It was a monster November/December combo for hip-hop, with leaked albums springing up everywhere, the Game emerging triumphantly from his Aftermath feud(s), Jay-Z returning with a legendary seven-city, 26-hour tour and not-so legendary album, Snoop releasing a keeper, Nas declaring that Hip Hop is dead, Ghostface putting out a second album in '06, and the Clipse making hipster hip-hop fans drool with the release of Hell Hath No Fury. There's been a lot to keep track of.
So you can forgive me for taking a break from the Regional Report's "up-and-comers" theme. It's hard to stay focused on the next breakout star when Jay-Z is flying around in a plane that has his face painted on it, and putting on concerts in Atlanta at seven in the morning. The tail end of 2006 was all about the heavy hitters.
However, the first quarter of 2007 stands to serve as a breakout campaign for new hip-hop stars across the country, and nowhere does the youth movement seem to be picking up more steam than in sunny Southern California. "New West" is the catch phrase in L.A. as a bumper crop of stars look to make their mark early and often in the year to come.
The dynamic for emerging rappers on the West Coast is different from other regions of the country. Artists in Chicago are grappling with the challenge of maintaining Kanye's aesthetic while sidestepping his rather large shadow. Those in New York are trying to bring the birthplace of hip-hop back to the forefront while competing for airtime against veteran heavyweights like Jay-Z and Nas. In the South the new guys are finding it tough to get a piece of the limelight, with fairly new stars like Young Jeezy and Chamillionaire (not to mention "King" T.I.) already in place. In the Mid-Atlantic, some incredibly talented artists are simply trying to put cities not named Virginia Beach and Philadelphia on the hip-hop map. Everywhere you look, there are substantial challenges.
Then there is the West Coast. Always one of the powers in hip-hop, L.A. has been in rough shape for the better part of the last decade. Dr. Dre continues to loom over the rap industry, but he's become less regional and more national with each passing year. He hardly qualifies. Snoop's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is probably his best release since Doggystyle in 1993, but even Snoop is more of an MTV star than a West Coast gangsta rapper. That pretty much leaves the Game to hold down the entire fort, which he is actually doing an admirable job of. More important to would-be stars in the L.A. area is the fact that the Game's success has put the whole region back on the map. Game will be the first to tell you that he's saved the West Coast and brought it back to prominence.
Now the West is once again in the mix. The momentum exists and it is up to the new wave to cash in. Nature abhors a vacuum, so you'd better believe that there is room for a host of new stars to break though and into the forefront, which is probably why almost every artist coming out of L.A. these days is quick to yell out "New West!" at a show or on a mixtape. No one wants to be associated with the dog days that have made up the better part of this decade. They don't necessarily want to be associated with Game either, but that's only because he's a one-man army who doesn't know how to play nice. These newcomers simply want to occupy spots that are destined to be filled.
It all means that there is a ton of opportunity out West, which works out nice, because there's also a ton of talent.
Primary Challenger - Bishop Lamont. It wasn't easy to pick between Bishop and Glasses Malone, but in the end, I went with the better long-term option. Arguably already the best rapper to ever come out of Carson, California, Bishop Lamont is poised to become mega star. Why? Let me count the ways.
For starters, he's looming as Dr. Dre's newest protege and unless you haven't been paying attention to the drama surrounding the Game over the past year, you know that there's a vacancy for that particular lead chair. Considering the success of artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to Eminem to 50 to Game, being Dr. Dre's running mate is the rap equivalent to being tabbed by Martin Scorsese to be his new go-to actor (see: Robert DeNiro 1973-1995, Leo DiCaprio 2002-current). So he's got that going for him.
(I love the story of how this came to be, by the way. Apparently, Bishop was supposed to meet Kanye West with demo in hand at the "Dreams" video shoot, but Kanye was a no-show. Bummed out and ready to head home, Bishop saw Dr. Dre come out of a trailer so he walked right up and handed him his mixtape Who Do I Have to Kill to Get a Record Deal?. A few days later he was driving around listening to Power 106 when all of a sudden Dre was on the air talking about how excited he is to work with a new artist named Bishop Lamont. Great stuff.)
Even better news is that this right-hand man position looks like it will provide some immediate results. There have been countless artists that have signed with Interscope and Aftermath only to collect dust while waiting for a chance to shine, but the word is that Lamont's first album, The Reformation will release during the first quarter of next year. According to an interview he did for West Coast Rydaz, Bishop will be getting beats from virtually every big name in the production biz, including Just Blaze, Pete Rock, DJ Quick, Battlecat, Dre, Scott Storch, J Dilla, DJ Premier, and Salaam Remi. Not only that, but he figures to be the top gun on Dre's Detox if and when that actually happens. Plus he's already got a follow-up project in the works titled The Possible Impossible that will feature all beats from Dre and Storch. He's also aiming to work with artists such as Chris Martin, Korn, Mike Shinoda, and the White Stripes in order to expand hip-hop. 2007 could be Bishop's year, regardless of newcomer status or West Coast location.
