There was a moment last year when people on the internet were convinced that Your Old Droog was really Nas in disguise. Droog released a self-titled mixtape out into the world without any previous exposure. He didn’t make videos. He didn’t put his picture on the cover. Indeed, there weren’t any pictures of him on the internet. And the fact is that Droog sounded a whole hell of a lot like circa-’94 Nas. He had that same strained, raspy conversational mutter, that same tricky way of packing lines with internal rhymes even as he let his voice sink into the pocket of the beat. His voice was rough but warm, and it radiated an easy authority. He was rapping over the sort of dusty, deep-spaceout boom-bap that Nas was using when we first met him. Nevermind that Nas hasn’t made music like this in many years. Nevermind that even when Nas did make music like this, he was still making songs with choruses, something that Droog didn’t seem especially interested in doing. Nevermind that Nas is a middle-aged man with crazy alimony payments and business responsibilities, not a guy with the luxury of knocking out a secret EP just for the fun of it. Nevermind that Nas would never do anything as obviously dorky as picking a Clockwork Orange-inspired stage name. Red flags were all over the place, and yet people were ready to believe. They wanted to believe. And the mere fact that the Illmatic-worshipping demographic was willing to mistake Droog for its hero is a testament to Droog’s talent. This guy can rap.
The illusion didn’t last long. After online speculation had a few months to fly around, Droog revealed himself to New Yorker reporter Jay Caspian Kang. Not long after that, he played a live show, put out an album that paired a few new songs with his mixtape tracks, even made a video. As it turns out, Droog is a 25-year-old white guy from Coney Island. And while Nas was obviously an influence, he considered himself more indebted to New York punchline rappers like Big L. Droog’s whole mystery act might have been a work of canny and conscious mystique-creation, but, at least to hear him tell it, it wasn’t straight-up mimicry. But this was one of those cases where the answers raise more questions. Like: Why was this guy making music so similar to the stuff that was coming out when he was in first grade? Why was he cramming them with archaic references? And when you’ve made something as mysterious and compelling as that first mixtape, where do you go from there?
Here’s where Droog went from there: He made another short mixtape, one just as besotted with those ’90s New York rap aesthetics, but one that pays constant tribute to the alternative rock of the ’90s — even more music made when Droog was a small child. Kinison, the new mixtape, opens with a clip of the comedian Sam Kinison screaming about why he doesn’t consider rap to be a valid art form. (“They don’t play any fuckin’ instruments! AAAAAAGH!”) Throughout the mixtape, Droog’s cadences are slower, easier to make out. He still sounds a whole lot like Nas, but it’s harder to believe that anyone could’ve ever confused the two. The tape has personality; it goes a long way toward establishing Droog as a rapper with a particular viewpoint rather than a pure revivalist. And there’s lots of terse, evocative imagery: “We’re not from the same mold / I used to come home with bleeding knuckles and blame it on the cold.” But the tape also raises a troubling new possibility: Maybe this guy is an absolute cornball.
Evidence for the prosecution: Droog has a whole song about how he hopes someone will gentrify his neighborhood so that he can patronize coffee shops with cute baristas and Blind Melon playing. The whole conceit looks satirical on paper, but I’m not really sure he’s joking. He also has a song about how much he loves Rage Against The Machine. It’s called “Rage Against The Machine.” The hook is Droog sleepily chanting “we love Rage, Rage, Rage, Rage.” He rhymes “Tom Morello” with “now I’m a calmer fellow.” He has lots of punchlines about how you’re a lame if you like nu-metal bands: “Pull a Suge Knight, make you drink piss / Who you think you is? / You ain’t a thug, you listen to Incubus,” “Took her to the handball court, fingerpopped the choch / You lames in the crib listening to Papa Roach.” On the outro to a song called “Porno For Pyros,” he says, “I’m watching Clerks right now on the big screen,” and then a Clerks sample comes in. He makes constant reference to outmoded computer technology from when he was a little kid: “Been a real player since RealPlayer.” He thought up this punchline, and then he liked it enough to say it out loud on a record: “Your career’s only blooming because you blew men / Should be in the Blue Man Group.” Also, this punchline: “Dime bags getting smoked onstage like your mans from Pantera.”
