If there was one song representative of a crossover rap single in 2012, it’d have to be Ca$h Out’s eponymous, triumphant “Cashin’ Out.” From deep left field, the Atlanta rapper (born John-Michael Hakim Gibson, now 24) suddenly dominated rap radio upon its spring 2012 release. The song went platinum, hit No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, and landed him a deal with Epic Records. It was the increasingly rare rap single that climbed the charts the grassroots way, propelled by the simple fact that a whole lot of real life people fucked with it enough to send it national. It might have been that the song’s ecstatic tone, buoyed by the steel-drum-happy DJ Spinz production, was the perfect foil to the moody Mike WiLL Made It beats that otherwise commanded the 2012 rap charts. Or maybe it was just the addictive call-and-response ad-lib format—if you didn’t scream out “smoking on Keisha!” at least 20 times that year, you weren’t living your best life.
Chances are, if you’re not from Atlanta, you haven’t heard much—if anything—from Ca$h Out since then. His attempts to, err, cash in on a follow-up single were largely unsuccessful; even a hook from Future, the cheat code to 2013 rap radio success, failed to make much of an impression on next year’s “Another Country.” But while his post-“Cashin’ Out” work hasn’t quite matched the breakout single’s ubiquity, don’t let the charts fool you: Ca$h Out’s been hard at work the past couple years, releasing three mixtapes and one album since his 2012 debut tape, It’s My Time, and finessing a new deal with eOne Music. And in his hometown of Atlanta, his buzz is bigger than ever: 2014 singles “Mexico,” “She Twerkin” (which snuck into the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 98), “Juice,” and especially “Let’s Get It," featuring Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla $ign, have had a serious presence in the Atlanta strip club circuit. It’s a handy reminder that national airplay and blog consensus is hardly representative of localized real world trends. One-hit wonder claims are misplaced—if anything, the guy’s just hitting his stride.
All three of the previously mentioned singles appeared on Let’s Get It, Ca$h Out’s debut retail album, released last August. Listeners who’ve lost touch since “Cashin’ Out” might be a bit disoriented: These are by no means retreads of his breakthrough single. In fact, his new vibe couldn’t be further from his 2012 sound. At some point around the beginning of 2014, Ca$h Out revamped his style completely, and it’s led to the most interesting music of his career. Where “Cashin’ Out” was loud and exultant, fitting pretty comfortably into the pre-existing mold of happy-go-lucky, late-’00s swag rap, his 2014 work was stripped down to its core. He softened his flow, toning down the aggressive melodics to a murmured sing-song, and reduced his beats to their bare essence (which often constituted little more than percussion, as on album highlight “I Want the Money”). Remember the classic kindergarten art project, where you placed a leaf between two pieces of paper, rubbed over it with crayon, and were left with a faint, traced impression of the leaf? That’s what Ca$h Out does with trap music these days.
Let’s Get It and its equally restrained follow-up mixtape, November’s Kitchens & Choppas, made DJ Mustard’s spare but supple brand of minimalism feel like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; Ca$h Out’s new sound was minimal on a level that goes beyond aesthetics and into metaphysics. The majority of Kitchens & Choppas (in particular, “Violent,” “Just Letting You Know,” and “Did That”) suggested an Atlanta street rap application of Plato’s theory of forms, with which Plato sought to identify something’s essential, universal properties. Is a tree with missing leaves and broken branches still, in essence, a tree? Is a trap hit with a barely-there suggestion of a beat and very little else still, in essence, a trap hit? Over the past year, Ca$h Out’s music has sought to answer this question, and based on his local success—like the still-rising title track “Let’s Get It,” structured around little more than muffled 808s, a few piano notes, and his soft-spoken bars—it would seem the answer is “yes.” Pay attention in the coming year: Ca$h Out may not be speaking as loudly as he used to, but he’s got a whole lot more to say.
Meaghan Garvey is a writer living in New York. Follow her @meaghan_garvey.