New Jersey is not a rap backwater, though it likes to think of itself as one sometimes. The state’s history in rap goes back a long, long way. Big Bank Hank was working at a pizza parlor in Englewood when he met Sugar Hill Records boss Sylvia Robinson, which is what led to the Sugar Hill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight” and the entire idea of marketable recorded rap music. Virtually every New York rapper who makes enough money ends up buying a comfortable suburban house out in some gated community in northern New Jersey. Many of the biggest New York rap shows, most notably Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam, actually take place in Jersey. The state produced the Fugees, Naughty By Nature, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Lords Of The Underground, the Outsidaz, and countless others. But the rapper most associated with the state will probably always be Redman, who played out his entire career like it was a burping, farting parody of the things his New York neighbors were doing. Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I haven’t spent enough time in the state to say anything like this with any authority, but I see some essential Jerseyness in Redman’s entire raw, grimy, unpretentious, unserious working-class sensibility. When I think of the state, he’s who I think of. And if New Jersey ends up going down in rap history as our most reliable source of crusty tough-guy silliness, that will be a fine legacy.
As the collection of names above might attest, plenty of rap music made it out of New Jersey in the ’90s, but things have slowed since then. For much of the last decade, the most prominent active New Jersey rapper might’ve been walking punchline Joe Budden, and the state deserves better than that. In recent months, though, there’s been a whole lot more coming out of the state — and, more importantly, it’s been music that captures the messy, raw runt-of-the-litter quality that radiates from so much of the state’s cultural output. The biggest newly minted rap star of 2015 is probably Fetty Wap, from Paterson, whose honking howl and grizzled countenance have suddenly crashed the pop mainstream while making basically no mass-culture concessions. Fetty Wap is weirdly wearing fake dreads these days, but he hasn’t started wearing a diamond-encrusted eyepatch or anything — and, more importantly, he hasn’t started singing over house beats or fake DJ Mustard tracks. His yowling, scuzzed out mixtape-level bangers are getting heavy top-40 radio airplay, and that’s a beautiful thing. Further down into the underground, Da$h and RetcH, two gravelly-voiced young head-busters from Hackensack, have been making a whole lot of noise lately. Both have been around for a while, and they have plenty of industry connections. Da$h is both Damon Dash’s nephew and a peripheral member of the A$AP Mob, while RetcH has working relationships with guys like Mac Miller and Action Bronson. (Da$h and RetcH are old friends with one another, too, and they formed a duo called the H’z a few years ago.) But they don’t rap like guys with industry connections. They both sound like something that bubbled up out of the concrete.
It took a while for me to reliably know which was Da$h and which was RetcH, but I think I’ve got it figured out now: Da$h is the one who raps like he’s grunting, and RetcH is the one who grunts like he’s rapping. He didn’t always rap this way, but these days, RetcH is basically making angry-volcano noises and then delivering them in rap cadences. You’re lucky if you can catch every third word. That approach has its limitations, but it’s also fun to hear something that intense and bracing. On RetcH’s recent Finesse The World mixtape, which came out back in June, he raps almost exclusively about how hard he is, and he sounds so convincing that it’s weird when you hear him say something about wilding out at Coachella or being excited to see his picture in Rolling Stone. Almost any rapper can talk about that stuff and be fine, but when it comes from someone who sounds like he eats burnt bricks for breakfast, it shatters the illusion a bit. Still, RetcH makes a couple of strong choices on Finesse The World. He goes the whole mixtape without any guests, which means that all you’re hearing is that dragon-with-emphysema voice. It’s good for a full-immersion experience. And he raps over hazy, nervous beats that seam to be made up entirely of violin-screeches, Inception bwongs, and the odd hazy drum-shuffle. It’s a harder, younger, more uneasy take on the meditative boom-bap impressionism of Roc Marciano and Ka. And while it’s not as fully-realized as what those guys are doing, it has the makings of something. RetcH already has style to spare; all he has to do now is put that into songs.
Da$h doesn’t have quite as much presence as RetcH, but he’s got a similar sense of atmosphere, and his his songwriting is further along. You can also tell what he’s saying, which is nice. And he varies his template a little more. Da$h has done a little more work with established artists — releasing a whole Mac Miller-produced mixtape a couple of years ago, killing his appearance on Earl Sweatshirt’s new album. But it feels like he’s only just figuring out his aesthetic right now. On his new EP-length mixtape Skrewface, which came out last week, Da$h raps over the same sort of eerie, tingling boom-bap that RetcH used on Finesse The World. He even uses some of the same producers, guys like H.N.I.C. and Antwon Carrera. And both of them sound nebulously dark and evil, like they’re recording their verses in dark rooms full of skulls and flickering candles. But Skrewface offers some crucial variation, with guests like Maxo Kream and Chynna showing up and the bells-and-angry-strings production aesthetic relaxing enough to let in things like Kirk Knight’s dizzily energetic track for “Blackout Boyz” (which features RetcH) or Metro Boomin’s cavernously gothic “Mudd Walk” beat. Finesse The World and Skrewface aren’t classics, but they are documents of young and talented guys figuring things out, finding a style dirty and murky enough to stand out. And both of them sound New Jersey as fuck.
1. Chance The Rapper – “Israel (Sparring)” (Feat. Noname Gypsy)
After the cinematic, studio-brewed Surf and the giddy freeform energy of Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape), it feels great to hear Chance finding yet another aesthetic and realizing it beautifully, even if it’s only for a one-off. Here, he and his old friend Noname go for a densely mellow, wordplay-heavy insular expansiveness that recalls fellow Chicagoan Common when he still had the “Sense” in his name, when he was at his best. It’s just beautiful.
2. White Gzus – “Fonky Jam”
If I was still doing Mixtape Of The Week, this week’s pick would easily be Stackin N Mackin Vol. 3, the new one from this Chicago duo. There’s nothing headline-grabbing about it, but it’s an extremely pleasant and fully developed loping summertime rap record, one that somehow recalls both Camp Lo and G-Side in equal measure. Every song on the tape is good, but the one that jumps out the most is the warm, hazy, effortless “Fonky Jam,” a track that radiates a simple sort of happiness.
3. Uhlife – “No Ebola”
Uhlife is a Philadelphia enigma with a magnetic intensity and a healthy sense of pride. “No Ebola” is oblique political East Coast rap mysticism, chanted over a jazz flutter skeletal enough to get under your skin. More like this, please.
4. Sean Price – “Planet Apes”
The sudden and shocking loss of Price isn’t going to stop stinging anytime soon. But before he died, Price had a whole new album, Songs In The Key Of Price, ready to come out. A piece of expertly-delivered intricate hook-free low-key goon-rap like this would sound great in any context. But it feels even more special now because we know that this is the last we’ll hear of the man.
5. WWA – “Straight Outta Chicago”
The four women in WWA — Katie Got Bandz, Sasha Go Hard, Chella H, Lucci Vee — were all doing fine on their own, but seeing them all mobbing together like this, bringing a sense of swagger and urgency that only increases when they’re all there, just feels great. Extra credit for giving Katie the Ice Cube spot.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
When you're at wrong show. pic.twitter.com/PHuGCjOHMc
— Lé Péw (@CapriChris6) August 13, 2015