If you’ve been able to ignore the (often patently transphobic) heat thrown Young Buck‘s way by his detractors, you know full well just how underrated the Nashville rapper is. From his days with G-Unit until today, the man has maintained a determined consistency, even during the most tabloid-ready legal and financial problems. He’s also enjoyed the continuous, stalwart support of some important figures, from DJ Paul to trap beatsmith extraordinaire Drumma Boy. The latter is a major presence here, executive producing yet another heated collection of beats for Buck to snarl over. Snarl he does, with as great effect as ever. Add in features from recent favorites Tee Grizzley and Sada Baby, and you have a project that demands to be heard. It’s a genuine shame more folk aren’t tuning in. – Chase McMullen
Yungmorpheus & ewonee – Thumbing Thru Foliage
Perfect for mornings awake too early (or evenings spent too late, whichever weirdo you are), necessitates headphone music so as not to disturb the neighbors. ewonee‘s beats are ready made for private head-nodding, after all, Pete Rock and Premo filtered through a funnel. Prolific MC Yungmorpheus flies through them with aplomb, with the hazy production and his own distant voice giving the impression Thumbing Thru Foliage was perhaps recorded underwater. This is boom bap music for heads looking for a revival of just that sound, but in a way that doesn’t sound even the slightest bit dated. It’s as unusual as it is direct. As for Yungmorpheus himself, he puts it bluntly on “Yakub’s Worst Nightmare”: “N***a’s ain’t got shit on me, that’s for certain / lately I’ve been evolving into a different person.” – Chase McMullen
PARIS TEXAS – BOY ANONYMOUS
[Paris Texas LLC]
With their eight-track debut, Boy Anonymous, Louis Pastel and Felix aka Paris Texas, seamlessly interweave rap’s perennial machismo, the quirky charisma of alt-R&B, and a dose of contemporary self-loathing. Add metal-inflected/electronic bravado and a dose of ambient chill. The Dionysian, Apollonian, canonic, and trendy – a multifaceted yet notably integrated project.
The album launches with “Casino,” a blend of static-y electro-atmospherics and swirly accents. Lyrically, the duo move from establishing their hard-core credentials (“At times I seem like an asshole / I’m from the central of the south / Grew up in a one-story house / Got too many stories to count”) to modish outsider-ism (“I never been on the block / I stay in the house”), avoiding clichéd personas by sketching broad and paradoxical self-portraits.
“A Quick Death” employs loud percussive elements mixed with synth-y swells. Vocals bob in the mix: “I’m on the run the run no one can save me / Come on come you know they can’t outrun me,” a fugitive anthem and outlaw-glitch manifesto delivered via instrumental hooks and an earworm chorus. The album closes with “Force of Habit,” an amalgam of R&B textures and mid-90s/California-soaked G-funk. The song is additionally chock-full of melodic candy and includes the insightful line, “Walk around like I’m the shit / I think it’s a force of habit”: part alpha-male mantra, part confession re: disillusionment with the success game. Boy Anonymous is a stellar debut, refreshingly difficult to categorize, an uninhibited and audaciously revisionist project. Songcraft and performances are varied, energized, and memorable; production approaches are ambitious, yielding an album at once minimal, maximal, eclectic, and cohesive. – John Amen
Onyx – Onyx 4 Life
On their ninth studio album, Onyx 4 Life, Fredro Starr and Sticky Fingaz aka Onyx are joined by various guests, including Mad Lion, Cappadonna, and Planet Asia. The result is a 13-track elaboration on the gangsta, horror, and psycho motifs that Onyx and others mainstreamed in the 90s, particularly with their debut, 93’s Bacdafucup, and stellar second album, ’95’s All We Got Iz Us.
While artists such as Backxwash have absorbed the energetic tones and metaphors of horror-rap and applied them to internal conditions, bringing to graphic life the subtleties of PTSD, acts like Onyx have continued to primarily externalize personal and transpersonal rage, voicing direct indignation for systemic injustices and the history of Black oppression. In this way, Onyx are torchbearers – stylistically and thematically – attacking the western world’s Afrophobia, the shadows of capitalism, and, given longstanding inequities, the inevitability of crime and the criminal mindset.
“We Take” opens with the line, “Everybody here we come we on a murdering spree / … to get cash every night without an occupation / digging in your ribs like a game of operation.” “South Side” offers an image of the drug scene circa Covid: “Yo we outside fuck the quarantine / n***as gotta get money it’s still a war / queens on the avenues and boulevards / you could have your tool and still catch bullet scar.” The soundscape is synth-y, almost schmaltzy B-movie gore minimalism, which raises the possibility that Onyx do indeed have a sense of humor, albeit a dark one. The stunningly aggressive tone of “Boom Bash” highlights Onyx’s legacy, bringing to mind heirs DMX and Killer Mike, while more generally highlighting Onyx’s role in crafting what still seem like hip-hop’s foundational and prerequisite tropes.
