Andrew Nosnitsky

  • HBK Gang at SXSW 2014

    Hashtags and Heartbreak: Iamsu!, Sage the Gemini, and the Bay Area's New Rap Revolution

    Sudan Williams sounds like a particularly aggressive GPS navigator as he rolls through East Oakland on a late-October afternoon. The 24-year-old rapper is slumped into a large white van with a half-dozen friends and affiliates of his crew, the Heartbreak Gang collective (HBK for short). He looks out the window and croaks out the names of streets as they pass: "MacArthur, Seminary, Foothill."Williams, known to fans as Iamsu (or Iamsu!), is arguably the most popular young rap star in the Bay Area right now, but this isn't his home turf. He grew up in the neighboring shipping city of Richmond, located about 20 minutes north, and rarely finds himself this deep in the O. Still, his voice is an imitation of a local hero: veteran Oaktown rapper Keak da Sneak.Su's clearly come down with a minor case of Rap Tourette's.

  • Basquiat's 'Beat Bop': An Oral History of One of the Most Valuable Hip-Hop Records of All Time

    Jean-Michel Basquiat's history with rap music goes deeper than Jay Z's punch lines and bragging rights. That engagement was most visible in the "Beat Bop" 12-inch, a ten-minute sparring match between MCs/graffiti artists K-Rob and Rammellzee, which the legendary Brooklyn artist produced in 1983. Initially released independently in a reported run of just 500 copies on Basquiat's own Tartown Inc. imprint — and featuring his exclusive artwork — the original vinyl has been known to change hands for upwards of $1,500, making it among the most valuable rap records ever made, though a relative steal for a vintage Basquiat print.Stripped-down and spaced-out, "Beat Bop" is somehow both completely a product of its time and place — the early-'80s downtown intersection of hip-hop and hipsters, art and commerce — and not of this earth at all.

  • A$AP Rocky

    A$AP Rocky, 'LONG.LIVE.A$AP' (A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

    Perhaps no rapper of the social-media era earned a better return on investment than A$AP Rocky. In 2011, with just a pair of videos — "Purple Swag" and "Peso" — the Harlemite became the instant poster boy for post-regional, post-generational hip-hop. Fusing the fashion of '90s West Coast rap with the sonics of '00s Southern rap (and the swagger and fog of '10s Internet rap), the clips slowly racked up millions of views across the cool-kid blog network, earning Rocky a (reportedly) million-dollar deal with RCA/Sony.None of this happened in a vacuum, of course. Those tracks, and the October 2011 Live.Love.A$AP mixtape that followed, came at the crest of a sea change in underground hip-hop, as regional-rap-obsessed online addicts like Lil B, Spaceghostpurrrp, and Main Attrakionz reshaped the genre into a bizarre, lo-fi data dump.

  • Kendrick Lamar / Photo by Getty Images

    Kendrick Lamar, 'good kid, m.A.A.d. city' (Interscope/Aftermath)

    When, in the midst of their storied battle, Jay-Z taunted Nas with "You ain't lived it / You witnessed it from your folks' pad," it was intended as a diss, a seemingly street-certified rapper questioning the credibility of a more introverted peer. But the line had the inadvertent side effect of highlighting its target's greatest strength: Nas is a writer, and good writing is about watching and listening, first and foremost. The living of life is a secondary skill.Last year, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar did a lot of witnessing from his folks' pad with Section.80, a sometimes clunky but nonetheless wonderful series of observations on his confused generation. With good kid, m.A.A.d city, his major-label debut on Dr. Dre's Aftermath imprint, Lamar brings himself — and his folks — to the forefront of the narrative.So what happens when the witness looks inward? He turns anxious, of course.

  • That shit cray? That Kreay shit.

