The Rap Up: Best of 2016 So Far

Torii MacAdams recounts his favorite rap tracks of 2016 thus far.
By    July 7, 2016

Art by John Young

Torii MacAdams has got a feeling…


[A brief note to Rap Up readers: I’ll be on vacation for this week and next. In lieu of two, entirely new columns, you’ll be getting my Best Of This Year (So Far) on July 8th and a very special, somewhat surreal interview on July 15th. This column was written before the events in Dallas last evening.]

N.W.A. / Lil Boosie ft. Webbie – Fuck Tha Police / Fuck The Police

On Tuesday, July 5th, Alton Sterling was murdered by Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II outside of a convenience store. Likely the only crime the father of five committed in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart that night was selling bootlegged CDs and DVDs. Sterling, who plead guilty in 2009 to carrying a firearm while in possession of marijuana (an almost comical charge in a state with remarkably lax gun laws and strict drug laws), was again armed, but it appears the gun remained in his pocket during his interactions with police. After wrestling Sterling to the ground, Officers Salamoni and Lake straddled him and, for reasons that will surely baffle once they’re elucidated, shot him in the chest and back.

In the middle of writing the above paragraph, video was uploaded to Facebook by Diamond Reynolds of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, wheezing his final, strained, blood-soaked breaths as a St. Anthony police officer keeps his gun trained on the slumped man. Castile, too, reportedly had a gun, which was licensed and legally concealed. According to Reynolds, her boyfriend had alerted the officer of said firearm and was reaching for his wallet when the officer decided the correct course of action was to shoot Castile to death. Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light.

If it wasn’t made abundantly clear by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (or Freddie Gray, or Tamir Rice, or…), any infraction, small or large, can lead to deadly contact with those theoretically charged with keeping the peace. I can offer no solutions to these outrageous situations beyond suggesting that an increasingly militarized and armed police force surely isn’t the best way to patrol historically terrorized communities. How many supposed Good Guys With Guns need to leave our nation’s poor battered, brutalized, and dead before we change our behavior? How long can a nation sustain such blatant injustice before the wide fissures become permanent features and we dissolve in a hail of invective and gunfire?

The Rap Up is ostensibly a column about (surprise!) rap, but there’s much more to the music than beats and rhymes. Unfair, understaffed, under-trained, and under-budgeted policing is a feature of many of the United States’ worst neighborhoods–to understand this essential fact is to understand the outwardly cavalier attitudes of rappers toward law enforcement. Why not shout “Fuck the police” when you’ve seen your family, friends, or neighbors struck down and victimized by a system that wasn’t designed to fail entirely, but designed to fail you? When you hear “Fuck 12” in a rap song, hear contemporary griots channel the sentiment of put-upon people of color from every corner of this crooked, crumbling country.

Maxo KreamBig Worm

Is Friday the most evergreen comedy in rap music’s collective imagination? CB4 is underappreciated, Fear of A Black Hat remains widely ignored (despite arguably being a more trenchant critique than Chris Rock’s N.W.A. satire), and the House Party series is too family-friendly and overly reliant on New Jack Swing to have cross-generational appeal.

Friday didn’t reinvent storytelling, but it presented audiences with relatable, memorable, and humorous characters; we’ve all been put-upon like Craig, prone to self-sabotage like Smokey, and bullied by intractable clowns like Deebo and Big Worm. The villains, played by the permanently scowling Tiny Lister and a pimp-permed Faizon Love, are cartoon goons. In other words, perfect for rap music, a genre that celebrates and reviles overzealous thuggery in equal measure. Big Worm is a fitting subject for Maxo Kream–he probably doesn’t spend the entirely of his life in pursuit of money and drugs, but if his Snapchat is any indicator, well-worn dollars and cloudy sodas in Easter egg tones are ever-present.

In the video for “Big Worm” Maxo plays–as always–the menacing drug dealer. There’s no depth to his counterpoint, the would-be protagonist Smokey–Maxo’s the hero here. Where’s the glory in being a dimebag-by-dimebag huckster when you can wield deadly weapons and bark orders from a lemon-lime ice cream truck?

Danny BrownWhen It Rain

About two minutes into “When It Rain,” Danny Brown raps that “it’s time for the percolator,” a direct reference to Cajmere’s house classic “Percolator.” It’s in these songs’ fertile negative spaces that chaos and writhing take seed. Much of “Percolator” is three sounds–the bubbling, “percolating” sound, flat drum hits, and a simple bass line–but their collective effect is much greater: it’s body-moving, borderline instinctive. Paul White’s production for Brown’s single functions the same way. The death-is-imminent horns emptily threaten to drop into oblivion (as they would have on Old) and tambourines rattle without release; it’s tense and sparse and the type of unresolution that Mozart’s children supposedly pranked him with by playing on the family piano.

