This is a complete bullshit occurs-to-you-in-the-shower thought, but bear with me here: Trap music is our disco. It’s our late-’10s equivalent of what was happening in the late ’70s. Think about it: Trap is an absolutely dominant commercial force. It’s built around a very specific aesthetic blueprint, right down to its drum pattern, with skittering 808 hi-hats instead of four-on-the-floor bass-drum thump. As with disco, there is good trap music and terrible trap music. Gucci Mane is our Eddie Kendricks. Zaytoven is our Tom Moulton. Future and Metro Boomin are our Nile Rodgers and Chic. Migos are our Bee Gees. Desiigner is our version of whoever sang “Disco Duck.” Like disco, trap is party music, with its own values and its own drugs. As in the disco era, aging stars are scrambling to catch up, to either find some foothold or to forcefully reject everything that’s happening, and that’s having mixed results. (Lil Wayne is our Diana Ross? “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2″ is our “Miss You”? None of this matches up very well, but it’s still a fun game.) And as with disco, there are a lot of people who really, really hate trap.
The trap backlash is nothing like the disco backlash; even if it were physically possible to detonate Rae Sremmurd streams in the middle of a baseball stadium, I don’t think anyone would do it. Still, there’s plenty of old-head grousing about “mumble-rap,” about the new generations of kids who have forsaken their values and adapted completely different skill-sets. Sometimes, that even leads to rap-sucks-now end-times talk. That’s wrong, but I get it. The pure omnipresence of trap music can get a little bit oppressive, and from a certain light, the rise of, say, Playboi Carti can begin to look like the death of everything you love about rap music. But that’s wrong. Underground rap is having an absolute golden moment right now; there is so much good music out there that even someone like me, whose entire job is to take stock of this stuff, can have trouble keeping up.
There’s not one underground. That’s the thing. The phrase “underground rap” tends to evoke the late-’90s Rawkus Records phenomenon, the cerebral form of New York rap that arose as a reaction against a previous generation’s excesses. There is good Rawkus-type music being made right now, for sure. But right now, rap’s underground is more of a nebulous thing. It’s a lot of different sounds, growing in a lot of different places, many of which have little to no overlap with one another. But there is so much of it out there. So for this week’s column, I’m taking a look at some very good recent releases, albums or mixtapes that all qualify as underground rap but which approach the genre from different angles, with different values. Really, they all have only one real thing in common: They’re not trap music.
Consider G Perico, from South Central Los Angeles. Perico’s music is nasty, unreconstructed street-rap, with nothing to do with any old backpack underground. In fact, Perico seems to have contempt for that backpack underground: “Still pack Macs in Cadillacs / Gunplay, nigga, fuck all that battle-rap.” But Perico’s music seems to exist out of time; it’s an icy, minimal take on ’90s G-funk — one that feels fresh but also rooted in genre continuity. Last year, Perico released a great mixtape called Shit Don’t Stop, and he’s recently followed it up with the proper debut album All Blue. In both his luxurious curls and the haughty chirp of his voice, Perico recalls DJ Quik, but All Blue is sharp and strong enough that Quik’s really great new album — the full-length Problem collab Rosecrans, which expands last year’s EP of the same title to LP length — hasn’t overshadowed it. All Blue motors through 13 songs in just over half an hour, and it’s full of icy and specific street-talk, Perico remembering selling crack to his uncle and advising you not to walk with your back to traffic. It’s meticulously crafted, it keeps its momentum throughout, and there is beauty in its purity. It’s one of my favorite rap albums of the year thus far.
Like Perico, Jonwayne is from LA, but he really couldn’t be more different. For years, I ignored Jonwayne, taking one look at him — he’s a big white guy, with long hair and a beard and glasses — and immediately, unfairly decided that he’d be a self-indulgent, wordy, post-Anticon type. That was dumb of me. Album Number Two, Jonwayne’s new one, is indulgent, but not in the way that I imagined. It’s indulgent in ways that are both interesting and funny. As a rapper, Jonwayne is impressive, with a tough-but-nuanced delivery and a gruff, commanding voice. He prefers straightforward boom-bap beats with lilting, skipping shards of melody. His form of self-indulgence is really a near-paralyzing self-awareness. Not long ago, Jonwayne publicly came to grips with his own alcoholism and released an EP called Jonwayne Is Retired. On Album Number Two, he spends some time finding clever ways to deconstruct his own music and his image. There’s a skit where a douchebag in a club hears that Jonwayne is a rapper, says that he’s “not seeing it,” and then badgers Jonwayne into rapping for him. Later, there’s a song called “The Single,” a track that consists of nothing but false starts, Jonwayne starting to rap and then losing his own thread and getting pissed at himself. But the album isn’t all stunts; it’s mostly sharp, considered wordplay about existential loneliness: “Pre-apocalyptic LA everyday / Yet I still keep myself company on the motorway.” And even at its most inward-looking, it still sounds hard.
