It used to be that two great records in a year was a major accomplishment, like David Bowie cranking out Heroes and Low in 1977 without so much as mussing his hair, for example. In Atlanta hip hop, though, such prolific output has become the norm. On Oct. 27, Atlanta rapper/AutoTune wrestler Future released Monster, a booming, entrancing, impeccable-sounding mixtape that acts as the Hyde to the Jekyll of Honest—the artist’s hazy, soul-searching second album, which only came out seven months ago. Even if Monster was subpar I would feel spoiled, being privy to so much work from an artist I enjoy, with so much of it available for free. But such is the charmed life of a fan of Atlanta hip hop in 2014. This scene is producing relentlessly imaginative music at a preposterously high rate, a large percentage of it in tape form, turning sites like DatPiff into an intoxicating “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.
So, why Atlanta? Well, at least one explanation is as simple as asking “Why Liverpool?” in 1963.
When creating its 1998 album Aquemini, OutKast was in an enviable spot, with a platinum debut under its belt, as well as a heady, experimental follow-up that sold even better. Yet Andre 3000 and Big Boi must have been hearing it from fans who were expecting said experiment—1996’s ATLiens—to deliver more of the carefree G-funk that put the duo on the map. Because the first song on Aquemini, “Return of the G,” directly addresses them, deftly illustrating the push-and-pull between trope loyalty and boundless muse-embracing that confronts ambitious rappers everywhere:
“Return of the gangsta / Thanks ‘ta / Them n*as that get the wrong impression of expression / Then the question is ‘Big Boi what’s up with Andre? / Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay? / When y’all gon’ break up? / When y’all gon’ wake up?’ / N*a I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you / Get down!”
Fast-forward 16 years, and “Return of the G” feels like a Declaration of Independence for a whole generation of artists in OutKast’s hometown, who feel free to develop their own striking, dynamic personalities, both within and outside of the constructs of materialistic mainstream hip hop. This year, that influence bore kaleidoscopic fruit—the hypnotic helium tornado that is Young Thug, the bizarre yet fully formed gravitas of the Awful Records crew, the precocious rivulet to Frank Ocean that is Raury.
And it should be said again—95 percent of this stuff comes to you in the form of free mixtapes. You know, those things that are like U2’s Songs of Innocence, except you choose to add them to your library and you listen to them more than once. There was such a bounty of brain-poaching Atlanta tapes this year that you probably missed a few, so here are the must-listens. Focus on whatever’s ailing your playlists these days and click “download.” The Atlantidote™ is on its way.
If this tidal wave of creativity has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of OutKast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party.
Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow ATL tape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake.
The network of rappers that have bonded in the orbit of Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad label in Atlanta would be the envy of any scene—Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, PeeWee Longway, Que, etc. But by this time next year, they could be the second-most-exciting crew in town. Awful Records seems to be as much a DIY rap label as a loose collective of friends who happen to record each other on occasion. The label head and house producer calls himself Father, and he is refreshingly disinterested in establishing a trademark sound for his already expansive family. Archibald Slim is the most accomplished Awful artist (that I’ve heard); on his debut mixtape He’s Drunk, the rapper weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil. And house producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas. It’s almost as if he saved the best loops for Slim (Father’s tape Young Hot Ebony is either a heroin-lazy slog or the sociopathic P.M. Dawn album we didn’t know we needed. I’m not sure yet.), to ensure that we all know that the title of this tape is not a portal to wackiness. In this context, it feels like a quote. “He’s drunk” approximates what the establishment says to make itself feel better, especially when it hears something as cutting as “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.”
After hearing all of the refreshing ways that Young Thug and Archibald Slim are reframing and expanding on OutKast’s late-‘90s dilemmas, it’s a whole different kind of refreshing to hear Raury, who’s a stone-cold disciple of The Love Below, and not only because he was only two when Aquemini came out. His debut EP Indigo Child owes obvious debts to Frank Ocean (heart-on-sleeve R&B intercut with secretly recorded arguments with his mom), Mumford & Sons (the breezy folk-stomp of “God’s Whisper”) and Bon Iver (the ghostly harmonies of “Superfly”). But in a grander sense, this 18-year-old’s genre mudskipping can be traced back to Andre 3000’s careening solo statement, where the flaws were part of what made it a gem. He’s got a natural sense of what makes a hit song—a universal sentiment dripping in positive energy, that you can hum to—and he’s just restless enough to craft it so it reads as art. As a precursor, Indigo Child is a thrill.
PeeWee Longway seemed in line to be the Inspectah Deck of the 1017 crew—the fiery and talented emcee who more than holds his own amongst the heavyweights, but can’t quite carve out an identity on his own. (Don’t get me wrong. Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance is a great album, an underappreciated classic even. But in terms of branding, it failed.) But with The Blue M&M, Longway is calling bullshit on that thing I just wrote. He doesn’t have the charisma of Young Thug, but he grabs you by the lapels anyways through sheer command. (I don’t know what that title means, just that it crackles, and makes for one of the most gleefully ridiculous covers of the year.) “Pretty Penny” has a snappy, entrancing chorus that was probably crafted for the track’s guest star, Offset from Migos. But it’s the way Longway unleashes it that makes it unforgettable—in a chopped, urgent tone, he layers and chops up the line—“Young rich n***a / Lookin’ like a pretty penny.” By the time he’s done, it has folded in upon itself like a swagged out “Row Row Row Your Boat.” And like Andre 3000 in 1998, you’re feeling better than ever. Get down.