You Gotta Lose Your Mind In Detroit Rap City

Between the handful of radio-rotated hits off Finally Famous and his punny-meets-perverse verse on "Mercy,” Big Sean entered my life at a time when I was finally starting to get bylines as a hip-hop critic. His sophomore album Hall Of Fame left me mostly unimpressed, as my 2013 review for The Quietus makes clear. But 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise made it hard to maintain that stance, as it took all of his loose threads and wove them into woolen strength. Sean hadn’t abandoned the comedy club punchlines of his prior albums and guest features, but instead found a way to do more with them. Though the comparatively weaker but still quite enjoyable follow-up I Decided didn’t shift that new paradigm, by then I conceded that he’d effectively made the transition between singles artist and album artist.

After such a prodigious 2011-2017 run, Sean’s relative absence in recent years has always felt a bit strange. Though many at the time had hoped he would log a seven-track entry, he dodged a career bullet by not participating in the G.O.O.D. Music mini-album debacle of 2018. He owes a great deal of his success to Kanye West’s patronage, of course. But by staying out of the spotlight and the album release cycle, he’s largely spared himself the embarrassment of being publicly wrapped up in the Wyoming transplant’s marked creative decline and alienating descent into MAGA politicking.

So it makes sense that Sean—with the once gloriously hyped G.O.O.D. Music name now tainted with scandal and plagued by dysfunction— would now reach for nostalgia. With the added benefit of a social media reinforced narrative and backwards glance sentimentality, his guest-heavy 2012 Detroit mixtape still glows warm and bright in the eyes of countless hip-hop fans. Even those rap snobs who wear their distaste for him like some elitist iron-on badge might allot an ounce of kindness towards that particular project, as it included bars from lyrical faves like J. Cole, Royce da 5'9", and Kendrick Lamar.

Furthermore, given how much has transpired in Detroit rap since 2017’s drab Double Or Nothing collab with Metro Boomin, Sean’s brand-new album Detroit 2 seemed more or less an inevitability. With few exceptions including the perennially sophomoric Eminem, rappers from the area rarely got all that much love from outside the city limits. (For those about to fling Dilla’s name at me, we all know he was and is far less regarded as an emcee than as a producer.) With respect to Danny Brown, Dej Loaf, and the Slum Village spitters, Sean often stood, for better or worse, as Detroit’s non-Shady / non-Juggalo exemplar for the rest of the nation.

Nowadays, scarcely a week goes by without a few new singles or some other commercial project drop from Detroit hip-hop artists. With every release, Icewear Vezzo, Sada Baby, Teejayx6, and more continue to demonstrate the city’s role as one of the most vital contemporary rap music scenes. Reuniting with his erstwhile producer The Alchemist, Boldy James saw his star rise through their Boldface and The Price Of Tea In China collabs, as well as a subsequent deal with Griselda Records in the sister city of Buffalo, NY. Even acts from drivable nearby spots in Michigan are reaping the rewards of this heightened awareness of the region’s artistry, with Flint’s Rio Da Yung OG a particularly strong standout.

Though the reality is no doubt more nuanced and complex, much of this boom appeared to happen during the years Sean sat things out to count that big bank. Over nine minutes long and overflowing with the diverse voices of homegrown rappers, the presence of “Friday Night Cypher” on the Detroit 2 seems engineered to rectify that. Beyond his early mixtapes, he hasn’t exactly been known for putting other rappers from his city on. Even the original Detroit mixtape, which included Earlly Mac and Mike Posner along with Slaughterhouse-era Royce, inexplicably gave the bulk of its guest spots to artists hailing from elsewhere.

“Friday Night Cypher” stands out on Detroit 2 not merely as a timely stunt or an act of magnanimity, but as a long overdue symbol of Sean’s obligations towards the city’s rap community. He yields the mic from the start, letting the still somehow under-appreciated Tee Grizzley get the ad libbed intro and opening verse. From there, Kash Doll delivers a tight sixteen that recalls her brief but memorable feature on Pusha-T’s 2019 loogie “Sociopath.” The beat flips for the return of one of the city’s older practitioners, Cash Kidd, who brings comeback energy to his short section. Right behind him is Doughboyz Cashout’s Payroll Giovanni, overseeing another musical turn midway through his verse.

