Reports of rap regionalism’s death were greatly exaggerated. For decades, almost since its inception, rap was the most provincial form of popular American music — a loosely interconnected constellation of local scenes, each with its own sounds and aesthetics and characters and rules. But a few years ago, we started hearing about post-regional rap music — about the idea that the internet had collapsed all the geographical boundaries of those scenes, to the point where those local scenes were on their way to being obsolete. A$AP Rocky had exploded out of Harlem by playing around with Houston and Memphis rap sounds, and that looked like the wave of the future. It wasn’t. Rap regionalism lives on. If anything, it’s thriving now.
It’s different now, of course. Atlanta trap music is rap’s grand megalith, the sound that threatens to colonize all other sounds. The rap universe revolves around it now, the way it once revolved around New York boom-bap or West Coast G-funk. But there are all these other, smaller sounds, with their own gravitational pulls. The Bay Area continues to sound like the Bay Area, new generations of Bay rappers coming along and revitalizing an old sound every year or two. Detroit, these days, also sounds something like the Bay Area; it’s become roiling hotbed of creatively bugged-out shit-talkers who use their own variations on the scattered energy of Bay Area rap. LA hosts at least a half-dozen specifically regional sub-scenes these days, and some of those sound like the Bay Area, too. Chicago drill continues to expand and mutate, spawning weird little variant babies in Brooklyn and the UK. The entire 2018 SoundCloud-rap wave was basically just a metastasized version of a chaotic South Florida underground scene. And then there’s New York rap, which is doing just fine but which might not sound the way you want New York rap to sound.
Right now, the biggest rapper in New York seems to be A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, the anodyne Bronx sing-rapper whose gooey post-Drake melodies tend to hit my ear and immediately dissipate. I don’t get it. A Boogie sounds, to my ears, like the very definition of mediocrity — a stuck-on-cruise-control hook-crooner whose flat, gleaming Auto-Tune mewls only come to life when they’re transposed against something rougher and more disturbed. But what I think doesn’t matter. A Boogie’s late-2018 album Hoodie SZN was the kind of quiet smash that lingers in the upper reaches of the charts for months without everyone much noticing. (It’s the musical equivalent the Kevin Hart/Bryan Cranston dramedy The Upside coming out in January and earning $108 million dollars despite nobody you know having seen it.) And if A Boogie has just reached that national level in the past few months, he’s been a star in New York for years. And now, suddenly, there’s a whole new generation of Auto-Tuned sing-rappers coming out of New York. One of them, Lil Tjay, is already challenging A Boogie for local primacy. He’s well on his way to becoming huge. And maybe he’s good?
Lil Tjay, like A Boogie, comes from the Bronx. He’s only been making music for a couple of years. Tjay started releasing music in 2017, after spending a year in a juvenile detention facility on a robbery charge. He was one of those baffling, out-of-nowhere viral success stories, with his songs racking up millions of plays on SoundCloud before the press or major labels noticed what was happening. Tjay might’ve grown up hard, but there’s nothing forbidding about his music. He sings about life struggles and conspicuous consumption in the exact same tone, a nasal and airless sing-speak, and sometimes he toggles back and forth between them mid-bar.
The influences that Tjay names aren’t rappers; they’re pop and R&B singers — Usher, Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber. Tjay might be from rap’s literal birthplace, but his whole style has nothing to do with ancestral New York rap. Why should it? Tjay was born less than six months before 9/11. He’s never known a world where that old style of New York rap was dominant. Instead, his style is a hyper-local refraction of A Boogie’s style, which itself was a refraction of Drake’s style. Tjay’s got the background of the dead-eyed hardass kids who tend to make drill music, and there’s some of that in what he does, but it’s all shot through with an almost playful sense of melody. And it’s working. Tjay doesn’t have an album or an EP yet, but song songs and videos are racking up huge numbers. And he just turned 18 last week.
When Lil Tjay started showing up in my feeds a few months ago, I wasn’t trying to hear it. If I didn’t much care about A Boogie, then why would I care about this teenage kid who seemed to be some kind of underground answer to A Boogie, half-singing generic street-life drivel over Type Beats type beats? If anything, his success reminded me of the late-’00s heyday of Ron Brownz, the producer and singer who briefly hit gold while howling tuneless Auto-Tune hooks on Jim Jones and Busta Rhymes songs. And when was the last time you heard “Arab Money”? Tjay didn’t seem like something I needed to worry about. But then a song snuck up on me. Songs will do that.
