What does rap sound like in 2017? Is it Kendrick Lamar’s visceral, big-picture poetry? Is it the machine-gunned triplet attack of Migos? Is it the synesthetic sound-play of Future and Young Thug? Is it the goody-two-shoes gospel of Chance the Rapper? While hip-hop heads continue this eternal debate, the next generation of rappers is figuring it out for itself. On Tuesday night, a handful of these new voices performed at the Rock & Roll Hotel, following in the wake of Kendrick and Chance with lyric-loaded jams perfect for both the poetry slam and the house party.
The showcase kicked off early with a pair of local talents: Baltimore’s Tate Kobang and Maryland-raised, D.C.-based Innanet James. With a drink steady in his left hand, Kobang performed a few tracks, including his 2015 breakthrough, “Bank Rolls.” Over a punchy beat by Baltimore club legend Rod Lee, the 24-year-old name-dropped B-more streets, paid tribute to K Swift and recalled playing in alleys, “ducking them dirty needles.” James followed soon after with a short set of effervescent dance-rap tunes from his debut mix tape, “Quebec Place,” named after a block in D.C.’s Park View. But while their home towns loom large in their lyrics, Kobang and James are primed for better things (and bigger crowds).
Kaiydo continued James’s dance party, performing in front of an inflatable version of his moniker and draped in retro Marlins baseball gear. The Orlando upstart bounced over club-ready beats on “Arcade” and “Fruit Punch,” songs with the same youthful energy as their titles. In a way, he was updating turn-of-the-millennium party rap, often maligned by purists who favor old-school lyricism. That kind of hip-hop was born and raised in the Bronx, but the borough has had a tough time reclaiming its past rap glories.
That seems to fuel Kemba, a 26-year-old who spits rhymes as if he’s paid by the syllable. He got the crowd going with some call-and-response and frequently rapped a cappella, showing off wordplay that evoked memories of the Lyricist Lounge. He had his share of boasts — “Tell Jay I’m on his heels like Salvatore Ferragamo” — but also moments of introspection, wondering aloud, “Is this how ’Pac would envision it?”
Kemba wasn’t the only performer to invoke the spirit of Tupac Shakur. Long Beach rapper Boogie came to the stage in a sweatshirt that read “From Nothing We Rose,” its rose-from-concrete logo evoking Shakur’s poetry. And the similarities weren’t simply sartorial — there’s some of Shakur’s wise-beyond-his-years truth-telling in Boogie’s music as he raps about avoiding not just gunshots and the police but the perils of social media and toxic relationships.
Boogie even flips one of 2 Pac’s most famous songs: “Brenda had a baby? No, Brenda had a sister, too. But it’s crazy ’cause she grew up with a different view,” he posits on “Let Me Rap.” “Recognized the problem and figured out the answer. She grew up in detention, and now she got standards. . . . That’s real rap.”
The search for “real rap” continues to be the genre’s defining test, and if that test is multiple choice, the answer in 2017 is “all of the above.”