The World’s Best Rap Music Comes From California
The G-funk era is over, but it might be just beginning again. Those days — the classic early-’90s halcyon era of West Coast rap — produced classic albums and huge, dominant personalities. And when we look back on it these days, we tend to focus on its biggest names: Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Snoop Doggy Dogg. But part of the magic of that time was that you could pick up practically any album from the region and hear amazing things. G-funk B-teamers like Compton’s Most Wanted and Above The Law were making music that continues to sound incredible today, and you could say the same thing about Bay Area cult favorites like Mac Mall or restlessly smart, squeaky-voiced kids like Souls Of Mischief. We’re going through another moment like that right now. Any list of the best rappers working today is going to be dominated by Californians — Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, YG, ScHoolboy Q — whose styles are all radically different from one another, even if they’re all rooted, in one way or another, in the ancestral G-funk of the ’90s. Kamaiyah came out of nowhere back in the springtime with maybe the most enduringly fun mixtape of the year, and you might as well add her name to that list. But there’s also a whole lot of great music coming out of the margins, from people who won’t be making that greatest-rappers list anytime soon.
Consider the case of G Perico, from South Central Los Angeles. Perico’s Jheri curl practically works as a signal. He’s part of a lineage, joining a long line of crisp, almost fussy high-pitched pimp-rappers, one that includes towering figures like DJ Quik and Suga Free. Unlike those guys, Perico doesn’t make pimp-talk a huge part of his persona. On Shit Don’t Stop, the consistently entertaining mixtape that Perico released last month, he’s an unpretentious street-level hardhead, bragging about his bail money being paid or getting so high that he could tongue-kiss the sky. (He’s a street guy in real life, too. In an already legendary story, he was shot out front of a recording studio earlier this year, but he checked himself out of the hospital in time to play a show that night.) But that lineage is there in his delivery, his elocution. It’s in the way he delivers words just a fraction of a breath behind the beat, like he’s pushing it uphill rather than being pulled along. It’s there in the way he stretches out his vowels when he wants to make sure you know that he’s not about that shiiiiit. The production on Shit Don’t Stop is just as prim and chilly, drawing on DJ Mustard’s clipped propulsion and on the cinematic basslines and tense synth-wheezes of Mustard’s ’90s forebears. Shit Don’t Stop isn’t some towering artistic statement, but it is a ridiculously fun piece of music, the type of thing that will always sound amazing on a sunny day, with the windows down in your car.
The same is true of By The Way, the mixtape that Compton blowhard AD and League Of Starz producer Sorry Jaynari released this summer. AD is a different type of rapper. He’s a bruiser, the type who bellows just about every word. And unlike a lot of past West Coast bruisers, like W.C. or King Tee, AD doesn’t care about nuance. He doesn’t modulate his tone. He just yells right through it. But he’s a tank with an adaptable engine. He can rap in double-time, and he can deliver an absolute monster hook when he wants to. Mostly, though, he just wants to run through walls like a juggernaut. And when you’re listening to him, you get the feeling that you can do the same thing. By The Way is one of the year’s most cathartic rap records, a great soundtrack for uprooting trees one-handed. And AD and Jaynari are smart enough to vary things enough that we’re not just hearing AD’s voice. He’s got the pull to get guest-verses from West Coast stars like YG and E-40 and Iamsu!, and he sprinkles them in liberally, keeping his own booming voice from ever becoming monotonous. Jaynari draws on that same crispy post-Mustardwave sound, keeping things moving efficiently but still putting plenty of deep funk in its basslines. In a year this full of great West Coast rap, it’s easy to ignore something as meat-and-potatoes simple as By The Way. But the next time you’re trying to pull the roof off a Hyundai Excel with your teeth, you’re going to want some music like this in your life.
Meanwhile, plenty of people from older generations of California rap are still doing great work. Take Compton legend DJ Quik, who, a full quarter-century after his classic debut Quik Is The Name, remains as musically inventive as ever. This past spring, he teamed up with a fellow Compton rapper, the agile young knucklehead Problem, to release a truly great EP called Rosecrans. This was a low-stakes affair, the two rappers never really trying to make hits or even street-bangers. Instead, it works as a celebration of Quik’s whip-smart musical playfulness, something that’s always been an underrated force in West Coast rap. Quik is a great rapper and a better producer, and his beats for Rosecrans radiate warmth and melody even when they’re chasing themselves down one rabbit hole after another. The EP’s best track is the 10-minute “A New Nite / Rosecrans Groove,” which starts out as a flip of Quik’s 1991 classic “Tonite” that then switches into an instrumental roller-funk zone-out, with vintage synths riffing on Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” while they duel with chicken-scratch guitars and languid talkboxes. Twenty-five years in, Quik still brings a pure musicality that almost no other producer can approach. It’s just staggering.
And those three records are really just the beginning. We could also talk about Thirst 48 Pt. II, the sunny and emotive new mixtape from Compton prospect Boogie. Or “Cut It,” an absolute monster of a track that turned Long Beach’s O.T. Genasis into something more than a one-hit wonder. Or the new NxWorries album, breathing life back into the Stones Throw rapper-plus-producer model. Or the forthcoming double-album monster from the endlessly prolific Vallejo pioneer E-40. It’s ridiculous. We don’t deserve California rap right now. Earlier this week, Chris Richards published a great argument-starter of a Washington Post piece, one that argued that we’re currently living through rap’s golden age. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s more true in California than anywhere else right now.
1. E-40 – “On One” (Feat. AD)
See the above paragraph: One of the godfathers of Bay Area rap is about to come back with another mammoth double album, and his opening shot is this, an unadulterated blast of prime hyphy energy, with AD yelling all over the hook. Why can’t all our rap legends age like this?
2. Pusha T – “H.G.T.V.”
My one quibble with this ice-blooded display of rap mastery is when Pusha says, “Don’t listen to ‘em, Desiigner.” Pusha should be telling Desiigner to try to make a song like this one. He should be giving that kid homework.
3. Jimmy Wopo – “Nanana”
In which this garbled Pittsburgh weirdo hijacks the “We Will Rock You” stomp-clap, gets his own dance, and makes a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt look cool for the first time since probably 1992.
4. Big K.R.I.T. – “Free Agent”
After the failed Def Jam experiment, K.R.I.T. airs out his dirty laundry, venting about all the support his albums weren’t getting while sounding more fiery and motivated than he has in a few years. I am so ready for K.R.I.T. to come back angry.
5. Riff Raff – “Back From The Dead” (Feat. Skepta)
Riff Raff is at his best when he realizes he’s a novelty, and that’s what he does here, talking about Versace gingivitis over a haunted-house beat. Skepta, meanwhile, is at his best when he just raps. Really, he’s always at his best.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Gucci Mane just now: "I love NPR." pic.twitter.com/v0bzee0xe3
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) October 14, 2016