This time, the song that did it was “Pop Out,” and it’s not even Tjay’s song. The song is credited to Polo G, a 20-year-old Chicago sing-rapper who’s part of his own local melodic wave. But Polo and Tjay make sense on the song together, their voices — Polo’s low, Tjay’s high — complementing each other. Polo’s “Pop Out” hook is tremendous, flat and hypnotic and catchy like classic Chief Keef. And the song’s tone moves fluently between street-life lament and death-threat stunting: “We come from poverty, man, we ain’t have a thing / It’s a lot of animosity, but they won’t say my name.” Tjay finds his own cadences and mini-melodies, and he finds the song’s tone and tension, working that divide between tragedy and triumpth: “What you claim? You a lame, you ain’t never put in pain / I be around some killers that go crazy for the gang / If I showed you all my charges, you won’t look at me the same / Made some choices in my life I wish I never had to make / Lost my brother, seen him die and I just seen him graduate.” It’s heavy shit. He sings it like it’s nothing. Right now, “Pop Out” is the #51 song in America. I expect it to go a lot higher.
Listening deeper, that fatalism has always been there in Tjay’s music. The gravitas isn’t in the sound; it’s in what he’s saying: “Bodies drop all the time, I don’t feel nothing.” Tjay is young, and he sounds young, his voice half-cracking as his cadences blur the line between flow and melody. But he’s got dimension. And if he can come up with more songs that hit people the way “Pop Out” just hit me, then he’s going places.
Last week, the perpetually thirsty French Montana came out with “Slide,” a new single that features both Lil Tjay and fellow circa-now viral sensation Blueface. “Slide” is simply an OK song, but French’s choice of collaborators says a lot. French is an inveterate trend-chaser, and he sees how rap’s energy has shifted to these two divisive young guys. It shows that both of them are well on their way to being stars. And it’s instructive to hear both of them on the song together. Blueface is a more distinctive presence than Tjay, and he’s got a charisma that Tjay doesn’t have. He’s funnier, sillier, more original. But Blueface doesn’t really try on “Slide”; he just sleepwalks through a short verse. Tjay tries. He takes over the song, throwing melodies all over the place and sounding sharper and grander on his first real medium-star collaboration. Tjay was literally half French’s age when “Slide” came out, and they’re from the same place, so he knows what it means to be on a French Montana single. He wants it. He’ll probably get it. And then maybe we’ll get a whole new generation of post-Lil Tjay New York rappers.
1. Germ – “Rambo”
Ugly lo-fi skate-rap is a beautiful thing.
2. Offset Jim – “Stoopid” (Feat. Jay Anthony)
I remain baffled that one rapper can really have the same name as another (much more famous) rapper, just with “Jim” after it. But Offset Jim sounds absolutely nothing like the non-Jim Offset, so I guess it works. And it is an absolutely nasty piece of energetic menace. Unlike so many other Bay Area rappers, Offset Jim keeps his voice low-key and contained, and somehow that makes his shit slap all the harder.
3. Open Mike Eagle – “Woke As Me” (Feat. Phonte)
Every episode of Open Mike Eagle’s new Comedy Central show The New Negroes ends with a rap-video kicker, and they’re always textually rich and fun to think about. But they’ve all worked really well as rap songs, too. And this one, with OME and Little Brother veteran Phonte stunting on each other’s level of cultural awareness, is the best one yet.
4. Kevin Gates – “Yukatán”
A successful rapper looks back on his drug-dealing days with real fondness and nostalgia, wonders if he’s in the wrong game right now. That’s Kevin Gates: A rapper who brings emotional complexity to cold street-life stories that don’t even necessarily need it.
5. Pimp Tobi & YBN Nahmir – “Out Da Mud”
YBN Nahmir is such a fascinating case: A video-game kid from Alabama who effectively remade himself as a Bay Area rapper when he was still in high school. And he’s good at it, especially when he gets on real Bay beats.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Lesbian Art History (@LesbianArtHist) May 7, 2019