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Whither the West Coast gangsta?

Courtesy of the artist

When Ice Cube talks about "gangsta rap," he is usually distancing himself from the phrase, describing it as a label he was erroneously given by the press and the public. Perhaps he draws that line because he really wasn't out banging — even if, during his time in N.W.A, he was writing Eazy-E's raps too, which typified a sound and swagger befitting his bandmate's real-life history in the street. "Boyz-n-the-Hood" painted a vivid picture of a set-tripping, trigger-ready, six-fo' riding spark plug drinking 40s and making the front page of the LA Times. The label came to characterize a certain cast of street soldiers, characters that would appear not only in the songs of N.W.A, Snoop Dogg and Ice-T, but the hood cinema of John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. The music landscape has shifted since: LA is no longer the hub of rap culture, the gangstas have spread all over, and the position the West Coast prototype once held on the charts and in the pop consciousness is somewhat diminished. But you don't have to look hard or far to find them, doing what they do best for those that might still try to quote them.

Much of today's West Coast hip-hop, from Cozz to Buddy to Westside Boogie, still operates in the shadow of its elders, but its mainstream center has moved away from the boldfaced gunners of old thanks in large part to the 2010s rise of two crews, Top Dawg Entertainment and Odd Future. Though the former included ScHoolboy Q (Hoover Crips) and Jay Rock (Bounty Hunter Bloods), they really closed ranks around their outsiders, the metaphysician Ab-Soul and the de facto leader Kendrick Lamar, a good kid avoiding the gang madness — together forming a little in-group of outliers that prioritized a more eccentric self-expression and an independent ethos. Odd Future, a mischief-making posse led by experimental rapper-producer Tyler, the Creator, made inroads as online edgelords before scattering to pursue their disparate creative whims.

This collective move left-of-center, though still informed by the gangsta image that had taken root in the '80s and flourished in the '90s but faded in the '00s, shifted the locus of West Coast rap. Consider Anderson .Paak or Roddy Ricch or Doja Cat or Ty Dolla $ign, pop-savvy synthesists who infiltrated the Top 40. A few street rappers managed to secure a mainstream foothold by other means: The late Nipsey Hussle famously subverted industry demand, selling albums for $100; Vince Staples emerged as an aesthetic-bending art-rap darling; and YG, a Jeezy pupil, rode DJ Mustard's ratchet wave and a Drake cosign to notoriety. Beneath the surface you got a stranger configuration of gangland oddballs who were a little too raw for primetime: the crooner 03 Greedo, the late linguist Drakeo the Ruler, the declarative gun thug Remble. All were branches of the old West, but none were really playing directly into the familiar models.

Three albums released on Friday by artists who have stayed the course — LA's G Perico, Sacramento's Mozzy, and Oxnard's Gangrene (the duo of The Alchemist and Oh No) — offer some insight into how the classic Cali goon figure has adapted to the streaming age. Perico broke through in the mid-2010s with S*** Don't Stop and All Blue, a pair of tapes on which he subverted early perceptions as a hood pretty boy by embracing his set: "Let me show you what I do / So you can see that I'm true / I see the world in all blue," he rapped on the latter's title track, revealing the tint of his music to come. The prolific Mozzy started gaining traction around the same time, with struggle music that exuded the urgency of being on borrowed time. Since debuting their partnership with 2010's Gutter Water, the producer-rappers Alchemist and Oh No have pulled a tongue-in-cheek hostility out of one another as Gangrene, playing roughnecks on an onslaught, strong-arming anyone in their way: "We're like wise guys over here. Ominous, ominous figures in the shadow," Alchemist told Complex in 2012. The music made by each of these artists, even as it draws on once-ubiquitous tropes, feel tucked away from the broader view, something to be smuggled directly to fans of the form.

There are West Coast swashbucklers and then there's G Perico, the by-any-means man of action rip-roaring through South Central. He debuted as a Jheri curl-donning Crip who backed his way into rap, once saying outright he was simply "doing it for my area," and he still performs as if committed to the cause. On G Slim's Revenge, he embodies the "Eazy-Duz-It" principle of a "gangsta having fun," and continues to revel in a seemingly bottomless appreciation for his chosen profession. "Black truck, armored up, feelin' like John Gotti / Feeling like Nip, droppin' tapes for a hundred dollars," he raps on "Throw It Up," connecting old and new gangland canons. Like the Dapper Don, he has a penchant for dressing the part. Like Nipsey, he doesn't have time for conniving, instead doing his business out in the open. Both give his songs an uninhibited feel: Every flow is spring-loaded, and his music is as fortified as it is fitted, nasally raps stretching out as hi-hats click like tire spokes. He knows what life he chose, relishes it, and is uncompromising in his beliefs. The only time he isn't talking is when he's on the wrong side of the two-way mirror.

Perico practices a very particular street ethic: Everyone who jumped off the porch knows what they signed up for, and to renege on that deal when it gets dicey is to betray the game itself. This is made plain on the anti-snitching anthem "Identification." Snitching is a common subject for gangstas of all stripes, but Perico is less focused on being told on and more focused on the code violation. He raps like someone upholding an edict: "Ain't nobody make you do it / This life is attractive, but you blew it," he sneers, obviously vexed. G Slim's Revenge is possessed by this sense of honor. In every breezy verse, you can hear an artist enjoying every moment of an attractive life, willing to accept the other shoe dropping at any time as a sacrifice well worth suffering.

