Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the dopest rap writers out here. And one of them whose pen game I’ve always admired is Chicago’s own David Drake (above left). Sometime towards the latter months of my stint writing daily for Complex Music in 2012, Drake joined the channel’s full-time staff, and started making his presence felt on the site with a string of excellent interviews and think-pieces. For the most part, he seemed to have a different taste in rap music than I did—more trap than boom bap. But through our regular interactions— which included working together on a 50 Best Nas Verses list—he proved to have a unique appreciation and knowledge of my preferred side of the genre too, and hip-hop music and history overall. And his style of writing was truly impressive without him ever having to be too extra with it. To this day, I make sure to never miss a long-form article that he has published, regardless of the article’s subject.
Since we all enjoy high-quality rap writing here at NahRight, we asked David Drake—who also writes for top-notch publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, and The Fader (he still contributes to Complex as well)—to share a short list of what he’s been listening to recently for our latest Heavy Rotation. It’s a proper follow-up to our last edition of the column which featured another superb rap writer Jeff Weiss, and it will most definitely give you some keen insight into a crop of tunes found slightly off the beaten path.
1. WizKid “Show You the Money”
There is no more exciting music scene on earth right now than Nigeria’s, and I have faith that the direction of popular music is going to move in Africa’s direction over the next few years. I recently explained why in this piece Fader, so if you want my reasoning check it out.
Rhythmically, this stuff just feels so much more exciting than the standard EDM and DJ Mustard maneuvers—no disrespect to either. The rhythms are way more interesting, for one thing—try returning to Kiesza’s hit “Hideaway” after spending an hour listening to This Is Africa: Yoruba Hits 2013-2014. But at the same time, there are a whole gang of artists, from Davido (“Skelewu”) to Tiwa Savage (“Eminado”) that seem like they could easily cross over in the States. In fact, Tiwa Savage has already written for Western artists behind the scenes. WizKid’s “Show You the Money” is my favorite right now because of how little work he’s really doing, like he’s stunting so hard he only needs a few notes in the melody for it to brand itself onto your brain—effort is for those without status.
2. A-Wax “Be Alone”
I’m a longtime fan of purist lyrical gangster rap in a Tragedy Khadafi/Cormega tradition. That goes for younger dudes like Boldy James or A-Wax; there’s a sense of purposefulness to their writing, that no bar is ever wasted. Likewise, I’m also a big fan of the Mob Figaz: The Jacka, Husalah, Rydah J. Klyde, AP9, Fed-X, a crew that adapted millennial New York street rap to the Bay Area’s slang and culture in the early-mid ’00s. (They also often collaborated with Cormega; though he was from Cali, Klyde in particular was a Queensbridge head.)
Because of this, it took me a little longer to get into A-Wax, even though he’s in that style. He’s had beef with the Mob Figaz for years. He’s a character for sure, a Caucasian Piru blood (“I’m half-Italian if that help out any/Plus I never caught a bullet but I dealt out plenty”) whose style shows a debt to the Mob’s sound. In contrast, though, he’s much more of a loner. He’s also a very talented writer. His new album Pullin’ Strings has gone largely ignored by the wider blogosphere give or take a few European rap nerds who let no stone go unturned, and it’s unlikely to ever appeal to a pop market. But East Coast hip-hop heads would probably find this shit pretty worthwhile if they were willing to look past the geographic distance.
“Be Alone,” which pops up near the end of the album, is one of its best songs. Its wistful twilight atmosphere is bittersweet, but there’s no second-guessing as he abandons old bonds for the sake of his psyche. The bars echo in your head long after the song ends.
3. Potna Deuce “Cool Thang”
I don’t have a problem with Baby Bash like I’m sure some readers here do but even if you don’t keep “Suga Suga” in rotation, you might fuck with Baby Bash’s mid-90s crew Potna Deuce. They had two albums in the mid-90s. Heron Soup is more widely considered a classic, although I’m partial to their ’94 record Welcome 2 Da Tilt, which includes the very mid ’90s-sounding single “Dat’s My Potna” and the world’s best-ever tribute to having a girlfriend, “Cool Thang.” Potna Deuce were comprised of Baby Bash (then Baby Beesh), Chezski, Rube the Rascal, and DH. Baby Beesh produced this track using a sample of Champaign’s 1981 funk single “I’m On Fire.”
I basically fuck with it because I like well-executed songs “for the ladies,” and tend to feel like these are underrated in rap, or dismissed too easily as some sort of lazy label obligation. Much as “Capone Bone” is secretly one of the top three jams on The War Report, “Cool Thang”‘s sincerity makes it stand out on an album full of mob music record that typically rolls with heavier subject matter. It’s as much ‘for the ladies’ as it is for thinking and feeling humans. Who needs sidepieces when you’ve got a cool thang? Baby Bash has the opening verse and it’s got some choice lines that include funny euphemisms for sex involving rattlesnakes, ovens, and candles. What it really captures is that cozy feeling of blocking out the outside world to spend quality time with your cool thang: “No questions, no concerns/Just kickin’ it, smell the incense burn.”
