Maybe the title “new New York” does feel a bit forced for a city that remained very much world-class—even during a decade in the doldrums. But catchy slogans aside, there’s something happening in New York right now. The rap scene has reached a breaking point in the tug of war between the old guard and the new. It’s telling when members of Mobb Deep have Twitter breakdowns during the same week that A$AP Rocky announces his first featured Summer Jam appearance.
I know n*ggas in Paris that wake up and log in to their computers to see what’s going on with New York. It’s just cool. New York feels vibrant... It feels electric to walk the streets at night. It’s like, ‘Yo, this city is badass.’
All this speculation begs the question: is New York back? The answer is a resounding Yes. “It’s a new generation,” says Manhattan native DJ Jesse Marco. “I think it’s back, just in a different way. It’s not as aggressive. It’s not as mean. It’s not as blue-collar. It’s fancy and it’s kind of jiggy and kind of artsy. It’s like, ‘I want to party and fuck models and shit’.”
You could argue that those values have always been in place, but there’s a distinct difference between the past decade—when it felt like a few rich guys were flashing their affluence in our faces—and the current atmosphere of seven-figure deals for A$AP and eXquire. “New York is still an influential center,” says adidas trend marketer Bradley Carbone. “It’s New York and that’s not going anywhere. You can down-talk it, you can say there’s other parts of the world that are running stuff, but there’s a reason why people are still here.”
“Ten years from now, you can look back at all the photos, all the Tumblr screenshots like, ‘Wow. That was what New York was like’,” Theophilus London offers. “Niggas are watching it. I know niggas in Paris that wake up and log in to their computers to see what’s going on with New York. It’s just cool. New York feels vibrant. There’s really dope street art. Niggas like Retna or Neckface or Paul Richard or Katsu or Roa are just throwing shit up on the street. It feels electric to walk the streets at night. It’s like, ‘Yo, this city is badass.’ We’ve got everything. It’s dope to see how, on some Watch The Throne–era shit, black dudes are putting their money into creative shit.” But even in the midst of micro-documenting what some New Yorkers hope will one day be seen as a new golden era, many artists are looking back and taking cues from New York’s rich rap legacy.
By the time Blue Ivy Carter’s old enough to download her first mixtape, eX wants to be known as Brooklyn’s finest.
“You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” says Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire one spring afternoon while seated on a couch in Harlem, engulfed in residual blunt smoke. “You have to uphold the legacy of where you’re from. You gotta continue that legacy but you also got to set your own path.”
While others in the room suggest idling away the night checking out new blog posts and music videos, eXquire is glued to vintage YouTube clips of New York rap legends in their prime: The Notorious B.I.G. performing live in 1995; Big Punisher at a 1998 restaurant-table cypher, freestyling with Canibus, DMX, Mos Def, Mic Geronimo, and John Forte. He’s studying the flows, but also the psychology of the cypher, critically analyzing who stayed cool and who caught feelings.
“You have to look towards the past and analyze their movement and the things they did right and the things they did wrong,” he says after the clip plays out. “And not emulate but learn and take little jewels and move on.” For New York rappers navigating between memories of a golden era past and visions of a glorious future, the desire to bring hip-hop’s mecca back to dominance is a matter of Manifest Destiny.
For so long rappers had to go to New York to get on, which led to an arrogant overconfidence in this city that had a nasty collision with a decade that was bookended by the 9/11 attacks and an epic Wall Street meltdown. But that moment out of the spotlight may have been a blessing. During the recovery from the city's crash, more artists from flyover states popped up using the Internet, forcing New Yorkers to humble themselves and learns the tricks that rappers in other regions had mastered—and it's working. Maybe riding the bench for a minute was worth it.
It’s this willingness to go all out, put in overtime work, and learn new tricks mixed with the best of NYC's rap legacy that might just give eXquire and his generation of New York rappers the upper hand once again. By the time Blue Ivy Carter’s old enough to download her first mixtape, eX wants to be known as Brooklyn’s finest. And he's surrounded by artists with similar ambitions, proving that there is some love in the heart of the city after all.