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Stepping on roaches, I get ferocious
Here’s something I don’t see changing anytime soon: New York is just another rap region these days. It’s obviously the region with the richest history by an insane margin, and even in its current slump it’s still a whole lot more fertile than most cities. It’s got two of rap’s biggest stars in Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and it’s got one of the two best rap albums of this year in Ghostface’s Fishscale, but it’s certainly no more relevant to today’s rap landscape than Atlanta these days. Many of the city’s best rappers can’t seem to get their albums out, and others are working below their level. Nobody seems able to make an actual hit, and it remains to be seen whether “Chicken Noodle Soup” will inspire a citywide craze for goofy dance songs. We’re in the rebuilding stages.
So it’s oddly cheering to hear a song like Hi-Tek’s “Where It Started At.” Hi-Tek has an interesting story: he’s from Cincinnati, not New York, but he’s still emerged as one of the last-standing proponents of the NY rap aesthetic: clipped drums, vocal bites, delicate sweep. He started out producing for Black Star and then formed Reflection Eternal, a short-lived group with Talib Kweli; they released one surprisingly good album, and Hi-Tek still sometimes plays hypeman for Kweli onstage. He also released a boring solo album called Hi-Teknology on Rawkus as that label was falling apart. He’s maintained his ties to rap’s granola-boho wing even in its current nebulous state, but a couple of years ago he somehow also managed to join the anonymous army of house producers for G-Unit, doing a few tracks on most of the label’s albums from Beg for Mercy on. So he’s been quietly walking the line between those two worlds for a few years now. He has more widescreen ambition than most indie-rap producers and more depressive chime than most of the hamfisted G-Unit guys. He’s a long way from being one of the greats, but he’s been consistently solid for almost a decade now, and that’s a real achievement in a Cal Ripken sort of way.
Next month, he’s got another album coming out called Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip. It’s got an impressive array of guests: Game, Nas, Bun B, Mos Def. But it’s not going to sell because nobody buys albums from producers or DJs and because it’s on Babygrande Records, which is a step below Koch. It’s not going to Bring New York Back, but it’ll probably be pretty good. And it’s got “Where It Started At,” which feels almost like a New York equivalent of “Still Tippin.'” Like that song, it’s a slow, sad posse cut that accidentally sums up its city’s sound perfectly. (It’s not as good as “Still Tippin’,” but not much is.) “Where It Started At” is a pretty song with a melancholy little string sample and Preemo-esque chorus-scratches and a muted snare; musically, it’s a complete distillation of whatever we might consider to be the New York rap sound in 2006. Jadakiss, Papoose, Talib, and Raekwon all rap on the track, and the only one who really shits the bed is Papoose. Pap’s problems are legion: he can’t seem to stick to the beat, he never varies his blustery bark, and he runs his lameass punchlines into the ground, repeating them over and over so that he can be absolutely sure we get them: “I keep my Tech high; I keep a high Tech like the producer.” But everybody else does beautifully, weaving intimate little local-color details in with their general bittersweet hometown pride. Jada stays low to the track, gravelly and low-key, talking about drugs and rhyming “loosies” with “kufis.” Kweli is shockingly on, sticking to the beat and lamenting the rats and roaches and how “Manhattan built on cemeteries where the blacks is buried” with the sort of understated elegance I didn’t know he still had in him. And Raekwon gives the best verse I’ve heard from him in a while, a mumbled tangle of memories. Only a few years ago, it would’ve felt like a major cross-demographic event to have these guys together on a song. These days, it makes perfect sense; every one of them has his back up against the wall. The song isn’t a banger; it’s a slow boiler. It’s not going to change much of anything, but I’m happy to have it around. A few more songs like this and maybe I’ll go back to buying mixtapes.