Last week, the Complex music staff appeared on Hot 97 to spar with the station's morning show hosts about the site's year-end list. Ebro was agitated by the No. 3 placement of Rae Sremmurd's debut album, SremmLife. "The words 'high level' and 'rap' and 'Rae Sremmurd' are not a thing," Ebro argued, before suggesting Rae Sremmurd used ghostwriters. This gripe may not be legitimate, but Ebro was tapping into a real concern among hip-hop fans. Rap music is not simply the ephemeral affects so beloved by mainstream America: the slang, the style, the dances, and memes. And not all rap stars are celebrity avatars of a general audience's neuroses and desires. Hip-hop is these things, sometimes, but it's also an art form that prioritizes narrative style. Of course, rather than draw attention to under-recognized lyrical innovators, Ebro seems more interested in wielding Real Lyricists as a cudgel against teen party rap—his only alternative to SremmLife was a record by Kendrick Lamar that Complex already listed at No. 1. If groundbreaking lyrical talent was his real priority, perhaps he'd look to his home state, where a rapper with an urgent sound has become the year's freshest, most compelling new rap stylist.
Mozzy is 2015's best rapper you've never heard. This year alone the Sacramento-based star released four solo full-lengths, several collaborative albums, and a flurry of flawless guest spots. In the process, he's built up a tremendous street buzz, not just in his home city, but throughout the West Coast and stretching as far inland as Kansas City. Although Mozzy is prolific, this attention has much more to do with the rigorous quality of his writing: guest spots for artists with no profile earn verses as distinct and pristine as his own albums.
Mozzy is shocking in his laser-sharp depiction of violence. His music will remind listeners of the discomfiting rise of the drill scene—less in terms of its musical tools than its bleak outlook. It's the kind of art that will inspire words like "nihilism," though that term doesn't quite capture the dynamic; fatalistic is more like it. Street rap is often accused of glorifying violence. Instead of copping pleas, Mozzy owns it: "the murder rate climbing, we promoting violence," he raps matter-of-factly on "Beautiful Struggle." This music poses new questions. What does it mean that an artist recognizes his complicity yet remains unapologetic?
He grew up Timothy Patterson in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood. He claims membership with an Oak Park Bloods set based around 4th Avenue. In 2010, he began rapping as Lil Tim, and his sound shows the influence of the nearby Bay Area's large and diverse street rap scenes. Perhaps his most obvious predecessor is Pittsburg, Calif., rapper Husalah, a superstar in the Bay who also quietly influenced Lil B. In 2011, Lil Tim's "U Ain't Really Like Dat" video didn't just feature Hus' choppy syllable-filling rap style, but a blatant echo of Hus' singular on-camera swag as well.
Husalah's lasting influence on Mozzy may have been more thematic than stylistic. Husalah embraced crime and violence, as on 2006's "Murder on My Mind" from the album Mob Trial. After opening the record with the "Ice, Ice Baby" rhyme pattern, he boasts: "I like fights, but it's fun to handle a gun," before admitting on the chorus, "Murder isn't easy...but if you do it once, you can do it a million times...take a million lives." Where some rappers paint visual portraits of real or imagined targets on verse after verse, and others convey consequences either moral or psychological, Hus adopted the murderer's mindstate, savored its unexpected juxtapositions.
Of course, Hus didn't invent this approach in the Bay, and Mozzy's hometown of Sacramento has long been known for both the blood-and-guts horrorcore of Brotha Lynch Hung and C-Bo's controversial gangster rap, which further blurred the lines of reality and art. Mozzy's Yellow Tape Activities—the third solo album he released this year—came out through Black Market Records, the same label behind releases from controversial artists X-Raided, Brotha Lynch Hung, and Big Lurch—a rapper now remembered mainly for obtaining a life sentence after eating parts of his girlfriend's body while high off PCP.
