No one could ever forget that New York is the birthplace of hip-hop, but for the last few years — despite the growing prominence of A$AP Mob and Pro Era — it really did seem like the city had placed a moratorium on birthing new emcees. There was a lack of movement and progression, spurred by a dearth of national attention. The period was thankfully short-lived, though, and the city now excels in something very particular: The idea of looking back to move forward, of first paying deference to the patriarchs before creating something new. There’s gratitude to be found in the nooks and crannies of every song, whether through a sonic effect, an emcee’s flow, or using someone else’s memorable song as a blueprint for your own.
CJ Fly, “Deposition”
Each member of Pro Era is now slowly making an attempt to come into his own as an individual. The latest is rapper CJ Fly. After dropping off his debut mixtape, Thee Way Eye See It, in 2013, he returned in early July with 23, a three-track EP commemorating his 23rd birthday. While he has yet to nail down an aesthetic, 23’s vocal melodies and crisp basslines show his clearest vision yet. On “Deposition,” he couples those elements with an airy saxophone, inserting dissonance into his tunes to create an unsettling foundation for graphic lyrics. The EP satiates us in the interim, while we wait for his forthcoming 2016 sophomore album, FlyTrap.
Skyzoo, “Friend or Foe Pt. 3”
In 1996, Jay-Z released his influential debut Reasonable Doubt; among the many classics was “Friend or Foe,” a track where he speaks from the perspective of a drug lord who rejects an outsider encroaching on his territory. To celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary, Genius asked Reasonable Doubt super-fan and Brooklyn native Skyzoo to create a third episode to Jay’s two-part song (on “Friend or Foe ’98,” from his sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Jay murders the outsider). On “Friend or Foe Pt. 3” — over the same instrumental from “Friend or Foe” — Sky plays the victim’s son, who’s hell-bent on getting revenge. He continues the saga by brandishing sharp poetics, volleying some of Hov’s original metaphors right back at the master.
Foursix ft. J-Pay$o and Verdé Madera, “LVL1”
Both of seven-piece collective Foursix’s releases so far have focused on members J-Pay$o and Verdé Madera, highlighting their strong chemistry. The first, “Favors,” is bound to a bouncy pulse, while their second release “LVL1” is punctuated by video-game tones and an atmospheric swing that makes you feel like you’re floating in the game itself — something further reinforced by the duo’s lyrical remark that their rivals are stuck “on level one.” The track ebbs and flows, with a slurred, half-sung chorus, decelerating and slowly unraveling.
“Don’t call me conscious my nigga/this here is real life,” raps Mari on this track, acknowledging that, while it may sound like a conscious rap song, calling it one is reductive. This is about his actual, visceral reality. The New York-via-Chicago emcee flexes his pen throughout, drawing comparisons between Martin Luther King Jr. and Tupac Shakur, creating wordplay on Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. At the beginning of the song he accents the first word in every line, but on the final one, he shifts the weight to the last word, emphasizing the urgency of his message.
Angelo Mota, “Dawn”
The East Coast is no longer necessarily indebted to just one musical style — which includes elements like lyrical adroitness, and a prominent bass drum and snare — and “Dawn” captures this new zeitgeist well. Angelo Mota’s verses are an interplay of harmonies and raps, though he’s melodic even when he spits. His vocals are unadulterated and raw as he pines after the one who got away. The guitar, drums, and maraca-like sounds that accompany the beat show an affection for live music, something hip-hop will always have love for.
Dougie F x Dice Soho, “Checkin”
“Checkin” immediately sounds like another run-of-the-mill trap song. But stick with it — producer Dez Wright instead uses trap’s framework to build a sharper version. Wright starts the song’s palette off with cooing, hypnotic background vocals, and as it progresses, he continues assembling and adding layers of effects that aren’t conventionally trap. He surpasses even neo-trap’s aesthetics, as the song eventually unfolds into a slow decline.
Topaz Jones, “Powerball”
For Topaz Jones, the focus is money: not enough of it, maybe sometimes too much of it. Here he sings about hoping, as so many do, for the pure chance of the lottery. He knows it’s a pipe dream: “Everybody want to have it all, but how you going to get it?” As much a funk song as it is a rap song (Jones and co-producer Leven Kali’s parents are funk musicians), the uptempo summer single shuffles through all the states money puts us in: naivete, optimism, and the inevitable fall into harsh reality.
Wam G. ft. D-Dand and Grits, “Soot”
“Soot” evokes the jazzier aesthetics of the golden age of hip-hop, driven by a subtly boom-bap-like bass. Still, the beat is minimal, skeletal, lending the spotlight to the flow. The verses aren’t about any one thing; rather, they’re a space for all three rappers to flaunt their respective knack for wordplay.
Bryant Dope, “RAGE”
Like Mari, Bryant Dope uses his song “RAGE” to express a very strong aversion to, and distrust of, the system. But Dope doesn’t hide his anger; instead of turning to figures of speech, he is blatant and forthcoming. His rage — spurred by a hard-hitting bass — brings his devastation and sadness to life, especially as enumerates all the death and injustice black men have faced at the hands of the police.
Hannibal King, “World Go Round”
King uses “World Go Round” to chew over the struggle. But his ambition keeps him moving: He’s willing to fight hard and know the worry won’t break him. While the self-produced vintage bassline borrows from Nas’s aesthetic, “World Go Round” also brings G-Unit’s track “Money Make the World Go Round” to mind. The track is a tribute to historic material, and to the rappers who came before King in his very own borough.