The POW Freshman 15

Because lists are the 15th element of hip-hop.
By    July 10, 2018

A few notes before we begin. Everything is arbitrary and subjective — as it should be. Groups are included because groups are better than solo artists. Yes, always. This list is heavily slanted towards LA because the East Coast gave Suga Free 2.5 mics in the Source for Street Gospel and I will never let you forget it. Lil Pump isn’t on this list because no one who writes for this site is a 16 year-old with an addiction to sour patch Xanax (no, we are not anti-Lil Pump). We made this list because “buzz” is the sound that a hornet makes, not a legitimate way to criticize art. Yes, rap is art. It’s also entertainment. KRS-One did not pay me to say this sentence, but he’s welcome to donate to the Patreon.

It’s true that we left off your favorite rapper because of a personal conspiracy against you. Some of my favorite rappers were left off too. Go outside. No, I don’t know what a “Freshman” is, but I do know that Sada Baby can do the robot. This list isn’t ordered. We might be wrong, but I doubt it. — Jeff Weiss

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03 Greedo


As someone who no longer lives in Los Angeles and doesn’t follow new hip-hop the way they once did, it felt as if 03 Greedo arrived fully formed, a preternaturally talented hybrid of Boosie’s passion, Max B’s oddball sing-rapping, and T-Pain’s flights of AutoTuned absurdist fancy. He soared to the precipice of greatness only to be forcibly removed from society thanks to an ill-fated 2016 drug bust in Texas, a meth-and-gun charge that, thanks to the perverse logic of our warped criminal justice system, somehow resulted in a potential 200-year prison sentence that was eventually whittled down to 20 (however, Texas’s parole laws stipulate he’ll be eligible for parole in a quarter of that time).

The thing that stings the most about his prison bid is a palpable sense of unfairness—to his fans, sure, a little, but in a much, much, much greater sense, to Greedo himself. While it’s not on me to determine his guilt or innocence in the particular case that got him sent away, it’s clear that whatever Greedo might have been doing, his intense popularity—not to mention the pace with which he seemed to record—suggests that he’s left that lifestyle behind, and that if the philosophical purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation and not retribution, then such a punishment feels disproportionate to its intended effect.

While Greedo certainly insinuated himself into the epicenter of Los Angeles’s hip-hop scene with startling speed and force, his scattershot sensibility and his gift for off-kilter electronic production also makes him feel of a piece with avant-garde electronic artists like Dean Blunt and James Ferraro. His projects are often disjointed and schizophrenic, but then again, who can blame the guy? He had five-to-twenty years worth of music to record in a matter of months; if you were trying to do the same thing you’d be more focused on getting your words out of your head and into a Pro Tools file than you’d be on arranging your songs in a series of coherent projects.

But rather than dragging the quality of Greedo’s work down, his albums’ haphazard nature emphasize my favorite quality that he possesses: the sense that you’re listening to someone capture lightning in a bottle amid a greater project of documenting the totality of his experience with radical honesty. It’s fitting that Greedo caps off a verse in his miniature autobiography “If I Wasn’t Rappin’” with, “Realest statement in your caption/ ‘#Free03 my favorite rapper.” He knew we’d all catch on eventually, but that by the time we did, we’d have to settle for celebrating his greatness in absentia. DREW MILLARD


Drakeo the Ruler


Calling your enemies “silly billies” requires an immense, adrenal audacity. Rhyming “I’ma do these n****s hella foul” with “dick hangin’ out in public, I’m a pedophile” does too. And so does broadcasting oneself on Instagram Live from a bunk at Los Angeles’ Men’s Central Jail. But what counts as blinding temerity for others appears to barely faze Drakeo the Ruler, a man so cool a jetstream of dry ice smoke seems to trail him. But that veneer that begins at the gum soles of his Maison Margiela sneakers and ends at the crown of his pinpoint fade, is just that—a veneer.

He calls his oeuvre “nervous music” because, behind the giggling and brazen Drakeo persona, is a too-human scofflaw with sense enough to experience anxiety. And therein lies the duality of Drakeo: to burglarize a home requires a peculiar courage, but to do so without compunction requires a pathology he doesn’t possess. To listen to him is to experience secondhand his psychedelic swirling of confidence and justifiable fear. With Drakeo, you’re permanently, weightlessly suspended mid-car crash, mid-burglary, mid-lean pour. It’s wild skullduggery from a man with a gold-tipped shovel.

