In Praise Of New York Dirtbag-Rap
August was supposed to be A$AP Mob’s month. They built a whole campaign around it. They released three albums, and they gave the whole thing a name. (It was “Awgest.” A$AP Mob are bad at naming things.) It didn’t work out. They best of those albums, A$AP Twelvyy’s 12, was a pretty competent piece of ’90s-throwback New York rap. But they followed that one up with an overlong, scattershot A$AP Ferg mixtape and then with Cozy Tapes Vol. 2: Too Cozy, a rote and purposeless crew album that added nothing to the mythology they’ve built for themselves. A$AP Rocky says that he’s putting out another album this year, so maybe he can change whatever trajectory they’re on. But A$AP Mob’s flossy, region-less, fashion-drunk rap style is fading. There’s no vitality or direction to it right now. That’s a problem for New York rap. New York rap used to be built around movements, around multifaceted crews who could seize the popular imagination and imprint their ideas on the world: the Juice Crew, Wu-Tang, Bad Boy, Roc-A-Fella, Ruff Ryders, G-Unit, Diplomats. The A$AP Mob was pretty much the last echo of that, and if they’re farting out, that whole model might be dead. But there are other things happening in New York. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” has emerged as a moment-defining monster smash. And on a much smaller level, New York is currently teeming with scabby, scuzzy slick-talkers who don’t have a whole lot of use for front-row seats at runway shows.
Consider Wiki. Patrick Morales spent years with the group Ratking, but I think he’s really come into his own since the group splintered and he went solo. Wiki is a total New York type: a loud, sleazy, slurry heart-of-gold urchin, the type who should never get his missing front teeth replaced because the big, broken gap in his mouth really completes his look. He always reminded me of the kids from Kids. Last week, on the same day that A$AP Mob’s album came out, Wiki released No Mountains In Manhattan — the title, he explains on the closing track, being inspired by seeing the New York skyline when coming home from touring, thinking to himself that those are his mountains. On “Pretty Bull,” he brags that when his whole crew comes out, it’s like “every night at the Tunnel in one.” (The fabled, shuttered New York nightclub was famous for its violent, star-studded rap nights, but they’d also have huge gay parties and house-music nights.) But as evocative as those lines might be, he’s more likely to come out with something like the “Pretty Bull” hook: “I’m posing, looking like a pretty bull / Shirt off, tattoos on my titties, too.” There’s a whole song about playing stickball. He raps like he’s shouting bullshit at the top of his lungs while staggering home from a bar after closing time, and No Mountains In Manhattan has the giddy, chaotic energy of a night out in the island in its title.
Earlier this year, Wiki teamed up with Brooklyn’s Your Old Droog for the collaborative EP What Happened To Fire? Droog is an interesting case. When he first emerged a few years ago, he was a flickering, mysterious presence, an online name without a face attached. For a little while, people were theorizing that it was really Nas rapping under a pseudonym. The truth was a whole lot less interesting; he’s really a goofy white guy with a big beard who merely sounds a lot like Nas. And on Packs, the album he released a few months ago, Droog steers right into that, rapping about being broke and bumming cigarettes and playing outdated video games: “Most importantly for me, I ain’t no dummy / When I’m worth a billi, I’ll still be dressing bummy.” Droog’s not a true scumbag; there’s a whole song about the ethics of being a white guy operating in a culturally black genre. But Droog is at his best rapping over clattering, fuzzy beats about watching the sunset over D train tracks. He’s a word-drunk dreamer with dust in his pockets, and he’s worth your attention.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire first came to prominence with a song about drunk driving on a Wednesday; he was the perfect dirtbag. That song earned eXquire a major-label contract even though he had the word “muthafuckin'” in his name, but pretty soon, he grew uncomfortable with the character he was portraying: “I’d be onstage and I’d feel like a parody. I think I went through my Dave Chappelle moment, where I was like, ‘I don’t know if they’re laughing with me or they’re laughing at me.'” He seems to be OK with it now. Last month, eXquire released Brainiac, an EP that includes a song called “40 Oz. At The Met Gala.” EXquire’s found ways to merge his old self and his new one. On Brainiac, he’s a bit more reflective than he used to be, and he’s also happy to come up with goofy stoner humor, like the bit on the opening track where he gets into an argument with his own brain. But he’s still here to reassure us: “I like wildin’, I like violence, nigga, that’s my kinda shit.” He’s at his best when he’s giving the world ridiculous, oddly specific shit-talk: “I hate a fake nigga like I hate a tame bitch, the smell of cigarettes, and raw onions on my sandwich.”
