The Catch-Up, May 9: The Best Year Ever, So Far
It’s already the best year ever for North Carolina hip-hop, and the seeds were planted more than 10 years ago.
Ask any self-respecting North Carolina music historian when the hip-hop heyday was for the Old North State, and they will tell you, without hesitation, about the mid-aughts: Little Brother (Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder), just a few years removed from NC Central, signed to Atlantic Records; Cesar Comanche, Darien Brockington and the collaborative Halls of Justus all releasing albums through Oakland-based label ABB Records, the home to Evidence and Dilated Peoples; Kaze’s album, Block 2 Da Basement, being distributed digitally by Rawkus Records and featuring Royce Da 5’9”; and a legion of affiliated acts — Median, Joe Scudda, Chaundon, Sean Boog, Jozeemo and more — carving their own paths in the nascent internet-era music industry.
But just a few years later, North Carolina’s big moment was already fading into the ether like an unlucky superhero at the end of Infinity War. No single factor or artist could be held accountable, but by the time the dust had settled in 2010 and Drake was crooning about the best he ever had, the once-emergent NC rap nucleus had been reduced to a haphazard smattering of in-fighting, drama and undersold albums. J. Cole, just starting to emerge, wasn’t seen as a North Carolina artist — living in New York City, he hadn’t had his 2014 Forest Hills moment yet.
To say North Carolina was “on the margins” of the national hip-hop landscape would be putting it lightly.
Flash forward to 2018, and the story is a little different. North Carolina may not be at the front-and-center of hip-hop, but it’s undoubtedly in the arena. Rapsody, coming off an album that landed her a Best Rap Album nomination from the GRAMMYs, is now signed to Jay Z as a member of Roc Nation. Phonte Coleman, a fan-favorite whenever he pops up on projects from KAYTRANADA to The Roots, kicked off the year by releasing his first solo album in seven years. J. Cole, already one of the world’s most famous musicians, just returned to form with a cautionary and haunting album called KOD, breaking Spotify and Apple Music streaming records in the process. And, as he announced a week after the album dropped, he’s throwing a one-day festival in Raleigh on September 15th. In the popular lexicon of 2018 internet memes, NC is having “a moment.”
To even casual listeners, this laundry list of rap bonafides is well-known. But rarely discussed is the way that NC’s previous ascendant era directly led to the comparative splendor of today.
For at least one of 2018’s best early moments, that connection is fairly direct (see: Phonte Coleman, member of the NC flagship group Little Brother, releases new album, No News Is Good News). But others take a less linear path. Consider Rapsody, a founding member of Kooley High, a group borne out of freestyle sessions at NC State in — you guessed it — the mid-2000’s. As the group took shape, who happened to stop by and lend an ear but 9th Wonder himself, the producer behind what was then the biggest act in NC hip-hop history. Kooley and 9th would collaborate more than once, but the Black Album producer had big plans for Rapsody. “That’s your star,” he is rumored to have said. A decade later, she would rap on To Pimp A Butterfly.
That connection came full circle this March, just a month after Phonte’s album, when the long-anticipated Kooley High and 9th Wonder record, Never Come Down, was released to the world. The most complete, wide-ranging body of work from the group to date, NCD was an instant hit with fans and critics alike, earning a 4 out of 5 on HipHopDX and praise on other outlets.
Then J. Cole registered not one but two seismic shocks to the North Carolina landscape — first with the album KOD, and then the announcement of his own festival, Dreamville Fest. Despite his status as global superstar, Jermaine’s story goes back to NC’s first wave, too.
While most J. Cole fans have never heard of the Justus League, or even Franklin Street for that matter, the 33-year-old emcee certainly has. Fifteen years ago, with the Justus Leauge/ABB Records/Little Brother era just beginning to coalesce, Cole was driving from Fayetteville all the way to Chapel Hill, to be a part of events like Microphone Mondays at Local 506. As Chris Toenes of INDY Week wrote at the time, “Like a string of firecrackers going off, suddenly there are loads of new hip-hop and dance music nights around Chapel Hill.” Apparently Cole got the memo.
