The One and Only Sheff G

Sun-Ui Yum goes in on the Brooklyn drill artist's newest full-length.
By    May 28, 2020

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The fire stays in Sun-Ui Yum‘s Mac OS Notes app.

By the time the world outside of the five boroughs caught up to the Brooklyn drill of 22gz, Pop Smoke, and Fivio Foreign, Drake was already in AXL’s DMs and Nicki Minaj was on their remixes. Creating ground-level incantations over South London 808s, these are rose from the streets of BK into Top 40 notoriety almost unscathed, and even their rainbow Funko Pop dilutions became inescapable. 

That vibrancy, more than anything, was what was new for New York – it wasn’t A$AP Mob’s polished mosaic of influences held together by a gold grill, or A Boogie permanently lodging himself in DeJ Loaf’s pocket of melodic purgatory a couple years later. It was alive, proper “go outside” music, with narrative and music equally inescapable and magnetic.  At his the unfairly brief apex of Pop Smoke, rappers were on his remixes, not the other way around. He belonged on Instagram, Hot 97, Say Cheese, but also every other car down the block. For that brief moment, at least, it felt like fifteen years of fundamental intuition regarding New York’s ability to shift the rap narrative caving in on itself. Everyone wanted to be part of the new New York. 

And partially because Pop Smoke’s regal magnetism was so singular, the ensuing fight for the crown following his tragic death must by definition be part-personality test: Fivio Foreign’s sharp proclamations, Smoove’L’s easy leaning melody, or even Lil Tjay’s Disney for teens routine. By this measure, Sheff G is an unlikely winner. The brashness doesn’t slice in the way 22gz’s sharp register does, and his voice sits in a sub-bass register: trademark London-adjacent lilt that releases every line at an angle to hit slightly off-kilter.  Consequently, it’s difficult to imagine him being tapped for a Drake feature, even buried on a surprise mixtape – and somewhat accordingly, One and Only is  on his second release distributed by EMPIRE, coming off the tail of a series of major label debuts by his compatriots. Flashy this is not.

But Sheff arrives at the frontlines of battle with a rare firmness and single-mindedness that ruthlessly streamlines. These are high area-of-impact raps nailed onto steamrolling trains on his own personal railroad, urgency that chops out superfluous personality in favor of rapid motion. And – perhaps an antiquated notion – he raps the best of them all, by miles. That high-octane agility is as good a match for Great John’s deep-end, archetypal drill rumblings as it is for the J. Cole-core turn into jazz on last year’s “Flows” alongside Sleepy Hallow. In single stints, like “No Suburban Pt. 2,” the tightly-wound lines are delivered a masterclass – the syllables come flying out at the right time, sure, but the real brilliance is in the wind-ups. He has a conversation, with himself, mid-song. 

But three years and two projects later, the biggest difference-maker is Sheff’s growing insularity. Last year’s THE UNLUCCY LUCCY KID was an equally impressive display, but One and Only has trained some of that kinetic energy inwards. What makes it work is his otherworldly gravity, a close relative of what Pop tapped into – flashiness has increasingly traded in for deliberate indifference (“I play with numbers like I was a pool stick,” comes the sneer on “Moody”). The narrative checks out: in what feels like ancient history, Sheff fired one of New York drill’s opening shots back in spring 2017 with “No Suburban”: the blueprint for what’s become an almost religiously foreboding sect of his subgenre. It doesn’t feel unfair to read some of that angle into Pop Smoke’s genesis – especially given one of Pop’s first songs, “MPR”, was a translation of Sheff, Sleepy Hallow, and Fresh G’s “Panic Part 3” into more of a traditionalist, 50 Cent-esque street creed.

Today, it is drill delivered in a trance, closed-eye threats as invocations.

As of now, Sheff remains one of his generation’s only major label holdouts: perhaps a heaven of infinite Gunna and Lil Baby features awaits Sheff, too. The irony, though, is that those two frankly make particularly alarming parallels for Sheff, who both rapidly transitioned from Atlanta obscurity into an increasingly gray world of Amiri jeans and Chrome Hearts lenses. Sheff’s greatest technical gift is finding space for vertical oscillation even between point A and B, identifying a bounce that doesn’t sacrifice forward movement: when he allows that fluidity to sag into monotony (or past the two-minute lifetime that One and Only largely adheres to), his music also threatens to flatten out.

Given that constant need for tension, it makes sense that everything prior has been drawn taut, verses running away from choruses running away from beats. That the gravity on One and Only is earned and deliberate is a critical shift. In different hands, the flute sprinkled on “Once I’m Gone” might’ve been a flourish, a minor embellishment solely for Rap Caviar differentiation. Here it is gloomily ethereal, Shakespearean stage fog for Sheff’s monologues in accelerated pentameter. The central confession is an aside, buried in verse two: “they say I’m promoting the violence, I guess it is what it is, n****.”

The music now is still too frenetic to be called meditative, but it increasingly feels as if we’ve been pulled into the eye of the storm. That mission statement is as clear as early as the coda to One and Only’s intro, as pitched-up voices start smashing into each other in a cacophony. This is Sheff G encapsulated: a powerful centrifugal force, slamming the ethereal down to street-level. 

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