The best thing he has going for him, of course, is skill. His flow still needs a little bit of work, but a few sessions in the studio with Dre and Eminem should take care of that. Otherwise, he is a ready-made star. He has the voice, style, and smarts to be a mainstay. My favorite thing about Bishop is that he features witty wordplay and clever rhymes that one would typically associate with an underground, or "backpack" rapper, yet he maintains an authentic West Coast sound that glides smoothly from gangsta rap to G-Funk and back again. He himself described his sound as backpack rap ... but with guns and drugs stuffed inside of the backpack. In other words, he's smart and witty and can rap about topics as diverse as The Doors, Todd McFarlane's "Spawn" comic books, Nintendo's "Duck Hunt," and Hercules, but he's also not afraid to throw on a huge G-Funk beat and boast about white tees and '64 Impalas.
The only word of caution regarding Bishop is the story of the one Dre protege that got away: Hitman. You might remember Hitman from Dre's Chronic 2001. Just as Bishop is expected to be the new young gun on Dre's next release, Hitman was that guy the last time around, appearing on over a quarter of the tracks on that classic release. He too was expected to be a huge star, but it never happened. In fact, Game even brought this up when he went at Bishop in the recent G-Unit centric diss track, "100 Bars (The Funeral)" (I'm gunning for Bishop/I'm the king of this L.A. s***/tell me homie is you blood or crip/is you thug or b****/cause the Essey's say they don't ever see holmes run around L.A./fake ass ghostwriter get your little flow tighter/before I put you in the trunk of this f****** lowrider/you ain't nuthin' but Hitman in quicksand"). That said, it is probably more noteworthy that Game even felt compelled to go at Bishop on a diss track, when most of the world doesn't even know who he is yet.
Armed with savvy, a sense of humor, the best production team on the planet (including local guys like J Wells and Diverse that he's bringing along with him), and talent to spare (not to mention a sweet logo comprised of a bishop chess piece and a giant L), Bishop appears to be a mortal lock to blow up huge. Which means that the Game better get a few more diss tracks ready to roll.
Listen to: "I Am a Soldier," "Up and Down," "It's Bishop," "Let's Get it Poppin'," and "I'm a Warrior."
Secondary Challenger - Glasses Malone. This should probably be 1B to Bishop's 1A as the two seem to be rising to stardom hand-in-hand. Their goal is to take the New West movement to the top of the industry and make L.A. the new Atlanta, with a spirit of cooperation and regional dominance leading to national prominence. And right now, Glasses Malone might be in the best position to be the T.I. in that analogy. Formerly a member of the Game's Black Wall Street crew, Glasses moved on when it became obvious that Game was probably never going to get around to bringing anyone up behind him (the unwritten rule in rap). Then, when Game had a falling out with his Piru Blood older brother Big Face, G. Malone became the newest beneficiary of Face's connections.
After releasing the acclaimed mixtape White Lightenin' (Sticks), Glasses quickly became a household name in Los Angeles rap circles and before long, he was commanding a $1.7 million deal with Sony that included his own imprint, Blu Division. In a short span he has become the de facto leader of the New West movement and the most immediate threat to challenge Game for West Coast supremacy.
In fact, Malone's first LP is coming out in just two months, as The Beach Cruiser is expected to drop on February 20th. Sony has such high hopes for the record that they've asked Glasses to leave behind the local L.A. producers - at least for the time being - and make a national album. Production is expected from the likes of Blaze, Pharrell, DJ Toomp, and Cool and Dre. While collaborations with a host of eclectic and Southern producers sounds like a risky proposition, there is already evidence that the pairings will work. The track "F*** Wit Me" has became a local sensation and while it is a club jam above all else, it maintains a West Coast feel despite getting production from Southern mainstay Mannie Fresh.
The only downside to G. Malone is that his voice sounds a whole lot like the Game's. He has the same raspy sound and his delivery has a similar pace and rhythm. I think he is actually a much better lyricist than Game, but he doesn't emote quite as well. So it's kind of a toss up on who is actually better. The problem for Glasses? Game's already out there. In the legal world (and maybe other worlds for all I know), they call this the "first mover problem." Will millions of hip-hop fans be willing to embrace another cocky West Coast artist that sounds just like the Game? That hiccup, plus Bishop's superior long-term label situation gives Lamont the slight edge going forward. That said, expect big things from both.
