As a general rule, the way a rapper sounds is a good indication of where they are from. Over the years, the distinct styles of hip-hop invented in the early days of the genre—the sample-driven drum beats of classic New York rap, the smooth synths and flutes of California G-funk—have become synonymous with the regions where they were invented.
But some rappers embrace the influence of their region without merely mimicking its mainstream sound. These are the artists I find most interesting: the ones who filter their own vision through a specific regional tradition to create something both familiar and new.
California hip-hop has struggled to find a unifying sound in the last few years. At the moment, the scene seems to be characterized by genre-bending auteurs like Kendrick Lamar. In this more experimental musical landscape, Oakland rapper Kamaiyah stands out from her peers, ironically enough, by drawing on tradition. Kamaiyah’s second mixtape, Before I Wake, dropped at the beginning of this month and is a testament to how classical influences can sound relevant and fresh in 2017.
Kamaiyah is not stuck in the past, but rather is entranced by it. She was born in 1992, right as Dr. Dre released The Chronic and California climbed to prominence in the rap world. Her laid-back production aesthetic references the G-funk and smooth R&B that backdropped her early childhood. The buoyant, cheerful bass lines and twinkling synths on songs like “Slide (Bet)” and “The Wave” sound like something Tupac or The Conscious Daughters might cook up on a peaceful summer afternoon. The lyrics, with their infectious hooks and references to late summer nights with friends, provides a glimpse into Kamaiyah’s nostalgia for the carefree moments of her youth.
Hearing Kamaiyah rap over the same kind of music that she grew up with connects listeners to her past, and she takes advantage of this connection to show her vulnerable side. In “Therapy,” she opens up about feeling “depressed as hell, stressed as hell” while still presenting a high-functioning facade to her loved ones. In “Me Against Myself,” she wonders if she will find the strength to survive in the music industry. Kamaiyah’s record label stalled the release of her debut album this summer, and her frustration is tangible throughout Before I Wake, a tape that she released independently to regain control over her career.
Kamaiyah makes no attempt to dress up her anger and frustration with wordplay or dense rhymes. She simply states how she is feeling, using the musical vocabulary that she was raised on and has made her own. This straightforwardness, along with her sincere admiration for the rappers that came before her, gives her music a genuine, unpretentious quality. Kamaiyah has done more than imitate sounds from her youth on Before I Wake. She has earned herself a position in the canon of west coast rap alongside the artists who inspired her.
On the other side of the country, Mississippi-born rapper and producer Big K.R.I.T. has to compete with a far more popular style. Southern hip-hop has reached a degree of cultural saturation that Outkast and UGK could never have imagined in the ‘90s. Big K.R.I.T. has great respect for his predecessors, and Southern heritage is a huge part of his music. But he manages to stand out in such a crowded field not by falling back on the 808s of his contemporaries, but by crafting an eclectic style that is all his own.
This style has arguably reached its apex on his new album 4eva is a Mighty Long Time, released at the end of October. K.R.I.T. uses the considerable length of 4eva—it’s a double album, and clocks in at 85 minutes—to showcase his diverse influences. The album’s production draws upon the rich history of Southern African-American music, from gospel to jazz to delta blues. The instrumentals are not merely beats—they are ornate tapestries of Southern music history, brimming with live performances, soulful crooning, and the funky, syrupy sound that has long distinguished Southern rap from its coastal equivalents.
K.R.I.T. defies the inaccurate and reductionist stereotype that Southern rappers “mumble” their lyrics and let beats do the heavy lifting. His flow works in tandem with his lush instrumentals, adapting to fit the tempo and atmosphere of each song. He throws rapid-fire shade at coastal rappers on the album opener “Big K.R.I.T.,” barking out “Look how they hate me but copy me/Possibly I was the one with components and properties/To be the greatest of all time, but you won geography lottery.” Elsewhere he blends sensitive social commentary with a more patient flow on “The Light,” saying he is “determined to fight the power to further the peace/Mama scared the police might make a point out of me.” Regardless of his delivery, K.R.I.T.’s trademark Mississippi accent never falters. His Southern voice is as much a part of his music as his production and lyricism.
A lot of popular rap today transcends a single geographic influence in favor of a more universal sound. Look at Drake, whose synthesis of Caribbean, British, and Southern styles has created one blockbuster hit after another. This is not necessarily a bad trend. It can introduce listeners to music they may have never heard otherwise, and often produces surprising new combinations. But there is something to be said for hip-hop that still sounds like it belongs to a specific place. The love that Kamaiyah and Big K.R.I.T. feel for their homes is undeniable. 4eva and Before I Wake are unlikely to outsell the next Drake or Future album, but for listeners lucky enough to truly engage with them, these albums stand as some of the most rewarding of 2017: a perfect mix of nostalgia and newness, influence and innovation.