2016 In Review

The Year In LA Gangster Blues (And Reds)

2016 was quietly the year of the gangster, specifically the LA gangster of the red and blue varieties. ScHoolboy Q, Vince Staples, YG, and DJ Quik and Problem put out four of the best rap projects of the year, the Game turned in solid efforts with 1992 and Streets Of Compton, and Nipsey Hussle, AD, and G Perico are all ready to bubble up and carry the torch. Each rapper reps their Blood and Crip affiliations proudly, but they’ve also painted full-fledged pictures of themselves as individuals using the full gradient of colors within those red and blue hues. It feels different than generations of gangsters past. Though affiliated rappers are nothing new, this new crop’s primary identification as Bloods and Crips is, and their ability to flesh out complex, intriguing personalities within that culture is unprecedented.

When rap expanded out West from its East Coast origins, it was seen like a musical gold rush by the culture’s progenitors. Though there were underground movements that more closely adhered to the NYC tenets of lyricism, storytelling, and consciousness like the Good Life and Project Blowed, it wasn’t until Schoolly D and Ice-T’s “gangsta” rap was picked up by the mainstream that the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, would register on the rap radar. America loves a good gangster story, so LA street tales took over the radio and the charts on the way to the bank. The violence, materialism, misogyny, drug dealing, and everything else that came along with the gangster lifestyle was seen as gimmicky, sensational, and glorifying, but artists like Ice-T, Schoolly D, and N.W.A saw themselves as reporters shedding light on an inconvenient truth about a way of life they observed every day.

Whether they were considered truth-tellers or glorifiers of immorality and lawlessness, that binary debate is what ruled the conversation around gangster rap. The culture of Crips and Bloods littered throughout their lyrics, particularly Ice-T’s, remained an afterthought despite 1988’s Colors finally opening eyes to a gang life that had existed for almost two decades. Many artists of the same gangster ilk that carried on the tradition were members of Crip and Blood sets all over LA, but that identity and the negative aspects of it were rarely at the forefront of their music.

Crip affiliations include: Eazy-E and MC Ren (Kelly Park Compton Crips), Snoop Dogg (Rollin’ 20s), Nate Dogg (Rollin’ 20s), Daz Dillinger (Rollin’ 20s), Warren G (Rollin’ 20s), Kurupt (Rollin’ 60s), MC Eiht (Tragniew Park Crips), and WC (Westside 111 Neighborhood Crips) among many others. Blood affiliations of note are: Suge Knight (Mob Piru), DJ Quik (Tree Top Piru), Mack 10 (the Queen Street Bloods), B-Real of Cypress Hill (the Neighborhood Family Bloods), and the Game (Cedar Block Piru). All of them sprinkled references to their affiliations in their music, but they mostly used them as a way to solidify street bona fides while rapping about the things the gangster life afforded them, blurring the line between glorification and awareness. The negative aspects of the life were rarely addressed if they didn’t add to an artist’s street folklore.

The new breed of LA gangster rapper is different. Nipsey Hussle (Rollin’ 60s), AD (Lantana Blocc Crips), G Perico (Broadway Gangsta Crips), YG (Tree Top Piru), ScHoolboy Q (Hoover Crips), and Vince Staples (NorthSide Naughty And Nasty Gangsta Crips) are all forthright with their banging pasts. They talk about it all — the good, the bad, the ugly, the vicious, the glorious, the dubious. The degree of complexity varies among the new wave, but each have subtle nuances within their hard gangster exterior that keep the themes in their lyrics fresh and their perspectives refreshingly broad.

Staples is the most evolved of the bunch on his Prima Donna EP. Evident of his unique approach is the singularity of his sonics. As others still lean on the squelching synths, whomping bass lines, P-funk pastiches, and knocking drums of their predecessors, Staples laces complicated rhyme schemes over beats from James Blake, DJ Dahi, No I.D., and John Hill that leave plenty of negative space to operate in.

He goes full black militant on the highlight “War Ready,” but in signature Coldchain fashion there’s impressive intricacy. After an Andre 3000-sampling intro that frames the song as a powerful statement on why the pen is mightier than the gun, Staples touches on the mental toll the gangster life takes on him (“Think I’m heading to Ibiza need a breather from tripping”), incarceration as the new form of slavery (“County jail bus, slave ship, same shit”), the potency of words and average banger’s devaluation of life (“Learned the power of words when we was younger/ Saying fuck the sign on the curb could make him hunt ya”), and the racism black men face in a country they helped build but were never intended be a true part of (“Turned the African into a nigga then they hung him”). He packs more thought, observation, and critique into one song than many of the past generation of Gs managed on entire albums. From there the whole EP slides in and out of scathing social commentary, gangster anecdotes, struggles with fame, social mobility, and several other things in a wide breadth of topics. Even between songs his vulnerability in expressing the state of his mental health dealing with his everyday life is especially rare, even among more traditionally conscious rappers.

