Pity the rap-crew enforcer. It’s a vital but thankless job. Every ascendant rap Michael Jordan needs a Charles Oakley, a guy there to reinforce the idea that you cannot fuck with this person. A rap enforcer is not a security guard or anything like it. It’s a public-image thing, coupled with the vague possibility that this person might do something insane at any moment. A good rap enforcer is, first off, a good rapper, one who tends to be a straight-ahead hammer-your-face tough-guy type. He’s not there to overshadow the star, though he might accidentally do it every once in a while. He’s never the focus. He’ll release some singles, a mixtape, maybe even an album. But he’s there to screwface the camera in music videos, to talk grisly shit on guest verses, and to bring the energy onstage for a couple of songs at a time. The problem is that it never works out. It never lasts.
If you’re a rap enforcer, your best-case scenario is probably to end up like Freeway, a truly great rapper who was never going to become a star, who got some great spotlight moments on Jay Z tracks and was able to parlay that into a minor-classic debut album and, later on, to find a place in the backpack-rap underground that loved him the whole time. And that’s your best-case scenario — to become labelmates with Aesop Rock. Your worst-case scenario is probably to end up like Alfamega, who seemed like the sort of rap enforcer that you’d create in a lab until the story that he’d once served as a DEA informant made the rounds and rendered him toxic. T.I. couldn’t distance himself quickly enough, and I have no idea what’s become of Alfamega. Usually, though, rap enforcers end up like Hell Rell or Gudda Gudda or Bloodraw. As those rap crews lose ground or splinter, the enforcers just kind of fade away. These days, rappers barely even have crews, and guys like Drake and Kanye West don’t need to keep enforcers because they don’t need to project danger. The enforcer has become obsolete.
Fading away quietly was never going to be an option for Gunplay, and neither was obsolescence. He’s too brash, too loud, too boisterous, too much of a character to just go away. For a few years around the turn of the decade, back when Rick Ross was at his peak, Gunplay was one of the things keeping Ross interesting. As a rapper, Gunplay was (and is) a total energy bomb, like some mad-scientist fusion of Redman and Waka Flocka Flame. He had all of Flocka’s bellowing kamikaze energy, but he was funny and self-aware, too. One great line: “New Bugatti, still pumping 87 unleaded!” Or: He’s got a ridiculously expensive car, but he’s going to keep buying the cheap gas even if it destroys the engine. And every once in a while, he’d show some pathos, some emotional depth: “I asked the pastor, what’s the fastest way to get to heaven for a bastard with a tarnished past? Give me your honest answer.” That’s from “Bible On The Dash,” an absolutely perfect rap song and probably the best thing Gunplay ever recorded. If he could make a song like that, could he be something more than an enforcer?
For a while, it seemed vaguely possible that Gunplay could become a rap star, or something like it. There were, of course, obstacles. For one thing, his name was Gunplay, which is not the sort of name that will let you cross over. (For a little while, there was talk of him changing his name to Don Logan, after the Ben Kingsley character from Sexy Beast. But it never works when rappers try to change their name to something more marketable; shout out to Mike Bigga and Peedi Peedi and just plain Ghostface.) He was also a legitimate psychopath. He had a swastika tattooed on his back, and when asked about it in interviews, he’d offer up explanations that didn’t really reassure anyone: “I came to Nazi that shit. I came to Hitler that motherfucker. Put all the fake motherfuckers in the gas chamber and gas your fuck ass. That’s what I’m here to do.” In 2012, he pistol-whipped his accountant on camera, only avoiding prison time when his accountant decided not to cooperate with prosecution.
Still, this was the Lex Luger era. If a wild headcase like Gunplay was ever going to blow up, it would’ve been then, right? Didn’t happen, of course. Ross was making a real rap-mogul push, and he actually succeeded, to some extent, of making stars out of guys like Meek Mill and Wale. Gunplay, who’d been with him for longer, didn’t have that same potential starpower. So instead, he became a guest-verse assassin. On the Maybach Music posse cut “Power Circle,” Gunplay easily overwhelmed everyone other than a guest-starring Kendrick Lamar. On Kendrick’s own “Cartoons & Cereal,” one of the best songs from that first phase of Kendrick’s career, Gunplay supplied a welcome jolt of firepower and came shockingly close to stealing the song. He absolutely did steal Lil Wayne’s “Beat The Shit”: “I’m a knuckle-throwing knucklehead! / What that motherfucker said? / Bring that ruckus up in here! / Throwing bottles, chucking chairs!”
