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First of the Month: January's Best Rap Releases

On February 1, 2016

by Paul Thompson


First of the Month is a monthly column that highlights outstanding rap music from the past thirty days. 

Last summer, a man named Shannen Hudson was killed in broad daylight in Bogalusa, a town of 12,000 people in eastern Louisiana, right up against the Mississippi border. You might know Hudson by his stage name, Young Ready (or later, Racked Up Ready); if you live north of Memphis, chances are you don’t. But those in Baton Rouge remember Hudson as one of the city’s most vital voices. He was 31.

Unlike New Orleans, which has produced national stars—or Houston, which has exported styles wholesale—Baton Rouge’s vibrant rap scene has remained almost entirely insular, its artists superstars at home and anonymous up north. There are two major exceptions, one a cult hero who’s this generation’s answer to 2Pac, another who is perhaps rap’s most truly unhinged rising star. This month, each of those rappers dropped albums that will prove pivotal to their careers.


Kevin Gates, Islah (Atlantic / BWA)

In 2013, Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates dropped The Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction, two mixtapes that broke him to a national audience as an impossibly, unerringly honest cocaine dealer who remembers all his girlfriends’ birthdays. It’s tough to overstate how naked Gates’ writing is; on Fiction’s “Smiling Faces,” he raps, “Every bitch I’m with find out I ain’t shit/ After three weeks of just fucking with me.” The following year, he would detail a violently abusive relationship on By Any Means’“Posted to Be in Love.” So it comes as no surprise that his major label debut would come with unsettling asides and suicidal thoughts hidden in its crevices.

Islah, named for the rapper’s daughter and issued through Atlantic and Gates’s own Bread Winners Association imprint, is the best album of January 2016. After a series of push-backs and false starts, the rapper (who turns 30 this week) turns in what could be his most complete effort to date. “Ain’t Too Hard” takes its title literally, from all bent-knee proposals and armchair psychology for his new wife. “Hard For” is an acoustic ballad about the various ways in which one can be hard; the closer “I Love It” sweats out perms in the victory lap for which Gates sounds endearingly unprepared. But Islah’s harder edges—singles “Really Really,” “2 Phones,” “Thought I Heard (Bread Winners Anthem)” and “Told Me”—are wholly unhinged, and further establish Gates as one of the four or five most virtuosic rappers to debut this decade.


Boosie Badazz, In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It) (Lil Boosie Music)

Around Thanksgiving, the artist better known as Lil Boosie hastily announced on his Instagram account that he was suffering from kidney cancer. A few weeks later, he underwent surgery that was reportedly successful in removing part of his affected kidney, leaving him cancer-free. Regardless, the news rattled the legions of fans who kept the Baton Rouge-bred hero’s name in headlines through the half-decade incarceration that ended in March of 2014. In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It) chronicles the time around his diagnosis in heartbreaking detail; “Cancer” is staggering in how plaintive it is. Boosie’s considerable pop instincts are at work at a few points—most notably the hook on “Bad Guy”—but for the most part, the album is unwaveringly sober. It’s the kind of record that should never be made to exist, but is left in the most capable hands.


Future, Purple Reign (Free Bandz)

The story is worn to the threads by now: In the middle of 2014, Future’s fiancee, the pop star Ciara, left him, setting in motion an artistic rebirth that featured a series of brooding, often angry free releases and culminated in last July’s number one-selling Dirty Sprite 2. It’s reductive—the album that preceded the narrative, Honest, is among his best work and remains woefully overlooked by most. On Purple Reign, which was released with no advance warning this month, the Atlanta rapper delivers a refreshingly low-stakes set. The title track is among his most heartfelt work (“I see you acting strange, I can tell this ain’t love”), and “Inside the Mattress” figures to soundtrack most of your worst decisions in the coming fiscal quarter. Stream/download Purple Reign here. 

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Finding Novyon, Super Saiyan EP (self-released) / Why Khaliq, Under the Perspective Tree (self-released)

Until the last year or so, Minnesota was known to rap fans from other cities mostly for the Rhymesayers roster; even within the Cities, rappers who owed a stylistic debt to Slug and Siddiq dominated arts calendars. But now a new guard, led by theStand4rd, Tiiiiiiiiiip, and their extended family has recast the city’s young artists as a particularly unpredictable bunch. (Stand4rd member Allan Kingdom, who crept into your RSS feed last year for his cameo on Kanye West’s “All Day,” also dropped a commendable tape this month in Northern Lights.) So far in 2016, Minneapolis and St. Paul have been well represented by Finding Novyon and Why Khaliq, respectively, who each dropped superb EPs. Novyon’s Super Saiyan EP is a hair-trigger affair that grapples with his home state’s “ten-thousand snakes” and self-booked overseas flights; Khaliq’s Under the Perspective Tree is more considered, and showcases one of the sharpest pens in the midwest. Between the pair, one has to imagine the Twin Cities are in good hands. Stream Super Saiyan here, and Under the Perspective Tree here. 



Vic Spencer & Chris Crack, Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer?? (self-released)

Chicago's rap scene is usually spoken about in dull, reductive terms: either a rapper is documenting the city’s grave problems with violent crime, or they’re reacting to it. Of course, this isn't true—Chicago is brimming with artists whose work is rooted in its neighborhoods, but is complicated and deeply human. Yet for Vic Spencer and Chris Crack, the field of vision is narrowed to the Pro Tools session; each rapper is wildly inventive when left to his own devices, but their full-length collaboration is the kind of can’t-miss, jump-out-the-tape deck mixture of clever, mean, and true that only comes around every election cycle, if we're lucky.

Paul Thompson is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles.


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