Welcome back to Mixtape Saturday, a weekly roundup of great rap tapes around the web hosted by The FADER's contributor Meaghan Garvey. This week, she talks about Kevin Gates navigating a balance between cockiness and vulnerability, Ola Playa's place in Young Thug's sphere, A$ton Matthews as A$AP's West Coast ambassador, and FKi's less-is-more production ethos.
A$ton Matthews is one third of the Cutthoat Boyz trio (along with Joey Fatts and Vince Staples) and something of A$AP Mob's West Coast ambassador (his biggest look yet was a verse on Trap Lord's "Fuck Out My Face"). Like Fatts and Staples, though, he's much more lyrically inclined than A$AP regulars, perhaps at the risk of catchiness: Aston 3:16's 19 tracks are proof that the dude can rap his ass off—see the cold-as-fuck "Money, Mackin, Murda"—but there aren't too many songs that linger. (If you can only listen to one project between this and Staples' recent Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, I'd easily pick the latter.) It's packed with features from bicoastal big-ish names and up-and-comers, though: Ferg, Action Bronson, 100s, Ab-Soul, Flatbush Zombies, Bodega Bamz, Staples, Fatts, plus production credits from Alchemist and Evidence. It's by no means a bad listen, but what's far more interesting to me is the bigger picture being painted by this year's first quarter slew of good-to-great releases out of California. From YG to Schoolboy Q to 100s to the Cutthroat crew to Ty Dolla $ign to HBK Gang (and, duh, everything Mustard-related), is young California finally positioning itself as a solid competitor to the dominant Atlanta and scrappy Chicago scenes? It's too early to tell, but 2014 seems like the West Coast's year.
Highlights: "Worka" featuring 100s, which fuses the fellow Cali up-and-comer's throwback funk with Matthews' unsmiling steeliness. "Latino Heat Part 2," a collaboration with Bodega Bamz, a Latino pride anthem—if anyone knows what this gorgeous sample is, please let me know!
WTF:If your kid looking at me wrong, Ima fuck your kid up! Ooooookay!
Ola Playa's been an associate of Young Thug and Bloody Jay for a minute—they've been collaborating since at least 2012—though it's tricky to find any real information on him. His largely overlooked 2013 tape Slime Life, studded with Thug features, has been all but wiped from the internet, but you can download it here.) Not to undercut his individual talents, but if you're a Thug fan, you're probably going to be an Ola Playa fan. The hyperactivity's turned down a few notches, and instead of unpredictable non sequitors, Playa favors world-weary street stories, but the nasal melodicism and the occasionally avant garde, assembled-on-the-fly patterns of delivery are all here. Plus, there's a generous handful of Bloody Jay and Young Thug features (he's billed here as YSL, or Young Stoner Life, for some reason). The sound quality often sucks, but the beats themselves (mostly via Ferrari Smash and Trip Da Hit Major) are great: occasionally creepy, occasionally boppy and light-hearted—basically stuff you might expect on an older Thug mixtape. This guy deserves more attention; if anyone gets a pass to ride Thug's coattails, it's Ola Playa.
Highlights: "Cut Throat," on which Playa crows in a don't-give-a-fuck rasp: Fuck the universe! The absolutely batty "Don't Move," which has Playa and "YSL" spitting threats double-time over spazzy violin.
WTF: Just theorizing here, but there are two Black Portland features on the tape, and one ("All Kinda Drugs") has already been leaked as a Black Portland song. So could the boppy "Feeling Myself" be a preview of the next Black Portland release?
It's selfish, but I think I want it both ways with Baton Rouge's Kevin Gates. Since becoming smitten with his super-emotional "Satellites" in 2012 (originally on his Make Em Believe tape, but re-released last year after he got a bit of buzz), I've looked to Gates for grimy but painfully sincere narratives of sorrow and sex and feelings. The Luca Brasi Story represented peak feels-Kevin; sure there were strip club tracks and real trap shit, but the heart of the tape were the moments where he used the leaves changing with the season as a symbol of relationships' impermanence ("Arms of a Stranger") and played songs on his invisible guitar ("Twilight"). Like fellow sensitive thug Future, he's got the voice, the earnestness to make songs about feelings still go hard, but with an added knack for narrative. On By Any Means (and to a lesser degree, on his late 2013 tape Stranger Than Fiction), I fear Gates is pivoting away from these sorts of feelings-jams, in favor of more standardized, radio-friendly fare like the 2 Chainz-featuring "Bet I'm on It" and "Dont Know." That isn't to say that these are bad songs—far from it—and Gates still imbues them with raw emotional honesty and generous glimpses into his personal life. Plus, I want him to be famous, and that means making a few concessions like semi-gratuitous 2 Chainz verses. But moments where he drops the tough-guy bluster and lays his emotions bare, like "Movie" and "Posed To Be In Love," are breathtaking, and make me yearn for the guy who was man enough to admit his favorite movie was The Notebook.
Highlights: "Movie" is far and away the best track here: a hushed, gut-wrenching account of the birth of his child. You'll cry.
WTF: Drinking coffee makes Gates feel like he's on molly ("Can't Make This Up"), and I'm trying to get on his level.
Production duo FKi is at a weird place in their career, where they've worked with a ton of massively famous artists (2 Chainz, Tyga, Juicy J, Iggy Azalea) but haven't really achieved household name status like Mike WiLL or Zaytoven have. Undeservedly so: they've got one of the most distinctive signature sounds in "mainstream" rap (though they certainly contribute to more under-the-radar projects too: two good examples are last year's self-titled Zooly Gvng tape, and YMCMB benchwarmer Shanell's highly underrated 2012 tape, Nobody's Bitch). Eschewing the bombastic, macho sounds of so much popular trap music, FKi tend more towards a more-with-less mindset (I'm willfully ignoring their quote-on-quote-trap explorations on their collaborative Transformers N The Hood series). Their beats are often defined by empty space (see Ty Dolla $ign's "Still Sippin'," Jeremih's "All The Time," and—not on the compilation, but always worth mentioning—Shanell's "On The One"), resulting in an easy elegance that manages to make guys like Tyga and B.O.B. sound debonair. This compilation is less about discovery (though if you're not yet familiar with Atlanta-via-Kingston rapper Zuse, his three appearances here make a great primer) than a reminder that FKi's been killing it for a while.
Highlights: A recent overlooked banger and a tried-and-true classic: Zuse's lurching, shrieking, dancehall-indebted "Red" (his best song yet), and Jeremih's smoke signal of a sex jam "All The Time" (yeah, you've heard it a million times already and no, that wasn't enough). Plus, the two Travis Porter megamixes are fun as fuck.
WTF: A Childish Gambino and Young Dro collaboration with Gambino somehow making Rick Ross' "UOENO" verse even more offensive (a year late) and a hook chanting Fuck that bitch? I'll pass, thanks.