The next switch comes from Helluva Beats, a Detroit producer who deserves a great deal of credit for the city’s current hip-hop soundtrack. And who better to spit here than 42 Dugg, basking in the glow of his Lil Baby and Yo Gotti cosigns. But seconds after he finishes his insular contribution, the unmistakable sound of Jadakiss’s Alchemist-produced “We Gon Make It” rings out, with the aforementioned Boldy and then Drego trying their luck over the rejiggered iconic beat. Next, Sean gets to play centerpiece with the track’s second-longest vocal run, doling out a barrage of punchlines and wordplay indicative of his elevated skills. It’s only fair for Sada Baby to follow, seeing how he’s one of the most hilarious doing it right now. Then it’s Royce’s time, and he definitely doesn’t waste it. And at the end, even Em’s too-long outro bars mark some of his best work of the past decade. It’s hard not to feel Sean after all that.

Lord Apex & V Don, Supply & Demand

(buy it / stream it)

In bringing a piece of his Harlem overseas, V Don finds a London emcee worthy of his brooding hypnotic production style. Lord Apex takes to these uptown beats with understated finesse, tenacious and ponderous on “Wax Cough” and the title track. There’s a mutual purposefulness to this transatlantic endeavor, evident as the glimmers of grime chip off of “UK Shit” as well as when the ivory tickles and intermittent brass weave through “Summer Murda.” On the guest front, CJ Fly ignites up his “Belize” verse like a sparking lighter in a gas leak and Murs adds a veteran’s depth—and a Nipsey Hussle elegy—to the jazz aged boom bap of “Raw To Elegant.”

David Wolves, Violent

(buy it / stream it)

With a vocal lineage indebted to Kid Cudi and Travis Scott, this Floridian sung-rap artist makes a strong and emotive introduction with his compelling project. “Reality” delves right into his immigrant story, putting his Colombian heritage front and center. That strikes a chord that few artists in the emo subset do, his pain deeper than the usual suburban narco-malaise. From there, David Wolves hooks the listener in with a keen understanding of the format, ambitious on “Flowers” and thrill-seeking on “Good For Nothing.” The production skews refreshingly electronic throughout, as on the squelchy “Touring Trap” and the morose pads of “Sirens.”

Def Soulja & Pryme City, Cloth Talk

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The spiritual home for some of the city’s grimiest, The Bronx always manages to produce rappers willing and able to maintain the tradition. From the Griselda-esque opener “Word” on, this duo do their boro proud. The yin to the other’s yang, Pryme City’s oft oversexed bravado (“Git It Right”) balances well with Def Soulja’s muted yet deathly serious confidence (“All Business”). Though the former reveals depth between his quips, the latter’s lyricism will definitely resonate with devotees of the craft, his streetwise bars notably dense on “First & Last” and the noirish title track. But again, it’s the ebb and flow contrast of their parallel verses that truly sets Cloth Talk apart.

Three questions. Three answers. That's a wrap.

Photo credit: Joe Cochran

An Atoms Family alum, Geng a.k.a. King Vision Ultra reps New York’s underground in so many ways. His cassette-focused PTP imprint regularly showcases the city’s avant-garde noiseniks, beat heads, and emcees while promoting and supporting social movements in a material way. His latest project is An Unknown Infinite, an outstanding full-length collaboration with rapper Amani that encapsulates so many of his sonic influences, from outerboro grit to Burroughs-esque cut-ups.

From where did the musical idea for King Vision Ultra originate and germinate?

King Vision Ultra (KVU) was my desire to veer left—from the electronic and so-called experimental landscape I was creating in for some years there—and return to what is familiar as a New Yorker of over three decades, who grew up with hip hop, as well as jazz, hardcore punk, and metal all very nearby. I've been making beats since '97 when I had a Roland sampler with two tape decks, and just never stayed in one place, from abstract to doing some shit with Dipset in 2005, to going back to minimal and loop-based, to then hitting some electronica energy in 2013/14. 20 years after I made my first beat, 2017, that's when King Vision Ultra entered. Things were tumultuous: I had lost some loved ones while others hit proverbial bottoms. I was thinking a lot about self-preservation, and channeling space and potentials for yourself and your people. The concept of "world building." That's why you hear all these voices and samples throughout the KVU world, it's an honoring of the archive and of space. I'm constantly inspired by Rammellzee, Milford Graves, Bruce Lee, Octavia Butler, and Alice Coltrane, to name a few, in how they have channeled and made new space from their environment. My world building teachers. Also, the name is a hat tip to both Ultramagnetic MC's ("Ultra-magnetic, magnetic, MC's ULTRA...") and Prodigy, aka "King Vulture," who passed in June of that year.

