Artist To Watch: RXK Nephew

Artist To Watch: RXK Nephew

When someone is three hours late, you start to assume that they’re either dead, ghosting you, or psyching you out. When RXK Nephew is three hours late, it’s merely an extension of the same chaos that makes him one of the most exciting rappers alive. It’s 5PM on a rainy Saturday in New York, and I can’t get in touch with the Rochester native for an interview that was supposed to start at 2. Nephew is in New York for a Soho show tonight on Broome Street, his first live performance in the Rotten Apple. As arranged with his manager, who I only know through Instagram messages, Nephew and I were set to sit down together while he gets ready for the show. Instead, after several hours of unanswered text messages seeking Nephew’s whereabouts, I get a call from the Slitherman himself.

“You Jay, right? You interviewing me?” Nephew asks me over the phone, boldly. “Yeah bro, when can we link? I’m waiting in my crib for your location,” I reply, with much concern in my voice. Nephew quickly apologizes and says he will send me the address when he hangs up. Somehow, in the five seconds between issuing this promise and hanging up, Nephew totally forgets to text me the address. I’m still waiting at home wishing Neph would call me back, like a man whose wife has just left him with no explanation note. Meanwhile, Neph has participated in two Instagram Lives. All I can do is meekly comment during one of them, “Wya bro.”

This was always the way a Nephew interview was going to go. If you stop a song to rap about how bad the beat is, you’re not going to be an organized person. My next move is to message his manager, whose name I do not know, like a babysitter tattling on a misbehaving son to his mother. “LOL, good old Neph,” the manager writes upon learning about Nephew’s failure to send the address. “I’m sure he’ll answer soon. He has hella ADHD but I ain’t seen him flake on anyone yet.” I have empathy for Nephew; I too am late all the time and have issues focusing. (Ask my editors.) At this point, though, my palms are starting to sweat.

I have good reason to be anxious about making this meeting happen. RXK Nephew is the most prolific rapper in the game. Just like 2Pac, Lil Wayne, and Lil B before him, Nephew is an expressionist that challenges the dichotomy of quality versus quantity. The amount of music Nephew releases is just as important as how good the music is, if not more so. Last year, he released more than 400 songs on YouTube; not one day went by without at least one new Nephew track. He’s keeping up that pace in 2022: Three days into the new year, Nephew had released six songs already, including the very good “No Bullet Wounds,” where he raps over a noisy siren and a demonic clatter worthy of Black Flag.

Now it’s Jan. 22, and so many tracks have been released this year that the number is next to impossible to gauge. I counted 27, but there’s no way to be sure. There isn’t a website where Nephew keeps all his music. Apple Music isn’t funneling his tracks into any suggested new music playlists. Nephew has projects on streaming services, but he is best consumed on YouTube, where you can miss multiple songs a day if you don’t subscribe to his account or have someone texting you every time a new upload hits.

Crack Dreams is a solid tape, but the YouTube channel provides a more appropriately subversive experience, giving you a broken puzzle of unpredictable music and forcing you to fill in the holes of Nephew’s amusing, sometimes disturbing id. (If you want to be a normie and check out his work on DSPs, I would go with Make Drunk Cool Again. The house beats on the album show Nephew’s eclectic taste. “Time Not 2 Go Home” belongs at a rave where everyone is doing molly and shouting that Bush did 9/11.) Being a Nephew fan is a challenging task, one that often requires jumping through technical mazes like you’re in a Christopher Nolan picture. This makes him an even more mystical and mystifying artist, a cult figure, and the premier rapper of the post-truth world that American adults inhabit.

Finally, I decide to leave the house when Nephew’s manager tells me that he is somewhere in Williamsburg. (Nephew in Williamsburg is hilarious to imagine. Did he stop by Roebling Sports Club or Rocka Rolla?) I get on the L train to Bedford Avenue, buy him a bottle of Henny, get myself a bagel with lox and scallion cream cheese, and then finally Nephew tells me he’s holed up at an Airbnb on Lorimer Street.

“You wasn’t joking with the Henny, bro,” Nephew says to me as I finally enter the room where he’s staying. He’s been recording music today; one song contains the lyric “I did more molly than Mac Miller.” In the room with Nephew are friends from Rochester, including Ten, who tells me, “I knew [Nephew] as Briscoe when he was robbing niggas back in the day.” Also present are some artists that are performing at tonight’s show plus Nephew’s proud and direct sister, who I only know as Slitherher. “As soon as Neph got out of jail, he ain’t ever give up,” she tells me. Born in Rochester, Neph spent time in the juvenile system and prison before getting out and becoming a rapper. He was accused of stealing a car and putting a gun on someone’s head. Nephew, who says he is innocent of this crime, ended up copping to a four-year sentence. While in jail, he had time to reflect. “I was like, ‘Damn, this is really my life now, I’m in jail. I can’t get caught doing something in my life ever again,'” Nephew says.

Neph’s been compared to prolific Bay Area cult figure Lil B for good reason. The Based God used your RSS feed as his canvas. B was relentlessly dumping new raps into your blogs and Twitter, as much a content creator as a musician. To be “Based” was to be free to create your own social norms and community, to combine laissez-faire charm with happy-go-lucky trolling. Lil B had fans of all stripes. You ever care to see a true multiracial coalition? Try to organize a Based God fan club. He was the internet’s champion, a deconstructionist with a YouTube page. Lil B was firmly a function of the warmth of the Obama era — along with bourgeois nationalism, Silicon Valley power brokers, belief in the good of government, and Obama/Biden buddy-comedy videos. Despite being beloved by a subset of the internet, the Based God was often bad at rap for badness’ sake. I remember Lil B as the guy who couldn’t rhyme and instead would show banality, though his influence is undeniable.