For now, Drakeo’s gilded shovel sits dormant. Because he’s been incarcerated almost without cessation for the past two years, last December’s marvelous Cold Devil, is his only mixtape since the winter 2016. But the mixtape, hastily recorded between jail stints, has become an essential piece of the Los Angeles rap canon. It crystallizes a moment that, even for those who share the same sun-crisped hellscape freeway sprawl as Drakeo, can feel ephemeral. Cold Devil puts within reach words and moods which, with the exception of a few designer-clad South Central rebels, were inaccessible.

Despite his imprisonment, Drakeo’s boat has risen with the cresting wave of Los Angeles’ young rappers. His name remains in the news, on social media, and on the tips of tongues. He entered jail a star south of the 10 Freeway; if he exits, he’ll do so a cult figure, more myth than man. Should it come, his freedom will be a victory for immense, adrenal audacity. TORII MACADAMS


Valee


A smart person once told me that poetry only has two tones: glad and sad. The good poets and singers and rappers know how to slip from one to the other in the turn of a phrase, in the break of a voice.

Chicago’s Valee owns those kinds of turns. Like Devin the Dude or Project Pat or, hell, Sade, you may find yourself chasing Valee’s cloudy emotions through a song—Is this happy? Does he sound proud here?—before, poof, each cough and coo gets lost in the cartoon skeleton xylophone nocturne of “Vlone” or a MIDI woofer stomp on “Skinny.”

In an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, Valee called his own music “elegant trap.” It fits. With 1:11, 2:22, 12:12, 1988, vtm, and GOOD Job, You Found Me, he already has a host of memorable mixtapes. He’s found a natural production foil in ChaseTheMoney. “Shell,” almost two years old now, still knocks. The cyclotron of G.O.O.D. Music stands at the ready to launch him into new velocities.

Lover of onomatopoeic effects like Pat and quietly funny like Devin, Valee rises above his peers with the acuity of his images and the mystery of his persona. Valee’s phrases can ripple visually, “shoes red like your nose bleed,” or they can hint at Gus Fring-level calculations underneath a taunt: “Where the fuck the mall at?/ I shop online/ I don’t need no Target.”

In that same Pitchfork interview, Valee discusses his childhood as a tinkerer, taking apart RC cars and machines, probing. That fits too. Technicians don’t get fine-grained for the sake of it; they get technical to internalize a craft’s levers and pulleys, to spin an emotion without us noticing it, to learn how breath and timing can turn a boast into something the listener bounces around their own head—the “like this” refrain on “Diamonds”—for days.

Valee has the public skills and the personal mystery. Why does he so often sound like he’s whispering? Tequila and lime really do taste like seaweed, huh? Is the drowsy, haunting “Diamonds” the last song we need about diamonds for a while? Is he weary or is he unbothered? In 2018, Valee’s ambiguity doesn’t just promise a long career, it already feels deeper than most everything else out there. —EVAN MCGARVEY


Blocboy JB


I caught a leg to the balls at a party last semester. It was someone who was flailing their stiff leg back and forth to “Look Alive” by BlocBoy JB. It happened in a greasy basement at the tiny liberal arts college I attend in Middle-Of-Nowhere, MA; the closest city is Albany, NY. My assailant clearly hadn’t watched one of the hundreds of “Shoot” dance tutorials on the internet; his take was more on the DJ Khaled end of the “Shoot” spectrum than on the Uzi/Drake side.

BlocBoy JB says he came up with the viral move while messing around in front of a mirror and that’s exactly what it looks like. Like any viral dance, it’s relatively accessible, looks ridiculous, and works with basically every contemporary rap song. It’ll end up part of BlocBoy’s legacy, but it and “Look Alive” are just scratching the surface of his stardom.

Dancing aside, BlocBoy JB deserves this spot because he’s a great rapper. He’s easily the best rapper on the [redacted] list. His music will probably end up in the Memphis rap canon. One of the most common errors in art criticism is conflating the formulaic with unoriginality. It’s failing to understand that some artists operate best within certain close-to-home orbits and don’t have to take big swings. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that in Brahms’ compositions he could “begin to hear the sound of machinery,” implying that they were lifeless or lacked character.

