The Bay Area brilliance of Nef The Pharaoh: Why Neffy Got Wings is one of the best albums of 2016 so far

All this week on FACT we’re celebrating the best albums of 2016 so far, bringing you an interview a day with an artist whose record has helped define the last six months. Haley Potiker hears how Bay Area rapper is bringing hyphy into the future.

If you follow Bay Area rap, you’ve probably spotted Nef The Pharaoh by now. From a shoutout on Mistah F.A.B. and Boosie Badazz’s new single to a spotlight-stealing appearance on the latest Future and DJ Esco tape, you can’t go more than a few hours on local radio or on the rap internet without seeing his name.

Born Tonee Hayes and raised in South Vallejo, California, the 21-year-old rapper became something of a star in his own right last year, when anthemic ‘Big Tymin’’ blew up on YouTube and caught the ear of local legend E-40, who quickly signed Nef to his label, Sick Wid It Records. “That’s like growing up in Oakland playing basketball and getting drafted to the Warriors,” says Nef. “It’s like a childhood dream. Like when Jay Z signed Kanye to Roc-A-Fella. It was dope! That’s the definition of a life-changing experience.”

Following his 2015 self-titled EP, in January Nef teamed up with ex-Taylor Gang affiliate Cardo (who also produced Payroll Giovanni’s album, another of our favorite recent releases) for Neffy Got Wings, a concise 10-track project built on trunk-rattling low ends and hazy atmospheres, and on Nef’s preternaturally astute songwriting. Wings is hyper-regional – every featured artist is from California, and the sound only strays as far north as Sacramento to pick up Mozzy – but Nef himself darts all over the map, taking vocal cues from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta.

“I’m trying to show the world that us Bay Area artists really are talented”

The record is anchored by Nef’s infectious charisma and his ear for hooks. The first side is mostly dedicated to the Bay Area’s homegrown hyphy sound–the raucous, uptempo rap strain which defines Oakland and dates back to the mid-90s, but broke into the broader national consciousness with E-40 and Keak da Sneak’s ‘Tell Me When to Go’ from 2006. “People caught on to the hyphy movement in 2006 and 2007, when it was dying out,” says Nef, “but we’d really been doing it for five or 10 years already.” It’s not that Nef’s making a concerted effort to bring hyphy back; it’s simply part of his DNA. ‘#Saydaat’ taps local legend Philthy Rich, while on the doom-laden ‘Wake Up’ Nef proudly states: “Still hyphy, still retarded, still dumb / sideshows, the whole world get it from us… / They stealing from the Bay, it’s time to wake they ass up.”

But he can also take it slow, and on the second half of the tape Nef pivots into ballad territory: see the lovestruck ‘Action’ with Eric Bellinger and Ty Dolla Sign and the dreamy ‘Betta Run’, which showcase his softer side and impressive singing voice. Think Rihanna’s Anti if she grew up in Vallejo listening to Mac Dre and prime-era Cash Money.

‘Big Tymin’’ wasn’t Nef’s first brush with the hype machine (he’d already scored a Bay Area anthem in 2014’s defiant ‘Bitch I’m From Vallejo’), but that didn’t make the track’s ascension any less exciting. Nef remembers picking Yungas’s beat out of an otherwise uninspiring pack of submissions, and a day later he was scraping together money for studio time. “I rolled up, started smoking and I did what I did. I laid down a chorus and damn near freestyled a verse,” he recalls.

Nef The Pharaoh
Photography by: William “BJ” Cooper

“I like my one-on-one time with E-40 even better than the studio time. It’s a family thing, it’s real nice”

The song soon caught fire on YouTube and attracted the attention of his mentor. “I had a million views before E-40 even stepped into the picture,” he clarifies. “That’s what people don’t know – I had a million views before I even had a conversation with him, or we even thought about signing with Sick Wid It. When I signed with him he just gave the song more boost, kicked it in its ass, you know?” ‘Big Tymin’’ has since racked up over seven million views and a remix from YG and Ty Dolla $ign, and is on constant rotation on Bay Area radio. “It feels good to hear yourself on the radio,” he says. “What makes it feel super good is to be in a car with my son and the radio will be turned on real low, and he’ll hear ‘Big Tymin’’ and go, ‘That’s daddy!’ and turn up the radio. That’s dope.”

In a matter of months, Nef’s been welcomed into a clique of hyphy legends – the same inner circle he grew up idolizing. His manager, Stretch, was one of the founders of Thizz Nation, an offshoot of Mac Dre’s Thizz Entertainment, while E-40 especially has become something of a father figure, bringing Nef to the Golden State Warriors games during this season’s NBA Finals. “I like my one-on-one time [with E-40] even better than the studio time,” he says. “When we’re in the lab we’re working, we’re focused, we’re in our mode – but when we’re out of the office, we get to talk and joke and go to basketball games, enjoy each other. His kids is my big brothers, you know? It’s a family thing. It’s real nice.”

Nef went on the road for the first time just a year ago, opening up for Kool John & P-Lo’s Movie Tour. This January, he kicked off a world tour with G-Eazy and A$AP Ferg. “Transitioning from doing those concert venues to going on this tour, being on the road for months on a tour bus, every show is a stadium and we’re selling out every arena and stadium – it was just the best transition I ever experienced in my life,” he says. “It was when I realized that this was really a calling. That God gave me something to do with my life other than hang on the block and do nothing. I appreciate this. 20,000 people screaming my name, screaming G-Eazy’s name, A$AP’s name. Something was real and they really felt us. We have the power to change the world through music, and that’s when I realized that.”

And according to Nef, the best is yet to come. While he’s still workshopping the title of his debut album, the collection of songs is almost finished and due out later this year. “There’s going to be really, really, really big features on the album,” he hints. “I’m trying to show the world that us Bay Area artists really are talented—it’s gonna be a whole world album, not just a regular hyphy, Bay Area artist album. I’m trying to make a masterpiece. I’ve got some stuff coming up. I’m not sleeping. You’ll see. Nef The Pharaoh, Big Chang Chang, you’ll hear that name. I’m puttin’ on for South Vallejo, California.”

Haley Potiker is on Twitter.

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