While rap has evolved and expanded over the years, younger artists such as the above-mentioned Backxwash as well as Kendrick Lamar, Saba, Little Simz, and Tyler the Creator, among others, still draw broadly from 90s templates, even if they consistently depart from the ‘gangsterparis perspective’, exploring diverse themes and storylines. On Onyx 4 Life, Starr, Sticky Fingaz, and their guests, however, do what Onyx have always done and still do best: scaring the shit out of everyone and having a little fun while they do it. – John Amen
DøøF & Graymatter – Radioactive Spinach
In a game that esteems winning over just about anything, not nearly enough credit goes to the underdogs. Forget embracing it, Richmond rapper DøøF wears that very status like a badge of honor. He may have yet to get the credit of some of his abstract hip hop counterparts, but, with the way he churns out solid projects, it’s just a matter of time. His album alongside (fantastic) producer Graymatter, Radioactive Spinach, is arguably his most visible to date. Over a batch of beats that are both throwback and modern mutations at once, the rapper and a reliable cast of guests (Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon puts in a truly scene-stealing verse) delivers one of the most delightfully low-key wins of the year thus far. – Chase McMullen
Sleepy Hallow – Still Sleep?
[Winners Circle Entertainment / RCA]
Without question there’s no replacing that voice, but in the wake of Pop Smoke’s death, the grim race for the successor to the title of most nationally embraced NY Drill figure was on. Without declaring the title necessarily his, following Still Sleep?, it’s certainly Sleepy Hallow‘s for the taking.
Proving himself far more than a singles artist, Hallow presents consistent track after track across his proper debut album. “2 Sauce” shows just what a captivating rapper can do with a simple, catchy vocal loop, “Scrub” re-imagines that TLC jam – and actually pulls it off, while the one-two punch of “Chicken” and “Mi No Sabe” take us right to his block for the cookout. By turns welcoming and threatening, this easily ranks among the most assured rap debuts of the year thus far. – Chase McMullen
Bruiser Wolf – Dope Game Stupid
I’m glad Bruiser Wolf name-drops E-40 here, because I don’t think I’ve heard any other rapper who sounds so similar to the west-coast tycoon as Detroit’s relative late-comer . The comedic timing of Wolf’s verses is guaranteed to provide some laughs for the listener. Despite this, Dope Game Stupid’s greatest track, “Momma Was a Dope Fiend”, comes from a place of serious pain and heartache. – Ethan Reis
ANKHLEJOHN & Rome Streetz – Genesis 1:27
For the past half-decade, Rome Streetz has been on the come up, making his way through the streets of New York as one of the more promising young talents of the underground rap scene. With each passing release, dating back to the 2016 release of his debut mixtape, the buzz swarming his name has become an unignorable frenzy. Back in February this year, the hype came to a tipping point thanks to the helping hand of legendary producer DJ Muggs, as they dropped one of the most underrated hip-hop projects of the year thus far, Death & The Magician.
But Streetz wasn’t done there. Capitalizing on the acclaim that Death & the Magician brought, Streetz turned around and unleashed Genesis 1:27 just a few months later, this time in collaboration with DC talent ANKHLEJOHN. With two very different styles between the artists, this pairing is a surprisingly seamless duo with a kinetic energy that becomes more obvious and animated, with DJ J-Scrilla behind the boards materializing a hypnotic landscape for the pair to do their thing.
Sparring with one another while pondering the nature of man – painted depraved, flawed, and hopeless – the duo leaves nothing off the table when it comes to grappling with their own vices. Rarely does one outshine over the other, but it’s quite striking to notice the stylistic differences when they’re in the same room. Streetz is a technically sound and smooth wordsmith that provides this project a needed soulful atmosphere, while ANKHLEJOHN spits with polarizing grittiness and an off-kilter flow that trails whatever beat he’s rapping over. The latter’s style might be grating at first, but it never once clashes with the gravity of the stories told through Genesis 1:27. – Kyle Kohner
Duke Deuce – Duke Nukem
[Quality Control / Motown / Made Men Movement]
Whatever you thought of Hip Hop is Dead as Nas grumped his way through it in 2006, the man had his points. Among them: carry on tradition. For lovers of the classic Memphis sound, Duke Deuce is both a relief and a breath of fresh air. To be sure, Yo Gotti, Young Dolph, and countless others have continued driving the city forward, but largely through forging a Memphis all their own.
Deuce, however, is the son of onetime Three 6 Mafia producer Duke Nitty. Inspired by his namesake, the young, effortlessly charming rapper has reached back for that sound of yesteryear and yanked it right into the present. The beats of Duke Nukem are instantly recognizable and alien all at once, the sound of the Memphis of yesteryear exploding into 2021. As for Deuce himself? Just consider his recent sighting, stealing the show from Isaiah Rashad’s return on “Lay wit Ya”. Even without the intriguing familial connection, the man is a born star. – Chase McMullen
Devin the Dude – Soulful Distance
[Coughee Brothaz Enterprise / EMPIRE]
Summarizing Devin the Dude as just a ‘weed rapper’ is rather reductive. Yes, the Houston hip-hop vet has delivered many an ode to the herb, including “We Smokin”, the closer to his latest album, Soulful Distance, but he also touches upon topics like love and asserting his skills over other rappers. Certainly, these are all concepts that many others are covering, but Devin is so sharp on the mic and so witty with his words that he keeps them sounding fresh. With production that ranges from sultry to funky, and flow both caustic and melodic, Devin rightfully shows he’s as strong as he says he is. Who else could put one of the best verses of the year on an extended skit called “My Left Nut Itch”? – Brody Kenny