While Brahms’ music may have truly sounded dull to Wittgenstein, to use the word machinery as criticism seems erroneous. BlocBoy JB’s music sounds like machinery, but in the best possible way. Everything about it is so perfectly predictable: the barrage of “Woooooooord” ad libs, Tay Keith’s pounding keys, BlocBoy’s simple, but effective flows. Even his quotable a cappella freestyle for the [redacted] Freshman List sounds like it was made for a Tay Keith instrumental.

All this talk of formulas is not to take away from BlocBoy’s originality. As a writer, he possesses that rare, seamless blend of humor and world-building that lends itself to longevity. On his most recent mixtape Simi he goes from left-field one-liners that somehow land (“I clean shit up like it’s poop control”) to poignant street gospel (see: “Left Right”). He has a drawl that lets him bend words and occasionally try new flows. But for the most part, BlocBoy sticks to what works– tightly-composed raps sandwiched between infectious hooks–and he’s a star because of it. —MANO SUNDARESAN


Shoreline Mafia


It’s hard to remember when Shoreline Mafia felt underground, but the group’s meteoric rise has really only taken off in the past six months. Since then, they’ve sold out countless shows across the U.S., inked a million-dollar recording deal with Atlantic, and, most recently, earned a couple Virgil Abloh co-signs.

Figuring out Shoreline Mafia’s appeal isn’t hard. Like Greedo and The Stinc Team, Shoreline (a four-man group featuring OhGeesy, Fenix Flexin, Rob Vicious, and Master Kato) similarly fuses elements of the jerkin’ and hyphy movements but wrapped it in a sinister, compelling darkness. A lot of this sound comes courtesy of frequent collaborator and the city’s hottest rising producer, RonRonDoThatShit, who discovered the group after frontman OhGeesy ripped RonRon’s instrumental off SoundCloud to make “Musty.”

It was a resourceful move if anything, and set forth a partnership that resulted in one of the most anthemic outputs of this year in ShorelineDoThatShit. “Musty” remains the group’s biggest hit to date and works as a microcosm of Shoreline’s sound: a dazzling two-and-a-half minutes of members OhGeesy and Fenix Flexin coolly filling pockets with airtight cadences as they give a narcoticized recap of the night before—or night of, it’s not entirely clear.

Shoreline makes songs not necessarily tied to a specific space and time, but rather soundtracking a sleepless lifestyle underscored by women, money, and lean. And they drink a lot of the latter—enough to make Fox 11 see the group as fit antagonists for their cruelly archaic coverage on the dangers of recreationally consuming codeine. Part of the nuance missed by this piece is that the way Shoreline raps about lean is wholly unique, it isn’t entirely explicit glorification in the way of Big Moe, nor is it the gut-wrenching, heart-on-a-sleeve woe of Greedo or Future. It’s somewhere in between. “Bottle Service” inches closest to a definitive endorsement of the drug but most of their music paints sipping lean with salient indifference, as a formality to simply get their day going.

Shoreline’s overall apathy characterizes them as singular not just within the current stylistic movement in LA rap but among any rap group to emerge in at least the last decade. Where Odd Future and Flatbush Zombies err toward angst, anarchy, and political consciousness, Shoreline opts for a more self-indulgent lawlessness. It isn’t that they are against the revolution but would prefer it happen at their leisure.

Where they find a common thread with Odd Future is in their organic genesis. The friendships that make up Shoreline formed not through rap but graffiti and skating and their larger collective of 100-plus is trickled with Black kids, white kids, Mexican kids, skaters, rappers, taggers, etc. It is a universality indicative of the bonds molded by counterculture in LA’s inner cities and also a large part of why their live shows feel so unifying.

Since seeing them more than a few times, I have become sure of one thing: The kids in Shoreline Mafia are LA rap’s biggest pop stars. Their performances are less a rap group half-heartedly running through material but more reminiscent of a boyband in their magnetism and the crowd’s resulting hysteria. The moments are seizing in that everyone in the room can recite every song word-for-word, kinetic in the way the group exhilaratingly feeds off the crowd’s energy, and also precious in how it all feels necessary to capture before Shoreline is inevitably selling out arenas. MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE


SOB x RBE


While a Migos comparison might seem apt for SOB x RBE because of the similarities in song structure, they’re actually a part of the west coast lineage that brought us Shoreline Mafia and the Stinc Team. Some might even argue (and they would be right) that Yhung T.O. is every bit as good (if not better than) Quavo. SOB x RBE gives us the chance to see the influence of Mac Dre filtered down to the present day and DaBoii, Slimmy B, Lul G, and T.O. each bring their own elements into the mix.

Think of them as a basketball team that has been playing together long enough to know where each other is on the court at all times. T.O. serves as the melodic center, providing emotional hooks that serve as a fitting coda for the heartfelt raps that precede them. Each member has released their own solo material and the constant effort that they are putting in shows. Gangin, their well received official debut, is full of gut wrenching and rewind worthy moments. Their taste for fast, skittering beats that evoke ’80s and ’90s aesthetics serve as the perfect complement for their raps, which are full of hard won wisdom.

There is a certain urgency behind every word and members will float between prideful boasting and regretful lamenting within seconds. Since Gangin’s release, they have not taken their feet off the gas pedal for one second. Their YouTube channel is home to some of the most vital rap that has been released this year. While many became aware of the group after their inclusion on the Black Panther soundtrack, this is not the only other album quality loosie that they have unleashed this year. “All Facts Not 1 Opinion,” “LockDown,” “Get Off Yo Ass, Ridin,” and “Leave The Hood” serve as individual showcases for each member without sounding like a departure from the SOB x RBE brand.

Steel sharpens steel. Every member has dropped a solo tape (Slimmy B’s second was released this past week) and when you combine the type of longtime connection that these artists have with this type of work ethic? You have a group that sits at the very top of the short list for most important of the new generation. —HAROLD BINGO


G Perico


There isn’t a lot of music that’s as fundamentally good as G Perico’s hair. One look at that coif and you know exactly what dude’s all about. Luckily, G Perico also happens to be one of the best rappers going in LA, and as such, he’s evaded the embarrassment of his hair overshadowing his life’s work.

In the wake of the Stinc Team, Shoreline and Greedo’s come-up, it’s important that G Perico doesn’t get overlooked. He remains the workingman’s purveyor of ice cold, G-funk tinted rap in the key of Quik and Eazy, endless summer days that can end at a house party, a casket infinity, or both. 

When G Perico went to prison, he got buff and stopped rapping. When he emerged, A$AP Yams had taken notice and the emcee quickly delivered a certified street hit in 2016’s Shit Don’t StopPerico has stayed remarkably consistent since, releasing three LPs in 2017, the remarkable All Blue (featuring the certified Cali anthem of a title track), a collaborative record with his group, G-Worthy, and a mixtape, 2 Tha Left

2 Tha Left is G Perico’s most explicit grab for commercial success, but the rapper’s ability to reach for stardom without losing his prowling, aggressive spirit is why he already has the city on lock. He’s a South Central legend and still in his 20s, but “All Blue” already feels like one of those anthems that will be immortal for decades. I dream of a future in which our children aren’t afraid to rock signature Perico jheri curls and get rich. May we all be blessed with his hustler’s spirit. WILL SCHUBE


Sada Baby


It’s been 22 years since Mack 10 insisted that “gangstas don’t dance, we boogie.” But that was a full decade before YouTube—when Sada Baby was literally a baby. The coastal rap wars raged, Gifs were the sole province of nerds on Netscape 2.0, and the rap music mean mug was mandatory.  So if the walls have finally crumbled in the dystopian virality of the nothing matters era, Scuba Steve reminds us that gangstas can be funny, art and entertainment aren’t mutually exclusive, and the robot is timeless.

So the meme gods testified: Get you a rapper who will fuck up the party with his dance moves and pull out his gun and get ignorant. Or at the very least, one who will do the Harlem Shake with his Draco. He’s not the first of his breed. After all, G-Dep is serving 15-to-life for second-degree murder, while Boosie jigging the “loose as a goose dance,” ushered in a wave that crested with Shmurda and most recently Bloc Boy JB. Yet Sada Baba, the biblically bearded future legend from the Eastside of Detroit might be the most natural at balancing the twin polarities, ascending into a elastic-limbed funkdafied realm with this year’s best single, “BloxK Party.”