That whole time, Gunplay was always uploading videos, and I wasted long afternoons watching whatever he was doing. He’d go to Six Flags or go fishing, and he’d be running around and jumping and cackling the whole time. He was deeply, hypnotically watchable, partly because you had no idea what he would do next. Once, he pulled a fresh pair of sneakers from the box, cradled them in his arms, and licked a sole. And it looks like he’s deleted the Instagram post, but I can vividly remember watching a video of Gunplay seeing an alligator by the side of the road and deciding that he wanted to fight it. The alligator ran away when Gunplay lunged at it. So maybe that’s why he never became a rap star. He was too fucking crazy.
Gunplay did finally, eventually get to release a major-label album. That album was Living Legend, and it came out in 2015, which was maybe four years too late to capitalize on the buzz that Gunplay had been building up. He rapped alongside YG over a DJ Mustard beat, but even that was a year or two after it would’ve made for a guaranteed hit. The album was pretty good, but it still felt like a shrug. So it’s heartening to see Gunplay returning, two years later, with two albums in two weeks. This isn’t a Future situation; there’s not some pent-up demand for new Gunplay music. Instead, he’s putting out music on Real Talk Entertainment, a label that seems devoted to releasing music from former major-label rappers. His new labelmates include “Ice Cream Paint Job” guy Dorrough, “Hood Nigga” guy Gorilla Zoe, former Three 6 Mafia affiliate Lil Wyte, and various Bone Thugs side projects. I don’t know what happened with him and Rick Ross. I hope they’re still friends.
The first of those new Gunplay albums is Dreadlocks & Headshots, a full-length collab with Sacramento journeyman Mozzy, and it came out on Friday. The two make a pretty good pair. As a Bay Area underground guy, Mozzy has plenty of experience talking about grisly street shit over cheap-sounding beats. He’s not as charismatic as Gunplay — honestly, it’s not even close — but he’s got that same sense of danger about him. The album won’t set anyone’s world on fire, but it’s a solid rap record, and it’s good to hear Gunplay getting a chance to make something like that at this late date. The same is true of The Plug, the solo album that Gunplay will release on Friday. It’s short, brutish, and nearly guest-free, and its entire message is that Gunplay will shoot you right in the fucking face if you test him. He still sounds convincing.
Long stretches of The Plug are given over to skits, like the one where Gunplay discusses his past as a pimp, speaking about it like it’s an actual trade and not a pose that a rapper might make up. Nothing on the album has the searing excitement of, say, Gunplay’s 2011 mixtape Inglorious Bastard. But it’s a perfectly solid rap album, and it’s cool getting to hear Gunplay getting a chance to make a couple of albums like that, albums completely removed from his enforcer past. Maybe there’s no way to get to heaven for a bastard with a tarnished past, but at least there’s a way to keep having a career.
1. Jay Electronica – “Letter To Falon”
Jay Electronica remains one of our most frustrating rap figures — a natural talent who persistently refuses to just fucking do anything — but one or two days a year, he comes with something new. And while it’s never quite “Exhibit C,” it always reminds us of why we were fascinated with this guy in the first place.
2. Husalah – “Protect Your Soul”
You’re not supposed to be able to make a monster slap out of a Sade song, but Husalah did it. Husalah contains multitudes.
3. Nocando – “Mykraphone Myk”
The dizzying singsong speed-rapper and Freestyle Fellowship member Mykah 9 is an understated giant in West Coast underground, and a guy like Kendrick Lamar exists very much in a lineage that he helped start. “Mykraphone Myk” is, in some ways, Nocando’s tribute to the man, and it’s got some of his all-over-the-place intensity. Still, the highlight of the video is when Mykah himself starts rapping at the end.
4. Tyga – “Playboy” (Feat. Vince Staples)
Rap nerds treat Tyga as a pariah and Vince Staples as a young deity, but they’re both icy, precise, swagger-centric West Coast rappers, and they were in a scene together in the movie Dope. They sounds pretty good together! But hearing them next to each other like this, there’s no escaping how fucking dumb Tyga’s lyrics are: “You cut her legs off, she crawl right back to me,” “I fuck her like there’s 10 of me.” I would’ve loved to heard Staples’ reaction to those lines.
5. Yo Gotti – “Rake It Up” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Gotti just released a whole collaborative EP with Mike Will Made-It, and I wonder how he managed that coup. But the whole thing justifies its existence because we get to hear Nicki get goofy over that rubbery post-Too Short bassline.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
young thug's momma freestyling over the bestfriend beat >>> pic.twitter.com/0xBuMvjcmL
— 6papl (@LILAFRIMANE) June 3, 2017