Energy in music is a funny thing. It’s easy to hear, but it’s tough to define or quantify. People try to fake or manufacture it all the time — making music that’s faster or more chaotic than it might otherwise be — but music made like that can often sound as rote as anything else. Much of the time, energy is tied to formal innovation of some sort; you can hear borders being pushed in one way or another, and that adds to some hazy feeling of excitement. But music with energy doesn’t have to make advances. Plenty of knowingly, consciously retro music — the Stray Cats, the early White Stripes, Missy Elliot’s Under Construction — can have more energy than almost anything else. It’s entirely in the ear of the beholder. You can’t really describe what makes one piece of music more energetic than another. But ideally, you know it when you hear it.
Without resorting to a vaporous, ill-defined concept like energy, it’s difficult to say what makes Nef The Pharaoh special. The young Vallejo, California rapper isn’t doing anything new, and there’s no singular quality to his music that sets it apart. His lyrics tend to revolve around money and girls and determination, all the sorts of things that almost every rapper raps about at least part of the time. He doesn’t have a voice that springs out of the speaker and grabs your ear. His flows aren’t athletic or rigorous or even especially unique. He’s working within a couple of traditions — rap in general, Bay Area rap in particular — without thinking hard about how he’s going to advance these forms. He makes plenty of reference to music that was popular when he was a kid. “Big Tymin’,” his breakout single, was a tribute, in part, to the late-’90s Cash Money duo, and in the SoundCloud tags for his new Neffy Got Wings EP, you’ll find the phrase “old-school hyphy,” a combination of words I’ve never seen before. It makes sense, though. Nef The Pharaoh turned 21 earlier this month. It was about 10 years ago that hyphy, the fiercely local and explosively energetic strain of Bay Area rap, tried and failed to score its national breakthrough. Nef would’ve been a preteen when that happened. The music from that time is old-school to him. Everything before Soulja Boy is probably old-school to him.
I think that’s key to Nef’s appeal. He’s grown up so steeped in Bay Area rap that it’s like a second language to him. I honestly had a hard time hearing what people liked so much about the first wave of hyphy. Sputtering, growling, wheezing rappers like Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk were rapping over these backfiring-808 beats, responding to the chaos by creating more of their own. Nef doesn’t do that. For one thing, the music is more streamlined and aerodynamic than it was back then. After that first hyphy wave, various other West Coast rap sub-subgenres — jerk, Mustardwave — took the sound and stripped away everything extraneous. And back in the Bay, producers like Cardo, who did all of Nef’s new mixtape Neffy Got Wings, took note of those changes and adapted them into their own music. The sound on Neffy Got Wings flutters and slaps, pushing itself forward with sidelong synth melodies as well as those huge drum sounds of old. And over that sort of sound, Nef is just a sparkling, effortless presence.
I think that’s where the energy comes in. Nef has this easy, natural delivery, and he can navigate these simple-but-demanding beats with grace and charm and panache. The things he’s saying don’t matter as much as how he says them (I love how “reckless” becomes “reck-a-lissssss”). His voice never rises above a conversational volume. Sometimes, he gets that dry croak at the back that you get when you’re really tired, but he never sounds sleepy. Instead, the effect is more that he just woke up and started rapping, that he never really stopped. And when he references older music, something he does often, he’s never attempting to channel that music. Instead, it’s about feeling. “Michael Jackson” isn’t a song about Michael Jackson, and Nef never tries to do hee-hee yelps or anything like that. Instead, it’s a song about feeling so cool that it’s like you’re moonwalking over everyone. And Nef finds ways to communicate that sense of joy and exhilaration without ever battering us with it.
Part of the appeal of Neffy Got Wings is that it’s intensely local. The big guest-rappers are guys like Mozzy and Philthy Rich, local celebrities who don’t get a whole lot of burn in the rest of the world. (The one exception is Ty Dolla $ign, from L.A., and that guy knows exactly how much of his sound comes from the Bay Area.) When the tape tries for R&B-derived romantic melodicism, it’s never puffy and overblown, the way it can get when the music isn’t so fiercely regional. Instead, Cardo offers up synth-squelches and splats that recall the California funk of the ’80s, making sure to keep things moving throughout.
There’s a lack of ambition to the tape that works with that sense of sharp, direct focus. Nef spends as much time rapping about being in confusing relationship situations as he does talking about fucking random women. The things he brags about seem attainable. He’s not some untouchable rap star yet. After all, Nef is still young, and he still hasn’t made a proper album. He had a great self-titled EP last year, and this new mixtape is 10 tracks long, which is basically EP-length when you’re talking about rap. He hasn’t felt compelled to make his grand statement yet, and that’s a good thing. It means he’s still playing around with his sound — tinkering, trying things.
Nef is from Vallejo, the same Bay city that produced E-40, and he’s signed to E-40’s Sick Wid It label. It would be a mistake to compare Nef to E-40, since E-40 is one of the greatest rappers of all time and Nef will have to spend at least another 20 years in the game if he wants to build up a resume anywhere near as impressive. E-40 has a polysyllabic flow that no other rapper can approach, and he radiates a rare sense of mastery. But Nef and 40 both have one important thin in common: They both sound like the absolutely belong when they’re rapping over distinctly Bay Area tracks. They make rapping sound like the easiest thing in the world. And in that ease, they show us energy.
Neffy Got Wings is out now. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Wet’s sensuously woozy debut Don’t You.
• Sia’s songs-for-other-people collection This Is Acting.
• DJDS’s emotive house thumper Stand Up And Speak.
• Abi Reimold’s clanging, cathartic Wriggling.
• Kevin Gates’ Southern rap snarler Islah.
• Bloc Party’s synthy, dance-inflected HYMNS.
• Nevermen’s vocally virtuosic self-titled prog-supergroup debut.
• Cross Record’s ominous, orchestrated debut Wabi-Sabi.
• Florist’s DIY emo-popper The Birds Outside Sang.
• Cian Nugent’s folky, bucolic Night Fiction.
• Pigfuck supergroup UXO’s lurching self-titled album.
• Saul Williams’ poetic post-soul opus MartyrLoserKing.
• Black Tusk’s posthumous stoner-metal ripper Pillars Of Ash.
• Former Walkmen member Walter Martin’s not-for-kids solo debut Arts & Leisure.
• Tuff Love’s fuzzed-out indie pop collection Resort.
• Your Friend’s floaty full-length debut Gumption.
• Chippendale Gustaffson Pupillo’s monstrous noise-jazz attack Melt.
• Benny Boeldt’s dreamy, frenetic 8 Of Cups.
• Chthe’ilist’s classic death metal growler Le Dernier Crépuscule.
• Laser’s luminously bloopy debut Night Driver.
• MONEY’s sad, discordant Suicide Songs.
• The Pooches’ Heart Attack EP.
• Lemaitre’s 1749 EP.