Three rappers offer radically different takes on a resilient genre.
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
Gangster rap is caricatured on a regular basis, and not just by Fox News. Everyone from mainstream media to the music press to hip-hop fans themselves draw stark, unbending lines between different artists and songs, dividing rap according to how “street” it is, and how it should be, and what rap artists owe their audience. It has one of the most pathologized industries and fanbases in the history of popular music, always accused of mindless fetishizing and authenticity-chasing, forever exploiting, perpetuating, and glorifying. For this reason (and many others), it remains one of popular music's most contentious forms, never mind one of its most controversial. This isn't an abstract kind of controversy—it's one with real world consequences. Like when rappers’ lyrics are read aloud in court as evidence.
Despite the prevalence of these stereotypes, three street rap artists—YG of Los Angeles, Freddie Gibbs of Gary, Indiana but currently residing in Los Angeles, and Kevin Gates of Baton Rouge—all have new albums out this week that argue for gangsta rap’s continued relevance, a genre as creatively pliable as any in popular music. Gangster rap is still relevant because it conveys truths other art is unable to portray. But it's also well past the obligation of peddling old clichés about underclass rage, street CNN, and the perpetual picking at America’s scabs. All three of these arists show us “the streets” through different lenses, to varying degrees of success. Together they offer further evidence that street rap is a toolkit, not a script. It still contains multitudes, with as many approaches as there are performers. (Well, to an extent.)
Material success has operated as gangster rap's metaphoric trump card since N.W.A. The genre is an exceedingly popular form of populist art, and no one is better at proving the relevance argument today than Los Angeles rapper YG, whose debut album (but not debut release) My Krazy Life is 100% stripped-down, back-to-basics street rap. In most ways, it is a fully realized ideal of a YG album.
Before jumping into music full-time, YG's main hustle was robbery. And in many ways it still is.
Before jumping into music full-time, YG's main hustle was robbery. And in many ways it still is. He burgles hip-hop history for inspiration, but he always manages to fold it into the world he and DJ Mustard—who produces ten songs here, if you count the essential bonus tracks—have created. (The Dogg Pound's "Let's Play House" pianos are transformed into side-chick sex jam "Do It To Ya," while Suga Free's "Why You Bullshittin'?" informs the hook of "I Just Wanna Party," etc.) It all feels incidental, off the cuff. The clumsiest reference is Drake's evident Rappin 4Tay flip on "Who Do You Love." Less frequently acknowledged is that the song itself is a clever cover of a Lil Boosie original.
Lyrically, the Compton native works in economical sketches rather than detailed renderings, every syllable pointed and purposeful. YG’s rapping fits his ideas like a glove, rather than billowing with decorative stylization. The ideas aren't all that new or ambitious—his art is primarily about an attitude, his realness based around conveying authentic ruthlessness—and My Krazy Life plays to those strengths. The album's sole weakness comes in its second half, when YG attempts a multi-song conceptual arc. He writes a robbery scene—perhaps a subtle reprise of Kendrick Lamar's "The Art of Peer Pressure"?—from the POV of someone who came from the streets. Although executed "in character," it feels a bit over-wrought when the album's biggest strength is its all-killer-no-filler formula.
Much credit belongs to DJ Mustard, who's managed to conquer the hip-hop airplay charts and shift hip-hop's clubbing soundtracks from Atlanta to the West Coast for the first time in years. His work on My Krazy Life is some of his best to date—the titanic "Left, Right" groove sounds large enough to fill an airplane hanger—and although the comparisons to Snoop and Dre that he's made on his press run are ludicrous, the audacity of those claims have forced onlookers to reckon with YG and Mustard’s impact.
YG isn't Snoop; he’s a pugnacious bad boy home invader with a cruel streak, and, at first, a wobbly flow. Hearing him rap on his debut smash "Toot It and Boot It" and finding out he'd somehow flipped that into a Def Jam deal and XXL Freshman cover made him seem a lottery winner. His current success is about stars aligning, and sheer force of will. Without conveying the most compelling personality he's managed to work his way through the system, while watching fellow XXL cover stars like Yelawolf, Meek, and Kendrick drop major label albums. He even aligned himself with Jeezy's CTE crew. It's an argument in favor of persistence. But that alone isn't enough.
