Twenty years ago, hip-hop lost its crowned monarch. The death certificate read: Christopher G. Latore Wallace. Occupation: entertainer. Cause of death: gunshot wound to abdomen-chest. But such documents offer only the skin of a life. Underneath the stark legal papers lies a rich hip-hop Iliad. A Shakespearean tragedy straight out of Brooklyn, baby.
Aesop Rock was the jewel in the Definitive Jux beanie. His clutch of noughties records for the label saw him and long-time producer Blockhead craft brass knuckles rap that sounded like analogue machinery grinding below New York’s pavement. In the cockpit was Aes, who blasted tongue-twisting rhymes from skewered vocal cords. His vernacular was like a weird kind of subterranean dialect, the abstract lyricism of another planet. The pair were like The Simpsons’ maniacal galactic conquistadors, Kang and Kodos, in human form. They looked like real people, but it was a poor impression.
Making that giant step from supporting star to leading man is a tough thing to do. It’s damn near impossible when you’ve already been pegged as the deputy. Juelz could (and should) have been a star, but he could never have been Killa Cam. G-Unit made being 50 Cent’s weed carrier a viable career move. And it’s tough to gauge Pippen’s accomplishments without stacking them next to Jordan’s. None of this is to disparage these guys. It’s just that their legacy will always be shackled to another.
M. Ward carries the past around with him like a big, gaudy sheriff badge hanging off his shirt pocket. There’s no looking past it — the Oregon cowboy is a self-appointed custodian of a bygone era. Since the late ’90s, he’s been laying down rickety guitar lines on antique equipment, cutting a lengthy discography that plays like a brittle old scrapbook of Appalachian folk, Nashville country, Creedence swamp rock, stomping bluegrass, and a dozen other throwback genres. At his best, his records sound like lost gems that slipped through a crack in time and dropped into the present day: all retro charm, but punctuated with sharp songwriting, pretty arrangements, and swinging melodies.
If Young Thug is, in fact, an alien, then his is a planet of 50-hour days and generation-long seasons. The otherworldly rapper has cut enough great songs in two Earth years to fill seven lifetimes, pulling in sounds more likely to be heard echoing through the mysterious depths of the cosmos than the front page of Datpiff. Since splashdown, its been questioned whether his twisted dialect is truly meant for human ears, some hip-hop purists bemoaning his eccentricities as too distant, too other, and too unintelligible. But the truth is out there, laid bare by last year’s Barter 6 and Slime Season volumes 1 and 2. Thugger — codeine for blood, Gucci frock on his back — is doing more with single syllables right now than most of rap’s head table are doing with whole bars.