Hip-hop voices, beyond Kanye West and Jay-Z, are worth hearing

Hip-hop voices, beyond Kanye West and Jay-Z, are worth hearing
Chance the rapper, who has released “Acid Rap,” is being pursued by major labels. (Matthew Eisman / Getty Images)

To judge by the media coverage this summer, only two hip-hop albums of note have been released. Both were recorded by multi-platinum multimillionaires raised on first- and second-generation hip-hop.

As even your grandma could probably tell you, these albums, rolled out with the help of the sharpest marketing teams money can buy, are "Yeezus" by Kanye West and "Magna Carta Holy Grail" by Jay-Z, West's former label mate and "Watch the Throne" collaborator. What elders perhaps don't know, though, is that beneath the self-described Watchers are a legion of MCs a decade or more younger upending a genre that the reigning monarchs claim to control.


While the two self-proclaimed gods boast of their riches, brilliance, good fortune and influence throughout their new work as if speaking from a castle balcony overlooking the masses, down below voices are grumbling.

"I am a god — so hurry up with my damn croissants," raps West, and it's unclear whether he's kidding. History tells us that such bluster has been known to backfire. As another kind of royalty, Lauren Bacall, famously explained, "Looking at yourself in the mirror isn't exactly a study of life."

Lost amid the glare of their shine are the impressive bounty of ascendant voices earning quiet kudos, online buzz and, most important, expanding fan bases and who are less inclined to big-budget braggadocio. In fact, one of the best of them, Chance the Rapper, is part of a hot Chicago team that has frugality built into its name: Save Money.

This summer Chance and fellow rappers Mac Miller, Vince Staples, Run the Jewels and others have released confident, thoughtful work from a less shimmering perch. A half-dozen of these rappers are touring America as part of the Space Migration Tour, which lands at the Hollywood Palladium on Aug. 7. The bill will feature Miller, Staples, Odd Future side-project the Internet and New York heavy Action Bronson.

Miller is the headliner for obvious reasons: His independently released 2011 album "Blue Slide Park" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, the first indie in 16 years to do so, and has sold more than 400,000 copies. The success was propelled by his self-released debut mixtape, "Best Day Ever," which featured the anthem "Donald Trump," as well as tens of millions of YouTube views.

Miller recently relocated from his Pittsburgh home to Los Angeles, where he has quickly meshed with some of this city's most talented rappers, including Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator; Ab-Soul of Kendrick Lamar's Black Hippy collective and vocalist Niki Randa, whose vocals as part of Blank Blue have made a deep dent on the city's beat scene.

All are featured in Miller's new album, "Watching the Movies With the Sound Off," a decent leap forward with quiet, ethereal beats that are the polar opposite of West's booming "Yeezus." Whereas the latter is worrying about messing up mink coats, Miller's at home in front of the computer "chilling for an hour, smoking weed, watching Worldstar," the website devoted to grungy rap and street fight videos.

At its best, like on the collaboration with Ab-Soul titled "Gees," Miller describes himself as an "ignorant-ass white kid/But I'm still bicycling and recycling/And I'm still eating Gummy Bear vitamins." (He admits to imbibing much more than vitamins on other tracks.)

Miller's still a dude's dude, unfortunately, and has yet to trim the uninteresting, boastful fat that has prevented too many otherwise sharp rappers from making inroads with potential listeners over 30 (read, anyone who might have a daughter that Miller so loosely denigrates on lesser verses).

On "Bird Call," a gem of a rhythm built by Clams Casino, features a beat that spins with an undercurrent of psychedelia while Miller relays the tale of a night spent on weed and thinking about the future: "I used to care ... about success/Now I just want to see Mila Kunis undress," he rhymes before devolving into X-rated lyrics detailing the experience. (Since its release on June 18, "Watching Movies" has sold more than 137,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. West's "Yeezus" was released the same day and has sold three times as many — but probably cost 10 times to market.)

As a producer, Miller goes by Larry Fisherman, and he has teamed up with Staples to release "Stolen Youth," a 30-minute EP that further underscores the depth of the Los Angeles hip-hop community. Unlike the shock of "Yeezus" or Jay-Z's collaboration with Timbaland on the heavily synthetic "Magna Carta," Fisherman and Staples, a Los Angeles lyricist, prefer subtlety. They understand that "Stolen Youth" likely won't be consumed on expensive stereo systems but through headphones. Beats bounce, synth and vocal runs slither through the ears.


Staples, who's not yet 20, received his first exposure on "Earl," the breakout Odd Future album that helped to propel the collective onto the worldwide stage. Staples released his debut mixtape in 2012 and is building a devoted following among peers. His lyrics explain why. On "Guns and Roses," for example, he's gritty but smart with an eye for detail. He describes a 13-year-old holding a gun for the first time, a weapon "that was made for a man/The rush he get is one you won't understand/Unless you hold it and blow it." It's a sensation that hunters and gangsters have felt.

Guns and bullets fly throughout Chance the Rapper's excellent "Acid Rap," which I reviewed when it came out and recently included on my list of 2013's best albums. Chance, born Chancelor Bennett, has quickly become one of America's most vital young musical voices and is the subject of a major label pursuit involving marquee executives and rappers. In the memorable words of his track of the same name, they all want him for his "Juice."

He and his Save Money colleagues, however, have already built a vast community of musicians within a south Chicago rap scene and see little need for major label backing. The loose affiliation features musicians including rappers Vic Mensa, Joey Purp and Nico Segal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet), and includes instrumentalists, producers, filmmakers and artists.

It's an ever-evolving model whose blueprint was designed by the Wu-Tang Clan when the Save Money kids were still in diapers: conquer with the collective energy of a group, then divide and support one another . In the social media era of retweets and followers as key distribution channels, the voices of many can market music on the cheap.


Which isn't to say they're going it alone. Chance is represented by an agent, Cara Lewis at the Creative Artists Agency, who has helped guide the careers of Kanye West, 50 Cent and Eminem, and BWR PR, a powerhouse of the entertainment business. Money, as always, chases talent, which these days is quantified as much through streams, downloads and Twitter followers as album sales or critical acclaim.

Granted, if these guys have it their way they'll be sitting on the same throne in five years after conquering rising superstars Drake, J. Cole and Nicki Minaj. The upstarts' leanings don't suggest they'll be too humble about their wealth and talent if they do end up reigning

Hunger for attention and the power it affords, though, is a great driver of a certain kind of creativity. It makes for an energy that West and Jay-Z long ago sapped as their wine cellars grew. To extend the metaphor, who needs Champagne when you've got juice?