps just slightly more like Thug whenever he’s on a track with Thug. (Thug continues to sound like absolutely nobody else.) The fact that they’ve formed a group is just a beautiful thing, especially if it means more songs like this.
4. Timbaland – “This Me, Fuck It” (Feat. 2 Chainz)
I have to imagine that 2 Chainz has been wanting his own Timbaland beat since at least 2000, when his then-boss Ludacris was routinely rapping over them. He finally gets one, and he spends the whole one in this weirdly hypnotic stop-start cadence that I’ve never heard him use before. He’s great on it, and so is that flute loop.
5. Fetty Wap & Remy Boyz – “Handgun”
Fetty Wap hooks are still so catchy that they make me want to punch someone. That’s the nicest thing I can say about anyone’s hooks.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Aaron (@abake6) December 31, 2015