Mano Sundaresan went from snow beach to poppin’ off beats.
Tony Seltzer & A Lau – Avenues
Avenues, the winding, exhilarating new compilation tape by producers Tony Seltzer and A Lau, never leaves New York. It opens in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, with city mainstay Jay Critch, and closes several miles away in East New York with rising drill rapper Rocko Ballin. Between those endpoints, it bounces from borough to borough, scene to scene, touching on different styles and sounds that have defined the last decade of New York rap. It’s an impressive feat of closeness and cohesion that you wouldn’t expect from a tape with over a dozen vocalists.
Historically, producer compilations have rarely worked. They’re typically limp and listless, songs cobbled together from whatever rappers didn’t want to keep for themselves. You might be tempted to pin the blame on the producers, but this is really a reflection of how most of them are tossed around and treated as sidekicks in the industry.
Tony Seltzer and A Lau are the rare duo that have avoided being reduced to that status. They’ve asserted themselves as linchpins of the New York underground over the last five years, with occasional forays into the mainstream (see: their collabs with Lil Tjay, Rich The Kid, Smokepurpp), and have gained the respect of rappers and fans alike. It was once a rite of passage for rising MCs to pass through their old workspace at SoHo’s Off Record Studios. And teenagers who were tapped in with beloved New York groups like slUms and Ratking early grew up with Seltzer and A Lau’s glassy, dystopian beats in their headphones.
I imagine Avenues is what a day in the life of Seltzer and A Lau sounds like. A song with Jay Critch in the morning, a session with Woo affiliate Rah Swish right after, an hour with Princess Nokia after that. A scroll of recent local history unravels through these tracks. The excellent “Cash Out” finds a grizzled, post-Ratking Wiki airing out his well-documented grievances with the industry. “Skrr” with Swook reminds of the massive local buzz that Gloss Gang once had, and that the spark might still be there. Vinny Fanta and Tripp Jones bubble up from the city’s SoundCloud waveforms for turns, and Seltzer’s young, NYC-transplanted protégé HAWA pops up near the end for the swirling, syrupy “Man Down.”
Avenues also points to where New York rap is heading. Over the last couple years, Tony Seltzer and A Lau have adapted their respective sounds to the rhythms and textures of Brooklyn drill. A Lau in particular has found his way onto the scene’s YouTube pages, working with artists whose names haven’t yet transcended the city limits. The drill tracks scattered throughout aim to showcase a scene that extends far beyond its biggest stars. They feature young upstarts like the 15-year-old Edot Baby, who shines with Leeky G Bando on “James Bond,” and Tazzo B and 26AR, who are practically twirling out of the booth on “And1 Remix.”
To some degree, this tape suffers the same fate as virtually every producer compilation. The stakes feel too low. There are plenty of great moments, few, if any, transcendent ones, and a handful of misses (I don’t think anyone needed to hear Princess Nokia whisper about spit). The beats are strong, but not central; Seltzer and A Lau thrive off restraint. We’re primed to focus on the rappers, not the producers.
Still, without uttering a word, Tony Seltzer and A Lau have managed to conjure up the magic of New York’s recent rap lore on Avenues. They could’ve easily gone for a cash grab and chased any of the commercial talents they’ve worked with, but instead they turned inwards and dug into the soil they know and love. It’s a reminder that with care and consideration, the producer compilation format can lend itself to strong, tightly-wound bodies of work.
DB.Boutabag – “Slight Vent”
Behind DB.Boutabag’s gleeful shit-talking and outsized grin is a pained young artist from a part of South Sacramento that the locals call Iraq. Growing up, DB was able to avoid the street politics in his neighborhood, but some of his closest friends weren’t so lucky. On “Slight Vent,” a mournful bit of soul off his new tape Just Levels, he swaps the punchlines for introspection. “The only time I can talk is when I’m on these beats,” he raps, over a somber India.Arie sample. Numb and plain-spoken, he rattles off dead homies and family, then recounts still being broke after dead-end 9-5s and releasing music just to feed himself. Even though he’s amassed a huge local following before turning 21, he feels a “slight depression.” He’s making bands but still stressing. “Getting money make a n***a think,” he says. The fame is sharpening his judgment — he wants to know who’s really riding for him and who’s just a fan of the music.
It’s a song about survival, tragically a real worry for a lot of rappers that has only deepened in the last couple years. And DB’s answer to it is less optimistic than it is existential: “I’ll never know when I fall off — keep on progressing.” No 20-year-old should have to think about these things.
Trippie Redd – “Dreamer”
Petition to ban the faux-rocker phase for all rappers from now ‘till whenever Ghostie drops his inevitable collab with System Of A Down. This Mountain Dew stain of a track marries vacuous 808s with the most generic guitar riff I’ve ever heard, then Trippie Redd comes in squealing platitudes that make Rebirth sound like The Strokes’ debut. I honestly can’t keep track of Trippie’s projects anymore — he lost me either two or three albums ago — and if this is what the next one is going to sound like, I have no reason to care.
645AR & FKA Twigs – “Sum Bout U”
This is definitely going to make me sound washed, but I feel pain in my head after I hear 645AR’s voice for too long. It isn’t even that his voice is high — on “Sum Bout U,” the first 645AR song that shows a ton of promise, FKA Twigs sails along beautifully in that register — it’s that it’s unnaturally high. Piercing. Like sandpaper being rubbed against my brain. In small doses, when paired with more pleasant voices, 645AR’s works as a shock or jolt. But I’m not sure he can carry a full project.
YN Jay – “Coochie Land”
Every self-help book includes something to the tune of “create the world you want to live in.” YN Jay takes that statement to heart. The Flint rapper’s new tape is called Coochie Land, and it opens with the track “Coochie Land.” The song only starts after 30 seconds of carnival music and then YN Jay moaning for five more. His approach to cadence is to basically sound like he’s mid-thought or narrating a dream sequence or in dire need of something — usually, coochie. “I’m in coochie land / Do you know the coochie man?” he asks, letting the important inquiry float out. Maybe it’s quarantine or something, but rap has never been hornier in my life.