The success of YG's My Krazy Life—and its marketing campaign—has the hip-hop world buzzing about an L.A. rap revival. It's undeniable that it's a good time to be from Los Angeles; the city's got a varied and healthy independent scene with artists like Dom Kennedy and Odd Future, one of the genre's most respected major imprints in TDE, a major star in Kendrick Lamar, and of late, a crew of hitmakers that includes YG, DJ Mustard, and Ty Dolla $ign.
But while Los Angeles is unquestionably the trendiest sound of the moment, is it hip-hop's No. 1 metropolis? Atlanta's had a decade of dominance, operating as the genre's ostensible center up until the Internet started to cause the genre's crack-up. But it still operates as hip-hop's party-and-bullshit central clearinghouse. Things had started to chug to a close in 2012, but a new slate of rookie rappers have regained the nation's attention—and suggest L.A.'s reign on the top could be short like leprechauns.
But which city is on top right now? Staff Writer David Drake and Associate Editor Insanul Ahmed face off to determine who really runs rap in 2014.
Insanul (Los Angeles): I find it rather strange that somehow YG's album is the one to put this into focus for most people, but it definitely made it clear that L.A. is running things in rap right now. The fact that YG—who I consider a middleweight talent—is (as you might say) "punching out of his weight class" with the supremely enjoyable My Krazy Life suggests that L.A. has so much momentum that it's propelling artists to just be better.
There are three things that make a scene popping to me: hot songs, good albums, and stars. Admittedly, L.A. isn't producing as many breakout songs as Atlanta is. "My Nigga" is probably the biggest hit that comes to mind but that's has ATLiens Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan on it. Meanwhile, songs like ScHoolboy's "Man of The Year" struggle to break Top 40 despite being pretty great and having a major label push.
On the albums front, that's where L.A. really wins. Only three months into the year they have two of the most talked about releases, YG and ScHoolboy. In the last two years, they've also produced Dom's Get Home Safely and his brilliant The Yellow Album, Earl's debut (and Tyler's Wolf, if you're so inclined), and 2012’s TDE trifecta of Ab, Schoolboy, and Kendrick.
Kendrick is a star in an era where there’s fewer and fewer stars.
Unfortunately, too much of L.A.'s weight rests on the shoulders of Kendrick Lamar—the one and only true young LA rapper who can be considered an A-lister. But either way, Kendrick a star in an era where there’s fewer and fewer stars. And better yet, he’s poised to have a long and fruitful career—something I’m hesitant to say about Atlanta stalwarts like Future and Young Thug despite their obvious talents.
The key to all this is that L.A. offers everything rap currently offers. What helps a city feel like it's popping is usually a definitive sound, like G-funk did in the '90s. 2014 L.A. doesn't have that. DJ Mustard is certainly one of the hottest producers out right now and his style is being imitated everywhere, but it isn't quite as obvious as Lex Luger once was. And even then, it doesn’t help define everything else that’s happening in L.A. right now, like Odd Future.
But, really, that’s what makes L.A. so popping; it has it all. Big name stars like Kendrick, middle class rappers with talent like YG and ScHoolboy, independent rappers finding ways to win like Dom Kennedy and Nipsey Hussle, radio ready rappers like Kid Ink, savvy veterans who maintain some relevance like Game and Snoop, and rappers finding their own ways to win like Hopsin, Ab-Soul, and Odd Future.
David (Atlanta): Atlanta and Los Angeles work in fundamentally different ways. Comparing their album output isn't exactly fair. Atlanta is a city that relies on the mixtape trade; artists build buzz through continual production. L.A. artists have to have a more traditional, album-driven model, because album sales make up a larger proportion of their income streams. Atlanta-based acts have a massive established tour circuit to generate revenue, and it isn't stuck in the South; artists like 2 Chainz built his buzz traveling to places like Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, Gary, Ind, etc. Touring is a bigger piece of the pie, leads to a higher price for show appearances. Mixtapes are feeding those fans so that they'll pop out when the show hits the road.
In terms of "hot songs," I would actually give more credit to Los Angeles than you do, even if all of those "hot songs" pretty much rely on DJ Mustard for their temperature. And that's sort of Los Angeles' problem at the core: Without DJ Mustard, the glue holding this together as a "scene" evaporates. I'll give it up to Mustard all day for that, he swiped the sound of the clubs out from under Atlanta, where it's remained for the past decade, basically. But it feels like a very temporary hold. Atlanta has the infrastructure: the strip clubs, the coalition DJs, and the city's continued existence as a talent magnet for the entire South.
Atlanta has the infrastructure: the strip clubs, the coalition DJs, and the city's continued existence as a talent magnet for the entire South.
Because most of Atlanta's producers weren't even from Atlanta in the first place. Zaytoven and Dun Deal, to give two recent examples, were from California. Lex Luger was from Virginia. Los Angeles also works like a magnet, obviously, but without the inroads to clubs and radio that DJ Mustard's provided, that evaporates.