Mozzy raps as a hustler haunted by loss on <em>Children of the Slums</em>.
Nick Walker / Courtesy of the artist
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Courtesy of the artist
Mozzy raps as a hustler haunted by loss on Children of the Slums.

If G Perico exemplifies a certain kind of unrepentant LA street hustler, Mozzy is the flip side of that coin, conscience-stricken and tormented by every loss. Less than a year removed from a stint in federal prison, there is seemingly even greater caution to his music now, turning his matter-of-fact disposition in an even more poignant direction. Mozzy, who recently said he was "not one to glorify his L's," has moved into a hyper-reflective position on his new album, Children of the Slums. You don't have to look much further than the song titles to get the picture: "Lost It All," Miss Big Bruh," "Miss You Blood," "Jaded," "Traumatized," "If I Die Right Now," all-caps pronouncements of a mounting desperation. The thug life is clearly taking its toll: "God forbid I lose another, ain't no feeling worse," he raps on "Still Hurt." Most bars are performed through a frazzled half-sigh. Even the highs come with apprehension — on "Red Nose Bully," he raps, "Got a mansion in the hills, my location is hidden"; he spends "Lost It All" wondering aloud who around him will hold him down. A lot of his songs are built on minor-key piano and wistful acoustic guitar, drawing him into a meditative space where he can see the faces of everyone he has lost. The names ring out in the lyrics: Diamond, Sauce, Skeem, Peezy. The title trackopens with regret, losing a comrade-in-arms after bailing him out. "Wasn't seeing eye to eye but he was still on our side," he laments. "One who told me 'bout it had to listen to me cry."

That pain is always sharing space with a desire for retribution. Mozzy understands the costs of making moves. On more than one occasion, he acknowledges he should leave this way of life behind, and he sees its consequences — "Lil' mama said she looking for a real n**** / Shouldn't be that hard to find 'cause they all in jail," he raps on "Free Juju" — but nearly every loss is met with a cold declaration of resilience. "You ain't caught a body for us, you don't belong in our bidness," he raps on "Red Nose Bully." There's a paranoid streak running through this music, a constant questioning of who can be trusted. It is a cycle that feels unbearable, and yet, in song, he seems fully committed to its toil.

At their most locked in, Perico and Mozzy can make banging feel like an inevitability in different ways. Perico raps like he couldn't be doing anything else — as though even in an alternate reality where the game didn't exist, would have invented it himself. Mozzy seems resigned to his existence, so deeply embedded that he can't conceive of a way out. Each seems intensely connected to the positions they hold.

Alchemist and Oh No are a bit longer in the tooth and have far more irons in the fire, so every Gangrene album always feels like a check-in between consiglieri. As beat makers, both have practiced revivalism before — Alchemist on Fantasy Island with Compton transplant Jay Worthy (who also teamed up with Perico, for G-Worthy), Oh No with Blu on A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night — but together they activate a more faceless persona, a gangsta archetype that extends across eras as a symbol. Though Heads I Win, Tails You Lose isn't about West Coast gangstas (or gangsters, in the classical sense), it does play with the idea of such a figure. Its character work exists in a world of noir, somewhere between the Old Hollywood of films like L.A. Confidential or Devil in a Blue Dress and a lawless post-The Chronic metropolis of unfadable triggermen, armed, primed, stoned and edgy. The cover art says a lot, its rainy, back-alley gloom lit by the glow of bar signs and strip clubs, smoke blowing by and sparks flying. "This ain't your Moët, this Olde English / N****, the gang's back, you get your brain cracked like it was blown speakers," Oh No raps on "Oxnard Water Torture," establishing the philosophy at play. Listening, the vibe can feel part-Snowfall, part-Sopranos. Alchemist has worked with many gangsta rap stalwarts, from out of state (Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs) and from his own (Worthy, Larry June), and he seems to be pulling all of that into a composite.

Both Oh No and Alc are producer-rappers with similar sensibilities, and so the focus here is on grime: dingy, haunted cinematic beats packed with lacerating lyrics that cut to the bone. They are doing a bit: the outlaw as butcher, in part a metaphor for killer rhymes. "Now you the made man, I let you clean the scene / Not a barber but I'll give you them fades, nah'mean?" Oh No raps on the opener "Congratulations, You Lose." These songs are in step with the work of Worthy, or the 2015 album The Night Took Us in Like Family from out-of-towners L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae: in touch with the gangster as both infamous presence and timeless American ideal, playing to its signifiers without feeling too beholden to its history, and valuing its story potential above all.

In performing the gangsta, Ice Cube saw that same potential, and found a means to kick open the gateway to national discourse; the figure he cut was so provocative it got Eazy into a luncheon with George H.W. Bush. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that Cube, Snoop and Ice-T have remained swaggering personalities even as their public images have softened, and that their star power is still predicated on a certain hard-nosed projection. The head-on Cali gangsta type doesn't feel acerbic in the ways it once did, but for the same reason "Boyz-n-tha-Hood" still resonates, it persists as a quiet rattle just beneath the surface of the culture: Always hard, always legit, always direct, unflinching and unapologetic, no matter who got the camera.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]