Corner Stories, the new mixtape from the Bronx rapper Don Q, has a sort of Greek chorus running all through it: an unnamed interviewer who keeps showing up, asking Don Q questions in-between songs. Toward the end of the tape, the interviewer mentions what an exciting time this is, saying that Don Q seems poised for a real breakthrough. He mentions a few artists when they were at supposedly similar places in their careers: 50 Cent when he made 50 Cent Is The Future, Wiz Khalifa when he made Kush & Orange Juice, Drake when he made So Far Gone. When an artist insists that his album is a classic before it even comes out — or when his album features a proxy saying more or less the same thing — it’s never a good sign. But in this case, I can see what the guy is saying, even if he didn’t name the closest precedent for Corner Stories. Don Q, as a rapper, has very little in common with 50 or Wiz or Drake, and he doesn’t have anything like the commercial upsides that those guys always showed. He’s a little closer to someone else, someone who bubbled up organically to become a star. The Don Q of Corner Stories reminds me of the Kevin Gates who made The Luca Brasi Story in 2013. And that’s a very good thing.
Like Gates, Don Q is a regional phenom who seems like he could do something on a larger scale, though there’s no guarantee. Like Gates, Don Q specializes in hardass street talk over heavy, atmospheric, vaguely gothy beats. Like Gates, Don Q has a sneaky way with hooks; you don’t realize his mixtape tracks have embedded themselves deep into your skull until you catch yourself muttering them to yourself while you’re driving or washing dishes. Like Gates, Don Q is a gifted, technically skilled rapper who never pounds you in the head with how technically skilled he is. Like Gates, Don Q has one of those deep, grizzled voices that communicate a whole lot just through their grain and texture. Don Q isn’t as good a rapper as Gates, but that’s not really his fault; Baton Rouge rappers are almost always better than New York ones. (Just talking about the law of averages here. Sorry. It’s true.) And last year, Gates — without making even the slightest attempt at crossing over — became one of the only rappers to go platinum all year. It’s not that hard to imagine Don Q doing something similar in a few years.
Corner Stories doesn’t represent the culmination of Don Q’s career or anything; his previous mixtape, Don Season, came out just a few months ago. Still, Corner Stories feels like a leap. It’s a heavy, moody full-length, and it’s got a cohesive sense of cinematic sweep to it. Don Q is a bit of a throwback; he reminds me of the late-’90s/early-’00s generation of New York rappers, the ones who fused slick punchlines with grizzled gun-talk. And Don Q knows that the connection is there. On Corner Stories, he raps alongside the Lox members Jadakiss and Styles P — doing that great tag-team thing they do sometimes — on one track and Fabolous on another. On both songs, he sounds like he belongs. I saw a YouTube comment calling Don Q a cross between Styles P and Lloyd Banks, and I’m having a hard time thinking of a better comparison. Don Q specializes in drug-trade memories, and he raps about those with granular specificity. He’s interested in letting you know how it feels to be crouched over a stove in the kitchen of an abandoned house, swirling the spoon in the pot. And more importantly, he’s interested in conveying the desperation that would lead someone to a life like that. He raps about drug sales and doesn’t really make it sound like a cool thing to do. That’s a rarity.
But Don Q isn’t all dour intensity. He has a lot of fun flexing, too: “Look at the whip that I came with / My doors is doing the crane kick.” And there’s a clear joy in the way he puts together words: “Suburb home owner, I still know the coke aroma.” Don Q is coming up alongside another fast-rising Bronx rapper, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie; both rappers are part of the same Highbridge crew. They make a sharp contrast. A Boogie is very much a part of the post-Drake wave; he’s a good-looking guy who specializes in sticky and effortless melodies and who isn’t above relationship-songs. A Boogie has way more commercial potential than Don Q; in New York, he’s already a rising star. But A Boogie and Don Q bring out the best in each other, their styles setting each other off just right. A Boogie brings the airy hooks while Don Q brings the real-world stakes, and both of them sound better together than they do apart. A Boogie only shows up once on Corner Stories, but his song, “I Told You,” is a highlight.
Of the two, A Boogie is the one who’s really having his Wiz Khalifa/Kush & Orange Juice moment; the next A Boogie mixtape is going to be a big deal. But Don Q is the one who snuck up on me. Corner Stories is a ridiculously solid rap mixtape, and it feels like the beginning of something. Don Q isn’t going to be a sudden sensation; if he’s going to ascend to that Kevin Gates fame-level, he’s going to have to grind his way there through relentless touring and recording. But he can do it. It’s possible. And it’s not every day that we hear a new rapper capable of carving out that spot for himself.
1. Mike Will Made-It – “Gucci On My” (Feat. 21 Savage, YG, & Migos)
These types of prefabricated posse cuts rarely work the way they’re supposed to. It’s that DJ Khaled thing: You can’t generate chemistry when all these guys are emailing in their verses from remote locations. But on this one, the ascendent young lions all somehow make sense together, and Mike Will gives them a beat tense enough to keep them on their toes.
2. Westside Gunn & Conway – “MachineGun Black”
The recent Swizz Beatz/Just Blaze beat battle reminded me of something I already knew: Just Blaze is one of the greatest rap producers of all time. Still, I wish his recent beats didn’t always come off sounding like they’re doing too much. The way he clutters this beat up, combined with the entirely unnecessary Eminem intro, makes me wonder whether Westside Gunn and Conway’s stint on Shady Records will be all that it should be. Still, these two guys are absurdly gifted rap hardasses, and I want the best for them, so I’m just going to be confident and call this a banger that hints at what these two will do when they get a little more room to operate.
3. Blac Youngsta – “I Got You” (Feat. Slim Jxmmi)
There is a whole lot of energy and ingenuity on display on Blac Youngsta’s new Illuminati mixtape. And this one, in which the second-best rapper in Rae Sremmurd shows up on a ghostly version of the “It Takes Two” woo-yeahs, is an early favorite.
4. Crystal Caines – “No Drama”
Two minutes of pure sneer from one of the most exciting rapper/producer double-threats currently working.
5. Consequence – “Spaceship 3″ (Feat. Alex Wiley, Chance The Rapper, Chuck Inglish, & GLC)
In which the two non-Kanye rappers from the College Dropout classic “Spaceship” reunite to give general inspiration-talk — rather than specific and relatable day-job talk — over a distinctly Kanye-esque beat, alongside some of Chicago’s greatest young voices. Worth it just to hear Chance, the closest thing we’ve ever come to a Kanye heir apparent, radiating joy all over this thing.