Drakeo the Ruler doesn’t have to rap about his surroundings for us to see them in Ultra HD. His smirked verses hang over the beat like a smoggy alien sunset, evoking paranoia in paradise, dystopia at the magic hour, an endless summer dissolving into the end of days. Which is all to say, he sounds like Los Angeles in 2018.
If you spent this cruel summer treating yourself to the best new rap music, you were listening to Drakeo, and to 03 Greedo, and to Shoreline Mafia — a new class of detail-minded lyricists advancing a tradition that makes Los Angeles seem enchanted and doomed. Is it the proximity to Hollywood that inspires so many great L.A. rappers to conjure such vivid scenes in our mind’s ear? As the cradle of gangsta rap, Los Angeles has inadvertently taught us to consume this music as if we were watching a movie.
Which means that by the time “Straight Outta Compton” premiered at your neighborhood multiplex in the summer of 2015, it felt redundant. Anyone who grew up on N.W.A.’s seething street knowledge had already seen a much better movie inside their heads — and without having to set foot on Crenshaw Boulevard. When the film critic David Thomson talks about the emotional metaphysics of cinema, he might as well be describing what it feels like to pump “F--- tha Police” out of your factory car stereo while coasting down any-block, USA: “We are having what may be a profound or devastating experience, but we are not there.”
Listening from the opposite coast this summer, the mood of L.A. rap matched the gloom of the headlines. In the 12 months since those Burbank wildfires made the city appear as if it had been swallowed into hell, the median price of a home in Los Angeles County spiked to a record high while the city’s homelessness crisis remained the worst in the nation. “It’s becoming a city for the rich,” the poet Luis J. Rodríguez told a Los Angeles Times columnist this month, “with 58 billionaires and some 58,000 people living on the street.”
That same column cheerily described Los Angeles as “a window on the future,” even though the view appears more frightening than ever. Plenty of big thinkers talk about California as a harbinger state, a place that could teach the rest of the republic how to solve endemic income inequality — if it doesn’t all burn down first. So as long as Los Angeles continues to glimmer in that near-future of our national imagination, the act of listening to L.A. rap music will continue to feel urgent. It’s the sound of human voices coping with tomorrow.
On his new album, “Stay Dangerous,” YG isn’t coping very well. The Compton rapper’s last two albums — 2014’s “My Krazy Life” and 2016’s “Still Brazy” — stand as neo-G-funk masterpieces, elegant in their arrangements, airtight in their storytelling, yet super-soaked with mood. Whereas fellow Compton native Kendrick Lamar won that Pulitzer Prize in April for speaking to the American condition, YG prefers to speak to those within shouting radius — which is why his 2016 single, “FDT,” a malediction aimed at then-candidate Donald Trump, felt so personal and so potent.
But now Trump lives on Pennsylvania Avenue and YG sounds lost inside his own album, rapping to a strange goulash of beats in yelps, mewls and other half-melodic distress calls. Fried and freaked, he only manages to compose himself during “Deeper Than Rap,” a sleek paranoia anthem in which he knows he’s being watched. “You on the outside looking in,” he sneers. “Tell me what you see!” In this flash of self-awareness, he’s equal parts rapper and screenwriter, burning a clean hole through the fourth wall.
For a more magnetic example of how a jumble of styles can convey a coherent sense of place, steer your ears toward Shoreline Mafia, a crew of rookie rappers who sound fresher than the day after tomorrow — especially when they’re rhyming over tracks by Ron-Ron the Producer, a young maestro who purees the rhythms of New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis into a new kind of West Coast smoothie. Together, their music embodies L.A.’s cultural absorbency, its youthful sense of possibility and, most crucially, its abiding cool. Instead of competing for the oxygen in the room, these dudes all breathe Freon.
And for an even wider expression of L.A.’s muchness, there’s 03 Greedo, the 31-year-old virtuoso from Watts who can bend a hammy T-Pain melody to fit the anguished arc of a Lil Boosie verse. Scorched and wounded, Greedo’s voice personifies the brutality he was born into, but his incredible facility with words and melody feels more like the product of that utopian L.A. where everyone is free to remake themselves into someone else.
Through the mind-rattling profusion of music that he’s dropped this year, it seems as if Greedo is trying to surface every iteration of himself. To locate his aesthetic center, you’ll need to rewind a couple of years back to “Mafia Business.” A video for the song features aerial shots of the Jordan Downs housing projects where Greedo came up, echoing similar footage seen in the 1993 Hughes brothers film, “Menace II Society,” but the music gets even more specific. The recording itself sounds raw, and the performance feels vulnerable — as if Greedo were literally rapping in the shower.
He’s released heaps and heaps of songs since then, pushing outward in every direction. Why the deluge? Because the clock was ticking. In April, Greedo was sentenced to 20 years on gun and drug charges, and he began serving his term in Texas in June. Until he becomes eligible for parole in five years, one of the most prolific, imaginative, expressive and resourceful rappers that Los Angeles has ever known will have to dream about his city’s psychic mood from afar with the rest of us.
Drakeo the Ruler’s situation seems similarly difficult. Currently sitting in an L.A. jail where he’s facing a variety of charges, including first-degree murder, the South Central native insists not only that he’s innocent, but also that he’s the victim of a police conspiracy that initially targeted him for being the hottest new rapper in Los Angeles.
The timing couldn’t be worse. In late December, Drakeo released “Cold Devil,” one of the most mesmerizing and intimate rap albums to ever float out of L.A. It’s the work of a master technician who speaks in whimsical criminal code, who arranges his taunts in sneaky internal rhymes, who makes his calculated insults flow like extemporaneous, sotto voce trash talk.
His conspiratorial delivery might be the most intoxicating sound to waft across California since the arrival of Snoop Dogg. But instead of lagging behind the beat like Snoop, Drakeo prefers to stumble ahead of it — and he does it in his drowsiest voice, as if sleepwalking into oncoming traffic. It’s a paradoxical flow that makes him sound invincible.
Plenty of other West Coast traditions get upheld and dismantled on Drakeo’s tongue, but the Los Angeles that he describes in his lyrics neatly resembles the financially bifurcated megalopolis that we’ve been reading about since they announced the Rodney King verdict. Listen to “Out the Slums,” a Ron-Ron-produced duet with 03 Greedo, and you’ll hear Drakeo embark on a Beverly Hills shopping spree with a gun tucked beneath his fur coat. “In Cavalli, but I came out the slums,” he mutters. “On Rodeo, but I still got my drum.”
His words put him on a map, but his untethered voice places him between reality and dreams, between America’s unfathomable present and its unknowable future. He’s still somewhere in Los Angeles, but the only way to get there is in a song.