It’s been a minute since a New Yorker reigned as the hottest rapper. Without counting Jay-Z’s post-retirement victory laps, it’s probably been more than a decade. The Big Apple, the birthplace of hip-hop, was long-considered rap’s pinnacle city. But in the early 2000s, once 50 Cent’s debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, cooled off, so did the mainstream attraction to New York’s gritty, street-core lyricism. By then, other major metropoles — namely, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago — had already established their own musical movements, ones that were inspired by alternative, perhaps more progressive, creative energies and have largely dominated the rap charts since.
Today, among post-lyrical mumblers like Young Thug and Future, or even the soulful smooth-talkers such as Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak, a lot of the always-on-beat rhymers that have historically been deemed top-notch can seem strikingly out of place. It’s hard to imagine Fabolous, or Jadakiss, or Cam’ron, or even Nas earning a number one rap song in 2017 — not because they’ve lost their technical abilities (note: they have NOT!), but because of ideological static that exists between them and the culture’s youngsters.
Today’s kids have spent their entire lives having a hip-hop hierarchy passed down to them by threatened adults who often conclude by saying that kids will just never understand. So those same kids went out and built something new, something that’s entirely their own, something that they can definitely understand. They launched a sort of rainbow revolution that aims not just to adjust, but to entirely rebuild hip-hop’s foundation by establishing a new culture of acceptance within the genre. Less fazed by the gun talk and bullyish aggression of earlier eras, modern fans are most effectively drawn to artists that oppose convention. Successful boasts no longer broadcast body counts and bank receipts; instead, they brag about social media followers. Like Quavo from Migos said: “They bustin’ for Instagram / Get your clout up.”
Alas, there is now a new movement at large, one led by traditionalist gatekeepers (such as the once-influential radio DJ Funkmaster Flex) in vocal opposition to the mere existence of young, cartoonish, somewhat controversial hip-hop stars (think Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert). While the ethical feud has already produced tangible results (lest we ever forget that mash-up .gif of Funk Flex screaming “Motherf*cking baaaars!!” after Lil Uzi Vert moans, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” on “Bad and Boujee”), it has also catalyzed larger conversations within hip-hop and revitalized an ongoing search for New York’s next prophetic rap star.
Perhaps hip-hop’s changing of the guards was inevitable, a natural result of the genre’s spreading across the country, the world and, most recently, multiple generations. But try breaking that logic down to a purebred New Yorker donning Timberland boots and rapping every word of Nas's Illmatic. Let me know how that goes for you (warning: it won’t go well). So, in 2017, I am betting on the Big Apple to strike back and properly reassert its vitality. There is a whole wave of fresh, young talent coming out of the five boroughs. You better expect these artists to come out shooting.
Dave East is the oldest, most traditional and, well, least new of these newcomers. But he’s been inching towards the spotlight for a few years and, having recently been named a member of XXL Magazine’s current freshman class, is sure to continue garnering attention in 2017. Stemming from Harlem, East blew up after self-releasing his “Black Rose” mixtape in 2014, a project that proved his technical skills to be absolutely superior to his peers’, and eventually earned the attention of hip-hop legend Nas, who went on to sign the emcee to his label, Mass Appeal Records.
East released his first commercial project, Hate Me Now, in 2015, and though it demonstrated both his willingness to evolve into a wholistic songwriter and his ability to hold his own bar for bar with established veterans like Jadakiss, Pusha T and Styles P, it still left some emotional layers untapped; there was room for the rapper to go deeper. Thankfully so, because in September of 2016, East released his second project with Mass Appeal, Kairi Chanel, and while its songs maintain the gritty, or graphic, or even intimidating tone of his earlier work, they’re equally defined by the artist’s heart and self-awareness.
Kairi Chanel is an almost perfect rap album: The skits are cinematic, vividly capturing disconnected conversations in a way that transplants listeners straight to the sidewalks of Harlem, and its songs are finer tuned than any of Dave East’s earlier work. “Keisha” is a wildly impressive street parable reminiscent of Biggie’s “I Got A Story To Tell”; “From the Heart” offers a fresh take on a classic format: rapping to a friend who’s incarcerated; “Don Pablo” is evidence of how organically East can find infinite rhymes in a single syllable; “Don’t Shoot” might be the most chilling commentary on police brutality to date. Dave East raps with the street knowledge of an industry legend in an era that probably won’t pay him the attention he deserves. If that sounds dope to you, it’s time to start listening.
A. Boogie Wit Da Hoodie
I swear, gun to my head, I still can’t pick my favorite A. Boogie harmony. So, to speed things up, I’ve settled on two: First is the deep-cutting, “I’m done with these Balenciagas, they keep on fucking my socks up / Nothing but foreigns behind us, we used to pull up in that Honda,” which appears on his prophetic single, “Not A Regular Person,” chronicling his evolution from aspirational Bronx kid to rookie rap star. But then, how could I not also mention the perfect bridge on “Jungle,” which made me comfortable with his singsongy rap style in the first place? “I was walking in the rain with my Timbs on, stepping over puddles full of pain / It’s a big storm, 13 on my Balmains / It’s a big storm, in the club, love to make it rain.” Those are some of the most quintessentially New York lyrics ever written, even with A. Boogie’s unwillingness to disguise his major “feels.”