The internet is more fickle now than it used to be. One wonders if Lil B, the guy who said being Based was about positivity and not “being afraid,” would have come across the same way in the schizophrenic and irreverent Trump era. Nephew, however great he may be, is an outgrowth of the Trump era — the inane, shocking, mouth-covering American epoch where the president headed a birther movement about the Black man before him, where Alex Jones spends time with superstar podcasters, and where anti-vaccine theories and fake statistics are disseminated with glee. Nephew has created the genre of “Reddit rap,” where rappers spit conversational bars that belong on a message board about whether or not Jay-Z is in the Illuminati. Nephew isn’t only expressing himself, he’s shouting from within a red-pill maze he can’t escape. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Rx Papi, who is doing a bid for reasons that are unclear, Nephew is uneasy and paranoid while also sounding serious with his pronounced tone of voice and well-spoken but hoarse delivery. (Papi seems to be in good spirits: He called in from IG live once to tell Nephew that although he is jail, he is “eating better than these niggas.”)

When I ask Ten what makes Nephew better than everyone else, he replies plainly: “He is saying shit other niggas are scared to say.” Nephew’s biggest hit to date is “American Tterroristt,” a nine-minute song where he riffs on everything from the violence he would inflict on Christopher Columbus and Santa Claus, Will Smith’s dog in I Am Legend, the government writing the Bible, and the rapper Cassidy and his street life (or lack thereof). To see RXK Nephew is to see oafishness mixed with heartbreak. Yes, it is crass to hear Nephew say, “Swine Flu, Ebola, COVID-19, what’s different?” But his heartbreak is relatable when he says, “You saying I got to die just to meet Jesus? It’s a fucked up world with fucked up people.” “Tterroristt” is Nephew at his best: Heartbreaking while punching up against the laws of man that were passed down without our knowledge. Nephew remembers recording the song. Well, sort of: “I was drinking Henny on the couch, getting fucked up and blacking out.”

The appropriateness of Nephew’s conspiracy rap songs is complicated. At times, his style of humor can be so abrasive and edgy that it becomes off-putting to some. In August, a song leaked where he rapped about his ex-girlfriend who had recently passed away from an overdose. Nephew denies any malice. “I recorded that before she died,” he says. “It was a misunderstanding. I was affected by what happened to her too. I was sad when I found out she died.” On top of that, on the No Jumper podcast, Nephew recently joked about Barack Obama being Hawaiian before he was Black: “Tell me what is his name, Barack Obama, and he was from Hawaii when they made it a state. He got no connection to us. He’s from an island, bro.” That said, Nephew is often hilarious. There was the time when he said Papoose was a bozo on “Been Them Boyz,” or when he tried to speak Spanglish on “Dominican Plug,” or that time he said his girl is thick like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Rappers don’t need to follow what is acceptable socially; all they’re required to do is rap well. And Nephew, however, red-pilled he may be, is the best rapper alive right now.

“I’m not saying what I am saying to prove facts, I’m just saying it because this is my truth,” Nephew tells me. “It’s rapping. This is my shit.” Nephew brings up a good point about who he is. There are biases and blind spots in standardized testing and normal curricula. I remember never reading anything about the Tulsa Riots in my textbooks growing up. That’s a key part of history that the American education system doesn’t talk about. I once had a teacher tell us that slaves weren’t treated as poorly as images make it seem. When the people meant to teach you are covering up the atrocities and true stories of our history, it makes sense for precocious kids to start questioning what is told to them on the mainstream news. Nephew exists in those question marks. His ability to question American dogma and combine his conspiracy theories with humor has endeared him to leftist political communities on Twitter. My friends Will Menaker and Felix Biederman of the leftist politics podcast Chapo Trap House are fans.

Nephew is an artist and not a teacher. He’s based in the margins of doubt, pain, and the loss of innocence that comes when a Rochester kid is forced to grow up on his own with a lack of resources in his home and his neighborhood. 2021 was the deadliest year in Rochester’s history, with 81 murders on record. Nephew’s existentialism and paranoia is a product of the capitalist black hole that American cities like Rochester are put in. It’s a symptom of the lack of protection that the American government gives to small and poor cities, not the problem itself. “I been on my own since I was a kid,” Nephew tells me after the weekend is over. “Always been that way. My mom left when I went to jail. My grandma raised us, but I was out here, on my own.”

At the show on Broome Street, I’m somewhat surprised at how much Nephew looks like a conventional rapper onstage. Internet rappers often do not have the formal training to impress you when you are watching them live. Nephew avoids that trap with his height, his energy, and a crew that is rapping just as hard as he is. (Slitherher, his sister, goes in.) Nephew’s excellent stage presence is undeterred by poor audio and a two-minute halt to take care of a sick fan that had fallen. Dressed in a black bomber jacket and an all-black Yankee hat, the mania of Nephew’s crew and his bark on stage is reminiscent of watching Odd Future perform for the first time. After the show, I lose contact with Nephew until the next day, when I stop by the Airbnb to retrieve my lost jacket. When I ask if he has time to talk some more, he says not right now. Soon, he’s out of sight and back on the run to release more music. “I dropped six tracks yesterday,” he tells me. “This is what I do.”

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