We are deep into the identity-crisis era of New York rap, and something interesting has started to happen. For many years, after New York found that rap’s focus had wandered elsewhere, the city got surly and defiant. How could snap music/ringtone rap/trap/drill/jerk/whatever else be so commercially dominant? Didn’t real rap mean anything anymore? Then, around seven years ago, A$AP Rocky emerged as the city’s biggest new star. Rocky’s parents had literally named him after one of the all-time pillars of New York rap, but he betrayed no anxiety of influence, drawing on ancestral Southern and West Coast rap almost as an affectation.
Since then, we’ve seen a whole wave of New York rap stars — Cardi B, Sheck Wes, even Nicki Minaj to some extent — who never have to work to prove how New York they are. They don’t rap over DJ Premier beats, or over beats that sound like late-’90s Tunnel bangers. Instead, they adapt whatever’s going on in the moment, and the New Yorkness comes through in accent and outsize personality and brash confidence. In some ways, that’s allowed New York’s rappers to thrive in a post-regional age. (Even Tekashi 6ix9ine, a largely untalented troll who got over on shock value more than anything else, is a classic “no, fuck you” New York type.) But that wave has also led to someone like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie — a young New York star who can come across as a massive gravitational void.
A Boogie, now 23, emerged from the Bronx a few years ago, doing an emotive melodic singsong that owed everything to Drake. (In one of the most disarming moments on Hoodie SZN, A Boogie’s new album, he admits that Drake was once his idol and fondly remembers the time Drake brought him onstage at Madison Square Garden.) A Boogie has a strong sense of melody, and he knows how to make his voice float over a languid, bass-heavy beat. He’s also one of these guys who’s been talking about the travails of fame ever since he got the slightest bit famous. He makes moody music, lamenting romantic entanglements and snarling that there are too many fake people out there and that it makes him want to go back to robbing.
This is not a compelling persona, but it’s led to some good music. I like his dynamic with frequent collaborator Don Q, a more traditional Bronx rap hardnose. When they’re on a track together, Don Q makes A Boogie sound tougher, and A Boogie makes Don Q sound slicker. Last year, the two of them teamed up with 50 Cent, who is somehow a spiritual ancestor of both of them, on “Yeah Yeah,” a lovely piece of gliding menace. When A Boogie finds the right mood, too, he can sink deep into it, as on his hit 2017 Kodak Black collab “Drowning.” And even if his music sounds rootless and generic, he’s also been an influential voice within his city; there’s a whole wave of New York underground kids crooning through Auto-Tune, doing their best to replicate his oddly fussy vibe.
And yet, when you listen to A Boogie at length, you hear a whole lot of nothing. A few weeks ago, A Boogie released Hoodie SZN, an absolute endurance test of an album. There’s no dynamic fluctuation to the album — just the same disconsolate sing-rapping over florid pianos and big bass tones, over and over. It’s an album without imagination. A Boogie works with all the usual-suspect producers and guests, never even touching the edges of his own comfort zone. It feels almost like the album works hard to be unsurprising; that’s how you end up with a song called “Startender” that features both Offset and Tyga.
Inertia runs deep in the album’s marrow. Consider the relationship songs where A Boogie says stuff like this: “I know that you get in your feelings, baby, me too / Sometimes I swear I say some shit that I don’t mean to.” Or the boilerplate boasts like this: “Like X, nigga, I’ma die rich / My ex wanna be my side bitch.” Or how something like this works almost as a moment of humility: “I cheated on you with a dancer / OK, I admit it, my hands up / At least I admit it, I man up / I do not have all the answers.” And when Young Thug shows up on “Just Like Me,” it’s almost shocking to hear someone playfully knocking a beat around rather than lifelessly hovering over it.
There are moments on Hoodie SZN where A Boogie starts to show something resembling a personality. He talks about being too nervous to tell Future that he’s his favorite rapper, instead sitting in the studio and watching the moment go by. He talks about the time he spent in Florida as a teenager, getting in trouble with the law: “House arrest in Florida, they always checked up on me / So when I was in the studio, I said I was in Publix.” But moments like that feel almost like accidents, like brief glitches in the matrix. Most of the time, A Boogie seems to be offering up unobtrusive melodic rap music, almost as if it’s a strategy.
If it is a strategy, it’s working. A Boogie has long been a rising star in his hometown. And for the past two weeks, Hoodie SZN has been the #2 album in the country, comfortably mired behind the new 21 Savage. In a lot of ways, Hoodie SZN may be the ultimate streaming album. At 20 tracks, it’s way too long, in a way that seems engineered to artificially elevate stream counts. And it’s the sort of album that you can throw on and forget that you’re listening to music. It supplies a vibe — vaguely slick, vaguely contemplative, fully of-the-moment — and then it evaporates. Post Malone has become a star by working some variation of that template, but he’s at least singing in heartfelt ways about being a dirtbag. Maybe A Boogie can pull off his own coup, too, ascending to stardom without betraying much of a personality. But he can do better, and so can we.
1. DaBaby: “Walker Texas Ranger”
This thing moves, and its goofiness is explosive and endearing even when you aren’t watching the truly ridiculous video. DaBaby is from Charlotte, and he seems to be on a mission to bring rap silliness back. We need him to succeed.
2. Queen Key: “Ratchett”
Urgent lo-fi nastiness, with bass so distorted that you might think your speakers are broken. And yet Queen Key rides it with total blithe self-assurance, like an action hero walking away from a slo-mo explosion.
3. James Too Cold: “No Witness” (Feat. Blueface)
I’m still figuring out what I think of Blueface, the LA rapper whose offbeat flow has become rap Twitter’s favorite thing to argue over lately. But when you put him on high-energy Bay Area rap, next to a guy who absolutely knows what he’s doing, he suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. And “we can’t kick it if your legs broke” is just a good line.
4. Shabazz PBG & Lil Uzi Vert: “Shells”
I don’t know how I missed Lil Uzi Vert becoming an honest-to-god great rapper, but it happened.
5. Pharoahe Monch: “Yayo”
When rappers age, they’re supposed to lose the ability to dip and weave through beats. Nobody told Pharoahe Monch.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
ay bro wtf jeffy bridges talking bout
— thebe kgositsile SRS 11/30 (@earlxsweat) January 7, 2019