A year ago, Complex ran an article by Ernest Baker entitled New York Back: Hip Hop’s Return To Power In The Mecca. Earlier this month Young One recording artist Bryant Dope dropped his long-awaited New New York tape. The conversational shift and coinage suggests New York is in the midst of a generational awakening by a vanguard poised for the crown. And yet, I’m hard-pressed to find a bevy of 5-mic classics or even one a year later since the prophecy came to light.
It was an exciting declaration in 2012, one with great promise of a rebirth in both the mainstream equipped for Hot 97 and the underground circuit. Going to a hip hop show in Brooklyn mattered with new crews occupying venues from 285 Kent to Santos Party House. Signing announcements were made, rumors of collaborations and full albums with decorated producers circulated, and new artists came from the deep recesses of the boroughs, rolling deep with crews who looked ready for the stage. Children of the Night brought its World’s Fair crew from Queens, which resembled a young Native Tongues in their eccentric, almost bohemian look, while the Outdoorsmen (Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren and Co.) represented the roughneck, Lo-heads side of Queens. RATKING were the privileged experimentalists who cited No Wave as an influence and held court with the Manhattan elite. Pro.Era were the young bucks, rolling deep like 11 Shyheims, one Chubb Rock and one Nas. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire brought his Brooklyn-based Passion posse, which consisted of a proficient Heron and a madcap of the Flava Flav calibur (without the crack addiction) in Goldie Glo. The A$AP Mob were fully-formed in both uniform titles, fashion, and sound aesthetic to redefine Harlem in the wake of DIPSET. While Greedhead broke barriers with each signee like a college campus pamphlet of equal opportunity hire; MCs with backgrounds ranging from Bengali to Russian and even homosexual. The terrain of New York rappers is a diversity reborn; lost since the days when Q-Tip could follow up a verse on a Beastie Boys record with production for Mobb Deep, muddled in nearly two decades of concentrated stagnancy of Yankee-fitted mixtape rappers declaring New York is still here.
Baker’s article documented the resurgence properly, listing Das Racist, Action Bronson, Maffew Ragazino, Wiki, Smoke DZA, Flatbush Zombies, Joey Bada$$, Troy Ave, Fred The Godson, World’s Fair, Roc Marciano, and KA in the independent spectrum, while Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, French Montana, Azealia Banks, Cory Gunz, Theophilus London, Dyme-A-Duzin, Vado, and Red Cafe make up the major label signees. Though a year later, it’s tough to look at this list with optimism.
Das Racist signed with Sony, but broke up before completing a second album. Azealia Banks flatlined her career via Twitter. Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire recently told Interview magazine he’s completed two songs on his major label debut. Theophilus London’s latest effort is appearing in a Chevy Sonic commercial. Fred The Godson signed his identity off to Maybach’s non-regional diction. He’ll strictly eat off guest verses on Rick Ross albums until he decides he’s better off on his own. Red Cafe and French Montana will go nowhere with Bad Boy, unless someone writes a diddy for Diddy’s Ciroc Vodka. Think I’m being harsh? Did you know French Montana’s Excuse My French is out? What’s that single of his that’s bringing New York back? “Pop That”? I could rest my case, but I’ll go further by stating Montana’s debut was pushed four times: July 17, 2012; Fall 2012; March 12, 2013; April 16, 2013, and finally May 17, 2013. The reviews are not pretty either. It’s one of those records that takes a unanimous beating from journos comparable to being a jobber in a squash match.
Baker goes on to note the productivity, citing multi-record output from several camps. If we have reason to be grateful, it’s the New New York rappers produce music at an alarming rate, but mixtapes are hype generators for the all important album. For some, the free mixtape seems to be everything and while I’ll never complain of a free record, when it comes to judging if New York is back, it’s hard to tell from the multi-mixtape year of 2012 by Meyhem Lauren, Heems, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, and eXquire. No one is calling any particular body of work a living classic. It might be an old mentality but if it's free, it’s just a mixtape, and if it’s free—no matter how dope it may be—it’s not competing with the limelight of an official record like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I have no interest in falling too far into old mentalities, revisiting the East vs. West argument, but if New York wants to claim it is back, it’s going to need a record that eclipses Kendrick.
