Dean Van Nguyen ghost rides the whip.
Has an up-and-coming artist ever distilled his powers under than two minutes like Nef The Pharaoh does on “Lauryn Hill?” If confidence can be a serum injected into the bloodstream, then the Bay Area rapper hit a main vein. Over 100 seconds of pure brash bluster, Neffy counts out his five back-to-back tours and surf ‘n’ turf dinners, all while celebrating rising up “from bustin’ raps in the basement.” Having just turned 22, you could call it the arrogance of youth, if he wasn’t so good.
Dropped on YouTube last month, “Lauryn Hill” has a one-take feel. Nef spills pockets of one-liners as easily as Hill herself once hit those high notes. There’s no miseducation here. Tonee Hayes has always come across as well schooled when it comes to his hometown heroes, making Vallejo street rap that would appease regional deities B-Legit, Mac Mall, E-40 (who signed him to his Sic-Wid-It label), and maybe even the late Mac Dre.
Shot dead on the Kansas stretch of Route 71 in 2004, Andre Hicks was stolen from us far too young. Five of his 34 years were spent in prison on a conspiracy to commit bank robbery conviction widely accepted in his neighborhood as being bullshit. Freed in 1997, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Dre to pick up his career by cutting cement-hard gangster rap that leaned on a hard-as-nails jailbird image. Instead, he blazed the hyphy movement—music to make sure his coming home party never stopped.
Now here comes Neffy. Like Mac Dre, he’s doing great things without feeling weighed by the idea of greatness. And unlike some of his youthful peers, Nef isn’t trying to forge a career by jacking rap’s most fashionable sounds to jump the queue (see: Travis Scott, Desiigner). Instead, he draws from his geographical roots. This is playalistic Bay Area music built on the region’s bouncing traditions.
Neffy won’t pander, but the components are still all there for him to become a major nationwide player. He’ll rap smooth as Teflon on one song, blast his vocal cords into Young Thug’s galaxy on the next, and can tune his voice to anything in between. He looks good on camera and can carry a hook. If there’s any justice to be found in 2017 America (a notion that feels like a fantasy right now), the next three years will see Nef put up sales comparable to, say, Future or at least Meek Mill.
Nef’s early mixtapes were rough, but his talent cut through. Take “Starvin,” from #MinuteMadeThe420Fixtape (2013), when he rapped over the instrumental from Ashanti’s R&B slow jam “Baby.” When Nef slows his flow into a more tuneful instrument, it’s not always easy to tell what effects are being laid on the vocal, or if he is just naturally carrying that grim, synthetic beauty. Either way, his voice is like a dark purple mist hanging over the party music. “Starvin” plays like Tonee’s garbled thoughts as he lurches through a druggy 3 AM haze.
His skills were crystalized in high fidelity on 2015’s seven-track Nef the Pharaoh (framed by many as his first proper release) and last year’s Cardo Got Wings collaboration record Neffy Got Wings. On both tapes the beats pop and the hooks stick. Thematically, there’s nothing on here that’s too alien. Women, weed, and braggadocio run throughout most of Nef’s verses. “Fuck a hoop dream, I am way above the rim,” he raps on “Big Tymin.’” Originality in the subject matter is of little concern when the posturing is this supreme.
You wouldn’t be wrong in tarring “Big Chang Chang,” from Nef The Pharaoh, a silly song, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let the chorus slither up your ear. Those pop instincts shine in a more dapper way on “Michael Jackson” (which appears on both records). “Moonwalkin’ in Giuseppe’s like I’m Michael Jackson,” croons Nef. It’s an anthem for anyone who has tried to channel the King of Pop’s swagger into his or her own curb strut.
My favorite Pharoah release so far, though, is last September’s Fresh Outta Space 3 (I can’t find evidence of volumes 1 and 2). This is Neffy unprocessed. Generations connect on the Snoop Dogg-featuring weed jam “Smoke Suffa.” “Bustdown Bandz” plays like a hot summer night, when the air is crisp and beer is ice cold. On “Dumb Life,” Nef summons the spirit of his regional forefathers: “I’m still stuck in ’04, ’05, ’06,” he asserts. It’s like Mac Dre’s party never ended and Nef The Pharoah’s turn on the mic is just kicking off.