This past weekend, I jumped on a Bolt Bus up to New York to sit on a panel at the EMP Pop Conference with a bunch of my friends. The Pop Conference uses popular music as a jumping-off point to start conversations about all sorts of academic ideas, and we were talking about mixtapes — more specifically, about the slimline CD cases we used to buy from a closet on 14th Street, during the mid-’00s years when we were all living in NYC and writing extensively about mixtapes. (Most of them still live there. I moved.) That was a weird period for New York rap, since the locus of popular rap had moved to the South, and the city’s rappers were struggling to keep up or to force the city back into its dominant role in the genre. There was a lot of chest-puffing and barking about “bringing New York back,” but the city’s anointed young princes were boring straight-faced goons like Saigon and Papoose, guys who treated their regional traditionalism like a truncheon. In the years since I left town, that mentality seems to be really different. There’s no central geographic focus to rap music anymore; it all just freely intermingles on the internet. And now that most rappers have given up the idea that they need to be genre overlords, a lot more people are fucking around and having fun. And that’s where the Queens trio Children Of The Night comes in.
It must be daunting to be a rap group from Queens, a borough that’s produced foundational crews that range from Run-DMC to a Tribe Called Quest to G-Unit, to say nothing of the early Juice Crew and Capone-N-Noreaga and the Beatnuts. But Children Of The Night don’t sound daunted. There’s plenty of Tribe in their music, in the way their voices trip smoothly off of the looped-up flutes and guitar-flutters that their producers like to use. But there’s also plenty of Das Racist, a trio that includes two Queens natives. Even when they’re giving guttural boasts or telling criminal-life stories (two things they don’t indulge in too often), Children Of The Night do it through a hyper-referential pop-culture prism. And they do it in a dorked-out everyday-kid way, attempting to pick up girls by throwing cringey Star Wars references at them: “I’ll be your Han Solo, you be my Leia / Travel through the forest moon of Endor to save ya.” During the opening track, one member talks about financial woes by lamenting the he “don’t even have money for the comic book store.” That’s some real talk.
A few years ago, the members of Children Of The Night might’ve been pressed to jam themselves awkwardly into some ill-fitting mold, be it nerd-rap or street-rap or whatever. But on Queens… Revisited, all those impulses coexist peacefully. They can talk about getting drunk and hitting strip clubs at the same time as they drop weirdly specific references to, like, that time Richard Pryor lit himself on fire. My favorite track is the one where they compare themselves to the legendarily drug-addled 1986 Mets, a team they obviously loved: “Blunts and drugs in effect / Passing bottles in the middle of sex.” At the same time, they’re adulating long-obsolete sports heroes and bragging about their own hedonism. It’s a nice trick, nostalgia and nihilism in equal measure. And it’s what makes the group work: They sound like normal dudes who might be fun to hang out with. Suddenly, rap is rich with guys like that, and it’s better for it.
Download Queens… Revisited for free here.