This is damning evidence. And yet it’s not enough to sink the mixtape. For one thing, it’s a beautifully put together piece of rap music. It’s short and atmospheric and cohesive. The beats, from mostly-unknown producers DJ Skizz and El RTNC, is funky and spacey and inventive enough that it never sounds like a pure throwback. The tape comes weighted down with thick, slow-rolling sampled acoustic basslines and melodic horn-stabs. It’s a spare and evocative take on a classic New York rap sound, in the same vein of what auteurist rapper-producers like Roc Marciano and Ka are doing right now. There’s only one guest on the whole thing, and it’s Prodigy from Mobb Deep (a Nas contemporary, come to think of it), who sneers a few bars’ worth of weary authority and then disappears. And Droog sounds so perfectly at home on tracks like this, murmuring his silliness over crackly melodies and drum-patters so instinctive that they could be the sound of his bodily rhythms. It’s a personal and insular record, the sound of a guy trying to shape his free-floating reference points into rap punchlines. Sometimes it’s forced, and sometimes it’s not.
And then there’s this: I’m a cornball, too. I spent enough time listening to doofy late-’90s backpack-rap that when Droog rhymes “the human genome” with “I’m a G, you’re a gnome,” I roll my eyes, but I smile while I do it. This stuff is fun. If I hear a few Faith No More bars strung together, I can’t help but dork out. And Droog’s punchlines, silly though they can be, have a real rhythm and sense of construction to them: “Your hooks is straight Meredith Brooks, you’re a bitch and a lover.” And by that same token, Droog is riffing on a beloved old sound and doing it well enough that I don’t immediately feel like I need to throw on Illmatic. He has a command of that voice: “Saying my style’s dated is like checking to see if wine expired.” So: Yes, Droog’s a cornball. I’m a cornball. If you made it down this far, you’re probably a cornball, too. And if Kinison is just one big cornball party, it’s one that’s worth a listen.
FIVE DEADLY VENOMS
Crystal Caines – “Black Jesus”
Crystal Caines is a Harlem rapper who had a few impressive appearances on A$AP Ferg’s Ferg Forever mixtape. There, she was hard and fiery. Here, she’s hard and introspective. The beat is a harsh, smeared take on classic New York boom-bap, with the tumbling drums right out front and nasty synth buzzes in the background. And Caines attacks the track with a sneer vicious enough that you don’t immediately realize she’s talking about struggling with guilt over not writing to friends in prison. It’s not easy to make rap music that’s tough and stylish and thoughtful, but she’s done it here.
Problem – “Compton”
The L.A. bass music producer Salva cranks out a beat that sounds like a ghostly nightmare version of early-’90s L.A. gangsta rap, and Problem, a Compton journeyman and underrated energy guy, acts like he’s been waiting for this beat for his whole life. His voice is all righteous defiance and staggering menace, and it fits those eerie minor-key keyboards beautifully.
Rich Homie Quan – “Whatever” (Feat. Young Thug)
Whenever a new Rich Homie Quan/Young Thug track pops up in your timeline, you listen right away. You don’t even think about it. This one finds these two deep in their groove, groaning and yammering over a beat that sounds like it’s taken a bunch of sleeping pills and it’s peacefully drowning itself in the bathtub. Thug is all demented melodic bursts, but Rich Homie walks away with this one, finding deeper bluesy notes all the time.
Migos – “Falisha” (Feat. Rich Homie Quan)
I’ve been writing this column two weeks, and Rich Homie has already shown up in this section three times. I’m biased because I love that guy, but he is on an unreal streak right now. “Falisha” is a typically springy and ungodly-catchy Migos track for the first three minutes, and it would’ve made this list even if Rich Homie had never showed up. But his froggy gurgle turns out to be a perfect fit for the Migos chemistry. Based on this, they could make him the fourth Migo and find a whole new level for their sound.
Aubreyus – “Money On The Flo” (Feat. Dej Loaf)
As a rapper, Aubreyus has a lot of energy but not a lot of character. He doesn’t say anything on the song that makes him stand out. But as a producer, he’s got this great cartoonish bounce, with these big farting horns and this playfulness that shines through. And on the hook, Dej Loaf finds a feline singsong delivery that I’ve never heard from her. It’s not technically good singing, but it couldn’t possibly sound any better.