Rap is moving fast these days. Right now, the zeitgeist seems to belong to a loose crew of anarchic, face-tatted South Florida kids, 90-pound rappers who incite massive mosh pits and dye their dreads pink and, way too often, get hit with troubling charges of violence against women. The wave is harsh, buzzing lo-fi beats and anime-inspired cover art. These kids all had precedents for the music they’re making, and some of them have been quietly bubbling on the internet for a year or two. But it still feels like they all came rushing in from absolutely nowhere. They shouldn’t get comfortable. The next thing will doubtless come along in a few months, and the ones who survive will probably be guys like Drake and A$AP Rocky, vultures with gifts for realigning themselves with whatever’s cool. The ease of streaming and social media have sped up trend-cycles considerably. Nothing else in popular music is changing and evolving with anywhere near the speed that rap is; nothing else has that level of energy or excitement around it. But that merciless churn also means that a rapper can suddenly find himself sounding like a throwback, even if he just started rapping two years ago.
Meet Hoodrich Pablo Juan, who has one of rap’s best names and who, as I’m writing this, is one of the best rappers in Atlanta. Pablo has, by his own reckoning, been a rapper since 2015. Before that, he was working in more illicit enterprises; he says he started taking rapping more seriously after he had a close brush with police around then. Pablo spent his early childhood in Newark, New Jersey before moving to Atlanta, but there’s no Jersey in his accent, his style, his delivery, or his presentation. He’s Atlanta through and through. The first song on Pablo’s first mixtape, 2015’s Designer Drugz, featured Migos, and that should tell you almost all you need to know about his sound. He works that Migos style: clustered triplet flows, flossy shit-talk lyrics, hashtag-style punchlines. For most of the time he’s been in the public eye, Pablo has occupied Atlanta rap’s teeming B-list, sharing space with the Jose Guapos and the Rich The Kids and the Skippa Da Flippas of the world. That’s not a terrible place to be; he was always good for a strong-enough feature on a more-famous rapper’s mixtape. But Pablo’s been quietly, steadily improving for months. And last week, he released his Designer Drugz 3 mixtape, one of the most consistently enjoyable rap full-lengths I’ve heard in recent memory.
There’s nothing about Designer Drugz 3, from the generic title and cover art on down, that’s engineered to grab your attention. Pablo raps in post-Migos triplets over skittering hi-hats and mocking little synth melodies. His lyrics aren’t especially quotable, except on the occasional moments where he says something so dumb that it’s basically indefensible (“Tokyo Asian yellow bitch, Pikachu”). And yet something’s changed. Things are clicking for Pablo. Even as fast as he raps, there’s a quiet new assurance in the way he bounces his voice off of these beats. He’s having fun, and you can hear the smirk in his voice. The beats seem to take their cues from the ominous minimalism that Metro Boomin brought to 21 Savage’s Savage Mode a year and a half ago. They still fit within the bounds of Atlanta trap, but they’re chillier, more atmospheric. They twinkle menacingly, like polished-up knives in candlelit rooms. There’s a spaghetti-Western sparseness to a lot of the beats that I just love. The whole tape creates a feeling, a groove. You can hear it in the way Pablo shines alongside his way-more-energetic peers Migos on “Do What I Wanna Do,” complementing their frantic delivery by doing his own low-key version of it. And you can hear it in the single “We Don’t Luv Em,” a springy and insinuating track that’ll creep under your skin if you let it.
There’s nothing revolutionary about Designer Drugz 3. Pablo isn’t selling an original character or presenting a new aesthetic. He’s working within the bounds of an established subgenre, Atlanta trap, and he’s doing his own spin on it. Its strong points are subtle — the restraint, the playfulness, the sense of an artist just hitting his stride. If Pablo had hit this level a year ago, I feel like he’d already be huge. But rap is changing. Right now, there are a bunch of recent full-lengths from young rappers that are doing way bigger streaming numbers than Designer Drugz 3. Some of them come from the SoundCloud-rap types currently having their moment: Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, the frankly disgusting XXXTentacion. Others come from other rappers who are working their own, more-established sounds: A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s tough-but-sweet post-Drake sing-rap, YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s melodic-but-guttural Louisiana street-rap, G Herbo’s gruff Chicago street-talk. I don’t like any of those albums as much as I like Designer Drugz 3. But all of those guys are having moments. Can Pablo still have one? We’ll see, I guess.
