Status Ain't Hood

The Week In Rap: Farewell To The Jacka

After three and a half years, Mixtape Of The Week is dead. In its place, we’ve got a new feature on Stereogum, one loosely based on Chris DeVille’s Week In Pop column. The Week In Rap won’t go as deep as that column does, but it’ll give us a chance to go in deep on whatever’s been happening in rap. I’m sure I’ll write about plenty of mixtapes in this space, but these could also be pieces about a new song, a video, an emerging trend, a beef, a shard of gossip, a Funkmaster Flex rant. It’ll be more open-ended. I did something similar years ago on my Village Voice blog Status Ain’t Hood, and I’m excited to get back to that same kind of loose shit-talking format. I’ll also pick five songs every week that might’ve drifted under your radar, and we’ll probably play with the format a bit more as the column develops. (Also, I live in a city with no rap radio station, which means weird and obvious stuff passes me by completely sometimes. If you think there’s something this column should be covering, be sure to let me know in the comments section.)

I was hoping to start this column with something fun, like the unlikely reality that Big Sean is suddenly emerging as an exciting rapper after years of making me wish I could avoid looking at his face forever. That’s not going to happen. On Monday night, the Jacka, a Bay Area rapper who’s been around forever, was murdered in East Oakland. This one hurts. The Jacka was never a star, and he was never going to be a star. There’s a good chance you’d never heard of him before he died. Speaking personally, he was always on my “I should pay more attention to this guy” list. When someone makes a ton of music, stays resolutely underground, and sticks to a lane that rarely demands attention, he can be easy to overlook. But with Jacka, that’s a mistake. He was a fascinating voice, a conflicted street-rap moralist who always seemed to carry a huge weight on his shoulders. The Jacka started out with the Mob Figaz crew in 1999 and released his first solo album in 2001. And since then, he’s been cranking out a staggering amount of music: Solo albums, collaborative albums, mixtapes. He never really made hits. But he did, over the years, piece together a powerful persona: The reluctant Muslim dope boy, the man who longed for transcendence and who sounded traumatized by years in the violent street life, someone who didn’t see a way out. And in light of the way his life ended — shot on the street at 37 — that persona is even more poignant.

The Jacka wasn’t a showy rapper, but he was a charismatic one. His delivery was a growly under-the-breath mutter, a tough-guy monotone, but it had a certain melodic slickness to it. He’d deliver his own singsong choruses, barely switching up his delivery but somehow letting it float just a tiny big more. He was a big fan of East Coast technicians like Cormega, who he hit up for guest verses a few times over the years. And he had a quiet intensity that was similar. He gave off the impression that he was too smart to be selling drugs but that he felt helpless to stop, and his music drew much of its power from that tension. Musically, he tended to stay entirely within the Bay, using Bay producers but staying outside the hyphy and ratchet-music waves. Instead, he made what’s been called Mobb Music: The lurching, bass-heavy, secretly melodic Bay Area genre that guys like Too $hort and E-40 popularized, a scene that’s never died or even seemed in danger of dying. That music fit him well: Never crowding him out, never forcing him out of his sleepy-eyed comfort zone, always punching hard without forcing anything. When he’d work with out-of-town artists like Paul Wall or Devin The Dude, it always seemed like he was bringing them into his world, never vice versa.

Last year, the Jacka and Freeway got together to release the collaborative album Highway Robbery, and the combination made sense. They’d already worked together, and they seemed to be friends, but that wasn’t all of it. Free and Jacka were both Muslim street-rappers, and both of them rapped about trying to resolve the tension between their highest aspirations and their day-to-day reality. But the two of them didn’t treat the contradiction the same way. At his peak, on songs like “What We Do,” Freeway sounded torn apart by his warring impulses. His voice was strained, raw, dramatic, close to tears at every moment. Jacka was something else. He sounded grim, resolved, haunted. His voice sank deep into beats, like he’d realized his place in the universe made no sense but he’d made peace with it anyway. He had a gravity to him. There was a mournful heaviness in his voice, but he still sounded ready to rip someone to pieces if that’s what he needed to do. Thanks to his old Roc-A-Fella association, Freeway at least brushed crossover pop stardom at one point in his career. Jacka never had that. He had his cult audience, and that’s who he made music for. He sounded content and comfortable in his corner of the rap universe.

Last year, the great rap writer Noz published a fascinating interview with Black Dog Bone, the founder of the underground street-rap magazine Murder Dog. Toward the end of the interview, Black Dog Bone was talking about the Jacka, using him as an example of someone who could’ve been a superstar if he’d come along a few years earlier: “I went to Seattle to do an article. I’m in all these rappers’ cars and in every car they were all playing Jacka. I didn’t even know Jacka was that big. He’s like a legend there. And he’s a Muslim. So all these rappers in Seattle are becoming Muslim because of Jacka. That’s the power of music.” I don’t know if the Jacka ever could’ve been a crossover star; his music was too insular and heavy for that. But he did make the sort of music that can change people. The Bay has always had a weird resonance in certain corners of the map; far-flung cities like Seattle and Kansas City are practically, in rap terms, Bay satellites. I have no idea how something like that happens. But the Jacka was the sort of artist who gets passed along from hand to hand, like a secret. He died too soon, but he left an impression.

FIVE DEADLY VENOMS

Chris Brown & Tyga – “Ayo”
Look, I’m sorry about this. I really am. Chris Brown should deposit himself in the nearest garbage receptacle, and we all know this. But this song goes. If these guys know how to do anything, it’s to let their voices glide across an expensive-sounding beat. And the live-action cartoon video is just delightfully obnoxious. We might as well get used to this thing now; it’s not going away anytime soon.

Kevin Gates – “Flicka Da Wrist”
Beast music. Gates sounds permanently aggrieved, like he can’t believe he’s being forced to snarl at you dumb motherfuckers. On the new loose track “Flicka Da Wrist,” his flow is just ridiculous, a breathless double-time that makes him sound even more urgent than usual, if that’s even possible. But even when he’s executing these intense technical feats, he still sounds like a ball of raw exposed-nerve emotion.

Young Scooter – “Show You Right”
If I was still doing Mixtape Of The Week, Young Scooter’s Jug Season probably would’ve won it this week. It’s hard to pick a season, since Scooter’s sad, twinkling, dead-of-the-night drug-dealer music is really a full-immersion experience. But I picked this one for its bluesy glimmer and its potent sense of impending doom.

Rich Homie Quan – “1500” (Feat. PeeWee Longway & Lil Boosie)
Don’t be surprised if Rich Homie and/or Young Thug end up somewhere in this space every single week. Those guys are making a whole lot of music right now, and almost all of it is good. But as much as I love Rich Homie’s melodious croak, this song is here for one reason, and that reason is Boosie. Boosie is attacking every single verse like nobody else in rap right now. And do you hear what he’s doing to this beat? Jesus.

The Purist – “Touch Me” (Feat. Mick Jenkins)
The Purist is a London rap producer who’s worked with guys like Danny Brown, and on this song, he teams up with Mick Jenkins, the young Chicago rapper behind the smart and emotionally intense The Water[s] mixtape. They’re a good match. The Purist’s beat is a pretty airy clouds-drifting thing, and Jenkins goes into fast-rap mode but keeps a Caribbean lilt in his voice, pushing the track back and forth but staying in sincere dorm-room mode.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO