The Rap-Up: Week of May 18, 2020

The Rap-Up returns with new bangers from Sheff G, Nolanberollin, and more.
By    May 18, 2020

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Mano Sundaresan still got one hand on the rock like cliffhangers.

Sheff G – One and Only

Like DJ Rashad’s footwork or Jessy Lanza’s silky synthpop, Sheff G’s drill lives in your chest and shoulders and headspace. It is quiet and compressed; you can almost meditate to it. On Friday, he dropped One and Only, the latest and best iteration of his sedated vision, and one of the finest Brooklyn drill projects to date.

Give Sheff credit, but also give producer Great John his flowers. What they had started doing on The Unluccy Luccy Kid that they fully lean into on the new tape is pare Brooklyn drill down to its skeleton, cutting out its fleshy low end in the process. The drums are now a quiet patter, the 808s sometimes nonexistent. On first listen, the guitars on “Tonight 2” demand to go somewhere. It is constantly teetering, all anticipation. When will the bass kick in?

It doesn’t. Very rarely does Great John’s production slam you in the face, and that’s by design. In the shrunk-down world of One and Only, the primary percussive element is Sheff’s voice. And he has an incredible voice, a storm cloud of a baritone that imbues even his most aspirational writing with a grey numbness. 

He raps breathlessly and brilliantly across this record, demonstrating total mastery of textbook drill flows. The quintessential joys of drill come through: tracks that have speed lines trailing behind them, choruses that’ll hide in your brain then pop their heads out every so often, even jabs at other artists (22Gz was asking for it).  

What’s especially striking about Sheff is that he turns all this velocity, energy and presence into a vehicle for his paranoia. Locked into drill flows, the lines sound like they’re running off the page, like Sheff can’t think straight. On “Once I’m Gone,” he asks if he’ll be remembered after he dies, then considers how he might die. He doesn’t want anybody near him, but also doesn’t think anybody hears him. He uses the “huh” ad lib across the mixtape as a caesura, a formal break, but here it wavers in the second chorus, like he had to stop to ground himself.

Sheff is still growing as a writer. He’s only 21, he has plenty more life to live. But there’s no mistaking the subtle strand of drill that he has cultivated with Great John.

There’s no denying his impact, either. The biggest surprise for the uninitiated will likely be that Sheff is like Jay to the kids in Brooklyn. When he roams his home turf, he’s constantly stopped for photos and daps and IG stories. He’s larger than life, Gen-Z royalty, but you wouldn’t immediately know it from listening to his music. Sheff G doesn’t make drill to dance to. 

The Khan – “Nothing Like Me”

There is so much territory left to explore in the space prior to the beat’s completion. That first bass drop some even number of bars in, that moment where everything suddenly and ceremoniously clicks into place — that’s what listeners want, what artists know, what defines so many good rap songs. But why not sink into the before-stage? That slow, uncomfortable “are we there yet” of the buildup? Why not make that the whole song? Of course, Chief Keef has been experimenting in this space since Young Chop taught him how to use FL, but Duwap Kaine is doing it too, Carti has songs like “Love Hurts,” Bktherula has “Tweakin’ Together” which I covered in this column a few months ago. Producers and rappers are slowly breaking out of maybe the most sacred rap form. The Khan goes over a Lil Trvsh beat here that seems to constantly float in transition.

Even when the bass comes in, it sounds halfway-there; you’re expecting something more. But that expectation goes away on repeat listens, and what remains is a cavernous banger, mood music for a warehouse show.

Reed & Hunnaloe – “MPR”

Years after its supposed “peak” from late 2016 to early 2017 with the Fader documentary and DJ Lucas’ No Jumper interview, Dark World Records is still going strong, and the music is better than ever. DJ stays cooking and putting on the underground, his brother Weird Dane is editing dazzling music videos and concocting bilingual pop rap overseas with his partner (Chinese pop singer Kala) and now New York-based affiliates Reed and Hunnaloe have let off a quality tape together called Money Power Respect. It’s a New York ass sampler of the last decade, pulling equally from drill and true-school styles and from the grit and grind of Reed’s Washington Heights and Hunnaloe’s Queensbridge. The title track is a nice taste that even restores the feeling with a video from DJ himself. Dark World has a thing for rappers who love where they’re from, and these two are no exception.

Van Buren Boys – “Mo in the Benz”

These guys have been so fun to watch come up. At this point, Luke Bar$ and Saint Lyor and company have all put out good to great solo projects, but it’s becoming apparent that the Van Buren Boys move best as a unit. “Mo in the Benz” might be their strongest group single to date. The video is an essential addition to the “driving cars around abandoned lots” genre of rap visuals.

NOLANBEROLLIN – “【g-tec club】”

Harley and I entered the chat a few weeks ago. It was NOLANBEROLLIN’s IG Live and he just kept saying “frosted I’m Frozone” over an appropriately icey instrumental. That snippet has materialized as track one on this new 9-minute project/mix thing. He can say he’s “not lyrical” all he wants, I don’t know anyone else pulling out couplets like “Glock in the sofa, I don’t drink mimosa.” Half-serious, fully-inventive raps about getting bands, jacking cars, and painting faces.

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