California rappers live in their own, sovereign hip-hop republic, one that—save for the occasional Kendrick Lamar or YG—can seem as foreign to the rest of the United States as the U.K.’s grime music. In California, the songs are bouncier, and yet the rappers are far more intimidating; gangs have a real hold over the music. To a mainstream rap fan’s ears, the lingo and geography of California hip-hop songwriting is, at times, indecipherable.
But Mozzy, a 30-year-old street rapper from Sacramento, is making a particularly difficult translation into hip-hop’s mainstream. His hometown plays host to one of the most varied and exciting rap scenes in the country today, and Mozzy has built a modest national fan base on the strength of hyperactive output and a deadly way with words. His new album, 1 Up Top Ahk—a term for shooting someone once in the head, neck, and throat with precise aim—out Friday, missed its previous, shaky release dates for the past couple of years, lost in a flurry of great mixtapes that spared no quality. There was a point when Mozzy was dropping four mixtapes per year without spreading himself thin. Mozzy’s tough talks duets mixtape, Dreadlocks and Headshots, recorded with South Florida rapper Gunplay and released in May, marked a second phase of his national come-up; three months later, 1 Up Top Ahk is his solo confirmation.
Still, Mozzy continues to work mostly with his local crew of rappers such as Philthy Rich, E Mozzy (Mozzy’s brother), Celly Ru, and Show Banga; and his longtime producer JuneOnnaBeat, who, since 2012, has helped craft Mozzy’s dark and quarrelsome sound. Indeed, Mozzy carries himself with the knuckleheaded disposition of your typical legit gangster–turned-rapper. On his home turf, he has fought with the incarcerated Sacramento rapper Lavish D. and regional godfathers C-Bo and Brotha Lynch Hung. Beyond Northern California, Mozzy has faced some difficulty achieving the crossover appeal of, say, 21 Savage—an Atlanta street rapper whose subdued, zonked-out delivery is more in line with hip-hop’s zeitgeist than Mozzy’s full-throated barking, and whose trap production is an easier mainstream sell than Mozzy’s dark Sactown bounce. Mozzy doesn’t sing. He doesn’t mosh. He doesn’t dye his dreads, nor is he a particularly fashionable dresser. He doesn’t spill romantic confessions and catharsis left and right. Mozzy is too tightly wound for all that.
And Mozzy doesn’t take too kindly to these trends among his Eastern contemporaries. In June, XXL published its 2017 freshman class magazine cover, featuring 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, and a few other stars of the so-called “mumble rap” movement. Two months before the cover had even dropped, Mozzy anticipated his exclusion from the list with the release of a song called “Dear XXL,” in which he made the case that shady record-label politics blocked the rap magazine from celebrating his independent success. “I see progression when I look at the mirror,” Mozzy raps. “Look at your magazine and all the freshmen is queers.” In a year when Mozzy finally seems destined to achieve real national traction, he’s chosen alienation, instead of assimilation, as his manner of distinction.
Mozzy fits awkwardly into conversations about modern hip-hop. He is a traditionalist in some ways, but hardly a reactionary. He’s as quick to disparage C-Bo as Lil Yachty is to discount the Notorious B.I.G. And his fondness for codeine, shaky cams, and laser sights is pure millennial hip-hop aesthetic. But he also comes across, on “Dear XXL” and on 1 Up Top Ahk, as a young man who is too old for this shit. Mind you, Mozzy and Meek Mill are the same age, but where Meek is quick to balance his power rapping with R&B hooks, and his clear 2000s musical influences with Young Thug verses, Mozzy resists slipping into a continental sound. He is so thoroughly West Coast that his even being on the verge of national recognition, despite a lack of YG-sized hit singles, is a small miracle for the genre. His insults aside, XXL may well tap him for the freshman cover next year. (By then, who knows: Mozzy may well be hip-hop’s future.)
As hyped as it’s been in the mainstream rap press, 1 Up Top Ahk is the closest thing Mozzy has to a properly nationalized hip-hop record. For a year now, he’s collaborated with an expanded cast of guest rappers, which awkwardly but inevitably includes the Bay’s white boy pop rapper G-Eazy. 1 Up Top Ahk includes significantly stronger and more appropriate cameos from Boosie, Lil Durk, Jay Rock, and Dave East—all offering dense, hardbody flows over Mozzy’s whistling, high-noon beats.
Typically, tough rappers will soften themselves, in some form or another, on their retail releases. Meek Mill made his biggest record, “All Eyez on You,” with Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj. Future made the leap from trap mixtape supremacy to superdom only after a year of singing duets with Drake. Where most of these guys opt for R&B, though, Mozzy sings the blues and channels the late the Jacka, his rap idol, through beautiful groans and aching recollections of violence. On 1 Up Top Ahk, the blues is the sound of a piano at a gospel choir rehearsal on “Can’t Take It (Ima Gangsta)” and “Afraid.” It’s the sheer number of times Mozzy and Celly Ru say “cry,” or some variation of it, on “Take It Up With God.” Mozzy isn’t repenting, exactly; this isn’t his come-to-Jesus album. He still issues threats with utmost slickness. But he’s cleaned himself up a bit. Save for a posthumously released, rags-to-riches verse from the Jacka, there’s hardly any drug talk from a rapper who has previously dedicated much of his songs to celebrating feats of codeine consumption, and who still frequently features double cups in his Instagram posts. In 2017, Mozzy is a relatively sober gangster rapper who could not be any more out of touch with the zeitgeist than he already is if he tried. His iconoclasm is his strength—even if it renders him unintelligible to the Hot 100.