Like Jonwayne, NxWorries producer Knxweldge is rooted in the Stones Throw scene. And like Stones Throw boss Madlib, Knxwledge excels at transforming crackly old easy-listening records into hazy, broken post-boom-bap head-trip music. When he’s working with his NxWorries producer Anderson .Paak, Knxwledge turns that into a warm, inviting big-tent sound. But on his latest project, Knxwledge goes in the other direction. On the new EP-length release The Spook…, Knxwledge teams up with the Newark rapper Mach-Hommy. Given that Mach-Hommy is a known associate of Buffalo headslap specialists Westside Gunn and Conway, you might expect The Spook… to be a woozy-hardhead combination in the tradition of Madlib and Freddie Gibbs’ Piñata. It’s not that. Mach-Hommy is, if anything, even weirder than Knxwledge. Last year, he released his album Haitian Body Odor in a peculiar way; you could only buy it for $300 by contacting him on DM. (He’s since put it up online.) On The Spook…, he delivers his words with the disaffected monotone of an East Coast head-knocker, but those words tend to be deeply strange: “Groucho Marx, narcoleptic vultures in the jungle / Martial art with algorithmic buffers in the Congo.” (Those lyrics are merely my best guess; it really sounds like he says “in the conzo,” but that is not, as far as I know, an actual word or expression.) He also sings most of one song, “Bon Après-Midi,” in Haitian French. The whole release is one of the most pleasantly confounding things I’ve heard in forever, an enigmatic zone-out that never bothers to meet its audience halfway.
The rapper/producer Quelle Chris has a stumbling, fractured take on that old backpack-rap thump that’s not too different from what Knxwledge brings, but the things that Quelle Chris does with it are vastly different. Quelle Chris comes from a long lineage of post-Dilla crate-digger types, and he’s been around for long enough to become an entrenched part of that old-school rap underground. On the recent album Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, backpack veterans like Roc Marciano and Jean Grae, both of them absolutely on fire, put in verses. But the album isn’t a genre exercise. Instead, it’s something deeply warm and personal and silly, in that old De La Soul tradition. Here are the first words that Quelle Chris raps on the album: “I fucks with myself / I fucks with myself / Might bring myself some flowers, I’m in love with myself / I look in the mirror like, ‘Who is that nigga?’ / I’m cool with that nigga / I’m through with these niggas.” At first, that looks like a joke about narcissism. But when that line reappears at the end of the album, it’s become a sort of self-assurance mantra. Throughout the album, Quelle Chris talks about being broke and underappreciated, and he does it with sharp, granular detail: “$17 on the EBT / Bootleg movies on the DVD / My nephew made the logo for the graphic Ts / A genius on the low, though, with no GED.” The music is a warm, heady thunk, and it’s genuinely pretty more often than not. And taken together, the album works as an internal voyage, as a glimpse into the sounds and ideas bouncing around in one smart, unique person’s brain.
Payroll Giovanni is from Detroit, too, but it’s hard to think of him and Quelle Chris being from the same planet, let alone the same city. Where Quelle Chris is all warm, goofball introspection, Payroll Giovanni is about icy, heartless control. When he raps, you can hear the sneer on his face, like he’s absolutely disgusted with the world, offended by its very existence, and the only way he can get his vengeance is by ripping microphones to pieces: “I’ll turn your bitch crib in to a stash house / And then never call again when the bag out.” Payroll Giovanni’s been around for a while, mostly as part of the local crew Doughboyz Cashout. (And, to hear him tell it, he’s been doing other things besides rapping: “To this day, they wonder why I ball like this / Statute of limitations up, now I can talk like this.”) But he’s better as a solo rapper; last year, he linked up with the producer Cardo, who’s been on a crazy hot streak lately, for the collaborative tape Big Bossin’ Vol. 1. On his new Payface, he teams with the Detroit producer Helluva. Helluva’s not a big name like Cardo, but his beats are cold and florid, and they stay out of Payroll Giovanni’s way. (There’s also a funny moment where he turns “This Is How We Do It” into a drug-dealing song.) Payroll Giovanni gets plenty of space to open up, to be just as hard and unforgiving as he possibly can. Someone should introduce him to G Perico; I think they’d get along.