    Kreayshawn, 'Somethin 'Bout Kreay' (Columbia)

    Somethin 'Bout Kreay, the debut album from Oakland-born, YouTube-bred video-director-turned-rapper Kreayshawn, is about a year too late. You might remember her from last summer, when her "Gucci Gucci" briefly broke the Rap Internet. The song and video offered a colorful vomiting up of broad-stroke youth-culture signifiers — nose rings and all-over prints and anti-consumerism and Odd Future members and a magnetic young girl at the center of it all, bragging about the swag dripping from her ovaries. Like "My Name Is" or "Through the Wire" before it, the track did exactly what a breakout rap single should do: It established an identity. The cutesy, thrift-shop-hopping shit-talker was an unoccupied lane, and the result was enough of a hit — 38 million views at current count — to turn Kreay into a media (and Tumblr) darling for a split-second.

  • Waka Flocka Flame, shot for SPIN by Jason Nocito

    Waka Flocka Flame, 'Triple F Life: Friends, Fans & Family' (Warner Bros.)

    Waka Flocka Flame changed rap with his pain. On his 2010 major-label debut, Flockaveli, the Atlanta rapper — aided by an in-house production team anchored by FL Studio prodigy Lex Luger — offered 70 nearly relentless minutes of rashly penned roars, stacks of scattershot ad-libs, and machine-gun 808 rolls. This quickly became the only sound in street hip-hop, but not one of its successors has managed to match the perfection or intensity of the blueprint. It's like the Black Sabbath of contemporary gangsta rap. What still sets Waka apart is his emotional nudity. When he opened last year's Duflocka Rant mixtape with the lines "Brother dead / Daddy dead / Auntie got HIV / Lord, can you please take this rage out of me?" it was a pretty apt mission statement for his career to date. He’s made catharsis an aesthetic.

  • Future

    Future, 'Pluto' (A1/Free Bandz/Epic)

    At first, hip-hop was an exercise in musical distillation. It freed words and music from their melodic obligations, leaving only the barest form of rhythm. But almost immediately after that big bang, musicality slowly seeped back in. Rappers cribbed notes from R&B and dancehall and pop, sporadically re-inserting that genetic material into hip-hop's DNA. Very few of these fusionists could sing by traditional standards, but they compensated with magnetic deliveries and outsider charm. And over time, standards of good singing warped exponentially, each new iteration stranger than the next. It's as if rap, after first stripping itself down, has spent the four decades since piecing itself back together from jumbled fragments, like a head-trauma patient reconstructing his memory, or an alien ship piecing together a scrambled transmission.

  • Fat Trel, 'Nightmare on E Street' (Self-Released)

    If raw talent were as valuable as buzz in hip-hop, then Fat Trel would be a superstar. On a pure performance level, the 21-year-old goon-rap prodigy possesses a commanding presence that must seem almost unfathomable to his peers. Though he remains relatively unknown on a national level, Trel has built a loyal following in his Washington, D.C. hometown over the past three years, demolishing speakers and stages alike with a restrained aggression that would make Rick Ross seem unhinged. His just-released Nightmare on E Street is his fifth mixtape during that time, and like those before it, offers only frustratingly brief glimpses of his greatness. It's unclear if this is a case of Fat Trel failing to do justice to his recordings or vice versa.

  • Tyga

    Tyga, 'Careless World: Rise of the Last King' (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal)

    Typically, the path to rap stardom only runs in one direction: First you have the streets, then you have the charts. Tyga is the rare exception to this rule. The Los Angeles rapper — and, crucially, the cousin of Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy — crossed over from pop. His 2008 debut, No Introduction, was released on Pete Wentz's Decaydance imprint and produced a very minor (and completely insufferable) pop hit with the Harry Nilsson-sampling "Coconut Juice." Which might've been forgotten as a mere hiccup of industry nepotism had it not landed at the exact moment when the rap world was inexplicably obsessed with mall rock. So instead, Lil Wayne enlisted Tyga for his Young Money imprint. The allegiance injected the overly tattooed young rapper directly into a hip-hop world that was previously indifferent to him.

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