Shea Serrano is a writer at Grantland, and he writes long and personal and really funny pieces about, among other things, rap music and action movies. He lives in Texas, and I’ve never met him in person. But I still feel like we’re friends, since things like rap music and action movies transcend geographic space (and because we email each other sometimes). This week, Shea published his second book, The Rap Year Book. The book has a fun and argument-starting premise: Shea picks, and writes extensively about, the most important rap song of every year since commercially released rap became a thing. That means he starts out in 1979, with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and ends in 2014, with Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s “Lifestyle.” It’s the rare rap-history book that gives equal time to “The Message” and “Bonita Applebum” and “Still Tippin’.”
As a sort of bonus featurette, Shea brought in a whole bunch of other writers to do counterpoint and to pick a different song for each of those years. I’ve got a couple of paragraphs in there about Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.” (Ex-Stereogummer Claire Lobenfeld is in there as well, extolling the virtues of JT Money’s “Who Dat.”) But because of the realities of book publishing, and because 2015 isn’t over yet, the book has no chapter about this year. So I thought it would be fun to hit up Shea for an email interview, in which we would pick the most important rap song of 2015. I presented him with some options, and we talked about them. And then we talked about some other things, too. Here’s our conversation:
• Drake – “Back To Back Freestyle”
TOM BREIHAN: Drake is so obviously the dominant figure in rap that it almost doesn’t seem worth discussing. Right now, he’s inviting adulation and scrutiny like no one since circa-2008 Lil Wayne, or maybe circa-2003 Jay-Z. And while he’s had plenty of great songs, this one, I think, shows the kind of power he’s flexing right now. One of Drake’s few rap A-list peers has the gall to question his methods, so Drake totally goes nuclear, shits on his entire career, has fun doing it, and comes away with a diss song that you can play in a club. That is a very impressive achievement!
SHEA SERRANO: The thing about it being a diss song you can play in a club is an impressive achievement, sure, I’ll give you that one. But the actual song doesn’t really do much beyond exist. I mean, this isn’t Jay vs. Nas or Tupac vs. Biggie or even 50 vs. Ja. There aren’t ramifications here bigger than Meek Mill getting tossed. It’s just some shit that happened, you know what I mean? All of the resulting social media stuff was more fun than the song. So I’m gonna pass on this one.
• Future – “March Madness”
TOM BREIHAN: Drake might be the dominant figure right now, but Future is the insurgent with all the momentum, and he’s the one who took a huge leap this year, both in popularity and in developing his own style. There is so much going on in Future’s music: The bottomless sadness, the melodic inventiveness, the way he seems to be inventing his own rap language one bar at a time. With “March Madness,” he made a transcendent anthem that’s made entirely of the sort of noises you make to yourself when you’re laid up in bed all day with stomach flu. This seems significant.
SHEA SERRANO: Future is so great and wonderful easy to root for. And he’s for sure at the center of that whole warble rap thing (while also allowing himself to be so much more than just that). I think if you tried to build up an argument around that, around how he has served as the sort of ground zero of a movement that’s become a viable subgenre, then you could for sure get away with that. But I’ve got a different song in mind for a different reason.
• Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”
TOM BREIHAN: I’m not exactly sure what the earthshaking popularity of “Trap Queen” means, but it sure seems to mean something. It seems important.
SHEA SERRANO: Love, love, love Fetty. But he can’t keep up with the rest of the guys — not yet, at least.
• Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
TOM BREIHAN: 2014 and 2015 have seen the growth of this whole new civil rights movement based around the idea that police should not be able to shoot unarmed black people with impunity. With “Alright,” Kendrick has given that movement something of an anthem.
SHEA SERRANO: Ding, ding, ding. I love this song. And I love this song for this pick for exactly the reasons you mentioned. The most important kinds of rap songs are the ones that take a bunch of different things and ideas and emotions that aren’t directly related to rap and tie them up and knot them together and make it all one thing. That’s what happened with “Straight Outta Compton” or “Fight The Power” and so on. That’s the category that this song belongs in. Because it’s so much more complicated and compelling than a just a song that says “Hey, don’t do that to us” like some of the other songs that’ve come along and tried to do what Kendrick did here. It’s a smart song and a strong song and it’s galvanizing and a protest song but also a thing about the unending faith that you can find in someone’s spirit. This is it. This is the most important song of 2015. No question.
But here’s a thing, though, because I’ve been answering a bunch of questions for all these different interviews and this and that for the rollout of the book and you’re a smart guy so let me ask you a thing I’ve been thinking about. Is that okay? Can I do that?
TOM BREIHAN: Yeah man, ask away!
