Wild Wild West

Hyphy from the Bay Area restores Dionysian lost balance to hip-hop's lopsided map

The prodigal coast has returned. Banished from rap since Tupac's shooting, the Pacific sensibility—ranging from the barbecued grooves of G-funk to Mobb music's electro picaresques—has hemorrhaged cred since the mid '90s, while surrendering Billboard real estate to young blood in the Bible Belt. New scenes have been flashing in the pan at strobe pace, with a spate of geo-genres springing up along the nation's rim: crunk, screw, trap, and snap. Add hyphy to the list—maybe. It promises to finally restore balance to hip-hop's lopsided map. Kindled by native wordsmiths, a Bay Area renaissance has been simmering, simmering, simmering. E-40 might finally bring it to a boil.

But 40's something of a Johnny-come-lately, a Mobb patriarch who boarded the hyphy bandwagon en route to the bank. Filling a vacuum left by gangsta rap, Mobb music inherited its thug glamour, its protocols and pathologies: Contain your female, handle your drugs, never lose cool. Hyphy rejects this macho Apollonian pose, finding it unnatural and inhibiting. Instead it prizes a Dionysian authenticity of feeling over some make-believe authenticity to street stoicism. And with its stress on flailing, emoting, and purging—versus grills, guns, and girls—hyphy is a music of verbs, not nouns. Too bad E-40, that unreconstructed roughneck, is only half committed to it.

On his 12th LP, My Ghetto Report Card, 40 front-loads the hyphy tracks. Unearthing a swaggering analogy—"we be to rap what key be to lock"—from the Digable Planets' 1992 debut single makes sense: Hyphy is a brash gambit at earlier rap's utopian vim. As if to deflate that optimism, the loop soon gives way to menacing thunderclaps of Miami bass, slicing through a haze of shortwave noise. Tension climbs with the techno strings, finally achieving release in the back-and-forth chorus, "Yay Area" howled down a canyon while our rapper demands to "tell the people that 40-Watter is back." So far, so good.

E-40 boards the bandwagon.
photo: Johnathan Mannion
E-40 boards the bandwagon.

The album's sly masterpiece, "Tell Me When to Go" is a back-to-basics trunk rattler invoking both "Drop It Like It's Hot" (another epoxy five-syllable hook, more shorn rhythms) and "Still Tippin' " (as breakthrough standard-bearer). In his famously elastic vernacular, E-40 crams an Old Testament counterfactual next to a line about Listerine strips, all before capping the verse with a friendly reminder that the Bay is the word-womb whence "them rappers be getting their lingo from." Then out rides Keak da Sneak, ably saddling Lil Jon's bucking, skeletal beat: all cavernous kicks pacing anxious handclaps, over hints of spacey Nintendo dithering and jangled car keys. Keak's abstract-dynamic rasp seesaws breathily between loud and soft, fast and slow, words occasionally echoing out of earshot. And for the tenderfoots, 40's call-and-response outro doubles as an area lingo primer.

After the five-song hyphy prologue, Report Card trails off into incoherence. It's all one prolonged backpedal: 40 off the stage, the lyrics into chauvinism's gutters, hyphy behind a mishmash of other styles. UGK, Swishahouse, Dipset—they're all accounted for, leaving E-40 about 45 seconds to himself. Excessive guesting climaxes in Al Kapone's appearance on "Gimmie Head," which'll require a spiritual Heimlich after you choke on six minutes of acrid fellatory nihilism. Already a melting pot of Mobb's minima moralia ("Sick Wit It II"), crunk's pruned throb ("Yay Area") and screw's outsize automotive fetishes ("Muscle Cars"), hyphy plunges deeper under the album's medley of influences.

The doe-eyed innocence on hyphy's soiree surface could give it the staying power that crunk and screw lacked. Larger than these area fads, moreover, hyphy's been touted as a movement, lifestyle, worldview, and diet plan—not just the soundtrack to a culture, but the culture of catharsis itself. Yet the vision animating Report Card is hardly innocent—like the Fruity Loops production, it's stock bleakness. Still buried under 40's slanguage-games are rap's unholy trinity: violence, materialism, and misogyny.

While E-40 sticks to these enervating staples, Keak has wholeheartedly pledged allegiance to hyphy. He did, after all, coin the term. And in "Super Hyphie," the viral summer single off last year's slapdash That's My Word, he's already extending it. Like the rest of the album, the track is trademark hyphy, engineered for going dumb: earthquake 808s, tense synth accents, spastic rhythms. But Keak's delivery re-ups the ante, every guttural non sequitur a volley of consciousness fired from the throat, a strategy to penetrate calm facades by sheer force. He wants to unhinge us. Whatever it takes: When he defines hyphy here as "thizzin', sniffin' lines," he's pointing out that MDMA fuels the dancefloor aerobics, that llellois the region's narcotic namesake. Swapping Chronic languor for ecstatic vigor, sonically and chemically, hyphy makes flight from hardscrabble reality the name of the game. Foolishly written off by some as music for the crack generation, this is the addled sound of Bush-era escapism: a rival brand of surreal.

 
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