If you’re feeling self-destructive, walk into a bar (or Twitter thread) and claim that a contemporary rapper is the greatest of all time. No matter your pick, it’ll spark agitated shouting about “2PACBIGGIENASJAYZ?ANDRE?EMINEMRAKIM.” Bring brass knuckles in case.
Rap stays relevant because of its capacity for reinvention. If rock, jazz and dance music overly revere the past, each new rap generation usually condemns its predecessors, even as aging hip-hop traditionalists indict most young artists averse to ’90s aesthetics.
Rap fans can only agree to disagree. But for the purposes of contention, let me point out the obvious: This is a Golden Age for L.A. rap. The best since 1992-96, and maybe the finest run ever.
You know exhibit A: Kendrick Lamar. In a three-day span, the Compton native dropped the spectacular DAMN. and the most dazzling Coachella headlining set since Prince. Kung Fu Kenny is the first native to hold the consensus “Best Rapper Alive” title since Ice Cube in the early ’90s (even though 2Pac deserved it in ’96).
Lamar’s label, TDE, has become the closest modern cognate to Death Row. It has turned Schoolboy Q into a legitimate star; nurtured the rap Larry David, Isaiah Rashad; and redefined popular gangsta rap. Freestyle Fellowship were closer to N.W.A than the media understood, but TDE finally obliterated false binaries between cerebral and street music.
YG owns two classic albums and several ’hood-platinum mixtapes. He pioneered ratchet, resuscitated G-Funk and made the letter C superfluous. Give Keenon Jackson a ruby statue outside of Tam’s Burger. His latest 400 Summers signee, RJ, isn’t far behind.
A civic conscience and brilliant comedian, Vince Staples is equally fluent in the works of Mike and Baron Davis, and obliterates genre boundaries one bone-chipping beat at a time. Earl Sweatshirt’s next album should further entrench him as one of the best pure rappers of any generation. And when they opt to do so, Ty Dolla Sign, Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak can go bar for bar with any celebrated lyricist.
Maybe you prefer Freddie Gibbs, who already dropped a gem this year and just announced a sequel to his masterpiece with Madlib. Or Compton’s Boogie, whom Rihanna recently called her “new favorite rapper.” Problem, Nipsey Hussle and Blu can still kill any given verse. Vets like Snoop, Suga Free and DJ Quik remain ageless.
In the otherground, Open Mike Eagle remains a combination of James Baldwin and Marshall McLuhan. Comedy Central just picked up his pilot. There’s Jonwayne — the best white rapper L.A. has ever produced — whose Rap Album Two achieved excellence. No shots at Evidence, who remains consistent as the weather, especially when working in tandem with the perpetually brilliant Alchemist. Antwon’s Nature World Festival just sold out Union. Speak! and Dumbfoundead are local legends. Low End Theory remains the best hip-hop–adjacent club night in America.
Consider clipping., whose popularity finally became commensurate with their talent, thanks to Daveed Diggs’ star turn in Hamilton. Busdriver continues to possess singular gifts. So does Zeroh. Versis is as thoughtful an artist as you’ll find. Warm Brew remains as effective as a lit spliff. And Nocando’s forthcoming album furthers his multidimensional evolution.
A new generation of street-rap phenoms is ascendant, too, building buzz via SoundCloud and YouTube sans major-label or radio help. Drakeo could be the heir to Suga Free. G Perico could succeed Quik. Desto Dubb’s “Born to Sale Juice” is one of 2017’s best anthems. The Weekly compared Inglewood’s Natia to Eminem and Danny Brown. (Full disclosure: Natia is signed to my label, POW.) Cam and China might wind up the best female rappers ever raised in L.A. AD, 03 Greedo, Frosty Da Snowmann and Almighty Suspect are all rising stars.
There aren’t enough words in this column or the psychic bandwidth to properly keep track of it all. Honestly, you shouldn’t even have time to argue.