Born Artist Dubose and raised in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, New York, A. Boogie released his debut mixtape, Artist, on Valentine’s Day last year, and after “My Shit,” one of its featured tracks, turned into an essential summer hit, he found himself opening for Drake and Future’s Summer Sixteen Tour at Madison Square Garden. Since then, he has self-released a commercial EP, “TBA (The Bigger Artist),” to prolong his residency on New York radio. The five-song project is filled with hits: “Timeless (feat. DJ SPINGKING)” is a club-ready anthem that inherits its vibe from Island dancehall music; “99 Problems & Messages” is a boastful romance rap that pays discrete homage to tracks by Jay-Z and 50 Cent; “Baecation” is a singsong one for the lady fans.
A. Boogie harmonizes like most other post-Drake aspirers, but writes lyrics that feel more directly informed by those of the great horror-rap era wordsmiths. Even as a rookie, he’s proven himself capable of establishing a unique, recognizable sound that caters to a wide audience. He can be a braggadocious gangster or even threatening, but more often he is emotional, musical and publicly romantic. That’s the kind of balance needed to succeed in 2017, so I’m betting on A. Boogie. A lot of listeners already have.
Don Q first emerged rapping aside A. Boogie on their crew mixtape, Highbridge the Label: the Takeover Vol. 1, counteracting his cohort’s more melodic moments with slick, piercing verses that add extra street credibility to proven hits “Bag on Me” and “Bando.” He already has the nasal twang of a seasoned emcee (think Jim Jones yelling out, “Haaarh-luhm”) and on his debut solo project, “Don Season,” which released in July and is hosted by Don Cannon, he explores a diverse set of musical spaces, effortlessly proving himself capable of creating within each one. Don Q told REVOLT that he’s a fan of Jay-Z, particularly “the way he puts words together and flows,” but he also “fell in love with the punchlines” by listening to Cassidy, Loyd Banks and Fabolous.
“Don Season” is packed beginning to end with straight bars — there’s no other way to say it. “By Accident” is a fully-equipped street banger reminiscent of old Dipset tracks and some Meek Mill heaters; “Look At Me Now” plays something like an unforgiving memoir; “In Love With The Music” and “Everyday” demonstrate Don’s range and musical ambition; “Everything Lit” is a firm reminder that his lyrical acrobatics alone are enough to carry a song. Be sure to watch out for Don Q in the new year and expect him to keep bullying his generation with hard-hitting verses. The entire Highbridge Label just might turn into the next big movement.
You know Young M.A. You may not know that you know Young M.A, but you know Young M.A. You’ve heard her breakout hit — “Oou” — at least a dozen times this year, maybe a hundred if you’re in a committed hip-hop circle, and you’ve seen her perfectly meme-able lyric — “Like I ain’t got a hitter to the left of me” — on countless internet timelines, unprecedentedly accompanying your friends’ non-gangster Instagram posts. You’ve also seen Young M.A, whether you’ve realized it or not, in the Beats By Dre commercial (“I’ve Got No Strings”) that has, like, every celebrity ever (Pharrell, Travis Scott, DJ Khaled, Amber Rose, Nicki Minaj and more) parading around in pastel headphones. During her spot, the Brooklyn-raised spitter is appropriately shown strolling through an alleyway, staring back at a woman that’s just passed and broadcasting her approval with a staple moan — “Oooou!” — that is among the elite few audio tracks allowed into the grandiose commercial.
Young M.A first blew up in 2014 after her barrel-emptying verse on posse cut “Brooklyn (Chiraq Freestyle)” proved vicious enough to tick off of Dr. Boyce Watkins, a social commentator who struck back against the rap song and accidentally earned it more attention. Since then, she’s been acquiring credibility mostly through underground mixtapes and Soundcloud freestyles that reimagine famous rap songs into more street-appropriate forms, but in late 2015, the emcee commercially released six songs from her SleepWalkin mixtape as an EP, and ever since “Oou” turned her into superstar, those tracks have been earning a lot of attention. “Hood Love” is proof that even gritty gangster rap can come in approachable packages; “Through the Day” is a chilling reflection on the death of her older brother and the ways in which that motivates her to grind harder; “Get This Money” is well-equipped to be a radio hit, which is probably why it just recently got a music video.
Young M.A might be one of the coldest female spitters — spitter, not artist, not musician, rapper, remember those? — to ever hold a microphone, yet she’s openly expressed weariness with working with others who might want to box her in by emphasizing her gender for marketing purposes. She turned down an acting spot on Fox’s hit television show Empire; she’s still weighing contracts from multiple records labels and isn’t in any rush to sign. “Nobody really said anything that we weren't already doing, so I definitely gotta big-up my team,” she told Elle. In 2016, Young M.A received public endorsements — either through collaboration or vocal praise — from Beyonce, Serena Williams, Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent, The Game, French Montana, Meek Mill and more. The spotlight is already on her; the ball is in her court. You better expect Young M.A to steal the show this year!