Rap Round-up: The West Coast is the best coast

Welcome to FACT’s Rap Round-up.

There’s been a vintage showing for the West Coast this year in rap. Not only have we seen the return of LA legend YG, had a surprise drop from Kendrick Lamar and a solid full-length from Schoolboy Q, but the Bay Area’s been making waves with stunning offerings from Kamaiyah and Nef The Pharaoh.

This week, Nef follows up January’s red-hot Neffy Got Wings with Fresh Outta Space 3, Vince Staples returns with the thoughtful Prima Donna, Nipsey Hussle drops the sequel to his 2005 debut with Slauson Boy 2, Oakland’s Ezale finally drops new material and TDE return with another heartfelt full-length from Isaiah Rashad. Outside of the West, Memphis’s Young Dolph does a victory lap withe the feature-heavy Rich Crack Baby.

Click on the album or mixtape title for a preview or stream.

Nef The Pharaoh
Fresh Outta Space 3

Nef The Pharaoh’s January-released Neffy Got Wings – a collaboration with producer Cardo Got Wings – is one of the year’s stand-out mixtapes, highlighting a Bay Area boom that’s helped define the last few months of rap and the West Coast’s recent dominance. The 21-year-old has risen to prominence under the tutelage of his Vallejo forebear E-40 – one of my top 5 rappers of all time – so he’s not exactly a hard sell. Not only does Nef share elements of his mentor’s unmistakable flow, but he shows cracks of E-40’s ineffable humor and outsized personality.

Fresh Outta Space 3 builds on the success of its predecessor by simply going back to basics. Even the title harks back to Nef’s beginnings – Fresh Outta Space is the name of his earliest mixtapes (good luck finding those) and over 15 tracks, Nef concisely rolls through his influences, interests and inspiration. This of course drags us through the requisite Bay Area slaps – ‘Dumb Life’, ‘Smoke Suffa’, ‘Everything Big’ – but switches things up with more universal fare – ‘ATM’, ‘Gimme Top’ (“It’s like some old school UGK / Three 6 Mafia shit”), ‘Iceberg Slim’ even stopping at planet Clams for the cloudy ‘When’, one of the tape’s most unexpected highlights.

It works for Nef simply because his charisma is engaging and coherent enough to blur the lines – while Neffy Got Wings worked because of its strict stylistic tenacity (a single-producer rap record in 2016 is rare and beautiful), Fresh Outta Space 3 pops because it shows Nef at his most versatile, as at home spitting over strip club jams as he is talking fondly about his young son on the tape’s melancholy closer ‘Have What You Want’.

Fresh Outta Space 3 doesn’t so much elevate Nef into a different zone as it does strengthen his case, solidly showing why E-40 gave him the nod when he signed Nef to his Sick Wid It imprint. It might be the best introduction to Nef’s sound for newcomers – for the rest of us, it’s just a reminder that there’s at least someone out there who’s still hyphy, still retarded and still dumb. JT

Vince Staples
Prima Donna

Released little more than a year after Summertime ‘06, some may see Vince Staples’ Prima Donna as a stopgap until his next project. Coming from most rappers, a seven-track, 20-minute effort like this would simply be a way to feed the streets and keep their names on people’s tongues. But Vince Staples isn’t most rappers, and if he’s feeding the streets, then it won’t be with some quickly forgotten junk food.

While the stellar Summertime ‘06 was his Long Beach Bildungsroman, Prima Donna finds Vince Staples exploring his station in America and grappling with the dualities and contradictions that that entails. He may have found a measure of success in the last few years, but he knows his fame and fortune are precarious; the title track ponders whether any of it even real. Even more precarious is his life, especially as a 23-year-old black man in America – famous rapper or not.

Prima Donna is his most political release yet, connecting his experience to not just the current moment but the entire history of the black struggle in America: a dream not delivered, a yellow brick road that isn’t paved with gold but with piss, as he raps on the blues-nodding ‘Smile’. But getting political hasn’t weighed down his words: his imagery is as powerful (“Housekeeping keep knocking on my door though / Don’t she know I’m staring in the mirror with a 44?”) and agile (the second verse of ‘Pimp Hand’ is Olympic gold-level acrobatic). Plus, he’s growing as a curator of collaborators, whether linking with James “Harmonimix” Blake for the ‘ATLiens’-flipping ‘War Ready’ or Kilo Kish (live from the uncanny valley) on the Neptunes-eque ‘Loco’ (he also limits A$AP Rocky to some moody cooing rather than rapping: good job).

The songs of Prima Donna are bracketed by acapella tape recordings that serve as despondent counterparts to his pugnacious tracks. They reveal the truth behind the braggadoccio: a young man who is fed up and feels like giving up, but wants to affirm that he’s not alone. “I just wanna live forever,” he intones on the title track. “I just wanna show you better.” It’s that drive that makes Vince Staples one of the best rappers alive. CK

Nipsey Hussle
Slauson Boy 2

It’s easy to get complacent about Nipsey Hussle. He’s been at this since way back in 2003 and his catalogue is uneven, to say the least. But Slauson Boy 2 is his most urgent deployment in some time, a no-holds-barred West Coast rap love-letter that simply doesn’t have a dull moment. The title is an acknowledgement of Nipsey’s time in the game – Slauson Boy was the rapper’s debut mixtape and appeared in 2005 – but it’s anything but throwback. Instead, he’s employed an A-Team of quality producers and rappers to engineer one of the year’s low-key highlights.