How did the project evolve between the "found sound" beat tape approach of 2018's Pain Of Mind and this year's collaborative An Unknown Infinite with Amani?

It's all in the building of different spaces. I want every work to be unique, no "part twos" or none of that corny shit that industry wants you to do. With collaboration, it's especially vital for it to highlight the idiosyncratic nature of that meeting and mixing of energy, at that current present. I came up favoring what The Bomb Squad was doing with Public Enemy and how The RZA shifted forms on each of those solo albums between 36 Chambers and Forever.

What Amani and I, plus everyone else, did on An Unknown Infinite stands by itself, in the same way that a live recording of Ornette Coleman is singular to that exact point in time. It's a world created around the verses, the words acting as a guide for me in sequencing, finding dialogue to act as a framing device, the mixing, even down to the texture of the sound. This isn't the cold, hard cement, and metal, and ghosts of Pain Of Mind. This album is still brooding and heavy but there's a revolutionary energy and spiritualism present.

There are two versions of An Unknown Infinite out there in the world, the first mix having been available for a relatively short time. What changed between the two mixes and what prompted said changes?

Ha, if you still have the first version you have some rougher mixes and less spice on some tracks like "Shaft In Africa," plus a couple of others. "Concrete Slides" has a different intro and different bassline. It's hard but it isn't as ill as the one that's out now. I just found benefit from a little more time spent listening through the full mix. Rather than resting on this feeling of incompleteness, we dropped the second version to signify and claim authorship as ownership rights. People (Call Out Culture podcast) have already made the Pablo joke...and if someone as beholden to industry and non-autonomous as 'Ye can release an album and re-release it a week later, how could it be deemed strange that we do what we want with what is rightfully ours? And to clarify, the seed was planted way before 'Ye. I'd say growing up on alternate versions of songs informed the move, especially all of those Nervous Records 12-inches by Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun with different vocals/beats/mixes. Let's not forget that MF Doom did that out the gate leading up to Operation: Doomsday as well.

In the end, we set the rules for what's ours. We also choose not to bend to industry tradition like placing the album on streaming sites, aka tech bro data mining scams, such as Spotify or Apple Music. You can only get the album on PTP's bandcamp. Honestly, if you believe in supporting artists, falling in line with the streaming service model of exposure for penny fractions isn't really doing anything for the so-called community. It only benefits the people who are exploiting us (the same folks posting black jpegs in sloppy acts of virtue signalling and co-opting). The shift occurs in recognizing the worth of our own work and not merely by making it inaccessible through upcharging (so only crazed europeans can afford it). A simple action is hosting your work on your own site or at least Bandcamp - where you can not only dictate the selling price and gain the most per sale, but also learn people on taking this route in order to obtain your music, perhaps with the notion of "direct support." Doing the same song and dance of stream stats reporting at the end of the year isn't doing shit different.

Purchase or stream An Unknown Infinite here.

2013 proved a big and busy year for G.O.O.D. Music. Still riding high off the profile-raising successes of the prior year’s Cruel Summer, the label dropped four consecutive commercial projects that peaked in the Billboard Hot 100’s top five. Among these was Pusha-T’s long-anticipated debut album My Name Is My Name. Much like Clipse’s wins were tied to The Neptunes, so too were his solo prospects prior to that year intertwined with Kanye’s, from his feature on 2010’s “Runaway” to “Mercy” and “New God Flow.” Taken from his free mixtape effort Wrath Of Caine dropped at the start of 2013, “Millions” proffered a gratis bump of what they could expect from the album some months later.

See you next Sunday.

Follow me on Twitter at @noyokono and on Instagram at @noyokono too.

Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez