Atlanta still makes rap groups. You don’t hear too much about rap groups anymore, since the genre, at its highest levels has progressed toward a winner-take-all solo-stardom model, and since nobody wants to be thought of as the less-talented member of a popular crew. (Pet theory: OutKast is now reuniting because Andre 3000 realizes that people are now starting to discuss the possibility that Big Boi was the better rapper all along.) In the city that birthed OutKast, though, 2013 has seen a procession of ridiculously enjoyable mixtapes that come from more than one dude: Migos’ Y.R.N., Travis Porter’s Mr. Porter, the various collaborative tapes that Gucci Mane has released with his assorted underlings. And now we’ve got another one. Rich Kidz, the duo of RKaelub and Skateboard Skooly, have been around for years now, and I’ve always overlooked them, for a lot of reasons: The name, the squeaky voices, the abundant wealth of other Atlanta mixtape rappers to check for. I really liked “My Life,” their 2012 Waka Flocka Flame collab, but I figured that was just because of an on-fire Flocka verse, and I never got around the checking for the mixtape that the track came from. But on A Westside Story, their newest one, there are no famous guests, and there are no reasons to continue sleeping on these two. At this point, there is absolutely no doubt in my head: Rich Kidz know how to put together rap songs.
A Westside Story is very much a local Atlanta affair, and the duo spends the entire final outro track shouting out different neighborhoods in the city while ignoring the rest of the world. The “westside” in the title refers to Atlanta’s West Side, where you’ll find Bankhead, the neighborhood they come from. But as Meaghan Garvey points out in her great FADER mixtape column (something you should totally be reading if you care about rap mixtapes), they could also be talking about California, which has a huge influence on the tape. On different tracks, the duo interpolates Tupac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” and “California Love,” and the rising West Coast ratchet-music production crew League Of Starz supplies the melodic soft-focus “Settle Down” beat. And even when there’s nobody from California directly involved, which is often, the minimal and outrageously catchy sound of ratchet music seems to hang over the sharp, sparkly production on most of the mixtape: the weightless synth-beeps on “Murder,” the Mario-theme-plus-empty-space “Gangsta Party” track, the bip-boop-bip-boops on “Trayvon.” But then, ratchet music also partly comes from Atlanta’s mid-’00s snap music sound; there’s always been an influence-exchange program at work there. And given that Rich Kidz also interpolate OutKast’s “ATLiens” on a song called “Outkast,” and that they include plenty of the Zaytoven-style dinky-synth production and the emotive post-Future Auto-Tune singing popular in Atlanta right now, the tape might exist somewhere between the aesthetic territories of two very fruitful rap scenes. It’s closer to Atlanta’s rap zeitgeist than California’s, but they’re both in there.
The tape’s greatest asset, actually, might be the way the different producers in Atlanta’s 808 Mafia crew use Rich Kidz as a showcase for their ideas. Dun Deal, in particular, goes a long way toward proving himself one of the most exciting rap producers currently working: Moodily dramatic strings and needling guitar-sounds on “Run It Up,” trampoline keyboard-riffs and seismic bass on “Problems.” But he gets competition from Luney Tunez (explosive builds on “Jungle,” processed acoustic country-rap on “Word 2 Skate”) and Metro Boomin (madly seesawing theremins on “Murder,” that nutso “Gangsta Party” video-game beat). Zaytoven, who by this time has O.G. status in this new generation of producers, goes especially nuts with his ultra-cheap and shameless hooksmithery on “Monifa.” These beats aren’t the type that will necessarily grab your imagination; they don’t have the holy-shit-what-am-I-listening-to effect. But they’re all rock-solid, and if you listen closely enough, you notice all sorts of weird details, all these smart and subtle changes as the songs keep moving. Even when the tracks aren’t necessarily catchy, they’re generally sneaky-great.
And Rich Kidz themselves deserve credit for knowing exactly how to ride these beats, how to craft weirdly powerful heartbroken singalong choruses. They’re not spectacular rappers, and neither of them quite bursts with personality; I still have trouble telling their voices apart. But they rap with conviction, sing with passion, and deliver hooks that get footholds in your brain and then end up building houses there. They don’t need to be spectacular, since they make great songs. They’re a this-decade equivalent of, say, the Youngbloodz: A group that cranks out fun-but-utilitarian rider music, that never makes bad songs, that occasionally puts it all together with an actual hit, and that might have an entire career before you notice how good they are. If you were sleeping on them, like I was, this is an excellent place to jump on board.
Download A Westside Story here.