Welcome back to Mixtape Saturday, a weekly roundup of great rap tapes around the web hosted by FADER contributor Meaghan Garvey. This week, she talks about Lil Herb as the frontrunner for best Chicago release of 2014, Shy Glizzy's DC roots under the influence of Atlanta, Doughboyz Cashout's reverent early-2000s homage, and Brenmar's now-focused club music.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Chicago rap that presents the gang and violence epidemic of the city's south and west sides as something other than a fact of life or a badge of honor. The trouble is when this mode is offered as a diametrically opposed alternative to drill and the "bad guys" of GBE and company—see Common's "War," or lovable "nice guy" Chance The Rapper's Acid Rap—and implicitly frames certain ways of depicting "Chiraq" as wrong. That's why guys like Lil Herb and Lil Bibby feel so vital: they've carved out a niche that works from within drill to attempt to wrestle with its problems and contradictions (not to mention imbues it with expertly crafted lyricism previously considered absent from young Chicago rap). Bibby's Free Crack tape from late last year felt like a revelation in this sense, but Herb's Welcome To Fazoland, a project almost two years in the works, does it even better—stronger lyricism, better beats, more pathos. Herb's take on "Chiraq" is measured and multifaceted. He's disgusted by his surroundings, but they also belong to him, and even as he recognizes its problems, his recognizes his own complicitness through participation in them; he struggles with his friends dying, but he's not too high and mighty to be immune from fetishizing guns himself. On top of that, the production here is immense and rich and fucking bad-ass. This is the best Chicago rap tape of the year so far.
Highlights: The absolutely massive "Koolin," simultaneusly bitter and boastful and thoughtful, centered around the unforgettable line Can't forget about this hellhole, I spent my life in it. "4 Minutes Of Hell Pt. 3," the best of Herb's straight bars series and one of the best beats in recent memory (produced by Luca Vialli). The smoke a blunt, now I'm back it interlude midway through "On My Soul."
WTF: I hate to say it, but Herb needs to stop trying to make new name (that doesn't seem to be sticking) "G Herbo" happen.
DC up-and-comer Shy Glizzy's Law 2 was a 2013 standout, full of the bitter, angsty contemplations like the gut-punch of "Money Problems" that make Glizzy so compelling. That scowl-through-the-pain quality is still present on follow-up Young Jefe, but it feels like less of a definitive statement as to who he is. Perhaps that's more a result of DC's still relatively pubescent rap scene—despite the rise of promising young dudes like himself, Fat Trel, Young Gleesh, and more, the city has less of a nationally recognizable "sound" than more prominent regional scenes. It's easier, understandably, to deign towards rap mecca Atlanta's more solidified sounds than to forge a path alone, and Glizzy veers towards that at times here, particularly with its abundance of Zaytoven productions. Some of the tape sounds like a more energetic and lyrically oriented Young Scooter (who appears on "Medellin"). Its high points still sound definitively Glizzy, though—I'm optimistic he'll come to trust his own vision as he moves forward. At his best, his nasal voice sounds on the brink of unraveling completely, creating a cool tension between what he says and what he might mean, like on "Awwsome," where his fraught delivery seems to bely his cocky lyrics.
Highlights: "I'm On Fire," an eerily stomping number whose hook at first seems fanciful, but speaks to the dearth of legitimate ways to get rich as a young black man: I could've been a lawyer or a doctor, I said fuck that, I need mula, I'm a robber. "Catch A Body," a Zaytoven production that takes his penchant for flutes to unprecedentedly fruity new heights (and it rules).
We Run The City 4 is the first project from Detroit's Doughboyz Cashout since signing with Jeezy's CTE. The group effortlessly emulates turn-of-the-century Southern squad rap a la Cash Money in a way that feels reverential rather than leech-y (even down to the Pen & Pixel-inspired artwork, presented with earnesty, not irony); much of the tape, like their overall catalogue, sounds like a B.G. album cut, and that's definitely a good thing. But it's filtered through a lens of desaturated Midwestern grittiness, along with a bit of the new west coast's sparse slap and the occasional Nate Dogg-inspired chorus. For a tape with no features, and generally four verses, there are surprisingly few skippable or monotonous moments. It's still a step down from their meticulously crafted 2012 album, Free Roc (which you can now apparently download for free!), but it's still one of the strongest tapes of the month.
Highlights: "My Young Niggaz" (weirdly, not the same song as the one with the same title they did with Jeezy last year), the closest thing to a single here, its beat sounding like if DJ Mustard was about to shank you. "Foreign Dreams," a softer-edged aspirational joint plucked straight from 2001. Tear-jerking tape closer "Letter To My Old Dude," an earnest soliloquy to a dead loved one.
There's a tendency to label producers with a strong sense for what's new and cool as "future-focused." I think it's more accurate to qualify Brooklyn-via-Chicago producer/DJ Brenmar as focused not on what's next, but on the right now; his style is always fresh and a little weird but never alienating or pretentious, always more concerned with the democracy of the turn-up than with "cool" posturing. He's stepped up his game here by recruiting real live rappers and vocalists (Sasha Go Hard, Ian Isaiah, Mykki Blanco, and more) rather than his sample-based older work. Often when primarily dance-focused producers lasso rappers for their projects, it feels forced at best, exploitative at worst. But with Brenmar, it feels like a natural extension; he's always had a sincere and long-running interest in rap and R&B, and he knows how to pick features that perfectly complement his style rather than forcing them into the picture. High End Times Vol. 1 doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it's not a drastic change from his previous works, but it does its job really fucking well—namely, 100 percent of its concise eight songs would obviously go off in a club.
Highlights: "Hey Ladies," featuring Jersey club queen Uniique, a sweet, fizzy track that sounds simultaneously bubblegum and tough as nails. "Like A Ho," a he-said she-said back-and-forth between Chicago rapper EMP Dasme, Brooklyn's Junglepussy, and Bronx-based Doley Bernays, like a brattier re-make of Lil Durk's "I Get Paid."