Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
What a couple of weeks. Not only have we been treated to LA rapper YG’s Still Brazy (review coming tomorrow, folks), the follow-up to one of 2014’s best albums, My Krazy Life, but look a little further under the radar and you’ll find a couple of the year’s best mixtapes so far.
One of our 10 rappers to watch in 2016, Mozzy’s been on fire all year, but Mandatory Check is his breakthrough statement, blending West Coast ratchet flavors with his particular brand of introspection and melancholy. Florida’s Kodak Black, on the other hand, looks back to go forward – the tape’s called Lil B.I.G. Pac for fuck’s sake – distilling the best elements of good, old-fashioned country rap and finessing it for 2016.
Elsewhere, Savemoney’s Vic Mensa raps his ass off on There’s A Lot Going On, ATL boss Peewee Longway gets the crew back together on Money Pounds Ammunition Vol. 3, Florida’s Yung Gordon impresses with Bossin Up and AD gives us another suite of West Coast bangers.
Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.
Sacramento rapper Mozzy has had an exhilarating run of mixtapes recently – last year’s Yellow Tape Activities and Bladadah were especially notable – and they’ve helped bolster the West Coast’s latter day renaissance. It’s almost fitting that Mandatory Check, Mozzy’s most high-profile release to date, has ended up dropping alongside YG’s Still Brazy. But where YG relies on nostalgia, Mozzy looks to the future, using a similar palette to paint a much darker picture.
Mandatory Check follows the slight-but-engaging Beautiful Struggle and expands on its restrained ratchet backbone, roping in features from Iamsu! and Rich Homie Quan and pasting in a posthumous performance from Bay legend The Jacka. In another era, this would have been Mozzy’s major label debut, and all the hallmarks are still present – the advance hype, the length (it’s a generous 18 tracks), the cast and the general vibe. Far from a random assortment of big tunes, Mandatory Check is woven together like a movie, with tracks seeping in and out of movie clips (from Fresh, King of New York and others) and skits, setting the scene for what, if you listen closely, is a hauntingly introspective vision of a landscape of poverty, crime and regret.
Flicking through the album’s obvious highlights – ‘Round and Round’, ‘1 Up Top’, ‘Activities 2’ – won’t cut it. Like Mozzy’s previous albums, Mandatory Check excels by adding complex, ambiguous layers to familiar tales. Mozzy’s stories of dead friends, narcotics and casual sex aren’t new, but are re-told through stifled tears and gritted teeth. With all the constant debate over what’s “real” or “fake”, to hear a rapper reasoning with himself on record might follow a rich West Coast tradition, but is all too rare nowadays.
‘My Niggas’ is particularly poignant, sitting miles away from its template, YG’s party starter ‘My Nigga’. Mozzy uses YG’s basic conceit to go deeper than simple loyalty. “I know I ain’t livin’ right,” he admits, lamenting “there’s nothing you can say to numb the way I feel inside”. The chorus emphasizes the original message (“Lie for ’em, but never lie to my niggas”) but further verses only add to the pain. Mozzy’s ready to do what needs to be done, but there’s solemn understanding that the end result is all too often death or incarceration.
Mozzy’s strength is his ability to talk graphically about difficult subject matter and couch it in vivid imagery without losing sight of the problems inherent in his world. Drake doesn’t have a monopoly on introspection – sure, his post-808s crooning has allowed a generation of young rappers to open up, but there’s more to the conversation than drunk dialing and regrettable flings. Mozzy illustrates a tense, heartless (but not soulless) life of crime borne out of necessity, and rapping is his therapy – we’re simply eavesdropping.
Lil B.I.G. Pac
Rappers releasing mixtapes on their birthdays is nothing new, but a rapper dropping a mixtape as impressive as Lil B.I.G Pac so young (it’s Kodak Black’s 19th birthday) is basically unheard of. Still, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised: Kodak has moved from strength-to-strength since emerging less than two years ago, a meteoric rise he notes on opener ‘Everything 1K’: “I was just on the news, now I’m on MTV.”
‘Everything 1K’ also sets the tone for Lil B.I.G Pac. That time on the news was likely for criminal activity: Black has spent some time in jail, as he detailed on 2015 Christmas present Institution, and a youth marked by struggle has scarred him. But while his world-weariness is unnatural for a 19-year-old, his gifts as a rapper are preternatural – not just in a growing dexterity but in voice and character. It seems like we already know who Kodak Black is, which is more than we can say about some of his peers.
When Kodak boasts, “I don’t rap, bitch, I illustrate,” he isn’t lying. Look no further than ‘Can I’ for an honest portrait (“I’m not a bad kid, I just didn’t have no guidance”) of a complicated young man, as he asks, “Would I live long enough to raise my son? Can your boy do something productive for once?” With Lil B.I.G Pac he’s plenty productive, teaming with a post-prison Gucci for the club-ready ‘Vibing In This Bih’; penning an excellent Fuck This Day anthem on ‘Today’; and learning how to do drug-game detail from Boosie (whose influence looms large throughout) on ‘Slayed’.
He’s also young and dumb in the way that 19-year-olds are (“Fuck your daughter, I ain’t comin’ to her party… I might lace the birthday cake with molly”) and he still has a thing or two to learn (some actual hooks wouldn’t hurt). But listen to the joy in his voice at receiving a ‘Letter’ from a friend while in jail, and let’s hope he doesn’t spend ‘Too Many Years’ there. He might be the next Biggie, the next Pac, or at least the next Boosie.