Payroll Giovanni’s music is cold and emotionless and built around selling drugs, but it’s not trap music, at least in the way we’ve come to understand it. (It’s weird how the definition of the genre has come to omit drug-rap monsters like Clipse or early Jay Z; a little while ago, I witnessed two critics arguing on Twitter over whether T.I.’s Trap Muzik — an album literally called Trap Muzik — counts as trap music.) Two rappers who could be making trap — and who sometimes are — are the Tennessee buddies Starlito and Don Trip. Both of them have deep roots in Southern rap. Lito, from Nashville, spent a few minutes on Cash Money many years ago, and he’s done a lot of work with Kevin Gates in recent years. Trip is a product of the same Memphis scene that gave us Yo Gotti and Young Dolph. Both of them have made plenty of good music on their own, but they’re a whole lot better together, as a unit. Way back in 2011, they released their first collaborative mixtape Step Brothers, which, yes, was named after the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly classic. It was a revelation — two guys who’d been around, going back and forth with their deep and craggy drawls, casually bantering and talking shit. Every once in a while, they get back together again; their Step Brothers 3 tape came out a couple of months ago. It’s really, really solid, and it’s got a nice progression to it. The two prefer slow, unhurried, soul-sampling beats with heavy 808 claps. They start out just having fun, kicking around punchlines. (Don Trip: “NASCAR full of fast money / I fuck a bitch for her tax money.”) But as the tape keeps going, they talk about darkness and struggle; the song “Good Cop Bad Cop” is a breathless police-brutality narrative that’ll stay with you.
So: six albums, six wildly different approaches. All worth your time. All underground rap, in one way or another. I could’ve written a full column about any of them. Maybe one or two of these rappers will go on to become famous. Most of them won’t. It’s fine. They’re all doing great work, and they’re all finding their audiences. That’s what underground rap is supposed to be. And there are probably hundreds of other talented rappers even further down — guys I’ve never heard of, guys who I might never hear of. If you’re lamenting the state of rap music in 2017 and you haven’t heard all of these guys, then you’re not getting a full picture. Pay attention.
1. Gunplay – “D-Boy Fresh”
He’s been gone for a while, but Gunplay — both a wild knucklehead character and a legitimately great rapper — has fully reconnected with his inner goon. Next month, he’ll release two albums in two weeks — one a full-length collab with Mozzy, one solo effort. It’s good to have him back.
2. Hus Kingpin & Big Ghost – “Coke Casa”
Ponderous, expansive drug-talk from one of our most reflective tough guys, with a beat that slowly orbits beneath him. Hus Kingpin is making a whole album with producer Big Ghost, and if this track is any indication, we should be excited.
3. V-Don & Willie The Kid – “24 Hours” (Feat. Roc Marciano)
Willie The Kid used to be the guy who’d land verses on every single DJ Drama mixtape even though nobody cared about him. Now he’s trading beautifully phrased slick-talk (“Brown smoking jacket, Cuban cigar massive / Big dog, bull mastiff / Toastmaster, making toasts with tastemakers”) with Roc Marciano, the Picasso of beautifully phrased slick talk, and holding his own.
4. Cuz Lightyear – “Fucc Outta Here” (Feat. Maxo Kream)
Another understudy comes out. To me, Cuz Lightyear has always been SL Jones, the guy whose verses on the I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind albums have mostly served as breathers between the Killer Mike fusillades. Here, he and Maxo Kream, who seems to get better ever week, get all sinister-flicker over the eeriest Metro Boomin beat I’ve heard in a minute.
5. Curren$y – “Not A Crumb”
Curren$y’s mellow, unshowy virtuosity is an easy thing to take for granted. But then, sometimes, he spends two minutes casually and sleepily taking apart a Sonny Digital beat, and it’s like: Oh. Yeah. That guy.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Life Of Desiigner (@AllDesiigner) August 18, 2016