Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A good-looking teenager from the northern reaches of Manhattan becomes a high school basketball star. But instead of seeing how far he can go with that gift, he finds himself drawn into the cultural vortex of his city. He spends time around globally famous musicians and larger-than-life figures. He also becomes acquainted with darkness and drugs. And eventually, spurred by an insurgent music-driven youth movement, he finds himself screaming into microphones in front of extremely fired-up crowds.
The first time I encountered a story like this one, I was in high school, and it was Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, his memoir about being a fucked-up high school kid who, in one lifetime, managed to become a baller, an addict, a convict, a literary star, and a punk rock frontman. As a strung-out kid, he was hanging out around Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, and he was doing this while maintaining a temporarily successful high school basketball career. (As someone who intentionally fouled out of a high-school game while coming off of my first and only acid trip, I felt like I could relate. That’s like me!, I thought, even though I couldn’t play basketball or do drugs for shit.) Carroll’s follow-up The Heroin Diaries climaxed when he pops a gigantic long-festering zit. Carroll was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of DiCaprio’s first starring roles. He recited a poem on the best Rancid album. His one quasi-hit was a ranted list of people he knew who died. Interesting guy.
The thing I loved most about Carroll’s whole story was how implausible I thought it was. With high school basketball becoming an increasingly professional enterprise, the idea that someone could run wild through the underground while still playing ball, and doing it well, felt absurd. Well, apparently it wasn’t. Because the story of Sheck Wes, the 20-year-old Harlem rap phenom who is currently well on his way to becoming a star, has some strange parallels. Sheck Wes was a high-school ballplayer and a friend of Mo Bamba, the Orlando Magic center and the sixth overall pick in this year’s NBA draft. Bamba gave his name to “Mo Bamba,” Sheck’s breakout hit, thus giving himself more rap visibility than plenty of guys who have played in the league for a decade-plus.
But while he was playing ball, Sheck was also working as a model after being discovered by a scout on the subway. Before achieving any level of fame as a rapper, he modeled in Kanye West’s 2016 Life Of Pablo fashion show at Madison Square Garden, and he skipped a high school playoff game to do it. (On his debut album Mudboy, Sheck calls that his “best decision.”) And before too long, Sheck found his way to rap, where he racked up crucial Kanye West and Travis Scott cosigns while most of us were still figuring out who he was.
Sheck Wes is not Jim Carroll, of course. His life story is a whole lot more wholesome than Carroll’s. Sheck never raps about anything stronger than weed, which he calls his “cologne.” When he was spending too much time in the street in New York, his mother sent him off to study Islam in Senegal, her homeland. He’s not, at least as of yet, anywhere near as good a writer as Carroll, though he has the same drive to chronicle urban squalor in visceral, tangible ways. (Sheck’s line about “elevators full of piss” makes me think of The Shining.) And Sheck didn’t have to go through withdrawl and prison and redemption before finding his notoriety. He’s already there.
Mudboy, Sheck’s debut album, has few famous producers and no guest rappers. Instead, he’s made a record of dark, seething fire-up music with relative-unknown producers like Redda, YungLunchBox, and “Mo Bamba” co-producer 16yrold, who is no longer 16 and who should’ve probably considered the inevitable passage of time when he was picking his producer name. Sheck raps in a barely contained growl, and he brings the clumsy immediacy that shows that he’s making all this up as he got along. On “Mo Bamba,” there’s a great moment where the beat drops out and Sheck trails off. In the silence, he screams, “Fuck! Shit! Bitch!” And then the beat comes roaring back in. In the New York Times video about the making of the song, co-producers Take A Daytrip say that one of their computer programs crashed while they were recording and that it booted back up right on time, so that Sheck catches the beat as it comes back on.
“Mo Bamba” has now been bubbling for the better part of a year, and it currently sits at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’ll probably go higher. That song has a weird oblique, ominous force of its own; it’s a song with the potential to cause total pandemonium whenever it plays. And the best thing about Mudboy is that Sheck stretches that unstable energy out to LP length. At 49 minutes, the album is too long, and it gets numbing long before it ends. Sheck reminds me of Jim Jones, another Harlem rapper who made up for what he lacked in classicist skill with gravelly charisma and all-pervading self-belief. Sheck tries to show more dimensions when he can. He raps about poverty and intra-family struggles and his time in Africa, and he raps the better part of a song in the Senegalese language Wolof. But he hasn’t yet figured out how to excel at anything other than gruff battle-cry music. It’s early, of course. He’ll develop, or he won’t.
In the meantime, it’s fun to watch his rise. Anytime a New York rapper catches fire, that rapper seems to elevate the whole city in some strange chemical way, and we can see that happening in Sheck’s joyously chaotic “Wanted” video. A few months ago, Sheck was announced as the opening act on Travis Scott’s big fall arena tour, which also features Trippie Redd and Gunna. That tour started last week, and Sheck already feels like the second-biggest star on the bill. That’s a quick ascent and a great story, and maybe we need to start casting that biopic now.
1. City Girls: “Twerk”
If there’s anything right in the world, City Girls will, in the wake of “In My Feelings,” become titanic stars once JT, one half of the duo, finishes the prison sentence she’s currently serving for credit card fraud. A song like this, full of nasty charisma and ’80s-rap horn-blat samples, is a good start.
2. JPEGMAFIA: “Puff Daddy”
In the past few months, Kenny Beats has made hard, immediate tracks for Key!, Rico Nasty, ALLBLACK, and Vince Staples, subtly adapting his not-subtle sound for each of his collaborators. For his latest trick, he’s given warehouse noise-rap insurgent JPEGMAFIA his most accessible track, which is not really all that accessible at all.
3. Saba: “Stay Right Here” (Feat. Mick Jenkins & Xavier Omär)
Life-affirming and melodic Chicago-kid rap music should’ve gotten boring by now. It has not. The rappers involved are too good.
4. Key! & Kenny Beats: “Cable Guy” (Feat. Jay Critch)
See what I’m saying about Kenny Beats? Right now, I’m more excited about that guy than almost any other musician working. Everything he touches just slaps.
5. IDK: “Bad News” (Feat. Rico Nasty)
Discussion topic: SoundCloud rap is good.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
My face when white people say nigga at my shows pic.twitter.com/2utTZyUNQg
— Noname (@noname) November 12, 2018