You still won’t catch Brian Josephs in Brownsville.
C’mon. You don’t really want the old New York back. Miss it, maybe. Old New York is akin to a live-for-today type of ex: You’ll have your pros like those cheap seats in Broadway and sex, but he/she will fuck up your life in the long run. I’ve been living in Brooklyn long enough to experience it, but not long enough to not be at least taken aback by when Jay Z remembers (Decoded) the prostitutes and pimps gallivanting around Times Square. Would I want to explain the concept of selling pussy to my 8-year-old cousin after taking him to his first Broadway show? No, I do not.
The crack vials have been sequestered into alleyways and projects, and the NYPD are probably circlejerking themselves over reaching new lows in homicide rates. Days are spent fighting bouts of paranoia at any symptom of the gentrification plague (rising prices, pumpkin spice, a friendly white face too many, etc.). Even perceptions have changed. In 2014, the most vivid narratives of years past run closer to comic book fiction than reality. Part of it is because at 44 years old, Raekwon no longer sells drugs and Ghostface Killah is deliberately conceptualizing comic books. Another part is how Migos and Young Thug’s tongue-twisting absurdity is now the wave. And another: As I write this, we’re living within J. Cole’s aw shucks moment.
New York’s hip-hop epicenter hasn’t adjusted to the changing times. Plus, a lot of this year has been a reminder of just how far that center has drifted away: nearly every reminder of that Old New York creed has fallen tepid. Perhaps the most infamous reminder is Troy Ave, who’s fallen from writer-threatening infamy to relative quiescence despite the preceding hype. Bobby Shmurda is clearly the most visible New York artist on a mainstream level. It remains to be seen if he could progress beyond a one-hit wonder or alleged minstrelsy.
The ‘90s hip-hop alumni haven’t fared that much better either. Bless Nas for giving Illmatic XX the attention it deserves, but he hasn’t been great at turning in verses that doesn’t remind us how old he is. Busta Rhymes allowed “CoCo” to happen, and the lackluster A Better Tomorrow might be the Wu-Tang Clan’s last album.
The cheaper, grittier New York is dead, so you’ll have to contend with what’s left now. And what we’re left with is the most amorphous metropolis in the country. If change is what makes New York New York, then the city’s hip-hop guild must realize is that there is no epicenter. There isn’t a centrifugal force that can encompass the highlights of Williamsburg, the shindigs in Webster Hall and the get-downs in Harlem. It isn’t just about the gutter and Midtown affluence; it’s about everything in between.
This year’s best New York albums — Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Tastes and RATKING’s So It Goes —succeed in illustrating that sort of diversity. Banks has always presented herself as a representative of New York’s polychromatic nature. Her debut is a potent cornucopia: “Yung Rapunxel”’s punk crassness, “Desperado”’s vogueing and “Chasing Time”’s glitz are each given credence by Banks’ slick-tongued versatility. So It Goes’ charm lies in its lyrical and sonic perspective. Clattering percussion and bustling soundscapes score rabble-rousers as they jaunt around New York — street-by-street, ready to discover the potential the landscapes have to offer. And while neither album is classic, what makes both exciting is that sense of potential.
The fact is New York’s current elites have been mostly silent this year. A$AP Rocky dropped the solid “Multiply” before going quiet. Action Bronson is due for an album next year and the Coke Boyz still exist. Each of the aforementioned represents different paradigms, and that aspect makes the scene more compelling.
Does this mean old school bust-your-shit-open raps are completely extinct? No. Now, it’s not about retreading those graffiti-tagged streets, but recreating them. Ka of Brownsville (still a do not fly zone) is an example. His use of sparse, terse instrumentation illustrates unseen danger. The horror movie trope often hits, especially when paired with his brutal focus. Armand Hammer’s atmospherics favors eccentricities over hammers, rhymes flipping on the concrete during the falling dusk. In Roc Marciano’s case, it’s about creativity. The near-Looney Tunes wordplay give the gunplay extra flavor.
The partial greatness of PHryme and Ghostface’s Ghostfaceness on 36 Seasons show the old vanguard can survive based off skill alone. However, the point is that this style is no longer at the top of a non-existent totem pole. Although 2014 has been lacking in the city, in retrospect, it can serve as a transition to something greater. And for a post-Dipset region that’s continued in its shapelessness after A$AP’s time out, it’s something.