This week we’re keeping with our theme of low-key music, but breaking our tradition of guitar-based samplers to highlight another of our favorite genres: underground hip-hop. For this particular sampler we want to highlight lo-fi beats and strong lyrical delivery, so without further ado, here are four underground hip-hop tracks you must hear.
Blow Up by Richard Carter
Blow Up is perseverant and confident beneath its somber exterior. A newcomer from Croydon in the UK music scene, Richard Carter raps about tapping into the immortality in music, finding success with patience, determination, and love for his craft: “Once I fly away, I’ve got no doubt about it/ I know I’ll find a way, I’ve got no doubts about it, I’ll blow up.” In the first two verses Carter slips into sparse and deliberate storytelling bars, matching the jazz-inspired vibe of the beat and pulling the listener into his everyday life. Such a choice might seem mundane, but Carter has an almost transcendent sense of his own narrative, a conviction that what he’s doing is “more important than life” and that the characters surrounding him are on similar arcs. It’s this quality that truly sets Carter apart from his peers, he re-purposes the triumphant spirit of American radio hip-hop and finds a way to contextualize it in the harsh realism of conscious hip-hop. The result is not really either, but a rewarding new middle ground that is lyrical enough to win critics while still being catchy and relatable to the average listener.
Don’t Box Me In by KHAJE ft. Font Leroy & Sekani
The latest from Jamaican-American, New York producer KHAJE is a jazz-hip-hop banger calling to mind Saba and Kendrick Lamar. As the compound piano chords fade in to the opening hook “don’t box me in”, one would imagine that this song would be a laid-back storytelling piece, but as soon as the rapping starts its immediately clear that this song is going in a very different direction. Font Leroy makes his presence known, immediately diving into tight, quick bars filled with confident internal rhyme and staggered triplets. It’s a great first impression from the New York rapper, who proves with one minute long verse that he deserves more attention than a lot of the rising stars in the genre. After another repetition of the hook, Sekani provides the perfect counterpoint to Font Leroy’s approach with his booming voice and deliberate, aggressive delivery. Both rappers cut their teeth here on the roughly two minute track and show that New York is still a thriving hip-hop underground.
MY LIFE by Emma Lee
Emma Lee might not be a household name yet, but she’s an accomplished veteran on the rise in the independent arts community. She’s been involved in everything from film, to media, to writing, to performing with the Oscar and Grammy nominated Impact Repertory Theatre. Her brand of conscious, boom-bap, hip-hop is hyper-lyrical; filled with cutting, insightful lines on what it means to be a black woman in hip-hop and America at large that refuses to be defined by other’s expectations. MY LIFE is a clinic on using self-expression to address societal problems where Emma Lee walks boldly onto “roads that ain’t paved for me”, breaking barriers one lyrical incision at a time. Already, without a major release to here name, her command of her own narrative, unique perspective, and lyrical prowess call to mind established artists such as Noname, Dawn Richard, and Kendrick Lamar. When her forthcoming debut album finally drops she has the very real potential to climb into that same echelon in the public eye, because as far as talent is concerned she already deserves to be there.
World Series by Mic Miles
Mic Miles is trying to bring bars back to Hip-Hop. The Cleveland native practically oozes with confidence as he delivers lines like: “life is a gamble, just hope your parents nice/ got me searching for paradise with a pair of dice”, “this game is a bitch I ain’t prepared to wife”, and “my moment’s everlasting/ my clock is broken.” His delivery and the beat that backs it up both call to mind early Kanye West, bringing us back to a time when he owned the radio with cheeky lines and character, long before he became the poster-boy for experimental production. Mic Miles continues his revival of the best parts of late 2000s hip-hop throughout his debut EP, 27, leaving behind the abrasive tendencies of 2006 club beats and the dance-floor cliches, but reveling in the tongue-in-cheek one-liners that typified the era. It’s this almost playful nature that makes World Series stand out from the contemporary hip-hop landscape in 2019, where sad-boi emo rap, banal cloud rap, and politically charged conscious hip-hop dominate the airwaves. Mic Miles set out to bring bars back to hip-hop, but in doing so he brought back something that’s been missing for almost a decade: fun.