Mozzy is dogged by his own checkered past, which bleeds into his art. "In and outta court, they say that I'm to blame/For the last couple gang wars that left the streets stained," he raps on "Baldheaded," the first song on Gangland Landscape. Mozzy spent part of 2014 behind bars. The story will be familiar to anyone who followed the controversy around social media and YouTube beef during the rise of Chicago's drill scene: an endless loop of retaliatory gang beef that’s broadcast, and magnified, by the Internet. (The back and forth between the Oak Park Bloods and South Sacramento's Starz Up gang is recounted in this in-depth article on the controversy around the city's hip-hop scene.)
Initially Mozzy's appearance on camera was straightlaced, although there was something engaging about his presence beneath the placid exterior. Where other rappers' lyrics could fall into repetitive patterns, he seemed more interested in the subtle way his lyrics could create different aural effects. With 2014's Goonbody Embodiment and collaboration with DJ Fresh, The Tonite Show With Mozzy, Mozzy’s buzz snowballed. "The boy Mozzy the new Sacramento King," Fresh—a DJ who's worked with Rich Homie Quan and Nas, in addition to a cross-section of Cali rap stars—tweeted in the summer of 2014.
By the time Mozzy released the video for "Bladadah" this summer, he'd cultivated a new look. He'd gained a few pounds behind bars, and his close-cropped hair had grown dreadlocks; where he'd once radiated poise, he now seemed to telegraph sweaty anxiety.
It's not his ties to gangland beef that make this music magnetic. Rather, it's his lyrical style, in which lines move at sharp angles and pierce the listener's mind, with vivid images conveyed through a whole new world of slang. One chorus—for his crewmate Cellyru's "Hella Soggy"—illustrates his creativity: "Oxygen polluted, we keepin' this thing foggy.... Marshmallow broth-ass niggas hella soggy."
Much gangster rap treats murder as so routine it becomes numbing. Mozzy instead embodies that casualness in a way that creates the opposite effect on the listener, reminding us that such cold bloodedness is jolting, disturbing. In this sense, the music is deceptively ethical. On one of his best records, a collaboration with June Onna Beat titled "Next Body on You," he discusses murder as if he were reminding a friend to buy the next round of beer; in its refusal to perform shock, the effect is shocking.
This is where Mozzy's art is most provocative, and crucial. Limning these moments of indifferent violence are moments of pain and references to the drugs ingested and violence performed to block it out: "sliding on these suckers 'cause it's therapeutic." His values are less about survival—"living on the borderline of suicide"—than loyalty to a crew. He's not stacking a fortune. When money is discussed, it's in terms of the relatively slight rewards of an illegal life—he speaks of being up $30,000. His work is also a refutation of the notion that this lifestyle is "ignorant," ignorant of consequences or history; his lyrics bleed with self-awareness, as on "Stranger to the Pain":
It's too much bloodshed for me to run away
To make matters worse, a nigga love this place
So much gwalla scared to tuck it in the safe
I feel ashamed I've done nothing for my race
All this black-on-black crime taking place
They took my lil brother, can't nobody take his place
I think revenge when I visualize his face
Visitation at his wake, just hoping he'd awake
While many street rappers look for congruent production—think of the aggressive bombast of Lex Luger—Mozzy relies wholly on his lyrics to convey this sense of nauseating dread. His beat choices can vary widely in quality, yet his sound as an artist is as distinct as Young Thug, in its own way. Each of Mozzy’s albums from 2015 crafted a different feeling, and each project has its own distinct strengths and weaknesses—yet each is essential. Mozzy is the definition of a rapper in the zone, with a signal-to-noise ratio that rivals anyone else working in hip-hop today.
Over the past few months, his profile began to rise nationally. According to Mozzy's Instagram, Bay Area rookie Nef the Pharaoh texted Mozzy to tell him that Chris Brown is a huge fan. And on Monday, YG released "City Mad," a new record that features yet another scene-stealing guest spot. If Mozzy's future seems bright, it's only because he recognizes that for many, darkness is the status quo.