Five years ago, the mid-2000’s rise of NC hip-hop looked like, more than anything, a missed opportunity. Knowing what we know now, NC rap fans should find it in our hearts to be a bit more forgiving. The seeds planted back then — at Microphone Mondays, at Chop Shop Studios, at NC Central — are in full bloom. If you want to smell the flowers, come to Dorothea Dix Park on September 15th.
- Ryan Cocca
S.K.U.L.L. - Jooselord Magnus (Double Album)
Anyone who’s been keeping tabs on the Raleigh hip-hop, or even battle rap, scene has likely heard about the intensity of a Jooselord show. One of my biggest questions leading into the release of his two albums [S.K.U.L.L. (Days I Won’t Forget) and S.K.U.L.L. (Nights I Can’t Remember)] was how well the intensity he brings in person would translate to my headphones or my car. After an intro and brief skit Black Mindset begins to play, that question is answered almost immediately, in the affirmative. Thematically the beginning of this album is loaded with material speaking on the mentality that rap, sports, and drugs are the main ways to garner success as a black man. It’s a point he builds up so he can deconstruct and poke holes with different lyrical approaches throughout both albums. There does seem to be a tone shift when moving from Days I Won’t Forget to Nights I Can’t Remember with the latter being less tied to the former’s themes, but is no less engaging for it. While each album is 15 tracks long, there’s a decent peppering of skits and enough variety in the beats, flows, and vocal tones for this project as a whole to keep you interested.
Throughout both albums Joose has brought a solid lineup of feature artists to contribute verses, with “Indigo”, “Black Flag,” and “Cops Come" showing off the skill of fellow NC artists Sean Kyd, Thedeeepend, Jovi Mosconi, and Iron Mic. Not to be outdone, Jooselord is able to find yet another gear when he comes on the tracks for his verses. Jooselord is able to convey his intensity and electricity through his vocals more easily than many other artists, with the beat sometimes taking a step back to let his verses and hooks go full force — no better example exists than “Pirates," a track that lives off the sound of his voice. It’s an incredibly ambitious effort — dropping two full length albums at once as your debut — but if any artist could deliver, it’s Joose. He’s long been known for incredibly energetic live sets and lyrical ability, and he successfully brings the bars and the energy on these albums. While one isn’t necessarily wrong to wonder whether brevity may have been more beneficial, there is little left to be desired from this impressive debut.
- Alex Yllanes
No Excuses - NANCE
No Excuses, by all means, is a perfectly good album. Nance has a strong grip on the technical aspects of rapping - he drifts smoothly between adopting Big Sean’s cadences and sultry Drake flows, without it ever being jarring. The beats are terrific across the board and harken back to the simpler times of 2010/2011 pop-rap hits.
However, the album struggles under the weight of recycled rap tropes. Choruses in particular are the victims here. The title track, for example, is anchored by a chorus that includes, “Chasin’ my dreams like no excuses, like whoa/Putting on the team like no excuses, like whoa.” They’re certainly catchy, but the hooks, as well as the content, are a bit vague. On “Show Up,” Nance raps “I run the city without running shoes/You ain’t gotta wonder who.” But after listening to this album in full, I’m left wondering who Nance actually is.
- Jimmy Branley
"Sweet Cocoala" - Hasina
Despite the eye-catching nature of its accompanying artwork, Hasina’s single, “Sweet Cocoala” (which I’m 99% sure is not about me), is a standard love ballad. Rides down the boulevard, dates that feel like “months of happiness,” the slow groove of this song coincides perfectly with the transition to warmer weather — it’s music begging for a long summer drive. And thanks to Hasina’s alluring, distant vocals, a very simple instrumental in the background never grows tiresome.
Intriguing as they may be, the vocals are too thin and airy, possibly due to the way they are layered in the track. While the song feels genuine and is pleasant to listen to, I’m left wanting to hear “Sweet Cocoala” live, no mixing or layers, the way Hasina would sing it naturally. Just as any new “Lil” rapper on SoundCloud gets tossed into the Tekashi, Pump and Playboi Carti bucket with or without a fair trial, it’s easy to throw Durham’s Hasina in with a growing sorority of hip-hop-adjacent singers lazily tagged with the general label of “SZA/Jhené-ish.” (FWIW: I've had the same "over-layering" mixing gripe with Kehlani for years too). It’s on us (writers and casual fans alike) to dig deeper and see what artists like Hasina have to offer — it’s on them to make that talent impossible to ignore.