Miles Davis was once quoted as having said about his critics, “If I don’t like what they write, I get into my Ferrari and I drive away.” The message is clear: success inoculates an artist. (There's a reason so many artists release the best work at the beginning of their careers, before they've "made it"—when their motivation is to make it rich, they need as many people on board as they can. Once they've got money, they can do what they want, creatively.) The dedication in YG's liner notes says as much: "And last but not least Everybody who thought I wasn't gone be sh*t "F**K YOU." Can't say I wasn't among that group at one point—shit, even as recently as "My Nigga"'s launch I was crediting Rich Homie Quan and Mustard with the song's success. But YG is undeniably the glue of My Krazy Life, the album's barbed wire core. Like most major label products, it could have been a record packed with outside voices, but for the most part, it's YG's people on the album, give or take a Drake verse. His sound is relevant, and his time is now. He's earned his "F**K YOU" money.
Freddie Gibbs has a "F**K YOU" attitude, but not quite as much of the "F**K YOU" money. Persistence and a CTE affiliation haven't helped Gibbs, who in 2009 was coronated by the press as the next coming of gangster rap: a street artist who could spit the most ornate lines with prodigal fluency. He was emotive enough for Pac fans, but skillful enough to appease the East Coast heads, and gave few fucks before that was a popular turn of phrase.
He's also remained a resolutely underground phenomenon. Whatever his talents, his early releases were unique because they hit right as the industry was scraping rock bottom, like forgotten major label missives from a lost era, a kind of regional Murder Dog-meets-major-label pastiche that filled a void for hardcore fans. He seemed on a slightly upward trajectory at first. I've always been partial to Cold Day in Hell, when producer Cardo forced Gibbs' bars into song structures that drew out a purposefulness from the dense word-clouds. But signing to Jeezy proved fruitless.
Finally freed after two wasted years in the CTE dungeons, Gibbs feels like one to root for. Which is why it's saddening to find him back with a new album alongside cult producer Madlib, and habitual '70s funk LP re-upholsterer who loops old records and makes them sound like... old records, looped. The one thing Gibbs didn't need was someone with a larger aversion to pop than he has. Nothing so crass as, say, Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons. It's more about creating a song that can reach an audience not already familiar with the artist, rather than worrying about stylistic signatures.
Heads can debate the next-level quality of Madlib's sampladelic beat science but at the end of the day, it can sound as formulaic as any Mustard track. The difference is that Mustard, as a DJ, is drawn into a dialogue with his audience every time he steps behind the decks. And he serves that audience at the same time that he stamps it with his name. Of course, this is cynical populism, but it's also what makes YG's "F**K YOU" money worth its weight. He is chasing new fans; something is at stake. But even Gibbs' Jeezy diss, "Real" seems unlikely to spark a response, especially coming at a time when Jeezy has once again managed to corral himself a hit single or two. Gibbs audience will continue to fuck with Gibbs; the bulk of Jeezy's audience will continue to be unaware of Gibbs' existence.
For those of us who are fans of '90s regional gangster rap, the Gibbs record is a comforting approximation. The themes and motifs are well-worn, but he executes them with exacting efficiency. Gibbs' "realness" comes from conveying world-weariness passed on from Scarface, the gravitas of experience, and the paradoxes of being a gangster and recognizing its consequences. When YG spits in double-time on his opening song, "BPT," it feels like he's pushing himself, exploring new horizons; Gibbs can spit one of his most intricate verses, but it sounds automatic, performed through perfectly rehearsed muscle memory. This also suggests Gibbs is at a less creative place in his career, executing expectations. In that sense, Gibbs, like Mustard, is providing to his audience what they want to hear. Luckily for Gibbs, his audience just wants to hear what he wants to hear, too. They have few other expectations.
