Simon Reynolds’ Retromania thesis — we’ve become weighed down by the past and as a result, the 2000s lacks its own signature sound — seems pretty spot-on to me. But I’m beginning to suspect there actually is a distinct “2000s sound.” It’s the druggy, know-it-when-you-hear-it haze of synths and manipulated vocals that are heard across multiple genres. In hip-hop, it’s called “cloud rap” and when mainstreamers like Rick Ross and others do a more lavish version of it, it’s “yacht rap.” Indie and electronica have melted together into chillwave, and then, there’s all of the all the fist-pumping, radio-rave pop, a sound which hinges on globs of Auto-Tune and serotonin-explosion synthesizers. Sure, there are those kicking back, be it old-schooler Adele or trap maximalist Lex Luger, but when a sonic thread can be followed from Oneohtrix Point Never to Drake to Foster the People to Flo Rida — that’s a sound.
Huntsville production duo the Block Beattaz sit confidently on the curve of the 2000s sound. With Jackie Chain’s 2008 regional hit “Rollin'” and the last few songs on G-Side’s Starshipz & Rocketz, they predicted the EDM pop-rap of right now (so did Wiz Khalifa’s “Say Yeah”), while their appreciation for all things floaty and beautiful-sounding on Huntsville International and The One…Cohesive, remain the blueprint for the relaxed rap beats that currently dominate both the Internet underground and the mainstream (again, via Wiz Khalifa, and syrup nodders like Lil Wayne’s “Single,” and Drake’s “I’m On One”).
Stalley’s Savage Journey to the American Dream and Zilla’s Zilla Shit 2, both produced almost entirely by the Block Beattaz, illustrate their of-the-moment style. The beats on Stalley’s mixtape are aggressively pleasant, on another plateau of prettiness: Enya meets “The Percolator” on “Savage Journey”; “Island Hopping,” is exactly what you’d imagine a rap song with that title would sound like. The best songs though, have the most moving parts and the least amount of Stalley: “Hammers and Vogues” featuring Curren$y; “Home To You” with Wale (impersonating Gucci Mane) and Anthony Flammia (impersonating Anthony Hamilton); and “BCGMMG Remix,” a chance to hear Rick Ross rumble and Meek Mill yammer over a baroque Block Beattaz production.
The whole deal with Stalley appears to be that he’s a sincere, searching everyman. But he leans too heavily on poetic self-mythology and his regular guy-ness can be, well, a bit too regular. On last year’s Lincoln Way Nights, he teamed up with producer Rashad and found roundabout ways to deliver his underdog tales. “She Wants That Bass” was a song about having a girlfriend who thinks your massive subwoofers are stupid, and “Tell Montez, I Love Her,” was a letter to a sister the rapper no longer spoke to. On Savage Journey, Stalley sacrifices specifics to pontificate on where success has (or has not) taken him yet. It’s frustratingly whatever. Nevertheless, he’s a solid rapper whose confidence goes from grating to charming with the help of these impossibly smooth, addictive beats. Stick with this one for awhile, if you’re not feeling it right away.
Huntsville MC Zilla has a generous voice and plenty of street tales to match the busy Block Beattaz beatscapes in Huntsville International and The One mode. A distorted 8-bit melody creaks through “Why You So Sensitive,” a complaint about streetcode-breaking corner boys, and a stoned, downtuned guitar rolls through syrup song “Drank In My Cup,” an ode to drank. Parts of Zilla Shit 2, like the coke-sleaze throb of “They Know Me,” and 3 A.M. vibes of “On Our Own,” are Drive-soundtrack ready. If that excellent Chromatics record, Kill For Love, was too much of a bummer and lacked cheap propulsive thrills, check out what the Block Beattaz do on Zilla Shit 2.
More of a D-boy than a W-2 boy, Zilla knows how be both a gangsta-rap hardass and a wounded hustler. He references worried parents questioning his rap career on “My Thoughts,” and then the next song, “Song Cry,” is an explosive break-up convo between father and son. He’ll rap about using women for sex and then he’ll confess, “Being broke don’t feel good / To all the hearts that I broke before, I hope they heal good.” That is the difference between the very good Savage Journey to the American Dream and the excellent Zilla Shit 2: Zilla feels present, while Stalley sounds like he’s just along for the ride.