The first two months of 2016 have been dominated by something that in most years doesn’t show up until much later: star power. In January, Atlantic successfully parlayed Kevin Gates’ cultish, largely Southern following into national fame, to the tune of 112,000 copies sold in the opening week for his monster of an official debut, Islah. Toward the end of February, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis returned with This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, the long-awaited follow-up to their 2012 breakthrough, The Heist; it was pushed out of the conversation almost entirely by Kanye West’s blockbuster seventh album, The Life of Pablo and Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered.
But the current of excellent new hip-hop runs much deeper than the headliners. The following are stellar releases that may have gone overlooked, from seven artists who span Vallejo to Chicago, Detroit to Memphis, Baton Rouge to Beverly Hills. And some of their creators might have more star power than the bestsellers.
Vic Spencer/Chris Crack, Who the F**k is Chris Spencer?? (Self-released)
To the casual rap fan in Newark or Riverside, Who the F**k is Chris Spencer?? might read as an earnest question. In Chicago, it’s a mission statement: The ’90s-esque stylings of Chris Crack and Vic Spencer are a vicious argument against the generation gap. The duo treats the hip-hop like a genre flick, highly stylized and virtuosic. Check “What’s Saturday?,” where a heist unspools into soft porn and smug satisfaction. On “Cue Ball,” Spencer is your flyest uncle-turned-stylist: “Saucy with the creamiest leather / Plushed out, tough route, I should have enough out / Kicks greener than a Brussels sprout.” You might not know the bio, but you can’t deny the product.
Boosie BadAzz, In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It) and Out My Feelings (In My Past) (Self-released)
Boosie BadAzz has survived law enforcement, judicial, and prison systems designed to destroy him. (More recently, he’s survived kidney cancer; a December surgery was successful in removing the disease from his body.) But that’s not why he’s a cult hero. Boosie is a hero because he’s the only writer alive who can look unflinchingly at his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana and report back with not only the grisly details, but also a sense of joy and hopefulness.
Since New Year’s, he’s dropped a pair of albums: In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It), which is a brief, somber meditation on his health problems and on the stresses of supporting dozens of friends and family members; and Out My Feelings (In My Past), which dropped in February to a curiously muted rap world. The latter tape is not the bright and exalted counterpoint you might expect — it’s still grim, but Boosie turns his focus outward. The Slim Thug-assisted “Wanna B Heard” aims to be a voice for the voiceless, as Boosie so often is.
Quelle Chris, Lullabies for the Broken Brain (Mello Music Group)
Rapping over his own productions, Quelle Chris has spent the last four years establishing his as one of the most distinct voices in independent rap. His 2013 album, Ghost at the Finish Line, was a critical darling that positioned the Detroit native as the best kind of Dilla heir: one who doesn’t want to be a Dilla heir. (The mixtape that preceded it, Niggas Is Men, is one of the most layered, labyrinthine rap releases in recent memory.) But on his latest effort, Lullabies for the Broken Brain, Quelle’s voice isn’t there at all. The instrumental record showcases his considerable skill as a producer, articulating just what it feels like to feel abandoned, to drift.
Nef the Pharaoh & Cardo, Neffy Got Wings (Self-released)
Nef the Pharaoh runs neck-and-neck with Kodak Black as the most promising up-and-coming rapper who can’t yet rent a car. And like the Pompano Beach, Fla.-bred Kodak, Nef is doing it from outside the traditional major markets. The Vallejo, California native has married early- and mid-2000s hyphy to pieces of New Orleans and Atlanta rap from the same era, making for some of the most compelling hip-hop today; his self-titled EP and the promotional single “Bitch, I’m From Vallejo” are in constant rotation up and down the Pacific coast. His new collaboration with producer Cardo, Neffy Got Wings, casts him as an antihero with too much gold and too many Michael Jackson posters.
Yo Gotti, The Art of Hustle (Epic)
“Down in the DM” isn’t the song about spelunking in the depths of social media we deserve, but it’s the one we need. While Yo Gotti isn’t alone among artists whose biggest hit comes more than a decade into their career, he’s unique as a regional hero who has previously made entries only to the very back end of the Top 100. The Art of Hustle is about more than misleading filters, though: it’s a thorough testament to how and why Gotti has carried the banner for Memphis since 2005: “Law,” featuring E-40, is superbly ageless.
Curren$y & Alchemist, Carrollton Heist (Self-released)
This isn’t what we mean when we say an artist is his or her own worst enemy. Instead of barreling down experimental rabbit holes or burning goodwill with promoters and collaborators, Curren$y has fallen into a sort of PR purgatory, where goodness (and even greatness) are givens. Carrollton Heist pairs the New Orleans workhorse with the revered Beverly Hills producer Alchemist for yet another strong outing. This time it’s brisk: ten songs, tight and focused. As a bonus, it features one of the best Lil Wayne verses in recent memory, on “Fat Albert” — just in case you miss the second Bush administration as much as I do.
Young Dolph, King of Memphis (Self-released)
Speaking of Memphis, Gotti is running contested. Young Dolph, who has introduced himself to a national audience over the past two years with a series of stellar guest appearances, including on the current O.T. Genasis hit “Cut It.” His retail debut, King of Memphis, arrives at the same time his long-brewing cold war with Gotti has come to a head. Black Youngsta, who is signed to Gotti’s CMG imprint, insists in interviews and on Instagram that Dolph dubbing himself the city’s king is an act of blatant disrespect. Whichever side you fall on, King is worth myriad repeat listens: Dolph bridges the gap between his hometown and the Atlanta production that dominates rap’s mainstream.