Sean Price, the burly rapper from Brownsville who tragically passed this weekend, did the near impossible. In a climate where his preferred strain of punchy, soul-stirred beats and nimble, word-curving rap was quickly giving way to louder, splashier forms, he remained true to form, and a vibrant part of NYC's independent music tradition, without ever sounding stale. The most accessible example might be 2010’s “Figure 4,” a critical juncture for Price landing right when rap’s guard was changing forever, and one that he played to perfection. Over a crawling Lee Mason sample that sounded like 2AM on New Lots Ave., Price lays down a hookless proclamation of taste: I don’t parlay with a crew nigga, I don’t Wale and them new niggas, he explains, before the punchline: Hardcore rap and Mary J. Blige records.
"Figure 4" was divisive, brash, singular, and most importantly, hilarious. Price maintained and mastered what so many guardians of classic form lose along the way: a sense of humor that even Wale fans had to appreciate. It gave him breathing room in an ever-swelling city, and created an entry point for a generation of fans too young or green to know of his previous rap life in the '90s as Ruck, one half of the boot-stomping underground duo Heltah Skeltah. As rugged as it was, "Figure 4" was bright, akin to an older sibling teasing you about new trends they'll never understand or be interested to. Beneath the snarl was love: a clear and loud love for rap, and the kids that listened to it and loved it the way he did.
When the news broke that Price had passed, I was as quaked as anyone else who had loudly repped (or quietly geeked over) Sean P's endless supply of bars. Selfishly, my thoughts first ran to what this meant for New York rap, what this meant for Duck Down, what this meant for me, a music writer born and raised in Brooklyn who's first published pitch was a Random Axe review.
But after a a couple hours of spiral, I called my big brother, texted my boys, and watched "Figure 4" a hundred times, just like I'd done freshman year of college. I remembered that as much as Price represented a forgone era, he refused the "rappity rapper, real hip-hop" reductionism many artists of his ilk box themselves into. He cracked jokes, filmed skits, rapped about being broke and embraced Mac Miller before many others did. P was constantly looking forward, and probably roasting whatever landed in his purview. He's remembered by friends and collaborators as a dude who didn't take shit, but didn't take himself too seriously, either—even when his incredible talent and little-rivaled legacy gave him all the more reason to. Hopefully that's the perspective his fans and his city gain from his loss.
Donate to Sean Price's family here.