YG showed the most progression in expanding his range past the allure of his Blood oath on Still Brazy and Red Friday. The paranoia that plagues his mind due to his choice of lifestyle is inescapably palpable yet still digestible. Somehow he turned the worry of “Who Shot Me?,” the everyday chaos of “Still Brazy,” and his evasiveness in the face of fame-seeking, money-grubbing acquaintances on “Gimme Got Shot” and “Why You Always Hatin?” into jams you can move to. And damn does he go political well; ask the Secret Service.

Artists often overreach when going polemical, but YG executes a potent political trifecta to end the album with “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” “Blacks & Browns,” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder.” “FDT,” with help from Nipsey Hussle, became probably the biggest anthem for the anti-Trump train this year. “Blacks & Browns” subverted the usual black-and-white conversation in regards to race in America giving Sad Boy plenty of space to rep for Mexican Angelenos and their grievances. And “Police Get Away Wit Murder” is a deftly executed standout among several anthems against police violence that have emerged since the Black Lives Matter movement gained strength. No matter what topic he’d like to address, Gizzle still has pride in his gangbanging roots and puts it on display on “Don’t Come To LA,” “Twist My Fingaz,” and “Bool, Balm, And Bollective.” His ability to push the limits of what is expected from a gangbanger is second only to Staples. Truly the only cringeworthy song that brings back OG nostalgia in a bad way is the completely unnecessary “She Wish She Was.”

Albeit with less nuance than Staples and YG, ScHoolboy Q similarly opened up his mind frame on Blank Face LP. Q has been a malicious, almost maniacal sounding gangster for his entire career, but his major label releases have added some dimension to his persona, and that dimension is at its richest on his latest album. He’s just as baleful as he’s ever been, with plenty of lines like “Crack the pig bank, robbin’ your kids too/ My heart an igloo, the devil in all blue.” And he certainly still indulges in all the spoils of the gangster life on songs like “Big Body,” “Dope Dealer,” and “WHateva U Want.” But he offers more insight as to why he hardened himself and expresses more culpability in his choices than ever before.

Groovy Q admits banging is senseless on “Tookie Knows II” with the hook “We might die for this shit, nigga/ Might go down for this shit, nigga/ That gangbangin’, that Crip shit.” He goes further outside of the blue box on “Neva Change,” where he expounds on the combination of systemic racism and a defeatist mentality that keeps people stagnant and despondent in impoverished communities. He even throws his stylish hat into the conversation on police violence and racism with astute commentary, redeeming these ignorant-ass rhymes on the “THat Part (Remix)“: “Two cowards in the car, they’re just there to film/ Sayin’ Black Lives Matter should’ve died with him.” His versatility and progression as a person and father in addition to his already magnetic personality resulted in his best album to date.

The Game has been rapping longer than any of the aforementioned, but he certainly has an updated flair on both 1992 and Streets Of Compton. He helped usher in the new wave of set-first spitters by mentioning his Cedar Block affiliation almost as often as he drops names, identifying as a Blood before anything else. Chuck Taylor was never devoid of personality, but he had previously established himself as a Dre/N.W.A disciple before moving beyond that on last year’s excellent The Documentary 2. His two projects this year are also the most personal and cognizant of his career. Spouting off shrewd racial commentary with the 1992 LA riots as the backdrop, 1992 delves deeply into the Game’s upbringing in Compton, why he decided to get into the set life, and why that was a dumb decision in retrospect even if he wouldn’t trade it for anything. The Streets Of Compton soundtrack is similar but takes a more holistic view of the Compton streets he grew up on, expanding past his block to liken Compton’s plight to the other ailing black hubs in the country. Chuck successfully showed us exactly who was behind the red rag, and it turns out there were multiple aspects we had yet to discover.

There were other solid projects — AD and Sorry Jaynari’s (of League Of Starz) By The Way, G Perico’s Shit Don’t Stop, DJ Quik and Problem’s Rosecrans EP, Nipsey Hussle’s Slauson Boy 2 — but they lacked the dimension of their peers in moving the gangster subgenre forward. These projects could have dropped in the early ’90s and the only thing out of place would be the rhyme schemes. There is a skill that comes with evoking that good old calm-breeze-and-palm-trees nostalgia, and Quik is still one of the most visionary west coast producers walking the planet, but there’s only so much room for revivalists on any coast nowadays.

Maybe one little corner of rap doesn’t seem that important, but in the current climate of racial turmoil, these voices are just as significant as when they began subverting the mainstream almost 30 years ago. As Ava Duvernay’s harrowing documentary 13th asserts, the criminalization of black men keeps mass incarceration and police violence going strong. With rap being so popular globally and the biggest representation of black male culture, the more personality and dimension that gangster rappers have, the more humanized these “criminals” can become in the country’s eyes.