Maybe you first saw the Sada shake appropriated for Donald Glover’s “This is America” video, but the original iteration can’t be replicated. Behold Sada, shoulders shimmying out of their sockets, belly puffed out like a blowfish, eyes rhapsodically closed, looking like James Harden on a mural inside the Lafayette Coney. He’s running in place, elbows leaping into his armpits, air guitaring, referencing an imagined Soul Train appearance from Styx. This is what Mac Dre meant by feeling yourself. The toughest guys aren’t always the ones most quick to pull out the chopper on camera. They know that the police are watching.

The genius of Sada Baby is in his ability to reconcile these warring factions. The subject matter is simply defined. You can tell if all from his Twitter bio alone: “Drugs, Love, Music, and Money. Authentic Athletic Arrogance. RIP LIL MIKE. RIP RELL JONES. RIP SMURF. RIP DLO.” It’s street rap acutely aware of consequences, but also, street rap that flips the greatest song ever made, “Return of the Mack,” into the goofy joy of “Return with the Strap.”

Rather than dwell in the pain, he revels in the absurdity of life.  The one-liners sting in your memory: the big brick of white looks like Brock Lesnar or alternately Macauley Culkin; the big-ass shotgun looks like Lauri Markannen. He’ll reference the Rugrats and sound effects from the original NBA Jam. On “Guatemala,” he snarls, “baby mama Guatemalan and I ain’t got no baby mama.” Whether he’s with FMB DZ, Drego, Will General, or solo, he balances an innate star quality with the natural willingness to cede the spotlight that makes the best rap groups better than their individual parts.

You can hear bits of Boosie and Baton Rouge, strains of the Hot Boys, and the staccato growl of Vallejo, but this is ultimately the rusted out hollow-tip ruthlessness of the Eastside of the Motor City. Sada straight off 7th Mile, the real red zone, with a voice that can morph into dagger and the dance moves that define the joy that exists that when you realize you’re still here—at least for a little while longer. JEFF WEISS


JPEGMAFIA


On his 2015 debut, Communist Slow Jams, JPEGMAFIA declared he was “the new Ice Cube” (“Reaper”). Equating your talents with those of an iconic forbear (also read: chief influence) is rap rite of hubris. Part homage, part flex, and part wishful thinking, proclamations like these usually prove baseless and overreaching. But listen to Communist Slow Jams, Black Ben Carson (2016), or Veteran (2018) and tell me you don’t hear the molotov-to-the-window militance of Death Certificate-era O’Shea Jackson.

Like Cube, JPEG’s rage grabs you by the throat, chokes you with another guttural and grating syllable before you can inhale. He doesn’t just articulate his discontent with police brutality and fraudulent liberals; he deconstructs the existence of such injustices and people with piercing specificity. He doesn’t see cops, politicians (e.g., Ben Carson, Rudy Giuliani, Bernie Sanders), racist rock stars (e.g., Morrissey and Kid Rock), crooning rappers (e.g., Pharrell and Canada’s foremost child concealer), music publications (pick one), comedians (e.g., Tina Fey and Bill Maher), etc.—he sees targets. No person or opinion is above thorough investigation and scathing reproach.

“I think I am [a contrarian], but that’s the part about me that’s most compelling. I take a stance on things. I can also contradict myself. I contradict myself a lot,” JPEG told PAPER in 2016.

Born Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, the 28-year-old rapper/producer spent his childhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn before his family moved to Alabama. Confronted with the blatant racism of the south, he found solace and inspiration via early Ice Cube and The Diplomats as much as he did the industrial sounds of Throbbing Gristle and the acerbic punk of Bad Brains and Black Flag. Unable to afford America’s exorbitant college tuition fees, Hendricks joined the Air Force, planning to use his earnings to finance his rap career. Following several harrowing years in the armed forces, he briefly lived in Japan, earned a masters in journalism, and discovered the “black rage” of the Baltimore music scene via artists like Abdu Ali. After moving to Baltimore, he released his first JPEGMAFIA project, Communist Slow Jams.

In addition to mixing and mastering subsequent projects, JPEG doubled-down on his abrasive, dissonant, and often lo-fi beats, creating soundscapes that wed El-P’s dystopian leanings with contemporary percussion. He also extended his list of adversaries. It wasn’t until January’s Veteran, however, that JPEG achieved virtually ubiquitous critical attention, receiving reviews and granting interviews to the publications he continues to eviscerate on Veteran (i.e., Pitchfork). While many of the tropes on the album remain the same, JPEG has shifted his approach. In the same breath that he prods his latest pincushion, he adopts their argot, cadence, and/or inflection. He’s muddied the waters, gone meta sans meta-commentary. This is Ice Cube for the Internet-era.—MAX BELL


Queen Key


Spy the cover of Queen Key’s Eat My Pussy mixtape and you’ll instantly recognize the design to be that of a Paper magazine cover. There’s Queen, perched between two Adonises whose identities have been masked because it doesn’t matter who they are. The bodies are props deployed by a ruler whose manifesto is laid out by two words printed at the bottom: “Empowering. Disruptive.”

Queen works hard to adhere to a 21-year-old’s interpretation of such a proclamation. Her best tracks display power and disruption through the sheer force of personality. Queen—né Ke’Asha McClure—makes zero-fucks, braggadocio-loaded music that’s enough to convince she’d bend any party to her own will once in the building.

Take “Am I Wrong,” where she claims to be “more powerful than two Cleopatras” before asserting herself the spiritual offspring of Lauryn Hill. Coming out of Chicago, Queen packs a full clip of concrete beats typical of the city’s south side but with a level of goofiness and exhilaration not associated with drill. She’s mildly cartoonish, plenty wicked, and capable of creating her own colorful universe within narrow bars.

“Baked As A Pie,” one of her first songs, was a murky slice of stoner rap that showcased the indomitable power of Key’s personality—the dinky little hook was delivered with an appropriate smirk from the star. Since then she has worked on making her flow more forceful and becoming more adept at structuring songs—positive upgrades when you’re making that jump from cutting rough gems towards a higher fidelity sound.

It’s a handy entrance point when a new artist distills their outlook so clearly into a single anthem, which is what we get with “My Way.” Mike Larry’s creeping beat splits the difference between DJ Mustard and Kanye West’s grisly production on “New Slaves.” A hook like, “My way, my way, or the highway,” could come across as trite (all disrespect to Fred Durst) but Key wins by wrapping it with scintillating wordplay. See how she manages to go from asserting her own turntness to the cash in her pocket by evoking images of burnt pizza—it’s a joy to behold. “My generation going downhill/ It’s wiping out,” Queen spits. Sometimes you need that cynical streak to be a master of swaggering grandiloquence. DEAN VAN NGUYEN


Bali Baby


Remember Lil Yachty? Well, ancient Cuneiform tablets indicate that Yachty dropped a mixtape called Summer Songs 2 months after dropping Lil Boat, the mixtape that introduced him to most of the world. That tape included a track called “Dipset.” Based around a looped minor key operatic sample from a classic episode of the anime TV show Cowboy Bebop, the beat seemed tailor made for Yachty to gleefully spit the kind of fun and funny “bubblegum trap” bars that he made a name for himself on. But Yachty fumbled the pass and this great beat by producer Byous went unfilled until a year later when Atlanta’s Bali Baby, in classic mixtape era Lil Wayne style, finally revealed its full potential.

Her remix, entitled “Banana Clip” is effortless shit talking at its finest. While the track revolves aroundBali’s describing how she’s chillin’ with your girl and how she’s got a big ass magazine clip for her gun, the lyrics are definitely not the star of the show here. Instead, Bali’s effervescent flow, her ability to stay right on top of the beat and then duck right in between it, and most of all, her ability to infect the track with her personality that lies somewhere in between Yachty’s old neon pink playfulness and Amber London’s dark purple gangster occultism, is what really makes her stand out as one of the best new rappers of the year.

Only 20 years old, since 2016 Bali’s released a prodigious stream of mixtapes, EPs, notable features with folks like Trippie Redd, and a handful of loosie singles that have lived off her natural ability to flow and her ability to outshine other rappers with her gang affiliated non-heteronormative Hannah Montana style and personality. Bali lists Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, the songs included in the video game Guitar Hero, and Princess Nokia as influences on her sound and influences on the direction she wants to take her music in, especially Nokia’s ability to switch back and forth between hip hop and emo rock inspired pop.