There’s a second, extra-musical similarity which I can’t assign to either coincidence or intent. The very first upload of “Cajmere” to YouTube (and the video which introduced me to the song) is a grainy, audibly whirring VHS rip of The New Dance Show, a Detroit-area public access show which broadcasted the city’s most fashionable and flexible throwing radical shapes. The warping of “When It Rain” is more intentionally artistic and severe, but its central attraction–men and women with elbows and knees akimbo–is the same.

YGGimme Got Shot

I never thought YG would become a great rapper. Or even good, really. When I was in high school, jerk was the sound of Los Angeles. My classmates, in sagged skinny jeans bunched atop Chucks or Vans, would speak reverently about jerk functions. “You’re A Jerk” was on every Sidekick, a customized New Era atop every head. It didn’t last.

Jerkin’ came and went quickly, and I remember feeling like it was oddly disposable. It was, unintentionally–jerkin’ coincided with the early years of YouTube and increased music access on portable devices, but predated the internet’s ability to find fans for every scene no matter how local. Many of the principal figures–the New Boyz, the Rej3ctz, the Cold Flamez–are L.A.-exclusive trivia answers. YG was a boyish, charismatic star, albeit one whose rapping abilities were as painfully underdeveloped as those of his cohorts.

There wasn’t a shortcut between jerk anthem “Pussy Killer” and “Gimmie Got Shot,” just years of personal evolution, mixtapes full of misfiring, fucked-your-bitch anthems, and a solo debut that improbably changed a city’s artistic direction. He isn’t the only one to succeed; to varying degrees, Ty Dolla $ign, DJ Mustard, and Cam and China all have their roots in jerk. Like the electro roller rink jams of the mid-’80s birthed G-funk, jerk functions birthed a rap renaissance.

Clams Casino ft. Vince StaplesAll Nite

Clams Casino made a name for himself plying then-complete strangers (Lil B, Main Attrakionz, and Soulja Boy) with cloud rap instrumentals. But the vocalist who seems to truly unlock the producer’s avant-garde potential is Vince Staples. The clanking, jangling qualities of Clams’ beats on Summertime ‘06 perfectly accented tales of Long Beach, a salty, rough-hewn port city.

According to an interview with Pitchfork, “All Nite” was actually made in advance of Staples’ debut, and the collaborations which ended up on the album were a result of those initial sessions. It makes sense–“All Nite,” with its metallic stabs and whistling bird calls, could easily have slotted into Summertime ‘06. Staples, ever-excellent, begins in media res: he wakes up atop another man’s main bitch, his phone’s blowing up, and soon thereafter he’s headed to North Long Beach to cheat death and talk shit.

Kodak Black & French MontanaLockjaw

Billing this as “French Montana featuring Kodak Black” is misleading. The influence of French Montana–the only rapper named after a state and a country–on “Lockjaw” is limited. He splits the chorus and may have three-quarters of a verse combined, but he’s essentially a mush-mouthed sidekick in a video filmed in Kodak’s familial home, the Golden Acres projects. Revelers waving Haitian flags, punk kids on dirt bikes, and glossy donks litter the streets between single-story orange houses. There Kodak, with his arm in a sling, his teeth in gold, his hair in braids, is the biggest star in the world.

Young ThugGangster Shit

Amongst current and former Passion of the Weiss staffers, there’s been discussion of whether or not lyrics are still essential to our listening. It’s a truly subjective matter; just as you can go to a museum and enjoy Impressionist shapelessness more than inch-perfect Romanticism, you’re allowed to listen to more brutalist Waka Flocka than baroque Aesop Rock. (And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They’re curmudgeons.)

I think what Young Thug represents more dramatically than any other rapper is the deciphering of basic phonemes as a form of lyricism. Lyricism, as it’s traditionally conceived, is more a matter of committing punchlines to memory or milking dense, filigreed bars for meaning than it is baseline understanding. I’d argue that it’s “lyrical” to force listeners into considering some of the basic fundamentals of the English language, and posit Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss would feel the same.

BadBadNotGood ft. Mick JenkinsHyssop of Love

This is how you make a rap beat with live instrumentation. It’s an inherently backward-facing sound–sampling’s existed since the late-70’s–but it doesn’t need to be absent of verve or invention. BadBadNotGood are well-versed musicians, and “Hyssop of Love” sounds like MF Doom meets Ka, equal dollops of light and dark. Credit, too, to Mick Jenkins, who ebbs and flows with the Canadian trio–he’s pliant because he needs to be, not because he likes lingual contortions. “Hyssop of Love” is, on a very fundamental level, an excellent rap song.

RJDouble Standards

Los Angeles is in the throes of a gangster rap renaissance. Not since the early-mid ‘90’s has the city had such a deep, engrossing cast of characters; for every The Chronic, a Curb Servin’, for every “Gin and Juice,” a “Dippin’.” There’s an entire alternative (if largely underloved) canon of Ben Davis-wearing gangster rappers who still perform at KDAY summer concerts and lowrider shows in Gardena. As an unrepentant rap nerd–and an unbearable rap opiner–I’m constantly searching for corollaries between generations, and I can’t figure out how RJ will ultimately be remembered in L.A. rap lore.

