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Sun-Ui Yum wrote this at Six Flags.
Even within the broader resurgence that Los Angeles hip-hop has enjoyed over the past couple calendar years, there’s an epicenter. As it spirals further and further into mainstream acceptance and coverage, it’s hard not to feel like the last couple years have all revolved around, at some level, Drakeo, Greedo, and Shoreline. For now, they’re the faces on t-shirts (free Drakeo), the ones that land Pitchfork and Noisey placements (Cold Devil should’ve been a 9.0), the ones that get token Needle Drop reviews. The singles are immediate, the catalogs are already deep, and it makes sense that their techniques and styles have already begun to trickle down the sieve of Los Angeles rap. They are, rightfully, influential.
But some of the most interesting rap in LA is happening outside of that center. While the members of AzCult barely qualify as “periphery”—along with rappers like Rucci, they’re still part of the HitMob/R. Baron ecosystem—their music’s different and good enough to be considered separately. The most polished and the most arresting of them, for now, is AzSwaye, coming off a collaborative album with producer JoogFTR. SwayeFTR isn’t the final step, but it’s a surprisingly committed one towards an aesthetic, a style he was grasping at throughout the fourteen tracks of last year’s SwayeMadden.
Since Drakeo and Greedo, it’s been technique du jour to find every single pocket in a given beat and relentlessly cram syllables into them—the impulse surfaces even here on this album (listen to how AzChike refuses to let silence reign for longer than a half-second during his brief turn on “Win or Lose”). The missives are clear: stitch all the bars of a hook into one long take (Shoreline Mafia’s “Musty”); don’t wait for the beat to “drop” to start rapping (every Drakeo song ever). And when it clicks, it’s breathless—it denies every single moment of “rest” to the listener, and it becomes obvious why Drakeo refers to his music as “nervous” music.
So it’s a sort of courage, I think, that AzSwaye lets his voice ring out a split second longer than everybody else’s. While everyone in Los Angeles compresses, Swaye dares to let his words breathe. It doesn’t always translate to better music (in particular, it’s hard not to feel like Ralfy’s relative urgency doesn’t shine brighter on “Shooting Star”), but it carries a sense of measured, meditated gravity that’s largely been rejected by his peers. There are no murmurs here, no hisses, no Drakeo/Ralfy mutterings. The proclamations are allowed to be proclamations, the brags are allowed to be brags, and the jabs better be respected as jabs. The refrain of “Swaye Hefner” feels more than believable, rhythm impeccable.
SwayeFTR feels declarative, swaggering, but in case you didn’t realize, it’s not exactly fun music. It should be played at high volumes and spark mosh pits at concerts—and almost certainly will be played in the places that matter—but it doesn’t feel native to that. “Dead Homies” or “Ride Ain’t’ Free” are 90% of the way there to being genuinely viable club records, but it’s almost jarring to hear Desto Dubb floating as he always does over the former. As parts of a thirty-one-minute experience, they feel too tense to be fun, too spare, and in that emptiness the anger finds space to echo.
In that respect, JoogFTR couldn’t be a more perfect partner, maybe even more so than other LA natives like Ron-Ron or BeatBoy that have already begun to ascend towards national recognition, because nothing Swaye’s made with them feels as tight. The sparseness that JoogFTR embraces is emphasized by the short, spaced riffs he picks out to cut through the murk (“Nerd” might be the best here). The music sounds like nighttime and emptied roads, with lots of turns.
I spent a summer of college transplanted across the country into Los Angeles’s orbit, living in the narrow strips of pseudo-suburbia that rise up between the film studios of Burbank. By day, the faces were inescapable: they peered out from rolled-down car windows in adjacent lanes, brushed past me on sidewalks on morning runs, smiled out from movie posters plastered on walls. But at 6PM, Burbank deflated, muted by sunset, as its Hollywood population filtered back out to downtown and Venice Beach and Santa Monica before clock-in tomorrow morning.
It was no New York, where every moment of your life is lived shoulder-to-shoulder with others. Instead, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, every evening I watched highways hollow and streets thin. I spent ten weeks but lived ten years in the darkness that settles between street lights placed a couple yards too far apart. I wish I had this music back then.