- Ryan Cocca
Black Hole 2 - Spaceman Stuu
With 15 tracks, this album at first looks like it might be a chore to tackle, but it flows from track to track without dragging. Having the entire project feature production from Black Rob really allows for the tracks to flow well together even while sonically ranging from trap to R&B. Spaceman Stuu takes advantage of the music, showing some different looks on his flows and assembling a list of features that work to heighten the tracks without his voice being lost. That said, the majority of the back half of this album is solely Stuu and Black Rob giving us a better look at the command he can take on a beat from verse to hook.
While there are some tracks with inconsequential lyrical content, there’s some great storytelling on this project — notably on tracks like “Beef," “Momma," and “Let It Go," three tracks that give the listener a look into the world of Spaceman Stuu. In fact, “Let it Go” features some of his most personal and affecting lyrics, a wise choice to anchor this project and leave an impression to remember. Black Hole 2 doesn’t need to consistently try to be profound, as even on boast tracks like “Never Look Back,” the bars Stuu brings are full of an energy that keeps this project from feeling listless. It’s a project that’s great for bumping in the car or learning more about where Stuu is coming from and moving toward, even both at the same time.
HARDLY SORRY (EP) - C. PItt
C. Pitt’s Hardly Sorry EP is a concise three tracks of head boppers, coming in at just under nine minutes. C. Pitt feels at home on these sparse beats, his strong voice filling up the empty space on the tracks comfortably. The lyrical content isn’t terribly profound, but every track just feels good. Give this a quick spin and be on the lookout for more from this up-and-coming Greensboro spitter.
Paranoise (EP) - Cameron Butler
Is Cameron Butler’s Paranoise EP a hip-hop album? Well, that only matters if you subscribe to traditional music genres in the first place, which, of late, seem to be maybe more trouble than they’re worth. Butler does have bars, however, on the song “Valley Girl,” first in the detached, sing-songy cadence of Future-era rap, then in slow and deliberate, almost spoken-word fashion: “Them gleaming brown eyes, she keeping the crown high/ Envision your biggest dreams and schemes, ‘cuz down sizing/ isn’t worth the trouble, cuz it’s coming/ best believe your worth’ll double, them other suckers is dummies.”
The invisible hand of Donald Glover seems present on this project, from the no-genre ambition generally, to specific moments like the closing segment of the first song, “Carried Away.” Maybe the better analogue is Pharrell. Regardless, the sudden transition to a rough-edged, repetitive chant of “LOST-BOY!; LOST-BOY!” feels straight out of the more jagged moments of Because The Internet. And as on Glover’s sophomore offering, it works. The rest of the tracks on Paranoise continue the cross-genre binge, with no two songs sounding alike. “Blinded” provides the first of two jolts of energy on the album, an infectiously upbeat, impossible-to-dislike party song well-suited for summer. “Valley Girl” gives the album’s closest glimpse of mainstream rap, and even then, it’s uniquely Butler’s own. “Zombies” goes way left, more Future Islands than Future, and on the album’s closer, “Ray Of Light” comes shooting out of the past like a heat-seeking Phil Collins missile. But the experimentation and sound-mashing isn’t done. Just when things seem concluded, the previously light and jumpy “Ray Of Light,” becomes dark and foreboding, complete with the warbly, tortured vocals of a YEEZY fashion show.
It’s hard to say what will come next from Butler. Whatever it is, you should be paying attention.
- Ryan Cocca
That's it for The Catch-Up, stay tuned for our next one coming soon, and if you have any music (of your own or of someone else) deserving of a writeup, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it doesn't make it into a Catch-Up, there are a number of other places for it to land, including on the podcast, in one of our Spotify playlists, or on our YouTube channel.
Speaking of the podcast, a new episode is here! Episode 17 features a conversation with talented filmmaker and Durham-based creative Saleem Reshamwala, aka KidEthinc, who discusses his past odd jobs like Seventeen Magazine and making videos on a Japanese ship, as well as his approach to making a living as a creative. It's a good one.