Although Coachella has become better at getting headline hip-hop acts in the big font category, the festival has typically thrown its weight behind a wide swath of rock acts and tents full of electronic music heavy hitters. Last year’s lineup (with the exception of a memorable if divisive act from Kanye) felt at least a year or more out of place, with nostalgia act Lauryn Hill, tragically late Bond villain Cee-Lo, played to death Wiz Khalifa, and a respectable set from Nas and Damian Marley (whose album had dropped a full year previous). The hyped up and “edgy” Odd Future took what could have been a signature set and turned in a clusterfuck of a performance, cursing out the sound man in a set that was more incompetent than punk. The festival that brought amazing past performances from Jurassic 5, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, MF Doom, and Roots Manuva didn’t promise to be notable in this last year of the Mayan calendar.
The 2012 lineup brought a surprise though; this year is the first in ages where I don’t have a single thing to complain about. That stems largely from my reverence for late 90’s underground NYC act Company Flow, who are emerging from retirement, but has just as much to do with the last West coast representatives to own hip-hop, Dre and Snoop. Throw in hip-hop affiliate DJ’s like Shadow and Girl Talk; leftfield (in geography and music inclination) producers Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus; forward looking soul singers Frank Ocean and The Weeknd; and up and coming acts like Childish Gambino, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, and you’ve got a ton of hip-hop gems at the polo fields. Unless you were holding out some sad, misbegotten hope for an Outkast reunion (just let it go, let it go) rap fans have a solid outing ahead of them in 2012.
Dre and Snoop: Gin and Juice
Coachella’s recent savvy in dropping a mainstream hip-hop act along with its lineup of rock and electronic acts has been admirable. While Kanye and Jay-Z brought significant star power, that was a warmup for kings of Southern Cali rap Snoop and Dre to bring their G-Funk to the desert.
Sure, it was gangsta, but with production chock-full of Parliament samples, and subject material just as devoted to weed smoke and backyard cookouts as shootouts in Long Beach and Compton, Dre and Snoop provided a more uplifting vibe than the relentless G’ed up stylings of predecessors like N.W.A.
Dre’s production chops reached beyond the West coast to unleash Detroit’s Eminem on the world and provided bounce to East coast stalwarts like Nas and Busta Rhymes; his synth lines could infuse SoCal sun into tracks like “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” or foreboding yet flippant undertones on “The Next Episode”. Snoop’s domain was less cosmopolitan and more pure West coast (let’s forget his Master P No Limit period); his laid back tales of G riding and weed smoking flexed with dextrous flows and tight delivery (his single guest verse on “Deep Cover” was sufficient to launch a sea of hype) defined Southern Cali hip-hop in the 90’s. Though Dre’s recent output has been largely limited to Dr. Pepper commercials and overpriced headphones, and Snoop’s lyrical prowess has been undermined by questionable producer collabs and lazy writing, the two rocking the stage in the Indio desert seems like a preordained classic Coachella moment.
Frank Ocean: Novacane
Odd Future’s rise could be dissected from no surfeit of angles, whether it be the questionable influence of hipster blogs (even Tyler calls out Pitchfork, as one must bite the hand that feeds you to be properly outré); the interesting intersection of hop-hop with skate and animated culture (check that Adult Swim collab); whether they’re horrorcore or punk or just stupidly juvenile. The far reaching collective is not strictly defined by the flagrant members, and perhaps no one shows more promise than the quietly rising star of soul singer Frank Ocean.
You won’t be floored by his voice but there’s a certain informed insouciance and intelligence to Frank Ocean’s lyrics that elevate him to notable status. His two hook contributions to Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne are standout moments on an album that impresses despite (and thanks to) its indulgent largesse. If you want to get with the hip crowd and cop his unavailable mix release (if it was good enough for Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” it’s good enough for … everyone now) Google your way to nostalgia.ultra.
On “We All Try” Ocean belies hip-hop’s typical atypical conservatism by propping up love that’s not just between a man and woman, and a woman’s right to choose (rappers hate the Man but don’t mind bullshit patriarchy). “Novacane” offers a strangely wry tale of a romance originating on the Coachella polo grounds with somewhat off brand drug use and the first of several Eyes Wide Shut name drops. The highlight might be copyright flaunting “American Wedding”; Don Henley is a bit miffed as it samples (takes) the beat from “Hotel California” in whole. If he listened to it, he’d hear a elegiac track that brilliantly juxtaposes a young marriage doomed to failure before it begins with a tattooed wedding ring that he “might just die with”. Frank Ocean thinks the notion of the The Eagles suing him as “fucking awesome“; more likely it will be a footnote to a career that should afford him a better sample clearance budget in the very near future.
