‘Underground Hip Hop’ is a dangerous term. Over the last 20 years, what used to be a practical classification of non-mainstream rap (read: not played on the radio in the time when the radio really mattered) has taken on enough sub-par flak (read, again: Immortal Technique) that it's become a term I try to avoid using. The contents of ‘underground’ rap, however, have remained much the same: it’s hip-hop that a) still isn’t played often on mainstream radio, b) isn’t merchandised/sold through mainstream capitalist channels, and c) is looked down upon or ignored by the average rap listener.
In 2013, ‘Underground Hip Hop’ is analogous to mixtape rap. Aside from some mixtapes that are received (and produced to sound) like official albums, the internet mixtape is a true conveyer of the sub-cultures within modern American rap music. Mixtapes are often rushed and imperfect, sometimes terrible, practically never flawless, but that’s precisely what makes them the most exciting element of current rap. Any given mixtape (or any given song off of a given mixtape) by any given artist can either be revolutionary or entirely forgettable, and oftentimes the mixtapes we find to be forgettable are the ones which influence the revolutionary mixtapes to come.
This column is - or will try to be, at least - an evaluator of modern underground and mixtape rap. I’ll select five songs that I’ve been listening to over the week, make brief judgements of such, and provide the means for you to listen to them. The songs are often messy and imperfect, and my selection of songs like these is entirely intentional and never ever ironic*. Try not to make quick judgements when listening to the music, and go into each song with as little musical bias as you can. Listen to them loudly on good speakers and play them in social settings; yell with them and dance with them. It’s a music created by people having fun for people who want to have fun. Treat it so, and you’ll understand why it’s the most important American genre of the 21st century.
Now, this week’s round-up:
Chief Keef, ‘Love No Thotties’
If this is the only love song Chief Keef ever makes, I’d be both completely satisfied and somewhat disappointed. He’s doing his best Drake impression - muffled girl-on-the-phone and all - aside from the fact that his idea of a romantic relationship is one in which he shows his flown-in-fuckbuddy 100,000 dollars. The beat is typical of post-2012 Keef: it’s ebullient and childish, a mirror to Keef’s disconnected attitude towards ‘Thots’ (That Hoe Over There). Even when his song is based around the most misogynistic conception of a girlfriend you could probably ever have, Keef shows some emotion - ‘If I smoke this blunt girl I’m gon’ forget you,’ he croons, and suddenly the man behind ‘Don’t Like’ is uncharacteristically vulnerable. Not enough, however, to disregard one of his closing thoughts: ‘If I book your flight/Is you gonna top me?’ he asks of his iPhone-companion. Nice one, Keef.
Rich Homie Quan, ‘Another Me’
A brief synopsis of this song: Rich Homie Quan denies that he’s copied Future’s sound while sounding almost exactly like Future. Many rappers rarely ever make much sense, but this level of unintentional irony is something I haven’t seen in a long time (that is, ever since Common dissed Drake for being an overly-sympathetic bitch). In an even more ironic twist of fate, Quan’s song is arguably better (and more Future-like) than anything Future has released over the past year. The song displays Quan in full-force croon-mode - his voice wavers with soulful passion, peaking in emotion at each palpitating 808-thump of the song’s tinkling Southern production. ‘I’m the f(F)uture, stop comparing us,’ he boasts, only to later apologize with a self-remonstrating ‘I can’t help how I sound.’ It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s evidently what’s expected of Quan.
Thaiboy Digital - ‘f e r r e g a m o g o l d’
There seems to be two kinds of people who like Yung Lean and his Sad Boys collective: irony-seeking Lil B fans trying to find a new source of hip-hop absurdism and earnest Lil B fans trying to find something that people will take them seriously about. I’m with the latter, although I’m also unsure that the Sad Boys entirely satisfy either of these group’s needs. With ‘f e r r a g a m o g o l d,’ Sad Boy affiliate Thaiboy Digital has hit the blind spot in-between these two collectives - the song’s production, with its Shlohmo-esque synths and and Mike Will-esque drums, would be noticeably remarkable even to Yung Lean/cloud rap outsiders (read: people who liked J. Cole’s album better than Yeezus), but Thaiboy’s whiny metallic croons keep the song solidified in the semi-absurd lands of internet-hop. I can’t really understand what he is whining about (so I won’t even attempt to analyze it), although that’s also exactly what I want from a Sad Boy song.
Duke Da Beast, ‘Lo Lo’
Even though we all have trap rap to thank for the overall revitalization of mainstream hip-hop, the whole testosterone-charged/pseudo-villainous sound of people like Lex Luger (and his offshoots) has gotten pretty tired. Many intelligent rappers are picking up on this, and the spritely sounds of ‘happy rap’ (think Yung Joc in 2006 mixed with some 2012 Future) are leaking back into the general hip-hop groupthink. Duke Da Beast, a post-drill Chicago rapper, has become somewhat of a master of this sing-songy sound, and his recently released ‘Lo Lo’ serves as a near-perfect example of what’s exciting about rap right now. His bridge - ‘I be flexin/Runnin through a check/I’m off a molly in this bitch’ - climbs upwards along with the song’s sugary beat, his vocal emphatics mirroring the molly-induced ‘I’m-on-top-of-the-world!’ mania of the entire track. If the song stands for anything, it’s the much-awaited shift in hip-hop from dark to light. Noz would be happy.
Meek Mill, ‘Hip Hop’
I generally try to keep a safe distance from any ‘boom-bap’ rap being released in 2013 (If I wanted to listen to boom-bap, I’d listen to real boom-bap like this, not pretentious 17-year-old ‘I’m saving hip-hop’ boom-bap like this. This rant, however, is for another column). The reason why Meek’s ‘Hip Hop’ is good boom-bap is precisely the fact that Meek never does boom-bap, but always does crazy apocalyptic movie-type shit. Instead of trying to be some rapper from 1991, Meek takes his yell-in-the-booth attitude to ‘Hip Hop’s’ sparse beat, creating some surreal cross-generational smorgasbord of excellent rap music. ‘They jealous my album sellin/Jealous that I ain’t jealous,’ Meek raps, and he’s pretty much right about his hip-hop contemporaries. Should’ve taken that deal, buddy.
*Irony, and the tendencies of modern critics to implement it in their evaluations of music, is the antithesis to mixtape/underground hip-hop listening. It requires of both critic and listener that they immediately dismiss an imperfect song as absurd, ignoring the fact that the imperfection may be intentional or add to the overall quality of the music. More about this in later columns.