As far as stars, Los Angeles has Kendrick, but ATL is lacking. There's no question that in 2012, Atlanta went through a rebuilding year—Young Scooter was the only artist who seemed to pop, and he was immediately sidelined by a jail sentence. (Although in some sense, the arrival of the drill scene in 2012 was a perfect example of how long Atlanta's influential arm really is.) But since that time, Atlanta's bubbling again. Its vets can still throw a hit song up the charts every few years—T.I. and Jeezy haven't disappeared. 2 Chainz is kind of a cynical hitmaker, but he remains one of the genre's biggest stars. Future completely reinvented how hip-hop incorporates melody. And Gucci has begun to mentor the new generation, identifying (and, OK, profiting from) new talent in exchange for a cosign. Which leads us to the city's rookie class.
YG's biggest single relies on a Rich Homie Quan hook. Young Thug is the most-talked about rookie rapper of the year so far. The Migos have changed the flows of every rapper in the game from Roscoe Dash to Drake to Jay Electronica. And there are a bunch of rappers on the second tier jostling for the next look: Que, Johnny Cinco, Peewee Longway, etc.
Insanul: Yes, I must admit that the mixtape scene complicates this argument. Atlanta still routinely produces worthy mixtapes like last year’s Young Thug’s 1017 Thug or Migo’s YRN—even if you aren’t fans of those tapes, you had to take some notice of them. And what you say is true about how their income streams work, though I’d argue album sales don’t really make up much of any rapper’s income. L.A. acts like Odd Future definitely make more money from touring and merchandise than album sales. Still, the mixtape argument suggests two different paths the artists in these cities are taking, which touches on the socioeconomic makeup of the cities themselves—but that’s a whole other argument.
Atlanta’s lasting influence—as opposed to their innovation—is just another sign of an empire in decline.
To me, not having a mixtape scene is another reason L.A. is better simply because mixtapes are ruining albums. Nipsey Hussle gained national attention by selling his mixtape for $100 (along with a few other goodies) which is something that doesn’t even seem possible in a place like Atlanta. An undercurrent of TDE’s success has been that they don’t release mixtapes, only independent albums. That way they don’t end up releasing a bunch of mixtapes to build buzz but then run out of steam when it's album time.
You point out the drill scene in Chicago, as well as how Mustard’s sound is bred in Atlanta, but to me Atlanta’s lasting influence—as opposed to their innovation—is just another sign of an empire in decline. The ‘90s were a golden age for New York rap, but even as New York’s quality of output significantly declined, it’s influence persisted. The 2000s were a golden age for Atlanta rap ushered in by the likes of T.I., but a part of Tip’s appeal was that he was a Southern dude who could rap like a ‘90s New Yorker. That influence went as far as the West Coast too, where rappers like The Game would call himself a “Cali gang banger with a Yonkers flow.” And it’s still happening today. What’s the formula for a brand new guy like ScHoolboy Q? You put some Biggie and Nas in a blender and sprinkle in some 50. But we’d probably argue for Papoose being the King of New York before we’d even try and make a case for New York running rap today.
What you said about Mustard is true, his hold does feel temporary. But it goes back to my point: Without a sound, you may never feel like you have a “scene.” But I’m actually okay with that. Let Atlanta be a scene, Los Angeles is a city.
David: First off, let's be real: I like Nipsey, but the $100 mixtape was a gimmick, not a real world pricing model.
I think there's no debate that when it comes to the scene's optics, Los Angeles appears more "balanced." Which is to say, they have a healthy number of independent rappers that get lots of good press. From Stones Throw to Odd Future to Dom Kennedy, it's a city with a widely respected and diverse range of artists.
For a city to have a "scene," there has to be some kind of feedback loop between audience and artists; and there has to be some kind of space where the art is created and consumed that creates both a zone for collaboration and competition.
I'm also totally willing to give up on the point that great music doesn't need to be a scene; most "scenes" aren't really scenes: they're coincidences. I'd argue that for a city to have a "scene," there has to be some kind of feedback loop between audience and artists; and there has to be some kind of space where the art is created and consumed that creates both a zone for collaboration and competition. The Bay Area has a scene; it's hard to tell from this vantage whether you'd define L.A. as having one, but for the most part, the artists we're talking about—TDE, YG, Odd Future—are selling their product through different mediums, to different (though often overlapping) fans, and in different social spaces.
And while a scene isn't necessary for great art to happen, I do think that scenes tend to be more efficient at innovating, and more capable of producing hits. And here is my main problem with the argument that Atlanta has run its course: it is still a scene, and as far as I'm aware, no real-world changes have gummed up Atlanta hip-hop's core engine. Unlike what happened as New York gentrified—the Tunnel was shut down, etc.—there is still an infrastructure for producing, developing, and propelling Atlanta rap music. The clubs still exist; the strip clubs still exist. Its radio network is still one of the most influential in the country. One generation has given way to another, and there have been some growing pains, but as long as there is money to be made, artists will continue to flock to the city to create.