Why did two of Atlanta's most exciting rappers name their tape after one of America's whitest cities?
Last Tuesday, Young Thug and Bloody Jay released an 11-track collaborative tape, combining new songs with previously released singles “Danny Glover” and “Let’s Go Play.” It’s a thrilling ride, both rappers whipped into an ecstatic frenzy with a hummable undercurrent—but I was sold before I heard the first track, because the tape is called Black Portland. I moved to Portland when I was 18. At the time, I was mortified to be living outside of the South, where I'd grown up, and in a city so overwhelmingly not-diverse that one woman has since dedicated herself to documenting its black residents, each like a rare pearl. Like lots of locals and transplants, I adjusted to Portland by learning to ride a bike, buying rain shoes and getting into the city's basketball team, the Trail Blazers, who are reliably good if not recent league champions. Their arena was small and homey; keeping up with the season was a nice way to make friends that weren’t in school. When I graduated college, I wore a Blazers hat instead of a mortarboard.
So why, a half-decade later, would two rappers from my home state call their tape Black Portland, and plaster the Blazers logo on its cover? Last week, Pitchfork called this “truly the most important question in America right now,” while Stereogum preemptively concluded that the tape had been “inexplicably” titled.
Reached by phone, Bloody Jay offered an explanation. He and Young Thug, he said, consider themselves innovators, and wanted to give that purpose a name. “We’re on fire right now in the streets of Atlanta, and we’re stoners, so you know, we’re the Blazers and Atlanta is Black Portland,” said Jay. Propane, a manager who has worked with both Jay and Thug, said, “They’re the ones that are making the sound that’s going on right now. They’re the trailblazers of the culture. Everything falls in line behind them.”
More directly, Bloody Jay is also a fan of Portland’s team, and identifies his determination in its roster. “[The Blazers are] young and ambitious. There’s a lot of players on their team that you might have never heard of, but they’re all coming in and playing as a real team. They stick together. You know that if you play them, you’re gonna have a hard night.” (Jay’s favorite Blazer is point guard Damian Lillard, an Oakland, CA native.) A friend in New York told me this week that Trail Blazers jerseys are currently en vogue, but I think it'd be fair to call Jay's Blazers fandom a niche pursuit in Atlanta—I called three stores at the city's beloved Lenox Square mall, and none stocked Portland gear.
"All of us have some Black Portland in us." —Bloody Jay
But the Black Portland idea expands beyond weed and teamwork metaphors. Portland is one of America's whitest major cities; in Jay’s words, “more of a caucasian city.” In turn, Black Portland is both a nickname for contemporary Atlanta and an imaginary place, like the Atlantis to OutKast’s Atlanta, where young creative thinkers live. “Black Portland is our own world,” Jay explains, "and all of us have some Black Portland in us. It’s where ambition, freedom and being young all roll into one. A never-ending party, just changing the color on your mood ring. That’s the kid in you, that wants to get outside when you’ve been in the house too much, that’s Black Portland. That Saturday when the sun is beaming through your window, that’s Black Portland.”
Defined this way, Black Portland is a concept that can thrive not only in Atlanta, where Jay and Thug have promoted a culture of weird clothes and wacky voices, but in any rap market where kids are looking for something that feels new. “Jay and Thug are real street guys," Propane says, "but if you look at how they dress and how they act, they’re real eccentric, worldly-type dudes. They can get along with anybody! I can take these dudes anywhere and they’ll fit in place." For Thug and Jay to brand their scene Black Portland, instead of, say, the tired and limiting "new Atlanta," they're saying they're not beholden to a regional context—it's more an ethical framework, suggesting that rap should be a freewheeling, collaborative sport; that guys from shitty neighborhoods can refresh the habits and dress codes they grew up with; that they can get along with anybody, and anybody can get along with them.
These ideas are already popular outside of Atlanta. Take the Bay Area's HBK Gang, for example, the independent squad who strive to make motivational national hits by tweaking a palette of regionally rooted sounds. (HBK's Iamsu! recently released a remix of Young Thug's "Stoner.") Or consider the outer orbits of today's Odd Future crew, forming jam bands and designing a sort-of rap college at Mac Miller's house. As for me, I'll probably never live in Portland again, but I'm sure there are Young Thug fans out there these days. And I'm happy that when they look at the Blazers logo, already a mark of diversity, collaboration and pride in a city that could use more of all those things, they'll now be able to recognize themselves in it even more.