Sitting somewhere in between Gibbs’ underground stasis and YG's bangers-uber-alles is Kevin Gates, whose By Any Means is easily the most complex, confounding, and fascinating gangster rap record of the year so far. His album is flawed, and less of an overall accomplishment when compared with YG's. Those eager to see Gates cross over will end up disappointed at a lack of radio-friendly singles. (He laments that one song released last Spring didn't end up a getting a push in the album's opening seconds: "Telling me to make a hit but I really don't get why they walked on 'Roaming Around'"). His realness is, on a surface level, familiar: poverty, drugs, guns, hustle. But up close he's something of an enigma; interviews find him both lucid and elusive, taking questions he's asked and rejecting their framing, forcing his interviewers to recalibrate. (Ali Shaheed Muhammed: "So when did you realize that music was your salvation?" Gates: "I wouldn't call it my salvation, I'd call it an outlet." It goes on like this.)
Like Gibbs, he's a rapper's rapper; unlike Gibbs, his style is as much about songwriting as Bic-to-paper rap-writing. Every song on this record is written in full, as if the melodies and concepts are fully integrated parts of his creative process, as much as the lyrics themselves. He pours feeling into his words, drawing on a strong connection with a growing audience. He speeds up and slows down with the story, writing densely one moment and sparsely the next, letting melody add dramatic weight to convey wistfulness, spirituality, strain. He creates music that inspires passionate investment from his fans; casual Kevin Gates listeners don't really exist. As a lyricist, he seldom seems to write much in advance; there's a loose narrative structure to many of these tracks.
The thread of his words is easy to follow, and his signal-to-noise ratio is at or approaching 1:1. He has an ear for artful imagery, capturing details most rappers wouldn't think to convey. On "Can't Make This Up," from By Any Means, he raps in snatches of conversation: "Occupied by the hand, player, Caucasian waitress named Rachel/Sayin' I look like a drug dealer, 'you ain't even waiting our table!'" One song from early in his career, "Dangerous," has an especially striking, representative passage:
Gates make that pussy get wetter than rain weather
Body so soft I'm calling it Wayne leather
Passing through the hood with memories of the block
Left hand holding the wheel our fingers are interlocked
Tinted windows but the rocks still glisten on the watch
He doesn't just get her pussy wet; he remembers holding her hand while his other hand grips the wheel. He doesn't just have diamonds; they glisten through the window tints. Through these writerly details, tiny moments that help bring a story and its characters to life. Think how much is said without explicitly saying anything in just five lines: about who he is, and who she is to him, and where they come from. It sets a scene and places people within it, conveys their relationship and past and present in a compact space.
There's a mystique at the center of Gates' music, a sense that we've only heard pieces of a much bigger story, that the details he expresses are even more fascinating for suggesting the ones he's omitted. "My life is a movie," he says, aptly, on "Movie," and gives us reason to believe him, even though it's a trite cliché in most other rappers' hands. He is also the rare gangster rapper who seems to write with a female audience in mind without condescending or throwing out half-assed tracks "for the ladies." Oftentimes, his songs about love and relationships contain some of his more intricate verses.
Not to say that any of these albums are exactly friendly to women, Gates least of all. His song "Posed to Be in Love" will test the tolerance of even the most avid fans of Eminem's "Kim." The vitriolic fury of an emotionally and physically abusive man, once betrayed, the song will completely shift your perceptions of Gates. It's uncensored insecurity, the unvarnished documentation of unblocked feeling. You might defend the song as honest, bringing listeners face-to-face with the ugliness of domestic violence. But one glance at Twitter, where kids gleefully mention it as their favorite song and joke about the abuse, can easily banish any defense. The song is the catharsis of a controlling misogynist—full stop. One of the common criticisms of gangster rap is that it's a tool of major labels trying to dictate values from on high; no one as out-of-pocket as Gates could be conceived of in a record label laboratory. He is the real deal, for all of its advantages and drawbacks.
"Pose To Be In Love" is all the more difficult to reconcile coming as it does just four tracks after the album's centerpiece, "Movie," about the birth of his child. Practically beaming through the microphone, Gates gives an account of his son’s birth, blending emotive piano lines with memories that in any other context might seem banal, committed to tape so the moment can be crystallized forever: "Out in California recording, 'what the fuck?' got a text message, 'Kevin, it's started.'" "Only stopping for gas, backed my Porsche in the garage, up the stairway I'm charging, and she didn't open her eyes until she heard me talking." So little happens, and yet each movement is loaded with emotion, a powerful, life-affirming moment. How can one person convey such hatred in one song and such humanity in another?