Earlier on in the year Bali dipped away from her regular output to drop a sometimes interesting misstep into Cobra Starship-style emo rock titled Baylor Swift. In one of the few interviews she’s given, Bali describes Baylor Swift as somewhat of an exercise in emotional catharsis after breaking up with an ex-girlfriend. Although the album is definitely hit or miss (and a lot of it is a miss), it’s an interesting glimpse into Bali’s burgeoning versatility, and a glimpse into her own personal life. A recently released track called “Amber Alert” sees Bali back to her top tier, shit talking rap. Screaming “pussy is power,” “Amber Alert” retains the energy of Bali’s older tracks, while structuring it around the kind of short and tight songwriting techniques she experimented with on Baylor Swift. It’s cool to see an artist take risks and experiment, and have those experiments kind of flop, while taking the best parts of them to make their next release better…Especially when that artist is this open and fun.  SAM RIBAKOFF


Rico Nasty


Take a moment to watch Maryland rapper Rico Nasty in the “Smack A Bitch” video and tell me she’s not a star: A black cyberpunk dress with the lace front pants that belong on Jeff Hardy in 2001, makeup running, boots with a 5 inch lift, and hair laid like a possessed Nia Long. Throw her in the dark techno club scene from Blade and she’d fit right into the blood splattered room. And you may argue that anyone can put on some clothes and mean mug the camera, that doesn’t make them a star. Well you’re wrong, because Rico does much more than that.

Everyday we log online and see a new rapper claiming to be goth, emo, or the second coming of a pop-punk artist that they found on Guitar Hero, but when the music comes out, it’s standard and reflects none of that. Rico, in her transformation into a gruff voiced punk-rapper, has embodied and impressively captured an aesthetic that’s extremely easy to appear as corny and forced. Rico has an innate coolness to her, that started back in her early SoundCloud days where despite making music that was bright enough to be paired with Lil Yachty’s, she still had an edge. In the 2016 “Icarly” video, she sinisterly swayed back and forth, gun in hand, smile on face, like a haunted Katie Got Bandz in Shady’s “Go In.”

Rico’s voice has this natural aggression that is unsettling and on her latest album, Nasty, it truly feels like she will beat your ass over some petty shit. She doesn’t scream just to scream, it’s controlled and placed only in moments that make it feel sincere and the emotion is elevated by the electric guitar heavy Kenny Beats production. And still she’s versatile enough to hit some melodies without losing that element of her voice that makes you think she’ll stomp you out in boots made for Comic-Con like on “Oreo.”

The most important aspect of Rico is that she never sacrifices her rapping. She’s always able to bring it back down and give you a verse or two, a balance proven difficult by the few artists able to pull it off. And it makes Rico’s music extremely necessary because rapping is still important and it happens that looking like an altercation with her might result in a tombstone piledriver makes shit way better.  ALPHONSE PIERRE


Rucci


If Drakeo is the city’s apostatized bishop and Greedo the mystical iconoclast, Rucci moves through Los Angeles with a papal stroll. Just 23 years old, the North Inglewood native—rarely seen without his signature braids, golden smile and tokens of his Piru heritage—understands his connection to the space just east of Los Angeles International Airport. His affirmative “norf norf” surfaces on most tracks if you forget.

Rucci started rapping in late high school, one of the charismatic, table-slapping degenerates that populate every cafeteria. Many of his songs crescendo in the fashion of a lunchroom disruption. “My Way” from El Perro, his last project, is a raucous example, featuring a minute-long opening progression of razoring keys until the drums collide. He still has the approachability of an old classmate, maintaining a smile while speaking with fans or draping a half-empty Hennessy bottle at his side. His shows are family events, unwaveringly energetic but with the intimacy of smoke clogged house parties.  

On “Like Woah,” he says, “My name is Rucci and I’m bringing Inglewood back,” with the full force of his canine tendencies. It’s a hometown flex that poignantly describes his stylistic influences. He grew up under rapper 2 Eleven, a staple in the neighborhood and a close friend of Rucci’s father, and their music shares an outspoken reverence for the Northside tradition. He typically chooses beats from the splintered sonic progeny of g-funk missionaries Snoop Dogg and Warren G and, like Mack 10 before him, Rucci’s music loses a bit of its intended meaning if not consumed near a barbecue. This isn’t to say he’s derivative of the past or divorced from contemporary trends—he carries his chopper in a Gucci bag (“El Perro”)—but when Rucci raps it’s a manifestation of the city’s communal history.