SHEA SERRANO: Great. So here’s the question: As rap has moved forward, there have been several key shifts that happened, either in sound or philosophical principles. I guess some obvious examples would be when gangster rap officially became a thing in the mid-80s or when g-funk officially became a thing in the early ’90s or what Puffy and Bad Boy did in the late ’90s or Houston near the middle of last decade and on and on. I know that a thing like that can happen again, and will happen again. But I legit have no idea when it’s going to happen or what it’s going to sound like. Do you?
TOM BREIHAN: The thing is: I think it’s happening all the time now. Rap has atomized into all these vaguely-connected mini-genres, and they’re all evolving at their own respective paces, often very quickly. Something like that gurgling Atlanta codeine Auto-Tune sound — Future, Young Thug, Makonnen, Migos, all those guys — that’s a very important wave happening right now. But it’s not a tectonic shift like the ones you mentioned. Something like your boy J. Cole’s doe-eyed sincerity has absolutely nothing to do with that, but it’s massively popular and (I guess) important in its own right. And I don’t know if a massive shift like those other ones will happen again.
Like, I’d love to say that Vince Staples’ insightfully dead-eyed minimalism or Chance The Rapper’s gooey, excitable soul-rap or Rae Sremmurd’s infernally catchy nasal party-music will reshape the whole game, but I don’t think they will. The best they can hope for is to come up with own little wave.
I think the reason Drake is able to maintain dominant-superstar status is that he’s found a way to flirt with all the different important waves of the moment without ever committing to any of them — that, and he’s shown the ability to anticipate every next wave. So Drake’s music takes elements from codeine-haze music, but also from wordy and insular neo-backpacker music, from EDM-laced superclub rap, and from Mustardwave. Drake and 40 internalize all this stuff and sort of subsume it into the whole.
So maybe the best way to look at the rap nation, as it exists today, is as a series of loosely affiliated city-states. And the person who rules all of them is the one who can secure the support of whichever tribal leaders have the most juice at any particular moment. Does that make sense?
SHEA SERRANO: Shea: Fuck, man. This is incredible. You should’ve written the book instead of me. 😒
TOM BREIHAN: Oh my god, no I shouldn’t have. My life is boring as shit, all my personal anecdotes would be like “so one time I stubbed my toe on my office chair.” That wouldn’t have helped illustrate any points about a Tribe Called Quest or whatever. You were definitely the person to write this.
SHEA SERRANO: Ha. Okay, one last question and I’ma let you after that, and this is actually a thing I talked about a little bit in the book because I don’t even know, but: which rapper do you think would be the very best Monopoly player? And I need you to explain your answer choice. Thank you, Tom. Love you, Tom.
TOM BREIHAN: Ever? It would have to be Puff, right? He’d distract you by doing all these flashy tricks with his money, and you wouldn’t even notice because he’s quietly making all these really smart and sneaky decisions. You wouldn’t know he had you until you’re sitting on Park Place with 20 hotels on it and he’s laughing at you.
SHEA SERRANO: I think that’s a fair pick. Puff is definitely a Top Three pick.
You can buy The Rap Year Book at Barnes & Noble. (Don’t buy it from Amazon. Shea explained to me that Amazon is all out of copies.)
1. King Louie – “Tony Tone Tone”
There are few things as viscerally satisfying as Chicago drill music done right. Just about everything on King Louie’s 6 God Tony EP qualifies, but this opener is less than two minutes of mean, hard kick-your-head-off music. Listen to it and try not to hurt your friends and neighbors.
2. Zuse – “Plug Is Latino” (Feat. Young Thug)
If you’ve taken at least one week of middle-school Spanish, your command of the language is way beyond what Zuse has, at least judging by the pidgin Spanish he yells all over this. Still, the levels of unstable energy are off the charts here, and that tinkly music-box melody just kills.
3. Freddie Gibbs & Ski Beatz – “The World Is My Ashtray”
I love rap songs where rappers discuss the circumstances of their own births. Gibbs isn’t touching Biggie’s “Respect” here, but it’s great to hear him flexing that no-nonsense virtuosic hardhead flow over this ornate beat from a ’90s veteran.
4. Chief Keef & Fredo Santana – “Plottin'”
These two were so brash and young and defiant when we met them, just a couple of years ago. Santana was in the cut! It was a scary sight! Now they sound dragged-down and beaten-up, weary and wizened before they even hit drinking age. And somehow, that heaviness in their voices totally works for them.
5. Bun B – “Crush City Astros”
It’s a proud tradition: Gimmicky rap songs about teams vying for championships. It goes all the way back to “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Bun B is rap’s kind uncle, always happy to indulge a goofy idea like this one, and he makes it work in that kind-uncle way.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— watchLOUD (@watchLOUD) October 11, 2015