The Black Panther soundtrack is an album that bursts with voices and ideas, and it doesn’t really have a dead or boring moment. But for my money, the point where the compilation comes most alive is “Paramedic!,” the showcase for the young Vallejo, California group SOB x RBE. Kendrick Lamar is on that song, as he’s on every song from the Black Panther soundtrack. But on “Paramedic!,” he’s really just there to kickstart things. And after the first couple of Kendrick lines, he fades into the background, contributing occasional ad-libs and melodic chorus bits while the kids from Vallejo grab the song and just go nuts. All four rappers in the crew bring furious bluster and energy, but there’s a darker undercurrent to some of what they say, too. Late in his verse, DaBoii, the most concussive rapper in the group, bursts out with, “Why it’s hard for me to smile? Cuz I seen a lot!” And then, as you’re still processing that, “You ain’t really in the field, you just tweet a lot!”
Vallejo, where SOB x RBE come from, is a city in the north of the Bay Area. It’s the hometown of the late Northern California rap legend Mac Dre, which means it’s got a decent claim at being the birthplace of hyphy, the style that Mac Dre helped will into being. The members of SOB x RBE are all young, around 19 or 20, which means that fellow Vallejo native E-40 was already a legend by the time they were born. And they would’ve been small children in the mid-’00s, when E-40 gave hyphy its brief moment in the mainstream-rap sun. Despite their collective youth, though, SOB x RBE come steeped in history. Their sound is a streamlined, updated take on hyphy, on the chest-rattling off-kilter drum explosions and disorienting synth-shards that must’ve been a part of the air as they were growing up. It’s a raw and messy sound, full of excitement, and its immediacy is what’s gotten these kids to the point where Kendrick Lamar is handpicking them for his blockbuster superhero soundtrack.
SOB x RBE formed in 2015, when two small-time local rap groups, Strictly Only Brothas and Real Boi Entertainment, fused into one. About a year ago, they released their self-titled debut album, and a bunch of its songs became viral regional sensations. SOB x RBE’s sound is fiercely local, and it resonates in the Bay in a special sort of way. (When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship last year and Draymond Green made his speech at the victory parade, he walked out onstage to the SOB x RBE track “Anti.”) The members of the group don’t ride beats; they rap upstream, fighting it. That makes it harder to hear what they’re doing at first, since it’s so diametrically opposed to what so many other young rappers are doing, but it’s crucial to their energy. Also crucial: The group’s propensity to rap over the gleaming synth-bloops of ’80s pop hits like Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” or Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” or Noel’s “Silent Morning.” In an era where Atlanta trap has become a great blob, absorbing local rap scenes from across the country, it’s glorious to hear these kids rapping against the grain in every sense of the word, making music that could only come from their corner of the world.
Last week, in a fortuitous bit of timing, SOB x RBE released Gangin, their second album. I don’t think the group necessarily meant to drop a whole new album just two weeks after their big Black Panther crossover moment. I think they’re just cranking out new music so quickly that something like that was bound to happen. In any case, Gangin doesn’t seem to be made to entice anyone who might’ve heard the group for the first time on “Paramedic!” If anything, Gangin is even more of an all-over-the-place spazz-out than the debut album. It’s frantic, feverish, raunchy, and full of socially irresponsible shit-talk. (All things considered, I probably prefer the debut. Its hooks are stickier and its sound is cleaner. They’re both great, though.)
Spend enough time with Gangin, and you’ll start to get a better sense of how this group functions. None of the four members of the group are technically great rappers, but they all fall into the lineage of excitable, personality-first Bay rap heroes. They’re all pretty distinct from one another, too. Yhung T.O., who seems to be the Quavo of the group, has an airy and fluid singing voice. He handles a lot of the hooks, but he still raps hard, and some of his lines have an uncanny sort of power: “Glock with a pole and my demons want souls.” DaBoii sounds like he gargles gravel every morning, and his lines hit like sledgehammers to the gut. He can be funny, too: “What your hand out for? I ain’t shaking that / I could sit on my ass and still make a rack.” Slimmy B has a chirpy, flossy delivery. He sounds like he’s having more fun than any of them, but he’s also the most likely to let pathos show through: “Since I lost my uncle, real love I can’t feel.” Lul G is the glue guy, less showy than the others but throaty and passionate and tough.
You almost never hear all four SOB x RBE members on the same song. (In that sense, “Paramedic!” is an outlier.) On Gangin, you hear different combinations of them from track to track; the forever-shifting lineups remind me of basketball teams trying out different player combinations at different moments of a tough game. All four members get solo tracks. And yet they sound together more than a lot of other rap groups. SOB x RBE are at a magical point in their career: the moment where the rest of the world starts to catch on, where the world seems full of possibilities for them. They’ve already got two strong albums and a deep catalog of YouTube anthems, and yet it feels like they’re just getting started.
1. Flatbush Zombies – “Headstone”
Lyrically, “Headstone” is cause for concern. It’s just an endless series of surface-level classic-rap references, haphazardly strung together in ways that remind me of the Game at his corniest. But good lord, that beat! If Flatbush Zombies can continue to bring this level of energy over snares that snap this hard, they’ll basically be able to get away with rapping the phone book. Which is almost what they do here.
2. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – “Gold Purple Orange”
These two are only two singles deep into their forthcoming album, and already a whole aesthetic has emerged: a warm, funny, good-natured pillaging of the cultural scrap heap. This one has a prettily ungainly lope, an actual saxophone solo, and a rare rap namecheck of Big Audio Dynamite. It has a lot.
3. Willie The Kid – “Golden Moments” (Feat. Roc Marciano)
Roc Marciano just released a new album, but you need $30 to hear it, and I can’t post any of it now. So it’s just lucky that he’s also just shown up on his piano-laden track. Also of note: Willie The Kid has really become a strong underground rapper; he’s effectively moved on from the days when he had all the verses that people would skip on DJ Drama mixtapes.
4. Yung Lean & Thaiboy Digital – “King Cobra”
I still can’t claim to understand the Yung Lean phenomenon, but the Swedish kid, the possible accidental inventor of SoundCloud-rap, still has charisma that’s just as hard to place as it is compelling. This dazed, gurgling head-trip is one of the best things I’ve heard from him. He raps about wanting to fuck Kate Bush. I don’t even know, man. I guess I’m on board.
5. Nacho Picasso – “Want It All” (Feat. Riff Raff)
The mesmerizing Seattle nihilist Nacho Picasso just released Role Model, another EP of hypnotically bloodthirsty cloud-rap. If you’ve ever listened to him, you already know how it sounds. But that’s good; he’s consistent. So is Riff Raff, who calls himself “rap game Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, Charlie Chaplin, swangin’ through Manhattan.” I continue to like both of these guys, even though I’m not convinced that I should.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO