Craig Jenkins is the Yojimbo of this rap writing thing.
The music writer’s constant quest to discover, process, and categorize new artists plays out like a taxonomist cataloging new species. As much as we love to witness the birth of a new mutation, we carry out the dead with similar zeal. I should know. I live in New York City, where rap nerds rang the death knell on our rap scene for the last half-decade.
The “New York is dead” snark ignores the Billboard chart dominance of Watch the Throne and the Pink Friday series (Damn right I will claim Onika in a pinch!), the astounding resurgence of Nas, Roc Marciano, stellar new releases from underground stalwarts El-P and Aesop Rock, and the city’s vibrant new underground. Formidable new voices have sprung from all over the Big Apple in the last few years, the outer boroughs especially (although peace to Smoke DZA and A$AP Rocky for repping my hood). Nor are they conforming to EDM worship nor trap house mimicry to make their waves.
In March, Queens native Action Bronson released Blue Chips, a brilliant mixtape culled from three weeks of spontaneous sessions with producer Party Supplies. A few days later, his Smart Crew associate Meyhem Lauren upped the ante, setting up a makeshift recording facility in an Austin, TX hotel during SXSW with Action, AG Da Coroner, Riff Raff, Heems of Das Racist, “Shot Caller” producer Harry Fraud and Dr. Lecter maestro Tommy Mas. Two days and one incredibly trashed hotel room later, Respect the Fly Shit was born. Like Blue Chips, whose ace bars come with a spattering of lyrical gaffes & production quirks, Respect the Fly Shit is more accomplished than its hurried conception would suggest, even if the seams occasionally show.
Most of the time the focus is on spitting impressive bars instead of weaving verses into concepts, and the shallowness of the subject matter sometimes relays the speed at which it was created. Even so, Meyhem takes full advantage of his colorful cast of characters, and despite an occasionally stiff delivery, he still manages to communicate a vision of no-nonsense grown man rap that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.
Brooklyn’s Troy Ave is definitely not about that grown man rap, but he’s also worth checking for. From the concept of his Bricks in My Backpack mixtape series to his ad lib du jour (“POWDERRR!”), Troy Ave is an unapologetic coke rapper. But where Rick Ross has crafted a superhero persona out of the pusher-man life that — plentiful gourmet cuisine references aside — rarely lines up with the real life of the MC, Troy’s narratives are shot through with paranoia and regret. “They glorify, but I know it’s lies,” he warns on “Shame,” a highlight from Bricks in My Backpack’s third installment, The Harry Powder Trilogy.
Troy’s beat selection steers clear of the Luger-by-numbers trend of his goon rap peers. Instead, he peppers the jazzy ethereality of “Snow” and “Chiddy Chiddy Bang Bang” with the textbook New York grit of “Cokeamania.” His style’s not without antecedents (Imagine a young 50 Cent getting a-hold of a couple of Digi+Phonics beats), but most of what he tries here connects, and that’s about all you can ask from a free mixtape, no?
Even though labels seem concerned with the Chicago sound, and artists seem fixated on the Atlanta sound, New York boasts heavy hitters at every level of the industry and an underground that’s ready to blow up (see also: Flatbush Zombies, The Underachievers, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, etc). If Azealia Banks’ getting snapped up by Universal and A$AP Rocky’s kush Columbia deal are any indication, record labels are prowling around again. Fat Beats and four element worship might die, but New York rap never will.