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New York City rappers have been cast as something of the rap world’s whipping boys for more than a few years now. Not only is it fashionable to paint the city’s scene as still stuck in the ’90s—that’s, er, despite the man who effectively runs rap, old man Jay-Z, being pretty proud to hail from Brooklyn—even sympathetic profiles of the city’s up-and-comers feel the need to ponder whether the MCs in question can break some sort of curse of the five boroughs. But this way of thinking is bunkum at best, and a cliché at worst.
But those people who’ve even casually cocked their ears toward the underground know that NYC rap has been doing just fine of late; a unified scene and a common vision have been slowly forming. Radio warrior Peter Rosenberg’s first installment in the What’s Poppin’ mixtape series might not be an outright statement of hometown health, but with over half of the tape’s 23 tracks showcasing artists who call NYC home, it’s a timely reminder of the scene’s promise.
The first four tracks alone could be the basis for a five-borough award tour, with Action Bronson (Queens) crafting the most melodramatic rap song to marry the phrase “deli sandwich, mustard with the cow’s tongue” and a liberal Peter Gabriel sample (someone at Shady Records sign this rapping chef pronto!), The Kid Daytona (Bronx) re-upping “Summertime,” Skyzoo (Brooklyn) spitting hard over a raw !llmind track for “Word of Mouth,” and Raekwon (Staten Island), who’s steadily becoming a grandfather figure to the current generation of NY rappers, claiming to kick “Copperfield rap” over a slinky, mystical Diamond D beat that could soundtrack a late-night, low-budget Canal Street documentary.
Crucially, these hometown rap characters are starting to form links and collaborate with each other: Bronson also appears on “5 x 8,” a five-MC posse cut based around Rosenberg’s production that viciously cuts in and out from being little more than finger snaps to full-on big-band brass stabs, while The Kid Daytona teams up with the lumbering, asthmatic Fred da Godson for “Back To School,” a piano-led song that could easily pass as a new Raekwon ditty. It’s these ties and common connections that bond the best of the mixtape into a cohesive statement; with a little trimming, you can quickly mold it into the most appropriate playlist for suffering this rainy week’s subway trips.
(Aside: In the interests of non-regional bias, Atlanta’s StS (Super Tongue Slim) absolutely storms through “Ahhh Yeah,” LA’s Kendrick Lamar is as darn pleasant and positive sounding as ever on “My Mind Drifts,” and Detroit’s nutso oddball Danny Brown continues to channel the spirit of the late great unhinged Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Brown Eyes,” where he’s very impressed with a lady who can simply “buy her own drinks.”)
Whatever path this current crop of NYC rappers goes on to take, What’s Poppin’ Volume One likely won’t be remembered with the same gravitas as DJ Premier’s New York Reality Check 101 project, which expertly documented the New York rap scene that existed a layer below the Rawkus/Murdoch umbrella of marquee acts during the now fabled mid-to-late-’90s. But the mixtape is an effective, and nicely surprising, summation of both the promise of youth—highly touted J. Cole also features with “Who Datt Pt. 2,” alongside Odd Future oiks Tyler, The Creator and Domo Genesis—and the idea that when you let them get on with making the music they want to make, NYC rap chaps are pretty great at what they do. As Homeboy Sandman, another staple of the scene, raps it, “Not another insecure MC—thank God/ Peter, this is a fat beat—nice job.” This is the sound of NYC rap that’s thrown off the idea of any inferiority complex—and it’s done a good ass job, too.