[Some stray comparisons: Joe Moses is Kam, ScHoolboy Q is King Tee (Jeff says MC Eiht), and Cam & China are a more prolific Menajahtwa.]

It’s probably his moment right now; last year’s “Get Rich” was a bonafide regional hit, he’s featured heavily on numerous DJ Mustard projects, and his new mixtape, Ommio 3, has been downloaded more than 31,000 times in less than a week. The swaying and lewd “Double Standards” is, like much of RJ’s oeuvre, spiritually indebted to G-funk: he talks immense shit over a beat that thumps and “Funky Worm” wails. It’s low-stakes, knuckleheaded fun–values that’ve been missing from rap exegesis of late. He’s a card-carrying member of the I Fucked Your Bitch Benevolent Society, but, judging by his taste in literature (He showed up to an interview with a copy of A Tale of Two Cities), he’s a nuanced person. Showing more of that depth might be beneficial.

Action Bronson ft. Jah Tiger & Meyhem LaurenMr. 2 Face

Ezra Pound wrote in ABC of Reading that “More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.” (Pound’s own character was utterly confounding and contradictory.) To call Meyhem Lauren a failure would be cruel–not to mention incorrect–but he is, artistically, very much second fiddle to Action Bronson despite being a more technically skilled rapper. He simply doesn’t have the same indefatigable charisma as his childhood best friend, who’s essentially a happy-go-lucky Cronut with a beard.

Lauren raps hard, forehead vein-bulging hard, which can make for an exhausting full-length listen. In doses–and particularly when combined with Bronson–Lauren’s humor overcomes his sometimes stifling, overzealous bar spitting. When they’re together, Bronson and Lauren make rapping seem like fun.

Curren$y & Alchemist ft. Action BronsonInspiration

I’ll surely be deafened either by booing or by a projectile thrown at head height for writing this (Tip: I’m short, so aim low), but…I enjoyed Currensy and Alchemist’s Carrollton Heist more than The Life of Pablo, which was released almost simultaneously. The Covert Coup sequel was unfairly buried beneath an appalling tonnage of thinkpieces and encomiums dedicated to Twitter’s Alpha and Omega, Yeezus Christ. I get it: There were clicks to be had. Consider this a mild corrective.

To be clear, TLOP and Carrollton Heist are very different projects made by rappers and producers whose methodologies ostensibly have little in common. Unsurprisingly, the results are as diametrically opposed as their creators. The former is a remarkably ambitious–and misshapen and sloppy–in its attempts to reconfigure the genre to its auteur’s will. It succeeds and fails in turns, shattering and correcting like a drunken reveler careening through a living room. The latter is urbane, a self-contained whole that’s less exercise-in-genre than exercise-in-oeuvre; Curren$y is heavy-lidded, tipping blunts into the ashtrays of Alc’s instrumentals.

“Inspiration” features another of Alchemist’s frequent collaborators, the rotund and fecund Action Bronson. Over a polyester lounge suit beat, Spitta Andretti and Action Costanza brag about how icey (and stoned) they are. It’s elemental, essential, right. Less challenging than The Life of Pablo, more complete.

ScHoolboy QHoover Street (Original Version)

The version of “Hoover Street” which made the final cut for ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron is good. The original version, produced by the aforementioned Alchemist, is great. The sample(s? I can barely begin to guess this beat’s provenance–live prog rock recordings, maybe?) is richer, more robust; guitar pluckings, an all-the-way-pitched-up vocal sample, a woodwind eddying in the mix.

With the original “Hoover Street” in mind, I went back and listened to Oxymoron. The clearest, semi-decent reason I can think of for the exclusion of Alchemist’s beat is that its abstraction didn’t fit in with the sequencing. But then why include a similar, patently inferior one by Digi+Phonics, TDE’s in-house team? Label politics? Sample clearance issues? The people need answers.

Freddie GibbsCocaine Parties in LA

Freddie Gibbs’ “Cocaine Parties in LA” is a barometric reading of rap music. Gibbs rips the Madlib-produced instrumental from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s “No More Parties in LA,” and uses it to interpolate Plies’, uh, non-traditional pronunciation of “back” (“byke”), mock Stacey Dash, and elaborate on his plans for All-Star Weekend. On the dossier: “pussy, head, mouth, ass, and all that shit.” To paraphrase Daniel Burnham, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s dongs.” Or something like that.

Ka30 Keys

Ka sounds like leaning on cold subway platform girders, like scraping your knees and wrists on cobblestones, like 4:30 p.m. sunsets and winter winds on your cheekbones, like a pebble in your sock. The frigidity’s deliberate, because retelling the crimes of a past, disavowed life is rarely warm. Youthful indiscretion is still indiscretion.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!