Doc Zeus just does his dance and cuffs his pants.
Los Angeles gangster rap is a tradition unlike any other—simply because the street tales told within are often set under the city’s omnipotent sunlight. New York street rap often feels like classic noir. Mobb Deep seemed to set all of their songs at midnight during a rainstorm; one flickering lightbulb casting chiaroscuro shadows on the walls giving a sense of narrative dread to the quiet storm. With L.A. gangster rap, the dirt is done in broad daylight; the bounciness of the George Clinton samples mirroring the luminosity of the California sunshine. G-Funk might be music to drive-by to but there is strange hyper-realism to it—contrasting bright melodies and atomic funk bass with the seedy stories of Los Angeles gang life, creating both tension and transcendence.
In recent years, classic G-Funk has become boxed in as a coded, regional novelty in popular rap. To rap fans worshipping the antiseptic futurism of modern trap rap, G-Funk might feel decidedly anachronistic—a relic of the 1990s that instantly dates an artist in a long irrelevant era. L.A.’s biggest stars seem to only occasionally dabble with the sound—like Kendrick Lamar did on various songs on To Pimp A Butterfly—but often feels like a mere regional accenting. It’s a sly reminder of an artist’s roots mined as a shortcut for provincial credibility.
With popular modern L.A. gangster rappers like Vince Staples or Schoolboy Q, the spirit is often there if not the aesthetics. Their sounds are far more informed by modern sensibilities than the more stripped down and elemental warm, rich instrumentation found on The Chronic or Doggystle. While there’s always ultra-orthodox gangster rap traditionalists like The Game, it’s rare to find a popular artist born after Straight Outta Compton, who embraces G-Funk tradition without feeling like millennial tourists. Nobody has aspirations of becoming the west coast Joey Bada$$.
However, Compton-based rapper YG’s new album, Still Brazy, might be a brilliant exception to this. YG has firmly rooted his new album in L.A.’s gangster rap tradition, breathing fresh life into a revitalized G-Funk sound. Abandoning both long-time collaborator DJ Mustard and the successful, skeletal ratchet sound of his 2014 debut, My Krazy Life, YG’s new album has a surprising modernity to it that serves to cement the young rapper’s place as one of the most important figures on the west coast.
YG has been steadily grinding in L.A. rap circles since his days as a nascent cult hero of the Jerkin’ movement, but it was his near-classic 2014 debut album, My Krazy Life, that served as something of an artistic breakthrough for the rapper. The sparse, spacy sonics laid down by YG’s ex-partner-in-crime DJ Mustard served as a proper backdrop for YG’s tales of home invasions and ratchet party anthems. The album was littered with tightly-written bangers like “I Just Wanna Party,” My Nigga,” and “Meet The Flockers,” each of which showcased YG’s tremendous promise as a burgeoning songwriter—a skill that feels fully-fleshed out on Still Brazy.
Perhaps it’s the turmoil that has surrounded YG’s life post-My Krazy Life—in addition to the high-profile dissolution of his partnership with DJ Mustard, YG was a survivor of a shooting—but the album’s songwriting has an urgency that makes it one of the 2016’s most essential listens.
Album centerpiece “Who Shot Me?” narrates the story of his attempted murder with a sense of tense paranoia. “I can’t sleep at night/ This shit unbomfortable/Having nightmares of me coming for dude/Having a hard time putting together two and two,” the young rapper opines about the scattered thoughts that float in his head as he wonders which one of his friends might have set him up to die. You can practically smell the paranoid sweat dripping from YG’s brow when he raps.
YG’s complete evolution as an artist manifests itself almost immediately: Still Brazy marks a noted improvement across all aspects of his game. Both his writing and rapping are noticeably upgraded. In the early days of his career, YG had a knack for creating well-crafted singles but Still Brazy proves that the success of his debut album was not a fluke and didn’t rely on the production talent of DJ Mustard’s inventive brilliance. Songs like “Twist My Fingaz” and “She Wish She Was” employ the album’s modernized G-Funk to perfection, delivering earworm cuts that will be played all through summer ’16 and beyond. It feels as if YG spent the interim recovering from his shooting studying classic Dogg Pound records to discover the mysterious alchemy behind blending the perfect party cut with the perfect street narrative. Beyond anything else, this record is just fun.
For an artist who first emerged from the dance-craze heavy Jerkin’ scene, the most surprising aspect of Still Brazy is how brazenly topical it is. In addition to channeling the G-Funk of Death Row, Still Brazy owes a ton to the political odes of west coast rappers like Ices Cube and T. The last three tracks of the album find YG tackling topics like the continued national disgrace of state-sanctioned police shootings on “Police Get Away With Murder” and the shared intersection of daily discrimination that African-Americans and Hispanics face in America.
Meanwhile, YG and fellow Los Angeles staple Nipsey Hu$$le deliver Trump America’s first great protest song, “F.D.T. (Fuck Donald Trump).” “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans/And if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin/Black love, brown pride in the sets again” offers such a simple and true solidarity for oppressed people who help make this country great. When that rotted Otto the Orange-ass motherfucker’s ears comes to Cleveland to accept their nomination in Cleveland next month, I hope it rings loudly in every fascist’s ears.
As both an indication of his artistic growth and a celebration of classic L.A. rap, Still Brazy is my early pick for the year’s best rap album. It solidifies YG’s status as one of hip-hop’s most complete and unsung artists capable of crafting as definitive an album as anybody out there. L.A. gangster rap might be set in the wicked glow of the light but Still Brazy is rooted deep down in west coast tradition–all from a place where a coward like Donald Trump would never go to.