But I have to give it to Rube (I’m assuming, according to an inaccurate RapGenius transcription probably bitten from OHHLA) for closing it out with the song’s best verse (yes I can recite this front to back): “I’m just wondering if you want to hear some/Cool Thang slang in your eardrum/Like: ‘Roses are red, Midori is green/I’m hooked on you like hop to a dope fiend.'” Such a romantic. I strain to mansplain how anyone could prefer the murky lethargy of The Weeknd for getting busy over the pure devotion of Rube’s earnest closing lines: “I’m like a barnacle stuck on dumb/Dirty pictures of you in my album/I need her, that’s what the palm reader stated/About the best girl I ever dated.”
4. Chief Keef “Pull Up”
I know many folks probably don’t care or want to hear about Keef at this point, at least until his worldview opens up a bit. But with the media back to ignoring him for the time being, I’ll argue that his recent iTunes/YouTube drops have been some of the best shit he’s done. Nothing on the mainstream-appealing level of “Kobe” or “Love Sosa” or “I Don’t Like” etc. Nonetheless he’s progressed musically, and remains one of the most relevant young rappers out among street rap fans; tossed off loosies regularly jump to the top of the Audiomack charts. And drill’s extensive popularity is more apparent with the rise of Bobby Shmurda—the GS9 tape shows a Keef influence (what with “Shmoney Dance”‘s wall-of-sound adlibs and energy) and even includes a freestyle from Corey Finesse over the “Pull Up” beat entitled “Zoe God”—although Corey doesn’t finesse it quite as deftly as Keef.
While others have praised his melodic mumblings on records like “How It Go” and “Go to Jail,” his sing-song syrup rap kinda played itself out in 2013; I definitely prefer the clenched-teeth bars over beats by 12hunna, who has a really intricate, advanced production style. Rather than aggressive and maximal, they’re scary for being disorienting. Sounding somehow both deliberate and unpredictable, Keef floats over the intricate drum sequencing, and the effect is as if the floor is falling out from underneath you.
If you made a best-of record with songs Keef released over the past 8 months or so, it would revolve around 12hunna cuts—“Make It Count,” “Hundreds,” “Pull Up,”—with records by other producers that vary from this mean (ballad “No,” Lex Luger’s “Save Me,” Young Chop’s maximal “Killer”). And yeah, Keef can rap—check his verse on the “Strapped (Remix)”—although I don’t expect everyone to feel it since the style is so intentionally divisive. But I think people are still missing a lot of what he’s saying because of how he says it: “‘Drunk in Love’ with my gun, bae, bitch Beyonce/We pull up, it’s no Bombay, red rum the other way.”
5. T.L. Williams “Gettin Mo Money Than You”
I recently spent a couple weeks back in my hometown of Chicago and discovered this track. After hearing it on WGCI and Shazaming it, I downloaded it from iTunes and looked up the video, which is fantastic. It’s become something of a new local steppers’ classic. If you know about steppers’ music you probably know it from R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love,” but it’s actually a genre more determined by the groove than the artist’s background—it can be hip-hop, house, electronic, R&B, jazz, or rock, as long as it fits in with a particular tempo and feel.
As a result, DJ Quik’s “Get Down” instrumental is considered a steppers classic. So is Loggins & Messina’s “Pathway to Glory” (check it out around 4:30). Likewise, T.L. Williams’ cheeky “Gettin’ Mo Money Than You” is already making Boolumaster steppers mixtapes back in Chicago, and is getting spins on V103 and WGCI. With its afterhours vibe and relaxed trumpet lead, it sounds like nothing else out, maybe a hair too amateur to slot into your regular R&B stations. Although T.L.’s youthful thin-yet-cocky vocals remind me a bit of Bernard Wright.
Follow David Drake on Twitter.
Heavy Rotation with Jeff Weiss
Heavy Rotation with Joell Ortiz
Heavy Rotation with The Black Sheep Dres
Heavy Rotation with Alex Wiley
Heavy Rotation with Smoke DZA (Kush Edition)
Heavy Rotation with Chase N. Cashe
Heavy Rotation with Tree (Chi-Town Edition)
Heavy Rotation with Eddie Huang
Heavy Rotation with Doley Bernays
Heavy Rotation with Black Dave
Heavy Rotation with Mistah F.A.B. (Bay Area Edition)
Heavy Rotation with Hannibal Buress
Heavy Rotation with Chuck Strangers
Heavy Rotation with Sean Price
Heavy Rotation with MTV’s Rob Markman