Das Racist, Lil B., Spaceghostpurrp: Underground rappers are having a banner year.

Das Racist, Lil B., Spaceghostpurrp: Underground rappers are having a banner year.

Das Racist, Lil B., Spaceghostpurrp: Underground rappers are having a banner year.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 15 2011 10:13 AM

A Great Year for Underground Rap

Tired of watching the throne? Give a listen to Lil B., Danny Brown, and Spaceghostpurrp.

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Further below the radar, a teenaged eccentric called Spaceghostpurrp has released Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991), a set of stark, demonic tracks stuffed with delightfully crass couplets and screeching Mortal Kombat samples. Sounding as though it was recorded off laptop speakers and into a cassette deck, it's a rare example of lo-fi rap. And the Brooklyn rapper Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, who released a mix tape called Lost in Translation on Sept. 11, rivals Tyler, the Creator, for his dank but dazzling sound and his skeezy nihilism—his recent songs "Huzzah," "Michael Dudikoff," and "The Song That Never Ends (Part 2)" are claustrophobic, nightmarish, and wholly captivating in their bleakness. eXquire raps constantly about inebriation, sets his videos in dingy, badly lit urban locales, and in "Michael Dudikoff" he punctures the rhetoric, time-honored in hip-hop, of hard work paying off: "Everyone puts on this façade like their grind is so hard / But yo' ass gon' die broke with a regular job," he snarls. Elsewhere he's even more succinct: "Fuck yo' dreams."

This current underground-rap resurgence is thanks, of course, to the Internet, in all the ways you'd expect: The barrier to entry for new artists is low, the absence of commercial stakes means tried-and-true formulas can be gleefully dispensed with, music blogs and online communities nurture (and in many cases privilege) the strange. That said, all of these MCs are interested to a degree in writing songs with identifiable, and even catchy, choruses. Part of a generation that grew up adoring '00s-era hits, they don't demonstrate a dismissive antipathy toward mainstream conventions so much as a desire to recast them in their own cracked image.

This is certainly true on Danny Brown's XXX, the year's finest underground rap album so far. A Detroit-based MC, Brown was affiliated for a time with 50 Cent's G-Unit crew and has said that what ultimately kept 50 from signing Brown was his manner of dress: He favors extremely skinny jeans, blousy button-downs and, lately, a new-wave-keytarist-meets-blaxploitation-pimp hairdo. The theatricality of Brown's look (he's also missing his two front teeth) is complemented by his delivery. At times he drops into a gruff baritone, but generally he likes to rise up to a higher, Midwestern honk. (In interviews, Brown has said he admires E-40 and Dizzee Rascal, who both rhyme in exaggerated registers.)


The title XXX is meant to simultaneously signify illicit sex, recreational drugs, and turning 30, which are all topics that preoccupy Brown. He is a daffy peddler of smut. On "I Will," an ode to cunnilingus, he raps, "That thing so juicy, I'm a call it Jamba/ Licking it in circles got me callin' me your papa/ Tongue going faster, singing La-La-Bamba." Like Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, though, Brown has an anti-triumphalist dark side, and the overdose-obsessed "Die Like a Rockstar" puts a macabre spin on the "Party Like a Rockstar" meme that came and went in hip-hop a few years back: As brags go, "River Phoenix '93 VIP / with some drugged up porn hoes all around me" is pretty depressing stuff.   

Brown's outlandish moments, even the fatalist ones, are fun and exquisitely rapped, but his true gift may be an eye for small-bore detail, which he deploys in idiosyncratic evocations of his devastated native city. At one point he recalls a bouquet of extension cords blossoming from his childhood window and leading into a neighbor's—his family borrowing power when it fell behind on a bill. The chorus of "Fields" conjures Detroit's cratered topography with a paucity of words: "Where I lived, it was house, field, field, field/ field, field, house/ abandoned house, field, field."

One of the most gripping songs is "Scrap or Die," where Brown weaves a suspenseful tale, Slick Rick-style, of breaking into abandoned houses under cover of night to salvage wiring, aluminum siding, furnaces, and old appliances. Even as grim details accrue—the junkyard rips Brown off, hurting his school-clothes fund; a scrapping expedition is delayed by his uncle's unexplained visit to "the clinic"; the cops burst in—Brown maintains a gallows humor. He is not seeking pity, just reporting the facts: "And you might be laughing at it, 'cause you know this shit is true/ rusty flatbed truck the color of doo-doo," he raps. With XXX, in a way that would have been unimaginable years ago, the underground has produced a vital alternative to the mainstream. Listeners who found Watch the Throne thematically decadent, or who thought Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV didn't live up to his nut-job standards, would do well to give this bizarre, haunting album a spin.

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.