A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.ASAP held court at the #1 spot on Billboard, but flopped like a landshark among the critics. Pitchfork called it Best New Music, but one of its hired guns Noz took his opinion on Rocky’s identity crisis to SPIN (the magazine also labeled it “Worst New Music”) and Dean Christgau shot from the hip on Rocky’s hollow presentation, lacking in personal narrative. Long.Live.ASAP rekindled the art of the posse cut, a Golden Era tradition, in “1Train”, but its biggest single is heavily owed to the presence of Drake (Canadian), Kendrick Lamar (Compton’s finest) and 2Chainz (College Park, Georgia) on the hook. Do your friends recite Rocky’s nigga rich line or do they linger on Kendrick delivering “girl, I know you want this dick” like he’s Paul Rudd in Wanderlust or his “Halle Berry, hallelujah / holla back / I’ll do ya” send off?
RATKING, as I’ve noted in my review of Wiki93, is the group with the most immediate potential to unleash a classic. They garner the proper company to see New York beyond their partitioned home turf, with the only deterrent being they're more of a critic’s pick than a group whose success is measured in radio requests and Billboard numbers.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire is a question mark, but deserving of an asterik indicating it's too early to resign hope, particular with his Kismet mixtape dropping next week instead of a full length on Universal. He shows self-awareness, cursing his Power & Passion EP on Universal as misguided. eXquire recently announced sobriety, giving up on the hedonism he dispraised then ultimately embraced, in order to refocus towards that initial desire. When I spoke to him in 2011, he talked of the responsibility to remain independent as an artist, while still reaching as many people as possible. In the Baker piece which followed him to LA, Baker noted, “That desire to create something culturally significant—rather than just indulging in the hedonism of a successful hip-hop career—is shared by many of the new New York rappers.”
So the desire is there, but where are the albums?*
We’re told the mentality of the New New York rapper is to do it on their own terms, but it hardly feels as though we can expect a classic. Joey Bada$$ mesmerized the media with his vintage style, took his talents to Jimmy Fallon, and toured the globe over, but since the release of 1999 he’s not dropped music without corporate product placement. If a rapper tweets “on the grind” or “hustling hard today” bet it translates to “photo shoot with Urban Outfitters” or “having my music censored to shit by Scion A/V for an EP”. We’re being let down where it matters, the music, and sold boutique clothing, Mountain Dew, Ecko Unltd and Chevy cars in the process. The announcement of Summer Knights could alter the narrative, but the first single “Word Is Bond” didn’t render this editorial obsolete.
We’ve slipped far. The frontrunners have yet to deliver and we’re filtering down into the CRUs and Group Homes of our time in Bryant Dope, Black Dave, and Bitches Is Crazy. These artists/groups are making excellent New York rap, but fall victim to either coat tailing contemporaries or coveting the 90s too closely. Dope's New New York is solid, but by not living up to its title, distills the coinage to a troubled state. Will the high water mark be remembered as a “Huzzah (Remix)” video, Action Bronson's free weed at every show, and the Wiki93 EP or will patience yield validation to the prophecy? It’s only been a year, but the resurgence does not feel as strong as it did a year ago. No one promised us a classic record, but it will mar the history books if all we get are free mixtapes disguised as albums by mixtape rappers disguised as innovators in new vanguard.
*The argument could be made that Killer Mike & El-P’s R.A.P. Music is a classic, in the vein of New York rap. It’s also a record by an Atlanta artist and Brooklyn producer. The Bomb Squad worked with Ice Cube in New York on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but no one calls it a New York record. El-P should also be cited as an influence on the New New York resurgence (many of the artists cite his group Company Flow and Definitive Jux label as an inspiration) rather than a member.