There’s a scene in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, the fictionalized version of Def Jam’s rise, where a teenage LL Cool J barges into the Def Jam label office and demands an audition. The guys in the office try to kick him out, but LL bellows the word “box!” and then spends the next few seconds rapping “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” at Rick Rubin and Run-D.M.C. Everyone is suitably impressed, as they should be. Krush Groove is a legitimately terrible movie, but that one short scene of LL Cool J in his young-lion form is absolutely electric. You can practically see the stardom bursting out of him.
That scene doesn’t reflect any sort of reality. Def Jam didn’t even have an office when LL forced his way onto its roster; it was just Rubin’s dorm room at NYU. And LL didn’t audition in person; he called the phone number on the back of T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours” single, Def Jam’s first release, and badgered Rubin to listen to his demo. But the quintessence of that scene is real. LL Cool J was really 16 years old when he released his first Def Jam single, and he had a charisma you couldn’t ignore. Rubin was smart enough to see that. And I’d like to imagine that Rubin would’ve also been smart enough to sign another teenage rapper: Memphis energy-bomb NLE Choppa, born 17 years after LL Cool J released “I Need A Beat.”
NLE Choppa is 16 years old. He was born in November 2001 — a week after DC police arrested the Beltway snipers, a few months before 50 Cent released Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. Choppa will reach voting age two days before the 2020 presidential election. He is a child. But he isn’t making music like a child. Choppa makes hard, violent Memphis rap music. Most of his best lines are about all the different ways he will shoot you: “Nigga tried to test me, so you know I had to pop him / So many bullets it confused the doctor.” And in the videos for those fearsome, guttural songs, he looks like an absolute star.
Part of it is the presentation. Choppa packages himself as a wild young hyena, waving guns and flashing gang signs. But he keeps moving. Like fellow viral Memphis breakout BlocBoy JB, Choppa is a hell of a dancer, and he hits a wild new step seemingly whenever there’s a camera pointed at him. He is also better-looking than any kid I knew when I was 16. He emits levels of charisma that we just never see from WorldStar-level street-rappers.
Most of it, though, is the actual rapping. NLE Choppa raps with a frantic urgency, with a careening fury that reminds me of Meek Mill. But he’s not an out-of-control barker. He’s a stylist. There’s always melody in his delivery. He’s raw and unformed, but he’s also in love with words, the way every great rapper is: “We connected with the mafia / We cook ‘em like tilapia.” There’s euphoria in his voice, like he can’t believe he gets to talk the shit that he talks: “I don’t fuck with police, bitch / I’m screaming ‘fuck the dispatch’ / Put this hollow in your throat like a motherfucking Tic-Tac.” And sometimes, he hints at a darkness that goes deeper than all his gleeful gun-talk: “Fell in love with these drugs, Percocets I be fiending / And bitch, I’m praying to the Lord, but I’m living like a demon,” “I could never do right, keep on making mistakes / Then I rose to the life from a sunken place.” But he’s funny, too: “Man this lean fucking up my tummy, making me fart.” He likes to compare himself to legendary NBA shooters: Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, Peja Stojakovic.
Right now, Choppa raps almost exclusively over harsh, unforgiving Memphis rap, a form of the genre that’s barely evolved over the past two or three decades. This is punishing, simplistic music: a few drum-blats, maybe some eerie horror-movie piano, a whole lot of empty space. And yet Choppa is about to make this stuff sing. He turns it into mass-appeal music simply by existing on it. I hope that never changes.
There are no sure things in rap, especially these days. Too many potential pitfalls are out there. A young rapper can fuck up their career about 15 different ways before it even gets started. Choppa raps about guns, drugs, violence, arrests, depression — all things that can tear down a rap career, things that have cost plenty of young rappers freedom and even life. But Choppa’s potential is unlimited. And if Choppa isn’t a massive star within the next few years, it’s because somebody — possibly Choppa himself — fucked up. Because all the ingredients are there. A few months ago, Billboard reported that Choppa had turned down potential millions in label deals so that he could have his stuff independently distributed. Going forward, he’ll own all of his music. That’s a smart decision and a good start. We’ll see how he goes from here. And if NLE Choppa is starring in a network cop show and hosting unendurable awards shows in 30 years, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
1. Dreamville – “Costa Rica” (Feat. Bas, J.I.D, Guapdad 4000, Reese LaFlare, Jace, Mez, Smokepurpp, Buddy, & Ski Mask The Slump God)
I basically love any rap song that crams on as many rappers as possible and dares all of them to do anything they can to stand out. It’s never not beautiful. And right now, it looks like J. Cole’s new Revenge Of The Dreamers III compilation will be nothing but that. I’m excited, and you should be, too.
2. Kasher Quon – “Dynamic Duo” (Feat. Teejayx6)
Another beautiful piece of huffy, out-of-control shit-talk from the Detroit rap underground, which continues to be an absolute embarrassment of riches. This one is all tag-team rapping — two guys switching up lines every bar, like this was 1983. Best line: “I just went to Wal-Mart, and I tore that bitch down.” (I only know of this one because of Mano Sundaresen’s Passion Of The Weiss column the Rap Up, a vital resource.)
3. Rick Ross – “Big Tyme” (Feat. Swizz Beatz)
For years, I would get an instant endorphin rush whenever I heard the words “Just Blaaaaaze” shouted at the beginning of a song. I am delighted to report that this feeling has not gone away. Neither has the reason for it.
4. TisaKorean – “Spongy”
Beautiful madcap silliness from a viral Houston star unafraid to rhyme “hopped out the tub” with “scrub-a-dub-dub.”
5. Shygirl – “Uckers”
Beautiful madcap freakiness from a rising London star unafraid to rap about fucking you “even when your foot’s asleep.” (I only know of this one because of Pitchfork’s column The Ones, another vital resource.)
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I made all of the beats for Bandana on my iPad.
— Madlib (@madlib) June 29, 2019