There are so many kinds of good rapping. There are the obvious forms, of course. There’s the breathless technical rapping. There’s the idiosyncratic, inventive, stylistically tricky stuff. There’s the type where rappers labor obsessively over lyrics, paring things down and coming up with the most memorable turns of phrase that they can muster. There’s the fiery, politically informed stuff, too, the type where the rapper is saying the thing that needs saying at the exact moment that it needs to be said. And there are the harder-to-define kinds of good rapping, too. There’s the type where the rapper projects charisma in every direction, saying a whole lot without necessarily saying much. There’s the type where the rapper ornaments a beat — staying just on top of it, helping to showcase it. And there are, of course, endless combinations of all of those. One of the hardest kinds of good rapping to describe precisely is the type where the rapper evokes a mood — where the rapper’s voice seems to float, to decorate everything around it. That’s the type of rapping that Buddy does.
Buddy, a young rapper with a whole lot of upside, comes from Compton, but he’s not a street guy like YG or a restless intellectual like Kendrick Lamar. He’s a kid who grew up in performing-arts schools, a former child actor who spent a lot of time onstage and in musicals. (He’s also, probably not coincidentally, a church kid.) When he was still in high school, Pharrell discovered him. Five and a half years ago, Buddy and Pharrell teamed up for “Awesome Awesome,” one of the last times I can remember hearing that amazing scrape-clank Neptunes sound in action. Ever since then, Buddy has been in Pharrell’s orbit, occasionally coming up with something new but never quite breaking through. In 2014, Buddy released Idle Time, an EP that featured appearances from Cali rap peers like Kendrick, Casey Veggies, and Freddie Gibbs but also from actual pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. And last year, Buddy came back with “Shine,” a woozy single that reminds me a bit of Kush And Orange Juice-era Wiz Khalifa. He’s always been a perfectly fine rapper. But Buddy didn’t really click with me until he teamed up with Kaytranada.
Over the years, Kaytranada has produced a lot of tracks for a lot of rappers: Mobb Deep, Freddie Gibbs, Mick Jenkins, Talib Kweli, GoldLink, Chance The Rapper. 99.9%, the excellent debut album that Kaytranada released last year, had appearances from people like Vic Mensa and Phonte. But Kaytranada’s never been a rap producer. If he’s anything, he’s a house producer, but that label is really too reductive. Instead, he’s at some hazy between-genres fulcrum point, one where house and rap and jazz and R&B and a ton of other things all blur into one another. I wouldn’t have thought to put him and Buddy in a room together, but they’re a weirdly perfect match. Last week, Buddy released the new EP Ocean & Montana, and Kaytranada produced the whole thing. It’s Kaytranada’s first-ever full rap project, and it’s one of the most relentlessly pleasant things you’ll hear this spring.
There’s not much to Ocean & Montana. It’s not anyone’s idea of a classic release. It won’t leave your jaw hanging. In last week’s underground rap column, I wrote about six different albums, all of which are more ambitious than Ocean & Montana. But none of those albums (with the possible exception of fellow Southern Californian G Perico’s All Blue) will sound as good when you’re driving to the beach this summer. The song concepts on Ocean & Montana are all pretty elementary; there’s a party song and a flex song. And even lead single and opener “Find Me,” about not being sure of your place in the world, is a sonically breezy and carefree affair. But the whole thing moves. It all fits together. It all works.
Buddy is in his early 20s now, but he’s still got a teenager’s voice, chirpy and nimble. And on these Kaytranada beats, he bends that voice around corners, fitting his cadences to these otherworldly beats with effortless virtuosity. The beats themselves are things of beauty: joyous melodic thump on “World Of Wonders,” streamlined synth-funk on “A Lite,” tabla-powered blaxploitation squelch on “Guillotine.” And when it comes time to deliver hooks, Buddy unveils a tender and fragile choirboy’s tenor that pushes these songs heavenward. And by the time Ocean & Montana has dug its way into your brain, it’s over, its five tracks fitting neatly into 16 minutes.
Right now, we’re in the midst of a great time for rap EPs. On Hell Can Wait and Prima Donna, Vince Staples is even darker and more challenging than on the actual double album Summertime ’06, while something like Nef The Pharaoh’s self-titled debut makes a great case for a new artist without forcing him to carry a whole album when he’s not ready. Ocean & Montana is something else: two artists with complementary styles, figuring out how they fit with one another. As it turns out, they fit beautifully. They sound like they’ve always been together. I’d love to hear what happens if these two ever get together again. After all, most of us can’t get to the beach in 16 minutes. We’re going to need a longer soundtrack for the drive.
1. Mozzy & Gunplay – “That Eazy”
There is every chance that Mozzy and Gunplay — the hardest and least pretentious street-rappers from the Bay Area and Miami, respectively — are about to give us a punch-you-in-your-shit classic. These two sound nasty alone, and they sound even nastier together. Here, they let us know that they will not have any difficulty finding you and doing terrible things to you: “Everybody gotta walk back to the whip, riiiiiight? Everybody do!”
2. Conway – “Conway Not Humble”
“Humble.” freestyle are rare — partly because people don’t really freestyle over each other’s songs anymore and partly because nobody could reasonably expect to do the kind of damage that Kendrick Lamar does on the original. Conway is brave enough to try it and good enough that he can come closer than anyone could’ve expected.
3. Young Thug – “Free Blac Youngsta”
Blac Youngsta is, of course, the Memphis rapper who recently turned himself into police and was charged with being one of the people who fired 100 bullets at Young Dolph’s car. I don’t know where Thug fits into that whole dynamic — whether he’s taking sides in the internal Memphis rap wars or whether he’s just friends with Blac Youngsta. But it’s fun to hear him, however obliquely, addressing serious street shit in his goony, miasmic R&B-haze mode.
4. Blac Youngsta – “Birthday”
And speaking of Blac Youngsta, he’s out on bond and perfectly capable of fighting his own battles. It’s probably not smart to go on record threatening to kill the guy you’re on trial for trying to kill. But this is just a nasty beef track, a fiery and impassioned attack on everything about the guy. I hope this whole thing ends without anyone getting hurt, but in the meantime, it’s making for some thrilling music.
5. Meek Mill – “Glow Up”
It’s like someone reminded Meek Mill that he’s Meek Mill. I’m into it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I know this is only like the sixth most important political issue right now, but, imo, use DMX's music unironically or don't use it at all!
— Josh Gondelman (@joshgondelman) May 22, 2017