A$AP Rocky: Purple Swag
A$AP Rocky hails out of Harlem, the same spot that brought us Cam’Ron and the Diplomats, who dropped gangsta tales of murder and hustle while flossing with pink b-ball jerseys. That juxtaposition informs the chill vibe of Rocky’s world, rather than follow the gun clapping music of Queens rep 50 Cent, he follows the weed first, guns second vibe of Wiz Khalifa and the inventive codeine haze of Lil Wayne.
It helps the cause tremendously that he’s got solid producers including Clams Casino (also heard donating beats to The Weeknd) contributing a grip of tracks that are moody and spacey; stripping out the lyrics would sound something like the XX remixing an MF Doom Special Herbs instrumental album. Rocky doesn’t try to grab you by the neck with his hooks like Wiz Khalifa’s stoned but aggressive patter; he’s content to confidently stroll through his chorus and trust you to hypnotically bob your head along.
Today’s hip-hop world has gone more swag than gangsta (a zeitgeist that’s somewhere between metrosexual and hipster); the proving ground has moved from underground radio freestyle sessions to free mixtapes on the Internet. A$AP Rocky comes out remarkably fully formed for a guy that copped a 3 million record deal off the strength of two singles; out of any hip-hop act on the roster this Harlem rep needs to be playing at dusk, crowd full of weed smoke as the slow tweaked strings of “Purple Swag” wafts over the atmosphere.
Childish Gambino: Bonfire
You don’t need to be a fan of the so-clever-it’s-doomed sitcom Community to appreciate Childish Gambino, but it helps. His recent album Camp is both better and worse than you might expect from a rapping comedic actor (Donald Glover) who took his nom de rap from an Internet Wu-Tang name generator.
Glover does a lot of his own production, which is polished with choral flourishes, informed by modern electronic music (what isn’t at this point?) and wouldn’t be out of place on some of the recent emo-hop from B.o.B. or Drake. His flow and intonation is serviceable except for a tendency to drop into a squeaky growl that might be aggressively playful from Kanye’s windpipes but is cringeworthy from the Gambino.
As with a standup set you’re here for the punchlines – instead of dropping it like it’s hot, Gambino’s gonna ask you to “drop it like the Nasdaq” and will name check NPR’s Terry Gross, Carmen Sandiego, John Mayer before you hear him comparing himself with Biggie Smalls. There’s also serious tones and aspirations to outsider status, like when he points out “you’re not not racist cause the Wire’s in your Netflix queue” but ultimately Childish Gambino’s black but alternative (and relentless self-awareness) doesn’t break new ground beyond what Odd Future, or Lupe before them, or the Neptunes before them have put on ProTools. Donald Glover ultimately will settle into a middle ground; he’s not renaissance actor-rapper Mos Def, but his musical and acting chops outshines the likes of Tyrese.
Company Flow: The Fire in Which You Burn
1997 saw the stunning, sublime release of longtime hip-hop artisan Will Smith, whose Big Willie Style album and the particularly erudite “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” defined the mainstream rap music landscape. For those seeking somewhat grimier fare, an indie label renaissance was at work spreading music to a more niche audience. Fondle ‘Em brought the world the origin supervillain story of MF Doom, while Rawkus Records launched an astonishing roster including Mos Def, one of the earliest appearances from Eminem , Kool Keith sidekick Sir Menilik, and the “independent as fuck” Company Flow.
While Puff Daddy was honoring (exploiting) the fallout of the West coast – East coast beef, appearing onstage with Sting, Co Flow was kicking off their Funcrusher Plus LP with “Your eyes get wide like Tupac getting shot in the lobby”. The lyrical semantics may have been driven by standard anti-mainstream sentiment and edgy punchlines, but the paranoid sci-fi bent, noisy production, and forays into more personal material like the haunting domestic abuse tale “Last Good Sleep” elevated the album into classic realm. Prominent member El-P went on to have his own sonically uncompromising career; as to Co Flow, while the group only had one LP proper and they get small font billing, they stand as one of the most important hip-hop acts of the 90’s and should not be missed.