Rap music is in a strange place. Kanye – the man who made ‘We Don’t Care’ – is trying desperately to erode any and all goodwill he may have earned over the years by saying some truly horrific things whenever the opportunity arises. The closest we’ve got to a transatlantic grime crossover hit is a weird novelty song about the noises rappers make in order to emulate gunshots.
People still have arguments on the internet about what constitutes “real hip-hop”, as if such a thing could ever exist. Young men who assault pregnant girlfriends, engage in sexual activity with minors or who rape women are able to become wildly successful, in spite of widespread awareness of their actions.
That said, it isn’t all terrible news. For those of us willing to put in the hard yards, rap music is going through a period of previously unimaginable creativity and variety. For all the fears of the mythical monogenre that supposedly plagues our charts and mainstream radio stations, there has never been such a smorgasbord of delights from which to choose – whether you’re after wordy, existential art rap, melodically inventive, quasi-nihilistic trap, twisted takes on old forms, a heady mix of all three, or something else entirely.
On top of that, we are bearing witness to the largest, most varied group of relevant female rappers to ever emerge (relatively) simultaneously; quashing the notion that there is only ever room for one or two outsized female personalities in hip-hop at any one time. And in the UK, we’re seeing overtly British rappers – from independent labels such as High Focus and Blah Records gain both cult status and wider success without pandering to the charts or an American market. Not since grime’s initial breakout has this happened; we should be excited.
Most importantly, we are beginning to have a conversation – even if for now, it’s a limited one – about homophobia in rap. Although this shit is still very real, visible and reprehensible, it is undeniably refreshing to see people at least trying to hold rappers to account for their harmful language, even if we’ve still got a painfully long way to go.
(And, since I started writing this, Pusha-T has put out the most brutal, mean-spirited diss track since ‘No Vaseline’; though, whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing – given the fact that he seems to be revelling in absent fathers and the fact that 40 suffers from multiple sclerosis – will largely depend on your own disposition. But, if you play with fire, Aubrey…)
This is the first part of a new series on indx media; exploring trends in rap and hip-hop which are keeping the art form as fresh, creative and subversive as ever – and are happening organically on this side of the Atlantic, too.
Don’t expect the standard rap reviews here. Much of the time, I’m not even in the mood to listen to rap music at all, even if it is the genre(s) I most often find myself going back to. I’m not an expert – my girlfriend’s little brothers are always introducing me to new songs or artists whenever I see them, as are the ten and eleven year-olds at the school I work in.
I’m not out here trying to listen to records I don’t think I’ll like, because I’m neither a professional music writer nor a masochist. So, I haven’t heard and won’t be reviewing major new releases by the likes of Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, J. Cole, Logic, Migos, Rae Sremmurd, XXXTentacion, 6ix9ine, Post Malone (lol)… you get the gist.
Frankly, they just aren’t unique or interesting enough. These artists are, though:
Junglepussy – JP3
It’s nice to see Junglepussy finally getting some mainstream press coverage – she deserves it. Naturally charismatic, she’s built her on-mic persona through a confident mixture of female dominance, sex-positivity, and healthy eating, recalling in the process (my apologies in advance here for the reductive exercise of comparing a female rapper to better-known male counterparts) the flossy disdain of Cam’ron, the surreal specificity of Ghostface, and the elastic flows of ScHoolboy Q.
On her sleek and soulful third full-length, she is aided by a series of lush, guitar-assisted instrumentals (courtesy of longtime producer Shy Guy) which give JP3 a much more coherent feel than either of her previous releases. That said, there is a sense of repetition that begins to creep in over the course of the tape, perhaps not helped by a reliance on floaty, breathy hooks that often fail to hit their mark.
The album’s two strongest moments arrive when it offers a marked departure from this formula, on opener ‘State of the Union’, which sees Junglepussy spit trademark braggadocio bars over majestic string samples that could’ve been culled from Just Blaze’s hard drive, and on single ‘Trader Joe’, a light-hearted paean to playing hard to get, with its Ikon Gallery lift doo-wop beat and knowing earworm chorus (“you gon’ sing this song like all day long”).
Though it never quite thrills in the same way 2015’s breakout Pregnant With Success did, JP3 is still an extremely assured, accomplished release from one of New York’s best young rappers.
Novelist – Novelist Guy
Long thought to be one of this new wave of grime’s brightest young stars, Novelist finally released his debut album in April of this year. It’s an unapologetic throwback to an era of icy, shuddering beats and reload-able, repetitive mantras – confirming his commitment to a sound that as recently as half a decade ago seemed to be dying out and merely the preserve of a few old scenesters and battle-rap die-hards hidden in the murkiest, most unwelcoming corners of YouTube.
