Most rappers never get a Billboard #1. Jay Z didn’t get one until “Empire State Of Mind.” Drake still doesn’t have one, though that seems likely to change in the next few weeks. Dr. Dre doesn’t have one. Nas has never even made it into the top 10. Neither have Public Enemy or the Beastie Boys or Scarface or Kendrick Lamar. So it was pretty weird when, for three summer weeks in 2004, at the height of Southern rap’s ascendance, a perennial New York rap also-ran took the top spot.
“Lean Back” was credited to Terror Squad, Fat Joe’s crew, but the song clearly belongs to Joe himself. It’s got three verses, and Joe gets two of them, as well as the hook. That makes it a Fat Joe song. Joe had been around since 1993, when he burst out of the Bronx with his “Flow Joe” single and landed himself a spot in the respected D.I.T.C. crew. He’d dropped the phrase “Da Gangsta” from his name. He’d seen the swift rise and sudden death of Big Pun, his brilliant protege. He’d made five albums — one gold, one platinum. He’d had hits, but he’d never had a hit like this, and he didn’t seem like he would. And he’d done it with no big-name guests or R&B singers on the hook. He’d done it with an uncompromising New York club-banger. “Lean Back” rode to #1 on the back of the least athletically demanding dance craze in history, but it still has Joe bragging about his crew’s facial scars, throwing subliminal shots at Jay, and clowning Lil Bow Wow for throwing up gang signs. In fact, “Lean Back” might be the hardest rap song ever to land in that #1 spot. But if it was weird that 11-years-in Fat Joe was making hits, how weird is it that 23-years-in Fat Joe is still out here, doing the same thing?
When Desiigner’s “Panda” hit #1 last week, there was some grousing from the NYC old-head community. A New York rapper had a huge nationwide hit, but he’d gotten there by imitating the shit out of Atlanta rap. Bobby Shmurda, whose “Hot Nigga” made it to #6 in 2014, has stronger New York bona fides, and those New York bona fides haven’t been great for him; his gang connections have had him locked up for more than a year. But in both music and delivery, “Hot Nigga” owed a whole lot to Chicago drill music. New Jersey’s Fetty Wap, who’s scored a bunch of hits in the past year and a half, named himself after Gucci Mane, and his guttural sing-rap feels rootless and regionless. None of these guys is making distinctly New York rap music, at least not in the way that it’s traditionally understood. But Fat Joe is.
“All The Way Up,” Joe’s new single, is probably never going to sniff the top 10. This week, it’s at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100. Last week, it was at #65, and that’ll probably end up being its peak. Still, that’s a whole fuck of a lot higher than you might expect a Fat Joe single to get in 2016. Keep in mind: Fat Joe has jumped on virtually every regional pop-rap trend available to him in recent years. Joe helped DJ Khaled rise from music-video background guy — the skinnier, pink-polo-shirt version of Khaled is all over the “Lean Back” video — to regional-rap empire-builder, and that surely extended his career by a few years. But Khaled stopped putting Joe on his huge posse cuts after the “All I Do Is Win” remix. And also keep in mind: Joe is a fine, durable rapper who has never been anyone’s favorite. Even at his peak, he was playing second fiddle to guys like Pun — or, on the “John Blaze” remix, Pun and Nas and Jadakiss and Raekwon. He was never getting over on mic skills alone. He needed hits. And for a while there, the hits dried up. Two years ago, a video of Joe making a presentation for some goofy pyramid scheme made the rounds. He seemed done. He wasn’t. The hits, at least for now, are back.
“All The Way Up” isn’t just a comeback for Joe. It’s also a comeback for Remy Ma, arguably the hardest female rapper of all time. Remy Ma was the other rapper on “Lean Back” all those years ago, and her “walk around the metal detectors” line was my favorite thing on it. In recent years, Remy has been all the way down. She’d come up under Pun, not Joe, and she and Joe fell out a few years after “Lean Back.” She’d made a solo album that didn’t do too well. And then, in 2008, she shot her friend in the side after accusing her friend of stealing a few thousand dollars from her. She ended up doing six years in prison, only getting out in 2014. Since then, she and her husband, the punchline-rap punchline Papoose, have joined the cast of VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop: New York, which isn’t exactly the sort of thing that relevant rappers do. But she’s mended fences with Joe, and now the two of them have an actual hit together. That’s beautiful. So it’s a comeback for Joe and a comeback for Remy. It’s at least a tiny bit of a comeback for French Montana, who sounds better on the hook there than he’s sounded in a while. And it’s a comeback for a certain form of New York rap, one that needs all the help it can get right now.
“All The Way Up,” like so many great old New York rap anthems, is built on a hypnotic horn line. Its drum pattern gets its momentum from the kick and the snare, not the dominant-right-now trap-music hi-hat. It has a catchy-as-fuck chorus that never even nods toward melody. Its hook mentions several drugs but never touches on lean. It sounds tough. Remy’s verse, in particular, is just euphorically badass, from its opening line — “Just left the big house to a biiiiger house / Ain’t have a girlfriend, but the biiitch is out” — to its closing bit about the helicopter Uber. It has all these throwbacky elements, and yet it never sounds like a throwback itself. It has presence and life and energy to it. It’s a great song. There’s no reason why more New York rap can’t sound like that.
I don’t know exactly what happens in New York rap, why the best rappers keep undercutting themselves by making pandering would-be singles or jumping on other regions’ sounds or just by making bullshit music. But “All The Way Up” is the first time in a minute where I’ve felt like that could change. I don’t know if Fat Joe and Remy Ma are going to be the two people to reverse a whole city’s rap trajectory, but why not them? They’ve managed to make a hit out of a 2016 song that has Papoose and Fred Da Godson cameos in the video, as well as appearances by a whole bunch of people I don’t even recognize. That’s a serious achievement. (Khaled is in the video, too, and his appearance gets the same stop-the-song treatment that Kevin Hart and Lil Jon’s cameos got in the “Lean Back” video.) In any case, Joe and Remy are reportedly making an album together, and this would be the first time I’ve been excited for a Fat Joe album, well, ever.
1. Stormzy – “Scary”
Skepta’s album is finally coming out on Friday, and Stormzy seems to be right behind him in line to become, maybe, grime’s next major voice. Stormzy’s music is less fun and less explosive than Skepta’s, but it’s darker, tougher, and more rigorous. They sound nothing alike, but there’s something in Stormzy’s breakneck intensity that reminds me of Meek Mill. (That, at least for me, is a good thing.) “Scary” is a great song for, say, doing pushups.
2. Havoc & The Alchemist – “Buck 50’s & Bullet Wounds” (Feat. Method Man)
Two Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang veterans sit down for a whiskey at the fictional Old West saloon where, in my mind, aging rap gunslingers trade their stories about half-forgotten shootouts.
3. Lil Durk – “Shoot Sum”
In which Durk becomes maybe the first rapper ever to make minivans sound threatening.
4. Mozzy – “So 4Real” (Feat. Young Mezzy)
There’s all this crisp, propulsive, energetic rap coming out of the Bay Area lately, but the region is also capable of producing someone like Mozzy — a grizzled, hard-as-fuck gravel-gargler who somehow fits just fine within the context of his city’s sound.
5. Young Thug – “Texas Love”
Thug comes out with a song dedicated to Texas flooding victims, and it still comes out sounding like a 4AM lean hallucination. That’s consistency!