Listen to: "F*** Wit Me," "Take a Fade," "I'm Bout a Dolla," and "Two Hunned."
Darkhorse - Lil Eazy E. In almost every walk of life, you eventually get to put the "legacy" factor to the test. Whether it is college admissions, politics, or the NBA, carrying the last name of those that came before has always been a tried-and-true method for getting opportunities that others only dream of. But hip-hop is a young industry, so we're not yet sure of the roles that nepotism and legacy interests will play. We're about to find out. Lil Eazy E is the most prominent of a host of rising stars that can claim famous fathers in the rap world. Cory Gunz (son of Peter) and Sun God (Ghostface's lad) are emerging in the East, while Dr. Dre's son Curtis Young (more on him in a minute) and Lil Eazy E are making waves out West.
Lil Eazy appears to be the most talented of the group and could become a massive star. He's got the same nasally flow that his dad brought to the forefront as a member of N.W.A. and as a controversial solo artist. Not only that, but the Lil version of Eazy E seems to possess the same taste for battle, already engaging in a publicized feud with the Game throughout most of 2006. The best thing about Lil Eazy E is that he routinely outshines the other artists on tracks featuring multiple rappers. He buries G-Unit's Spider Loc on the song "Two Step" and has outperformed the likes of Ice Cube, Bizzy Bone, and even some recycled Biggie and 2Pac (on "Us Against the World"). Granted, that's not like coming out on top against the likes of Nas and Ghostface, but it counts for something. Based on the quality of his recent mixtape This Ain't a Game, we should expect good things on his upcoming The Prince of Compton LP.
Listen to: "Us Against the World," "Two Step," "Life of a G," and "That Fire."
Others to Watch - Ca$his, Spider Loc, Hood Surgeon, Eastwood, Crooked I, and 40 Glocc.
Ca$his is an intriguing guy to watch for a variety of reasons. For starters, he's on Aftermath, which always raises an eyebrow. However, unlike many G-Unit and Interscope signees of late, Ca$his appears to actually have some talent. He's got his own sound and a pretty polished flow and is getting some serious run on mixtapes. He is featured heavily on Eminem Presents the Re-up and while he can't quite hang with the likes of Stat Quo and Obie Trice at this point, he avails himself pretty well. Needless to say, he's certainly the top gun out of Orange County right now.
Spider Loc represents 50 Cent's best effort to replace the Game with a West Coast G-Unit affiliate. Sounds pretty good on paper, but the result is not so great. Spider sounds like a Tone Loc retread (is that where he got the name?) and thus far has produced very few memorable tracks or verses (the best probably being his guest appearance on Lloyd Banks' Rotten Apple bonus track "Life"). I can't imagine him being a major part of the West Coast rebirth, let alone righting the G-Unit ship.
Hood Surgeon is also known as Curtis Young, son of Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre. So he's got the pedigree. However, as mentioned above, we have yet to see how this whole legacy thing plays out. Hood Surgeon is taking a unique approach (by choice or by necessity?) to his rap career, building from the ground up. He is the founder and CEO of So Hood Records and has a pretty solid mixtape floating around titled The Autopsy. He claims to be going at this alone, yet everything about him seems derivative of Dre, from his themes to his name to his "monster" sound as a producer. It will be interesting to see if the general public gives him a chance.
Eastwood is a talented artist that was formerly a member of Death Row, where he sat on the shelf for years before being liberated by Game, who signed him to Black Wall Street and made him part of the group M.O.B. which combines Eastwood with rappers Problem (hailing from Compton) and Techneic (a Mac 10 protege) and looks to position itself as a new age Dogg Pound. But can Eastwood really fill the Snoop Dogg role in that scenario? I doubt it.
Crooked I is another rapper that got put on ice for a few years at Death Row but now looks to emerge as a West Coast force. The Long Beach artist is known in certain circles as a talented ghostwriter with some real ability. He recently floated a song called "Say Dr. Dre" that appears to be a track originally destined for Dre's Detox album, since all Crooked I's verses are delivered as if he himself were Dre. The message seems to be, "Hey, this is yet another hit I wrote but since it might not see the light of day, I'll go ahead and throw it out there." The only problem? Dre's not much of a rapper, but I would have definitely preferred this track coming from the good Doctor, regardless of who wrote it. That doesn't bode well for Crooked I.
Finally, 40 Glocc is one of the best true rappers in the West, but he appears to be cut from more of the "veteran underground artist" mold rather than the up-and-comer type that will likely break big. That said, he's pretty damn good. His song "Finer Thangzzz" was a true highlight on DJ Exclusive's Dretox mixtape and 40 Glocc has handled beats from the likes of Rick Rock, Dre, Havoc, and the Alchemist. So I'm not going to rule out a rise to prominence.