Whilst this stubborn adherence to a classic sound is admirable, and a well-crafted tribute almost always welcome, it could be argued that it’s difficult to exhilarate when rehashing ideas that are, in this case, almost as old as Novelist himself. And so it proves on Novelist Guy, which is perfectly executed – bar a couple of numbers which feel unfinished to the point of being totally bereft of ideas – but offers nothing new to a well-trodden template, and is sometimes reminiscent of moments from grime’s past, as on ‘Dot Dot Dot’ – which is surely redundant in a world where Dizzee’s ‘Sittin’ Here’ exists.
Thankfully, this doesn’t prevent the album from being a frequently rewarding listen, and Novelist is capable of drawing from a bag overflowing with screwface-inducing flows, as evidenced on the likes of ‘Nov Wait Stop Wait’, ‘Whole 9 Yards’, and the instantly anthemic ‘Stop Killing the Mandem’ – whilst offering his own, highly-principled philosophy, largely based on being true to oneself. It’s perhaps a philosophy that hamstrings this album as much as it helps it, but one which is worth remembering regardless.
Roc Marciano – RR2: The Bitter Dose
Reloaded is my favourite album of the past ten years. Marcberg might very well be number two on said list. Roc Marciano is a gem; a rapper who took Mobb Deep’s vision of New York-as-constant winter, mixed it with c. 1995 Kool G Rap’s mafioso bent, and unleashed it – quietly, of course – with grotesquely oversized boasts (back when Action Bronson’s beard was a chinstrap and his increasingly nauseating Viceland partnership but a glint in Nancy Dubuc’s lizard-eye) and the type of vivid, noirish economy that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler could only dream of, over spare, ominous, percussion-starved beats that nodded to RZA, but which incorporated a sense of real psychedelia that could never be understood by somebody quite so ambitious and business-minded.
And, yet, throughout it all, he used, and still uses, willy-nilly, the word ‘faggot’. It’s a tough pill to swallow. My sister is gay. Many of my friends are gay. I spend a significant portion of my time at work, in a primary school, teaching children about how harmful homophobic language is. And, yet, throughout it all, I still listen to, and enjoy, (almost) willy-nilly, the music of a man who uses the word ‘faggot’ superfluously.
Does it mean he’s a bad rapper? Hell fuckin’ no. Does it mean he’s a rapper who should probably be boycotted? Hell fucking maybe. In my defence: because this is obviously all about me, RR2 is his worst album in some time, managing to rehash old themes without really offering the sort of sonic or linguistic inventiveness that I’m used to from Roc Marci releases at this point.
It’s still full of graphic, 24-carat quotables – “my shooters come to spray your v-neck tee, fly your head piece, set if free, they’ll find the rest of your meat in Schenectady” (shouts to Charlie Kaufman and Philip Seymour Hoffman), “so many soldiers bled, it left the ocean red, open your head, brain matter fell on the Pro Keds” – but, as a sequel to last year’s excellent Rosebudd’s Revenge, it falls significantly short of expectations.
MIST – Diamond in the Dirt
Perhaps the key figure in the recent emergence of Birmingham as a genuine hotbed of up and coming talent, MIST’s appeal lies in his nonchalant flow, the economy of his words, and the poppy, melodic maximalism of his beats, largely provided by London’s Steel Banglez, one of the most in-demand producers in the UK.
The pair have that special something, a genuine rapper/producer chemistry that comes along much less often than we’d all like, with each able to accentuate the positives in the other, crafting immediately memorable hits in the process. Diamond in the Dirt cruises on this chemistry, with MIST more interested in providing quotable turns of phrase – “neighbours are cool, so they don’t mind the piff”, “still fly Bullring for a trackie and some fresh creps”, “fuck feds all day, that’s standard” – than the type of heartfelt introspection heard on earlier cuts like his #1TAKE Freestyle, making for a breezy and enjoyable, if somewhat slight listen.
While his charisma and catchy flows help to elevate tracks like ‘Game Changer’ and the Jessie Ware-assisted ‘Wish Me Well’ to instant classic territory, his limitations are laid bare on album closer ‘Mosh Pit’, a regrettable foray into grime that takes MIST a little too far out of his established comfort zone. But, it’s a rare misstep on an otherwise solid release that’s hopefully just a taster of things to come from the Erdington artist.
This article is part of the You gon’ sing this song like all day long: the best rap of 2018 so far series. You can listen to the featured artists here:
Neil is fascinated by the dichotomy between the manner in which organic, word-of-mouth movements spring up and the rapid, indiscriminate way they spread and mutate. He believes this is his generation’s gift and curse: that the internet has managed to both improve and ruin just about everything. Neil works in a school, and feels as though he and his colleagues are increasingly fighting against a system determined not to encourage critical thinking, especially among working-class young people. He likes rap music and football, though neither rappers nor footballers.