Sports have a way of connecting a specific region through everlasting pride, happiness and gratification. They can also generate endless debates about who’s the best at what, and why Tom Brady is better than Aaron Rodgers. As someone who’s grown up in New England for 20 godforsaken years, I’ve grown accustomed to the championships, the glory and the arrogance (between the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots, New England sports teams have won a total of 12 titles). There has never been a moment of hopelessness or defeat in my lifetime. People outside of the area may hate us for that, and I get it. We’re pompous human beings that go about each day with a focus and determination like the world could end at any moment if Brady throws another interception. In fact, we’re kind of entering that apocalyptic phase right now with the Patriots.
Rap music operates in similar fashion for other regions of the United States. Residents of New York show great pride in their state’s traditional boom-bap image, while California rappers command their own attention through G-funk, hyphy, alternative, and gangsta rap (we’re seeing a revival of these sub-genres right now in fact). There’s Atlanta’s multi-faceted melting pot of crunk (which was formally introduced my Three-6-Mafia in Memphis), hardcore trap and southern pop-rap; popular elements that have recently dominated the hip hop mainstream. There’s also the frisky Florida rappers like Denzel Curry and Lil Pump; artists who distort every bass for the sole purpose of creating a maddening version of Miami’s balmy aesthetic. Meanwhile, Chicago drill has made a return to the forefront courtesy of the ultra-talented and extremely versatile Polo G. It’s a style that’s bled back into Brooklyn as well, particularly in the cases of Pop Smoke and Sheff G.
We’ve never lived in a more exciting time for hip hop. The genre’s more diverse than it’s ever been in its 30-plus years of existence. And yet, Massachusetts, the place that always wins, has yet to gain respect from outsiders (we’re used to it at this point). Part of it is a lack of a distinct style. Most of it revolves from a lack of recognition.
It’s no secret that the city of Boston has had a tumultuous past with racism, segregation and discrimination. Hip hop was, and still is, not accepted in certain parts of the area. Beat writer Amelia Mason curated an insightful article about the current lack of opportunity surrounding local rappers. Rap continues to be systemically marginalized, with reported instances of club promoters and bouncers shutting down hip hop shows for no apparent reason. Multiple artists have accused these organizers of racism and aggressive pat downs. Other venues have simply refused to hold a rap show.
Most view Massachusetts as a place of rock n’ roll, which was probably true about thirty years ago when Aerosmith graced us with various Queen-like arena-rock anthems (for the record, I do enjoy a good dose of Aerosmith) like “Dream On,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (The Cars had a pretty good run too).
The accessibility and chart-topping success of Aerosmith and The Cars’ only marginally bled into the oft-overlooked landscape of Boston’s rap scene. Most remember the eye-rolling meme rap of Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” as well as the blatant attempt at commercializing the underground essence of rap music with “Walk This Way” (while simultaneously getting Aerosmith out of their slump at the time). The latter is arguably entrenched in early-Queens hip hop though.
Hip hop’s massive catalog of styles bear a large influence on Massachusetts’ brief history in the genre. From Ed O.G.’s jazzy portrait of Roxbury’s darkest corners (“Crack is more contagious than rabies/Basehead broads are having bashed babies” on his 1991 number one hit “I Got to Have It”), to Guru’s masterful monotone complexities, to Cousin Stizz’ hypnotic weed-filled trap, Massachusetts totes a fair share of versatile spitters.
Stizz and Worcester’s Joyner Lucas are the most recent rappers to break out from this neglected scene. The former offers an absorbing brand of hazy cloud-trap, while the latter prides himself on conquering every conceivable social issue imaginable.
Despite my lack of interest in Lucas’ brand of socio-political self-righteousness, he does represent the mainstream version of the many talented songwriters bubbling underneath Massachusetts’ underground.
There’s Oompa, the Boston-born poet and educator who’s been representing the “queer, black, orphaned, and hood kids” since the mid-2010s. Her 2019 album Cleo is a concept album that extends a welcoming hand to anyone who’s felt marginalized by society before. The intro track perfectly sums up the deprecated nature of our country’s ridiculous social standards.
