Scene to Watch: NYC Rap’s New Wave
Guest post by music journalist Andrew Matson*
In many ways, today’s New York rap landscape begins with the ever-melodic A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. From there, it sprawls outward, including everything from the deliberate poetry of MIKE to the swagger of Young M.A.
And there’s simply no shortage of scenes to watch. Everything from Brooklyn drill, inspired by its hardcore Chicago counterpart, to the rebirth of backpack rap, make up NYC’s massive underground.
New rap heavyweights include South Bronx’s Lil Tjay, whose singing places him firmly in A Boogie’s lineage. His track “Ruthless” with Jay Critch – whom any given high schooler might identify as King of New York – is a glistening masterpiece. And building on the NYC-meets-CHI trend of late, Tjay also snagged a summer TikTok smash by guest-starring on “Pop Out,” by Chicago’s Polo G.
Critch mostly took 2019 off. But with his co-sign, two of his main producers have used the year to become stars in their own right. Tony Seltzer and A Lau are now soundtracking the upper half of the eastern seaboard with their futuristic revamping of classic NYC sounds. They’re also Smokepurpp and Ski Mask the Slump God’s go-to collaborators whenever the Florida-based hitmakers are in town.
In Brooklyn, drill (the street rap style known for tightly clustered raps) is enormous. While Sheff G’s “The Unluccy Kid” is arguably the album of the year in this category, Pop Smoke is the scene’s new gravel-voiced star. His hit record “Welcome to the Party” and worthy follow-up “Dior” are produced by London-based producer 808 Melo.
MIKE has a UK connection too, having grown up splitting time between NYC and London. His music is heavy and noncommercial – Earl Sweatshirt has taken noticeable inspiration – recalling aspects of ‘90s backpack rap, oriented against culture vultures and major labels. In New York, his friends Adé Hakim and King Carter (from the sLUms crew) and Medhane are similarly sincere and searching, and have traveled with him to Europe, where they link for songs with other rappers and producers. On SoundCloud, the page for “dj blackpower” (MIKE’s producer alias) is one way to keep track of this scene’s NYC/LDN collabs like King Carter x Rago Foot, MIKE x Jadasea, etc.
WHO’S GOT NEXT
The reigning king of viral internet rap is Queens-based Lil Tecca, a specialist in synthesizing today’s trends into undeniable hits. His track “Ran$om” was a certified summer anthem, and his next offering, “Shots” has been making major waves, too.
Tecca’s also a producer, most notably for fellow Queens rapper Pasto Flocco (“Catch Up”), who sounds like a more caffeinated Yung Bans. Flocco has a few dimensions to his sound, and tends to make more bugged-out music whenever he links with the Surf Gang producers: Tommytohotty, EVILGIANE, and Harrison. Speaking of, they’ve got a great, new, ethereal EP on their hands starring Polo Perks–another rapper to watch.
Lil Benny’s “L.A. Baby” is worth listening to a dozen times on repeat. Producer KBeazy’s beat is fire–he’s an 18-year-old genius from Toronto, who sells “[artist]-type” beats on the internet, though he’s clearly as good as any of those artists’ actual producers.
From the Seltzer-produced underground, ABG Neal and his crew of GAP-hoodie-wearing friends effortlessly stand out; Tabby Wakes is consummately cool; Slim Poppins has breakthrough potential; and Gabe Nandez can be found wrecking shows at bars on Flatbush while rapping in French. MIKE-affiliated jazz sax player Caleb Giles is a refreshing solo rapper, with a relatable message about being a creative person on his grind.
And as noted, Brooklyn street rap is just generally full of life. Drill rapper Kooda B deserves special attention for his high-octane bars and dancing. The Krookz collective houses several producers and rappers of note–including young Gary Vee acolyte Najjee who excels equally at rapping, singing, and keeping up an attention-grabbing online presence.
With all that energy, there’s plenty to get excited about in NYC rap as we head into 2020 – as long as you’re open to discovery.
Want to hear more? Check out “Gotham Bars,” SoundCloud’s home for all the latest tracks and emerging creators in NYC and Tri-State rap.
*Andrew Matson has written for MASS APPEAL, Rolling Stone, NPR, The Seattle Times, and Genius. On social he’s @andrewmatson.