The tape has a wrong-footed start with ‘Ocean Views’ (which thanks to digital clipping throughout is close to unlistenable) but hits its stride quickly with ‘Ain’t Hard Enough’, which twins a gritty ratchet backdrop with Sacremento rapper Mozzy’s unique, throaty bars. It sets the scene for the rest of the tape as Nipsey recounts street tales bolstered by Mozzy’s dextrous chest-puffing stories of reality and regret. Mozzy quickly returns on ‘I Do This’, sounding better than ever alongside bona-fide superstar Young Thug.

Slauson Boy 2 doesn’t let up from there. There’s the tape’s too-short high point ‘Shell Shocked’, that bolts from hard-as-nails to woozy and melancholy before ending on a half-speed crawl; the Alain Goraguer-sampling ‘Full Time’, which should be familiar to anyone who knows Quasimoto’s ‘Come On Feet’; the G-Funk-inspired ‘Question #1’ that features Snoop Dogg; even the tape’s closing track, ‘Down As A Great’, doesn’t let the quality dip.

To put it frankly – if you like West Coast rap, you owe it to yourself to download Slauson Boy 2. It’s really that simple. JT

Ezale & DJ Fresh
The Tonite Show with Ezale

Finally: a new Ezale album! Excuse our exuberance, but it’s been nearly three years (an eternity in rap) since the Oakland rapper dropped Drug Funnie, delighting us with throwback, classic-sampling songs like ‘Foreal Foreal’ and ‘5 Minutes of Funktown’. Since then, we’ve eagerly awaited something more than the occasional – if excellent – single.

Fittingly, Ezale’s new one is an entry in Oakland producer DJ Fresh’s long-running Tonite Show series, which has featured Bay Area faves like Mozzy, Mistah F.A.B., J. Stalin and The Jacka. Because honestly, there’s nothing more West Coast than Ezale’s brand of bass-heavy G-funk, which flips ‘80s classics by the likes of New Edition and Cameo into tracks about hanging with his day ones and doing drugs with women.

Is Ezale a one-trick pony? Who cares when the results are this good. Who else is slowing down 2 Live Crew’s ‘We Want Some Pussy’ into a drug-dosed slapper, or sampling Jocelyn Enriquez for a 2016 tribute to MDMA? No one. So throw on the short-but-sweet Tonight Show and get your ass to Funktown. Finally. CK

Young Dolph
Rich Crack Baby

Young Dolph has had a killer year so far and follows a jaw-dropping run of full-lengths and hype tracks (seriously, ‘Fuck It’ is still in constant rotation) with yet another near-flawless tape. Yes, Wale is on here, but don’t let that put you off – Dolph isn’t pulling any punches on Rich Crack Baby. It’s every bit as barbed as February’s astonishing King of Memphis, but sports a glossier sheen. Dolph knows he’s on top; he’s got the features to prove it.

Aside from Wale, there are guest appearances from ATL kingpin T.I., living legend Gucci Mane, Boosie, 2 Chainz and 21 Savage. Rich Crack Baby is essentially a victory lap – Dolph’s isn’t racking up these features because he needs a co-sign, he’s doing it because he can. He’s allowing them space on his tape, ceding control for a few bars and letting them bask in his considerable shine. You hear it on ‘What Yo Life Like’, as Dolph trades anecdotes with punchline king 2 Chainz; on ‘Strippa’ where Dolph pays his respects with a Gucci hook and verse and on tape highlight ‘151’, where he wisely taps 21 Savage, who’s still buzzing after the phenomenal Savage Mode.

Dolph’s a reliable presence in rap right now – Memphis or otherwise – and he isn’t showing any signs of letting up. If you’re looking for bullshit-free, bass heavy Southern rap with the woozy, narcotic atmosphere of Three 6 Mafia, you should look no further – Young Dolph’s got you covered. JT

Isaiah Rashad
The Sun’s Tirade

These days, it’s tough to listen to music without putting it into the context of how and when it is released. Occasionally, that struggle also bleeds back into the music. That seems to be the case on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade, an album heavy with the anxiety of releasing new music at a time when every tweet and Tumblr post are combed for hints of new music. In Rashad’s case, releasing The Sun’s Tirade was made even more complicated by a nearly-fatal addiction to alcohol and Xanax that dogged him for the last several years.

The Sun’s Tirade both unveils and obscures these anxieties and other triggers – dealing drugs, raising children, his relationship with his father, his relationship with God – over an hour-long album that fleshes out the experimental approach that Rashad demonstrated on Cilvia Demo. “I got the music for the vibers,” Rashad claims – and he’s not wrong. The Chattanooga rapper with the LA crew and the New York tastes (as he raps on ‘Brenda’: “mix that Boosie with that boom-bap”) is all about establishing a particularly smoky, laidback vibe, borrowing from jazz (‘Free Lunch’), Sly Stone (‘Rope’) and even straight-ahead trap (the Mike Will-produced ‘A Lot’) on the wide-ranging album.

Rashad’s rapping is dense, often with a verge-of-tears delivery reminiscent of TDE compatriot Kendrick Lamar, who steals the spotlight on ‘Wat’s Wrong’, as he often does on his guest verses. The Sun’s Tirade is not a particularly “fun” or “easy” record, but it reveals itself on repeat listens. In that way, it’s like To Pimp A Butterfly (although TPAB had singles). Or perhaps it’s more like Frank Ocean’s Blonde: unafraid to reject what is expected of it. CK



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