This week marks one year since Sean Mackk, Rucci’s lifelong friend and musical partner, was murdered in their hometown. The two have been compared to Boosie and Webbie and were on the trajectory to a wider national audience. “He gives me motivation on an everyday basis,” he says of Mackk. Rucci isn’t just rapping for himself, he’s showing the world Inglewood. When he’s posing next to pitbulls and Texacos or explicitly confessing the hurt of his partner’s loss, he does it so Mackk’s legacy is known to posterity. It’s not wholly solemn though. They’re jokesters,  shit-talkers, as Rucci claims on their “Domino Effekt” collaboration. He knows “this rap shit funny” in more than one way. MIGUELITO


Mach-Hommy


Rappers either borrow from Gucci Mane or MF Doom. Of the latter’s disciples, only Mach-Hommy has no face. He hides behind a bandana or a bucket hat and he has given exactly three interviews of which I’m aware. His social media is threadbare. Fans whose interest is piqued by reverential cosigns from Alchemist, Earl Sweatshirt, Ka, and Action Bronson will be hard pressed to listen to Mach’s music because he sells his albums for hundreds of dollars through his Bandcamp page. You can listen to HBO (Haitian Body Odor) on SoundCloud, though if you wanted to listen to it in 2016, you had to hit him on Instagram and fork over $300.

Inaccessibility is a gimmick best deployed by artists with preternatural ability, excellent taste, and mythic origins. But Mach-Hommy’s posture and increasing scarceness—2018 has been especially quiet and his Bandcamp has disappeared as of this writing—don’t suggest an elaborate promotional hat-trick where he’ll emerge with a Roc Nation deal. He makes dense, inscrutable, lo-fi rap with a coterie of the underground’s priestly class. His animating forces, insofar as I can glean, are a restless tension with Haiti’s colonial past and an indigence at sharing space with anything or anyone shallow, cheap, or insincere. (Hence his lack of Twitter.)

His music sounds like an elbow to the chest where the elbow is covered in a python trench coat. He likes no-frills, high-impact loops. Even more exciting are his forays into singing, often in Haitian creole, which give his caustic boom bap despondent intermissions. Each verse is a tangle of proverbs to unravel and inklings of larger meaning to parse. To navigate the oblique wordplay and boutique distribution channels is to listen to Mach-Hommy on his terms and in his domain. Today, you can listen to more music with less friction and cost than ever, but Mach-Hommy fandom is the exclusive province of people willing to invest dollars or assiduous attention. You can’t listen casually. —EVAN NABAVIAN


Foolio & Soulja K


Soulja K should be at the point in his life where the phone numbers for club promoters to call are disappearing from his mixtape covers, or where the pictures he posts to his Facebook page of him standing with his arm draped over T.I. start to look less like shots from a meet-and-greet. But at the time of this writing, Soulja K is behind bars following a RICO case from last fall which cast a rap collective as a gang, similar to the grim fate facing Bobby Shmurda, Rowdy Rebel, and GS9 in New York.

Where Bobby et al had already scored a major hit and earned national notoriety before the charges came down, Soulja K and his frequent collaborator, Foolio, have only begun to build momentum in their native Jacksonville, Florida. The pair have a wealth of solo material, but it’s together that they distinguish themselves as remarkable young talents, given to semi-linear strings of threats and to propulsive back-and-forths.

Foolio is the force and Soulja the finesse; each can move from dead-eyed threats to emotionally naked songwriting, but Foolio’s voice is gruffer, and Soulja’s more prone to float over the beat. Distinct as their timbres are from one another, each has mastered that flow characteristic to very young rappers in today’s very deep South, where they can sink deep into drawls in the middle of a bar only to arrive at its end in perfect timing. (Given the timeline of these guys’ Youtube pages, it’s clear they were developing their own voices at the same time Kodak Black was finding his down the coast in Pompano Beach, and that Kodak was less an influence than a contemporary who happened to blow up sooner.

Soulja and Foolio are each at that strange crossroads where some of their material gets co-signed by major platforms and racks up a half-million plays, while other, excellent efforts go virtually unheard. (Like the rest of us, they’re also living in an era where a clip called, like, “Foolio Shares His Favorite Memory Of Lil Jug and How He Copes With Death” is a neatly-packaged, four-minute piece of content.)

As has been true at every point in rap’s existence, some of the most creatively exciting movements are happening out of earshot of the major publications and the majority of the genre’s fans. But the crevices of social media show the genuine, grassroots affection kids in forgotten cities have for their local stars, whether or not they bubble up to Rap Caviar and Vlad TV. Pay attention. —PAUL THOMPSON

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