If Atlanta trap music is on its way out, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Atlanta trap has been dominating rap music for a few years, and its biggest stars are now firmly established. Migos and Rae Sremmurd seem to be able to conjure hits at will. Gucci Mane has achieved friendly, magnanimous elder-statesman status. Future is the rock star that he always said he was. Young Thug exists on his own planet. Pablo has rapped alongside most of them in the past few years; Gucci and Migos show up on Designer Drugz 3. (Gucci even seems to try on his appearance, which is an increasingly rare thing on a Gucci Mane guest appearance.) On the same tape, Pablo also trades verses with some of the yelping cartoon-character kids who might be helping to make him obsolete: Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti. (He outraps all of them pretty easily.) And Pablo will probably be just fine. “We Don’t Luv Em” is gaining steam, and if he continues to improve at this rate, he’ll be impossible to ignore.
Still, it’s weird and fascinating to hear an album as strong as this one and to think that it might’ve missed its window already. Rap is a liquid artform, one that’s constantly assuming new shapes and permutations. It’s never had any patience for rappers who couldn’t keep up with its changes. There’s a lot more to rap than timing, of course, and if Pablo had a more obvious kind of charisma, it might not matter that he’s not making SoundCloud-rap. But we’re still looking at a situation where the difference between crossover stardom and regional B-level fame might be a matter of months. I hope not. Hoodrich Pablo Juan is good at rapping. People should hear him.
1. Tee Grizzley – “Win”
Very few people in rap right now are bringing anything like the level of urgency that Tee Grizzley seems to show on every song: “Without me, my family wouldn’t have food! / Everybody go against me gotta lose!”
2. Curren$y – “In The Lot”
Years ago, when Curren$y’s internet weed-rap stardom was nearing its peak, he’d sometimes freestyle over things like Rick Ross’ “BMF (Blowin’ Money Fast),” and it would be fun to hear his breezy nonchalance over those hammering beats. Now Curren$y is working directly with Lex Luger, the guy who made those beats, and that contrast is still fun.
3. Keak Da Sneak – “Him Not Them” (Feat. Mozzy)
Two months ago in Oakland, someone shot hyphy pioneer Keak eight times. He didn’t just survive. He’s already back, rasp-gargling all over a high-stepping track like nothing happened. That’s superhero shit.
4. Ski Mask The Slump God – “With Vengeance” (Feat. Offset)
A few weeks ago, the Florida SoundCloud rapper Ski Mask released a single of himself rapping over the classic beat from Missy Elliott’s “Lick Shots.” It wasn’t labeled as such. This new track is apparently produced by Timbaland, and I don’t know if that means it’s a new beat or if this is simply a peak-era Tim beat that I don’t immediately recognize. Still, the idea of a Timbaland comeback is enough to get me going, and this is a fun song.
5. Yo Gotti – “Juice”
Right now, Gotti is embroiled in a pointless feud with fellow Memphis rap star Young Dolph, which may have led to Dolph getting shot a bunch of times recently in Los Angeles. Part of why it’s pointless is that both guys are on sustained hot streaks right now, and Gotti doesn’t honestly need to stress about hometown challengers if he can keep making gruff, satisfying singles like this. When was the last time you heard a song this good from a guy who was clearly losing a high-profile beef?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
PUT ME IN THE CYPHER WITH SEAN SPICER, HE'LL SHIT HIS DIAPER, HIS CAR IS NOT PROTECTED BY VIPERpic.twitter.com/avX4hWWwnX
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) October 11, 2017