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The Radical Rap of Los Angeles

YG and Schoolboy Q continue a long tradition

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What many Americans describe as “riots” a sympathizer might describe, more reasonably and accurately, as popular resistance. Despite the timeless concerns of that resistance, born of a civil rights movement that has marched and petitioned for a full century now, this latest chapter dates back to the Ferguson unrest following Michael Brown’s death in 2014, and then further back to the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, and then furthest back to January 1, 2009 — before the sun had dawned on New Year’s Day — when a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot Oscar Grant dead as he lay face down, unarmed, at the Fruitvale metro station in Oakland. For my generation, that was ground zero. For generations prior, ground zero was Los Angeles, a city that suffered waves of brutality and riots throughout the 20th century. Such is the state of California: perpetual uprising in the streets, in the courts, and in song.

From L.A. to the Bay, from N.W.A to the Coup, California has produced a few generations of radicalized rappers. In the present-day mainstream of L.A., there’s Kendrick Lamar, the ambitious craftsman whose civil rights anthem “Alright” — a single from his acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly — has effectively succeeded “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the black national anthem and become the chorus of Black Lives Matter. There’s Schoolboy Q, the former Hoover Crip who began as Kendrick’s hypeman and then became a minor star in his own right. And there’s YG, the 26-year-old Compton gangbanger who has, more than any of his peers, foregrounded himself as a regional lodestar: an L.A. rapper and a proud Blood, steeped in three decades of West Coast hip-hop history.

YG signed to Def Jam in 2009. Since then, he’s released several mixtapes but only two studio albums, with big waves of hit-driven hype between them. YG’s debut album, My Krazy Life, placed in several prominent year-end best-album lists in 2014, largely on the strength of its big hits (“My Nigga,” “Who Do You Love?”) and a level of narrative ambition that, honestly, we just hadn’t been expecting from the kid who made “Toot It and Boot It.” While promoting the album, he described his creative process as studious execution of a winning formula. “I was listening to Doggystyle. I was listening to Chronic 2001. I was listening to Get Rich or Die Tryin’. And Ready to Die,” he told Funkmaster Flex, gist being that he’d crafted his debut album as a continental hitmaker.

In 2016, YG’s formula has produced a different, superior concoction. Still Brazy, released in June, is a batch of protest records and Socratic examinations of L.A. violence. There’s “Who Shot Me?” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” two songs that find YG thrashing toward an answer to the question of who, exactly, is most likely to end his life: a stick-up kid or a cop. (Last June, an assailant fired three shots into YG’s hip at an L.A. recording studio.) And there’s the refreshingly candid and straightforward political dis called “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” a song that caught enough attention upon its release as a single that Los Angeles Police officers shut down the music video shoot. YG had recorded the song with Nipsey Hussle — L.A. rapper, cocaine cowboy, and Crenshaw Crip. On “FDT,” YG and Nipsey unite in blunt contempt for a Republican presidential nominee who would eject Muslims and Mexicans from this country, if only he were elected.

“Hold up,” Nipsey objects, “I fuck with Mexicans!”

YG agrees: Mexicans are essential to the life and personality of Los Angeles, and so Trump is effectively threatening his city. “I like white folks,” YG raps, “but I don’t like you.”

From New York to Louisiana, hip-hop is a recorded history of disdain for cops and Republican presidential candidates. What distinguishes L.A. rappers these days is the sense of community that their resistance engenders; YG and Kendrick share not only certain mortal concerns (police brutality, gang violence), but also producers (Terrace Martin, Cardo), even as their musical stylings suggest great difference between the two Compton rappers.

Last week, Schoolboy Q released his latest album, Blank Face LP, with contributions from Kendrick, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, Vallejo legend E-40, and Tha Dogg Pound. For better and worse, Schoolboy Q is now frequently measured against the talent and purpose of his TDE labelmate Kendrick. The pressure of this particular comparison — coupled with maturity, fatherhood, and attention to the evening news, I’m sure — has certainly influenced the tone and focus of Schoolboy Q’s songwriting; on “Neva Change,” his paranoia anticipates, and reflects, certain tragedies of just the past week:

Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and YG have, in their varied ways, reconciled every manner of dissimilarity in order to fortify L.A. as a unified front. Schoolboy Q’s lead single from Blank Face LP, “That Part,” features Kanye West; and yet the instantly superior, remix version of the song trades Kanye for the full Black Hippy roster — Q, Kendrick, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul — to make the song a proper disruption, a real L.A. moment. Likewise, in YG’s music video for “FDT,” the director Austin Simkins punctuates a gray-scaled rally with flashes of red and blue apparel, a red sports car, the blue stripes of a Salvadoran flag, and the red flank stripe of a Mexican flag. When a U.S. flag waves in the “FDT” video, however, it waves in black and white, its values and vitality obscured.

We live in gray days. Schoolboy Q’s release date — July 8, 2016 — straddled breaking-news reports of the shooting deaths of two black civilians, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively. Schoolboy Q said he’d written and recorded a couple of the album’s songs, “Black Thoughts” and “Neva Change,” more than a year ago in response to earlier tragedies; the immediate resonance amounted to a morbid sort of Groundhog Day. On Schoolboy Q’s release date, a fan tweeted at the rapper to express his thanks and congratulations even though, the fan said, the timing was a real bummer. “I understand bro,” Q replied. “I’m sitting Here fucked up about everytHing goin on myself.” Between Schoolboy Q’s nightmarish outbursts (“Groovy Tony”) and YG’s paranoid bops (“Still Brazy”), you can hear the malaise pulsing at every red light.