Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.
It’s an unexpectedly big month for New York. A$AP Rocky may have been the New York rapper to attract the most worldwide attention in the last few years, but his returns have been diminishing so quickly it’s hard to even remember what we saw in him to begin with. A$AP Ferg, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength, peaking with Always Strive and Prosper. It’s not just NY that’s getting shine right now though – the Bay’s resurgence continues as Sacramento’s Mozzy joins forces with Oakland’s Stevie Joe for the crushing Extracurricular Activities.
Elsewhere, T.I. sounds refreshed and better than ever on Bankroll Mafia with Young Thug, Wave Chapelle offers a Drake-ian feast for those down on VIEWS, Abdu Ali turns in a “black self-care mixtape” and Young Scooter offers up the third part of his Street Lottery series.
Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.
Always Strive and Prosper
A$AP Ferg has been the best part of the A$AP Mob for years, and Always Strive and Prosper should end what little debate still exists. On his sophomore album, Ferg outstrips the Fashion Killa and their various hanger-ons in style, substance and storytelling. His flows are varied, his beats are weirder and he’s deceptively lyrical in a way that paints pictures without drowning you in the paint, whether he’s telling stories about his Harlem hood (“Street name was Sterling, smell like shit, vomit, urine”) or legit-crazy relatives (“Colonial Liquor was his odor… ODB was his persona”).
For all of Rocky’s “psychedelic” “experiments,” Ferg proves himself to be the more versatile artist, whether on the Missy-assisted, hands-in-the-air ‘Strive’, star-studded bangers (‘New Level’ with Future and ‘Let It Bang’ with Schoolboy Q) or lovey-dovey pop-rap (‘Let You Go’, ‘I Love You’). He also works well with a variety of producers, but DJ Khalil and Clams Casino are the best fit, crafting New York nostalgia on ‘Psycho’, stutter-step horror on ‘Rebirth’ and the soulful ‘Beautiful People’.
Throughout, Ferg is a young man with a unique vantage point from the first plateau of success. In five years, he went from selling belts to Chris Brown to collaborating with him, but he’s still worried about his mother and knows he hasn’t quite “made it” yet. But even with one foot out of the hood, he’s already reaching back to bring others with him, anointing himself the Hood Pope – “the voice of the people who couldn’t make it out the hood.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one on which Ferg mostly stays focused. Always Strive and Prosper falls apart in the middle – does anyone really want an A$AP Mob record after hearing ‘Yammy Gang’? – but delete that, ‘Swipe Life’ and ‘Uzi Gang’, keep the skits and you’ve got one of the best New York rap records in years.
Stevie Joe & Mozzy
If you’ve been sleeping on Sacramento’s Mozzy, it’s time to wake the fuck up. We highlighted the rapidly-rising Bay Area MC in FACT’s list of rappers to watch in 2016, and since then he’s been going from strength to strength, dropping another full-length (March’s Beautiful Struggle) and courting interest from major labels Atlantic and Epic. On Extracurricular Activities he teams up with Oakland’s Stevie Joe, who in the last decade has notched up a sprawling catalogue of mixtapes and albums, including more than one collaboration with Bay legend E-40.
Joe compliments Mozzy well, with his hoarse Oakland slurs offering an unexpected lightness to Mozzy’s spine-chilling street truths. Mozzy remains one of the country’s most lyrical young rappers, illustrating hardship and gang affiliations with a bare-faced honesty and nuance that only reveals itself after multiple listens – a rarity in 2016. Even familiar tales – like ‘2 Bitches’ with its hook: “One not enough / I need two bitches” – are stretched into widescreen as Mozzy punctuates the usual braggadocio with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail (“you ain’t got to lock your phone”) that slides him streets ahead of his peers.
Even comparatively upbeat Bay bangers like ‘When They Pull Up’ and ‘Ambition’ take a melancholy turn, as Mozzy’s cynical tone captures the mystical air of both 2Pac and Mac Dre. Extracurricular Activities isn’t quite as doom-ridden as Mozzy’s headline-grabbing 2015 run, but it’s a smart look – with the majors in his crosshairs, 2016 should be Mozzy’s year.
T.I. sullied his track record for incubating other rappers when he put Iggy Azalea in his kangaroo pouch and defended her honor when she really didn’t deserve it. It’s hard to even imagine anyone getting excited about T.I. – unless you’re a super fan (hi!) – after his guest verse on Killer Mike’s ‘Big Beast’. But the Tip that makes him Tip still looms inside Atlanta’s elder statesmen and he’s proven that he can connect with young guns without tripping over himself, as he did with Young Thug on ‘About the Money’ in 2014.
It is undeniable that when people collaborate with Thugger, they sometimes tend to lean into his cadence and try to rap just like him (see: Travis Scott’s ‘Maria, I’m Drunk’). That doesn’t necessarily happen to T.I., but Thug reignites a fire inside of him that has seemed to cool after so many seasons of The Family Hustle (which is great, by the way, but it doesn’t satisfy like Trap Muzik). We heard this on last year’s phenomenal ‘Peanut Butter Jelly’, which even found Young Dro back at his peak, and we hear it in spades on Bankroll Mafia’s self-titled tape.
Yes, Thug is the star of the show – he is the star of every show right now, #FutureHive and the 6 be damned – but even members of the Mafia whose names aren’t on the marquee (Shad da God, London Jae and the currently-incarcerated PeeWee Roscoe) sound tight and ferocious. But there’s a reason why Thugger’s is the first voice you hear on opening track ‘Hyena’ – he guides the project (despite being absent for a huge chunk of the middle) while T.I. kills the hooks. It’s a portrait of old and new, the kind of thing that makes you believe that there is no “classic rock” phase for rap, but that people can come together and bring out the best in each other, whether they’re super famous or hardly recognizable. It reminds you why you love rap for being so collaborative.
The protest music of the Black Lives Matter era comes in many forms. For some, it is the soulful storytelling of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, or the personal-becomes-political ass-kicking of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. But for others – especially those on the fringes of the conversation – it may be Abdu Ali’s Mongo.
Ali describes Mongo as a “black self-care mixtape,” a collection of anthems, mantras and narratives that he hopes will help gird himself – and others – in the fights against forces like racism and homophobia. Sonically, Mongo draws from Baltimore club, hip-hop, jazz and noise and bounds from the gritty to the gorgeous, often in the same track; pneumatic, gun-sampling club beats underscore synth arpeggios, blasts of feedback and samples of everything from Cowboy Bebop to “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba.
As a vocalist, Ali delivers his poetry in a variety of ways, screaming, crying and contorting his voice – sometimes as a rapper, sometimes as a ballroom commentator. There are the self-affirmations of ‘I’m Alive (Humanized)’, the boasts of the club-ready ‘Did Dat’, the jazz scat of ‘Boy Bye’. But throughout, Ali is an artist for whom anger and pain live next to hope and uplift. “I still don’t know what it is that keeps my fist up, my hair nappy, and my skin so gold,” Ali writes in an artist statement. “but what i do kno is that me and u gonna get thru this.”
While VIEWS might be the beginning of the end (or simply a bump in the road) for Drake, his influence on a generation of rappers isn’t going anywhere. Enter Wave Chapelle, the 22-year-old Milwaukee rapper signed to Yo Gotti’s CMG imprint.
Neither Yo Gotti nor Chapelle’s Chicago neighbors are reference points here – it’s all Drizzy, from the moody ‘So Far So Good’ (‘So Far Gone’ anyone?) on down. Maajei Vu is his 40, providing woozy, bass-heavy rumblers on which Chapelle reps his hometown and talks his shit.
Taking cues Drake isn’t necessarily a bad thing: ‘Let’s Win’ is the type of anthem that VIEWS is lacking. And if you have fond memories of Drake on the come-up – before he pushed away friends and scared away women on his way to a solo seat on the CN Tower – W is for you.
Street Lottery 3
Since Atlanta rapper Young Scooter dropped the impressive Street Lottery back in 2013, he’s struggled to match its inspired blend of urgency and grit. Admittedly, he spent six months of that year behind bars and his disappointing stop-gap tape From The Cell Block To Your Block diminished expectations before the patchy Street Lottery 2 dropped in 2014. Thankfully, there’s an air of promise on Street Lottery 3, even if it often feels like time has stood still for Scooter.
With its smart guest spots – Kodak Black, Future, Boosie, Young Dolph, Young Thug and others – it feels like the massive statement Scooter has been promising for the last three years, but there’s something missing. While the Zaytoven-produced Young Dolph starrer ‘Real’ reminds of simpler times for 1017, it fails to capture the assertive energy of Dolph’s own King of Memphis – already one of the year’s best full-lengths. Elsewhere ‘The Grind Don’t Stop’ sounds like vintage Gucci crossed with Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds soundtrack, and that’s no bad thing, but even with a Future appearance it lacks punch.
Street Lottery 3 seems to wake up in its final act: ‘In the Bricks’ is a clear highlight, with a tough, synthetic backdrop backing up Scooter’s lackadaisical flow. Similarly, ‘Ice Game’ boasts a memorable hook from Akon and might be the album’s most obvious single and ‘Live Or Die’, Scooter’s team up with his old 1017 labelmate Young Thug ends the tape on its highest note. It’s not the first time they’ve collaborated, and fuels the need for full-length tape from the duo. Scooter is at his best when he’s trading bars with someone on his level (see the unfuckwithable Free Bricks 2) and Thug brings out the best in him – more please.