How Do You Like Your Los Angeles Hip-Hop?
Posted August 1, 2018 7:17 p.m. EDT
Though it gets far less credit than Atlanta, Los Angeles has become perhaps the most vibrant, diverse and consistently impressive hip-hop hub this decade. Atlanta — and its sonic offspring — may own the genre’s center, primary aesthetic approach and charts, but Los Angeles has nonetheless thrived by working two parallel tracks.
On one hand, it emphasizes its core competencies, a commitment that’s clear on YG’s third album, “Stay Dangerous.” And on the other hand, it revels in lushness, owning its smooth funk legacy and extending it to the present day, as Buddy does on his debut album, “Harlan & Alondra.”
For the last five years, the 28-year-old Compton rapper YG has been distilling vintage-era Los Angeles gangster rap into cold steel. His two previous albums — “My Krazy Life,” from 2014, and the 2016 follow-up, “Still Brazy” — were great, or better than great, because YG sticks to first principles: bone-dry rhymes and pointed, spare production. He’s an unsentimental storyteller, and also an intuitive melodist. His hooks are consistently crisp and sticky.
Most crucially, “Stay Dangerous” (Def Jam) marks a reunion for YG with the producer DJ Mustard, whose buoyant post-hyphy productions made his earliest and sometimes most menacing songs (“My ______,” “Who Do You Love?”) still sound sprightly. DJ Mustard produced around half of this new album, and his chemistry with YG is intact, and necessary. The peak is “Too Brazy,” which both pulses and relaxes at the same time. “Too Cocky” features the signature DJ Mustard bell tones, which arrive in loose formation, knocking each other out like carefully fired pinballs. “Big Bank” is a tiptoeing dance, and “10 Times” is rowdy fun.
On that song, and elsewhere on this album, YG’s rapping is less staccato than it’s previously been, and at times he slips into a tone that’s part whine, part wheeze. Perhaps that’s because there is a great deal of anguish and disruption in his orbit. On “666” he thrills at being irresponsible — fast sex, fast cars, fast drugs, the usual — even as he assesses the damages.
YG is astute about how fame disorients your life. He closes this album with a disarmingly somber number, “Bomptown Finest,” an apologia and an apology for the ways in which his inner circle has been subjected to intense pressure. It’s a welcome slowing down after all that reckless speed.
Buddy, by contrast, lives in the slow lane. “Harlan & Alondra” (RCA), his first full-length album after about a decade of releases, shows just how effective this approach can be. Buddy, 24, both sings and raps — he’s strongest when he inflects his singing with some of the shape of his rapping — and on most of this album, he is a contemplative, empathetic narrator. On “Trouble on Central,” he sing-raps smoothly, with a sidelong reference to Skee-Lo’s “I Wish,” over a lithe funk production. (Key musical contributors on this album include Mike & Keys, Brody Brown and Roofeeo — Los Angeles studio stalwarts who team up on several tracks — and Terrace Martin, a frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator and essential Los Angeles hybridizer.)
That song comes in the middle of a particularly impressive run: the shimmering “Legend,” which positions Buddy as an ethereal post-disco dreamboat; “The Blue,” a wistful slide that features Snoop Dogg (the one Los Angeles star who truly bridges the city’s two modes); and “Speechless,” which has the richness of late 1970s soul and the wisdom of late 1980s hip-hop. Like YG’s songs, Buddy’s music is full of small homages to the Los Angeles sounds of yesteryear. But while YG is polishing one idea until it shines blindingly, Buddy is crossing generations, building new paths.