She’s a highly-proclaimed poet who walks a fine line between enthralling anecdotes about the cost of chasing money, and starry-eyed dream-chasing melodies involving love and subtle flexes. Take “Fool’s Good” for example, a song that accomplishes both in one sitting. She details a money hungry lifestyle with consequences in the first verse, before transitioning into a gorgeous hook about perseverance and finding one’s destiny in the midst of a white-owned country (“Fell asleep on my throne/dreamed and worked to the bone”).
Oompa’s keen fixation on F. Gary Gray’s Set it Off acts as the basis for this engrossing J-Cole-inspired woke-ness (something she directly explores on “Feel Like Cole”), a concept that occasionally drifts off into tales about searching for an intimate relationship in a age where society is as shallow as it’s ever been (“By You”). Everything appears cathartic, especially for those who’ve felt that loneliness and discrimination throughout most of their life.
Massachusetts boasts other up-and-coming rappers who proudly represent this local feminist movement. Red Shaydez and Brandie Blaze embody the explicit versatility within the state through sleek and silky R&B and gruff hardcore trap. Shaydez can quickly convert from a chilled-out summer spitter (“Vibin’ and Coolin'”) to an intellectual spokesperson who embodies self-care (“Self-Care ’18,” a trend that must continue past that year). Even when she’s serious, it seems like she’a having a lot of fun.
Blaze on the other hand is a lighting rod of energy who never ceases to flaunt her unmerciful independence and dignified sexuality (“Model”), traits that are hilariously shown through the couple interludes on her Late Bloomer album. The title itself represents Mass. rap as whole; a place that still hasn’t reached an apex quite yet. Blaze’s own rendition of Atlanta trap will surely reach an audience of people who carry an I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Her music is a protest to the lames who still objectify women in a not-so-subtle way.
About 40 minutes out from Boston is a whole other movement in the form of Van Buren Records, a small Brockton collective consisting of Jiles, Meech, Luke Bar$, Saint Lyor, and the visor-wearing charisma of Lord Felix (the greatest fashion statement since the Young Thug dress). Only Jiles and Lord Felix carry any semblance of a substantial discography, but Saint Lyor recently released a dreamy single titled “Gossip.” They’re definitely someone to look out for in 2020. Felix transported listeners into an extraterrestrial love odyssey that’s simultaneously epic and jarring. Jiles on the other hand is more aggressive in his tonalities and harrowing street talk.
And finally, we have the recently-released project from Newton’s $ean Wire titled Internal Dialect; an album that’s frequently appeared on many local rappers’ timelines. He also indulges in poetic imagery when describing certain relationships that were never able to pan out. The first half of the record suggests that he’s a singer at heart battling old scars, while trying to push forward into the near future. He paints a portrait of personal detachment and heartache though Smino-esque vocal side-stepping, with a hint of Saba’s linear storytelling, and a dash of Earl Sweathsirt’s monotone annunciations. His swift-moving project has festered in my playlist for days now, and I’m not angry about it.
What I am angry about is people forgetting about the talented acts presented in Massachusetts. The stylistic hotbed of talent fully represents the state of rap in 2020; eclectic, introspective, vibrant, agonizing at times. There’s feminine voices that haven’t been heard that need to be heard, and there’s artists who are developing a formidable record label worth watching for. And there’s so much more that I’m probably missing, which will piss some people off. Point is, a lot is happening under the surface.
On his 2015 mix-tape Suffolk County, Cousin Stizz made the claim that “there ain’t really much to do around here, so we just really into getting money.” Seven months of winter, constant traffic, and close-minded people suggest that he’s probably right (for me, playing video games is something to do). And honestly, yes it’s bitterly cold right now, but I’ve never been more excited to be a music fan living in the state of Massachusetts. For once, I find myself rooting for a local team outside of the sports realm. And yes, we may not be as culturally relevant as New York, California, or Atlanta, but let me tell you something, “Mass. got something to say.”