Action Bronson’s not quite on the same underground level as Wiki or Droog or eXquire, though he did come from that world. These days, he’s a celebrity with enough juice that Viceland is happy to greenlight a TV show where he and his friends get stoned and watch TV shows about aliens. On his new album Blue Chips 7000, Bronson has a track with Rick Ross, another rapper with a big beard and a prodigious appetite, albeit one who has absolutely nothing else in common with Bronson. (The biggest guest stars that Wiki and Droog can command for their albums are, respectively, Ghostface Killah and Danny Brown.) But Blue Chips 7000 is still an admirably dusty, grimy album. Bronson chooses beats that crackle with noise and chaos, and he’s still more likely to rap about suplexing a motherfucker through a salad bar than he is to rap about diamonds. These days, Bronson represents another quintessential New York type: the loud, funny asshole who inexplicably hit it big and now gets to brag about jet skis and lobster tails. This asshole was, mind you, also talking about those things when he was broke, but now you sort of have to believe him.
Rappers like these show the New York that I recognize a lot better than A$AP Mob’s slick player talk. They help convey and embody a baffling, roiling city, a maddening maw of chattering voices where everyone is living on top of everyone else. Plenty of them are white, but they don’t have that nattering, eager-to-please energy that so many white rappers, from New York or elsewhere, display. Instead, they help show a version of New York where everyone has at least one immigrant parent, where the boroughs are just collections of tiny, far-flung towns. Wiki is Irish and Puerto Rican and from lower Manhattan. Droog is Ukrainian and from Coney Island. EXquire is Jamaican and from Crown Heights. Bronson is Albanian and from Flushing. They’re all scrambling to get ahead, and they’re all talking a lot of shit while they do it. They’re a loud, brash, funny bunch of motherfuckers. None of their new records are classics, but all of them show a version of New York that’s fun to think about.
1. Fergie – “You Already Know” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Fergie’s new single is built around an “It Takes Two” sample, and there’s also an interpolation of “Warm It Up, Kane” in there. Fergie: bringing back that real hip-hop! This song is an absolute delight, and it also works as proof that Fergie is, as of August 2017, a better rapper than A$AP Ferg.
2. E-40 – “Straight Out The Dirt” (Feat. Yo Gotti & Youngboy Never Broke Again)
A quarter-century in, and the moment when E-40 goes from chanting to fast-rapping remains thrilling. The trio of rappers on this song is a pretty unlikely one, but they all go in, and the song sticks to your ribs.
3. Pouya & Ghostemane – “2000 Rounds”
Grimy, gothic South Florida SoundCloud rap can be a smeary, ugly miss, but when it hits, it hits.
4. Maxo Kream – “5200”
As flood waters cover Houston, Houston’s hungriest underground rapper is rapping hard about working every possible angle to get a few bucks. This feels oddly poetic.
5. Wu-Tang Clan – “People Say” (Feat. Redman)
If Wu-Tang are going to continue to make new music in 2017, I don’t need them to make something on the level of “Triumph” every few months. All I need is a solidly grisly, guttural posse cut every once in a while. That is this. This is that. Also, Inspectah Deck is wearing the Infinity Gauntlet in the cover art, and that gets extra points.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— 🐃Tha Observer🐃 (@mccauley318) August 29, 2017