Florida-based rapper Yung Gordon initially came to our attention via Southern Hospitality, who picked up on his infectious regional hits ‘Bobble Walk’ and ‘Finna Hit My Walk’. These tracks highlighted a very particular strain of Miami club rap buoyed by rolling bass drops, infectious hooks and rattling percussion, and Yung Gordon was an ideal guide, giving the tracks a youthful bounce that’s hard to ignore.
Bossin Up is Yung Gordon’s debut mixtape, and features a slew of club bangers, from the Gucci-sampling ‘All I Do Is Sauce’ (if you can’t guess the sample, delete your account) to the aforementioned banger ‘Finna Hit My Walk’. Gordon straddles the club sound well, distancing this selection of tracks from pretty much anything else in the round-up this week. While there are a handful of more obvious tunes (‘Don’t Talk To Me’, ‘Let You Know’), Gordon excels when he’s working with weirder sounds. ‘Kill It’ is a perfect example of this, a track that juxtaposes his memorable boasts with sparse synths and booming Miami-ready 808 kicks. Elsewhere ‘Slide’ shows Gordon’s versatility, as he toys with a beat that sounds not unlike vintage Timbaland.
Bossin Up isn’t the most finessed tape you’ll find this week by any means, but it’s a fine example of a young rapper who wildly deserves the chance to break out of his home state and go global.
There’s Alot Going On
Since breaking through in 2012, Vic Mensa has shown us a new model each year: funk-soul frontman with Kids These Days, Acid Rap-ish experimenter on INNANETAPE, dance party starter on ‘Down On My Luck’, moshpit starter on ‘U Mad’ and ‘No Chill’. With There’s Alot Going On, we see the latest incarnation of Vic Mensa: politically conscious lyricist. (As we wrote last time, he’s not the only Chicago rapper riding the pendulum back towards lyricism).
Pay no mind to his “this ain’t conscious rap” protestations: Mensa is at his rapping-ass-rappingest on There’s Alot Going On, and you can’t blame him – the title rings true in Chicago and the rest of America right now. But where Savemoney contemporary Chance the Rapper approached the issues of the day with gospel on Colouring Book, Vic has opted for bars. While ‘Dynasty’ nods to vintage Roc-a-Fella, he’s more like his Roc Nation labelmate J. Cole throughout (“Now I’m the fresh prince, I think I know how my uncle feel” – yeesh).
Even if his lyrics are often overwrought, Mensa remains a solid songwriter with an ear for pop. ‘16 Shots’ – about the police murder of Laquan McDonald and subsequent protests – is never too dour despite its subject matter, which makes it more effective. Elsewhere, he embraces his wild side (‘Danger’), self-medicates with booze and women (‘New Bae’) and does a bit of both – over some guitar strumming – on ‘Liquor Locker’. Each song in a different style; maybe Vic Mensa’s defining characteristic will be his stylistic agnosticism. He recounts every step off his evolution on the closing title track, a song with a hook that shows his most surprising side yet: emo singer. And why not? Vic Mensa is 23, and he’s got a lot going on and plenty to be emotional about.
Money Pounds Ammunition Vol. 3
For the last few years, Atlanta’s Peewee Longway has fostered his MPA crew – a rag-tag band of old friends, rappers and producers – showing off their skills on his occasional Money Pounds Ammunition tapes. This third volume sticks to the established formula, giving a platform to a selection of the crew – MPA Turk, MPA MudGod, MPA HeadShakur, MPA 60Havin, MPA Yikes, MPA Judo and MPA Spud – while Longway hangs back a little, allowing his boys the chance to shine.
As usual, the production’s reliably heavy, with highlights handled by Mike Will, Zaytoven and Cassius Jay, and the young cast of ATL hopefuls rap their asses off, helping prove Longway’s assertion that Money Pounds Ammunition is something of a successor to Gucci’s 1017 legacy (indeed, it was Longway who introduced Gucci to Young Thug).
Sadly, for a tape with so many collaborators, it’s fairly short on highlights – serviceable, certainly, but it fails to make a lasting impression. The sparse, Zaytoven-produced ‘D.F.J’ is enjoyably throwback, but we’ve heard it before. Molasses-slow ‘Six Stove’ is better, the perfect vehicle for MudGod and Yikes’ gravelly flows. It’s the tape’s final track, ‘Jam On Em’, that really lifts things though, with Bloody Jay and Rae Sremmurd trading bars over Mike Will’s gloomy backdrop – it comes late, but is well worth the wait.
AD & Sorry Jaynari
By The Way
If YG’s Still Brazy has you fiending for more West Coast bangers, then AD’s By The Way is for you. Helmed by League of Starz producer Jay Nari, By The Way is the latest blast of ratchet rap from the loud-mouthed Compton rapper (who features on Still Brazy highlight ‘Don’t Come to LA’).
While YG’s record moves on from the sound of My Krazy Life, AD’s mixtape is heavy with the type of slappers that (a pre-EDM) DJ Mustard, the HBK Gang and League of Starz have been churning out for years (there’s also a little G-funk on ‘Strapped’). By The Way is relentlessly in-your-face, with AD shouting his simple hooks (“Boom!” “Way up!” “Like I’m Diddy!”) and unspooling boastful street tales.
AD’s rap attack is exciting but his always-at-11 approach can be tiresome. Perhaps with that in mind, By The Way is loaded with a who’s-who of West Coast rappers, including YG, IamSu, RJ, Freddie Gibbs, Mozzy and more. He takes a trip to the Bay on ‘Tap In’, enlisting Nef the Pharoah and E-40, and supersaturates the remix of single ‘Juice’ with Ty Dolla, Game, OT Genasis, IamSu and K. Camp. Sometimes too many guests weighs down a project, but on By The Way, they make the party pop-off.