An NC Hip-Hop Gem Forgotten, Then Remembered

A letter to Lute's debut mixtape, "West1996."

An NC Hip-Hop Gem Forgotten, Then Remembered
Illustration of Lute by Tyrone Demery, for Super Empty © 2024

Editor's Note: A version of this story was originally published on Dec. 8, 2015.

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The year is 2012, and the setting is a sizzling hot summer in New York City. A precocious 17-year-old from Brooklyn named Joey Bada$$ has just released 1999, a rich, organic (read: rough-around-the-edges) mixtape that will soon have music writers and critics nationwide tripping over themselves to crown Joey the heir apparent to the New York hip-hop crown. No rapper in recent memory had so effectively brought his own idiosyncratic and modern flair to sounds so deeply entrenched in the past, no album had so purposefully paired 90’s nostalgia with geographic pride…

… No album except West1996 that is, the forgotten gem of a project released by Charlotte, NC rapper Lute in February of 2012, months before Badmon’s 1999 ever hit the internet.

Borrowing from and built upon much of the same boom-bap foundation that 1999 does, West1996 painted a vivid picture of home in Charlotte even as it sourced much of its sound from golden era producers far beyond the confines of the state. It was brash, it was unforgiving, it was flat-out dope, and people took notice from all over. In no uncertain terms, West1996 was and still is one of the best hip-hop albums to come out of North Carolina.

But while 1999 has grown with time to become the revered debut mixtape of one of hip-hop’s most powerful young voices, West1996 has faded, its creator and lead character still mostly unknown on the national landscape, and its place among North Carolina’s discography of great hip-hop releases largely unrecognized. What happened? Like most things, probably an indecipherable string of could’ve beens and maybes, but I don’t know the whole story. What I do know is that for how good it was compared to a lot of the shit people celebrate these days, we don’t talk about it nearly enough.