Label: Never Broke Again / Atlantic Records
Producers: Al Geno, Basscharity, Benjamin Lasnier, Cash Flow Beats, CashMoneyAP, Dean Hall, G5, Greg Sekeres, Jambo, Lang On Lead, Layzbeats, Lukas Kroll, Mook On The Beats, ProdByKel, Rude Dolph, Veno the Builder, XTT, Young Grind, youngkimj, Yung Lan, Yung Tago
Over the past two years, Mobile, Alabama rapper NoCap has established himself as one of Southern hip-hop’s leading lights. Along with his frequent collaborator and fellow Mobile native Rylo Rodriguez, NoCap has pioneered a potent strain of bluesy street rap that trades heavily in homophone puns (“I played basketball in the eighth grade, still back and forth to court”) and associative wordplay (“.40 bullets come from WalMart, but still hit our Target”).
NoCap’s punchlines are fun to dissect, but taken together they reveal a bleak outlook. On Steel Human, he mourns his fallen friends, frets for his hometown, and resigns himself to a lifetime of sorrow. Poignant lines like “N***as die and then the world act like it never happened / Forget about you right after that ‘rest in peace’ status” create an overarching sense that there’s no solace in success, and no such thing as a happy ending.
Baltimore native Young Don is only 17, but he raps with the subtlety and self-possession of a seasoned vet. On his latest LP Strictly Business, Don makes mincemeat of every instrumental he touches, cycling through tricky cadences and turns of phrase without breaking a sweat.
Whether he’s taunting his enemies or striking a more reflective tone, Young Don expresses himself with eloquence and cinematic flair: “Every night, bitch I walk with the devil / They can’t take my life, ‘cause I walk with the metal.”
Label: Casting Bait Music Group
Producers: 12Roses, AyoWithTheMayo, Based TJ, David Morse, Deor, Flaask, Foreign Vu, Hxney, Key, Khovy, Lincoln Minaj, Palaze, ProdBy7000, Ran Beats, SimasBrooBeats, Teezr, WhipGotTheSauce, WHYZOO???
Sahbabii has distinguished himself from Atlanta’s pack of Young Thug progeny with a trilogy of exquisite, carefully curated albums. The 23-year-old subscribes to the increasingly uncommon belief that an album is not just a data dump but a world-building endeavor, and he shows keen attention to detail from production choices to cover art.
Like Sahbabii’s previous two LPs, Barnacles is lush, colorful, and unabashedly horny. His writing about sex is downright whimsical, and he raps in a gentle murmur that makes even the most graphic lines go down smoothly. He’s also a natural stylist, the type of rapper who can layer his rhymes without overcooking them (“Grab the family bag, bitch, ‘cause I want a lot of chips / Hundred thousand in my britches, clips filled with hollow tips”).
The world Sahbabii builds on Barnacles is luxuriant and blissed-out, a soothing palliative in a year of jangled nerves.
Label: Quality Control Music / Universal Music Group
Producers: Audio Jones, Cheeze Beatz, COMPOSE, CuBeatz, DJ Chose, DJ OnDaBeat, Don D the Producer, Earl on the Beat, Kiddo Marv, Marii Beatz, Quay Global, Sean Da Firzt, Southside, Tay Keith, Traxamillion, Twysted Genius, Young Zoe Beats
Since breaking out in 2017 with the regional hit “Fuck Dat N***a”, Miami rap duo City Girls have steadily refined their boisterous brand of sex-positive scam rap. On their latest LP City On Lock, Yung Miami and JT sound sharper and more sure of themselves than ever. The flows are crisp, the writing is punchy (“I ain’t Bonnie, fuck Clyde / You want a rich bitch? Swallow your pride”), and the bass-heavy production is damn near immaculate.
The bulk of City On Lock finds the City Girls firmly in their comfort zone, reveling in hedonism and emasculating unworthy suitors. But the album is bookended by earnest reflections on adversity and abandonment, revealing the struggle that underpins the celebration.
Label: Winners Circle / EMPIRE
Producers: 2300 Beats, Great John
Aside from 510 Music Group, my favorite independent movement in rap right now is Winners Circle Ent. The Brooklyn-based label, led by rappers Sleepy Hallow and Sheff G and their go-to producer Great John, has released one extraordinary project after another over the past year (The Unluccy Luccy Kid, Don’t Sleep, One and Only).
Sleepy For President continues this hot streak without compromise. Sleepy Hallow’s nonchalant melodic phrasing blends beautifully into Great John’s muted instrumentals. On their latest, Sleepy and Great John deliver on concepts with casual clarity, like two sluggers taking slow pitch batting practice.
Lil Crank - “Robbin Jeans” (prod. Pablomcr, Ayo Bleu, & MalikOTB)
“Robbin Jeans”, the recent single from Cobb County rapper Lil Crank, is a shot of pure adrenaline. With scalding intensity, the LBAF member flips a simple refrain - “These ain’t no Robin jeans, but I still go robbing in these jeans” - into one of the most riveting rap performances I’ve heard all year.
Crank was recently released from solitary confinement, and he raps like he’s hellbent on catharsis. As his voice reaches a fever pitch on the second verse, he trades bravado for brutal honesty: “Locked down 23 hours a day, it was hard for me / I can’t lie about a thing”.
Doa Beezy - “Backdoor” (prod. CorMill)
Chicago rapper Doa Beezy has been quietly killing it all year. Though his style is clearly indebted to Chicago’s foremost auto-tune balladier Lil Durk, Beezy is a talented and sophisticated songwriter in his own right.
On the recent loosie “Backdoor”, he delivers a freewheeling seminar on how to survive in a world full of snakes. As he veers from poetic imagery (“I’m steady falling out with n***as like a missing tooth”) to fatherly advice (“Use your brain, think more, play it cool, react less”), the young rapper transforms into a fountain of wisdom, following ideas on a whim without ever losing the thread.
2g Kaash - “Safe” (prod. Yung Tago)
For an artist who only started releasing music last year, 2g Kaash has a firm grasp on how to punch in. The opening lines of “Safe” - “Safe from me / I’mma jump in that water, I don’t care how deep, guess it ain’t no saving me” - set an evocative tone and command attention. Rapping slightly ahead of the downbeat, the 17-year-old carves out an unusual pocket and delivers a hook that could make a popstar blush.
Lil Marlo, a Rising Atlanta Rapper With Big Connections, Is Shot and Killed at 30 - Joe Coscarelli, The New York Times
The Remarkable Rise of Lil Baby - Charles Holmes, Rolling Stone
Pop Smoke Lives Again In Brooklyn - Shamira Ibrahim, Nylon
The Last Days of Pop Smoke - Jon Caramanica, The New York Times
DJ Akademiks: Ringmaster For White Voyeurs Of Black Culture - Andre Gee, more fire