arlem native Azealia Banks has been making music for a couple years, but her recent song “Jumanji” is the first thing she’s released that sounds like the work of a Harlem native. Banks, a rising hip-hop star, scored an out-of-nowhere hit last fall with her foulmouthed dance-rap track “212,” the video for which has been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube. The title refers to the area code for Banks’ home borough, but the song, pounding along at 126 beats per minute, is based on a whimsical house track by the Belgium-based producer Lazy Jay, and you would have been forgiven, upon first hearing it, for assuming that she was a European club kid.
“Jumanji,” by contrast, channels the sort of hip-hop that dominated New York in the early- to mid-’00s—in particular, the triumphal cacophony and inspired gobbledygook of Cam’ron and his Harlem crew, the Diplomats. A bright, elastic melody blares out, first as a distorted trumpet fanfare, then through synthesized steel drums. The percussion is almost comically helter-skelter—bomb-tick hi-hats, bellowing tympanis, feverish clapping—but the underlying tempo is about 80 bpm, a relaxed pace that better accommodates kingly rapping. Banks opens with a direct homage to Cam’ron’s vivid, sound-for-sound’s-sake nonsequiturs (“This is that jammer-jammer, go anthem banana-getter”) before rhyming “trendsetter” with “cheddar” and “feathers and leathers.” At the refrain, Banks drops a Google Maps pin on the track, repeating, “Real bitch all day / Uptown Broadway.” “Jumanji” ’s uncanny Diplomats impersonation, however, belies the song’s globetrotting pedigree. Banks lives, these days, in Southwest London, and the track’s co-producer is a rising young Glaswegian called Hudson Mohawke.
A few years ago, an aspiring rap artist hailing from New York might have felt compelled to lean harder on that fact, both sonically and lyrically —the way that, say, Queens-born Nicki Minaj, a Banks forebear (they both attended the Upper West Side arts high school LaGuardia), did at the start of her career. Over several reputation-building mixtapes, Minaj rapped in a battle-hardened style over old Biggie, Noreaga, and Beanie Sigel instrumentals. The proof was in the provenance: Before we’d follow Minaj into pop orbit with a song like “Starships,” she had to flaunt, and pay respect to, her roots.
But in 2012-era hip-hop, Harlem (and Brooklyn, and Detroit, and Miami, and Atlanta, and Toronto, and on and on) is becoming less a specific place that an artist hails from and tailors her sound to reflect, and more an aesthetic option, among many, that she can gesture toward or ignore as she sees fit. Another notable hip-hop rookie is the smooth-talking A$AP Rocky, who also comes from Harlem, but who stresses to interviewers how geographically unrestricted his style is: A product, he says, of an adolescence spent devouring not only New York titans like Eric B. and Rakim (his parents named him after the latter artist) but also acts like DJ Quik, from Los Angeles, and UGK, from Port Arthur, Texas. In his songs, Rocky is as comfortable maneuvering through the slow-mo sludge of Texas screw-music as he is aping the singsong pitter-patter of Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and he’s no less convincing for this carpet-bagging. Many of his tracks fall into a new, Internet-born sub-sub-genre, nicknamed “cloud rap” for its diaphanous textures and foggy melodies. Cloud rap’s other main practitioners hail from the Bay Area (Lil B, Main Attrakionz), Seattle (Keyboard Kid), and New Jersey (Clams Casino), all of them collaborating with each other via broadband connections—cloud has a nice double meaning in this context. We listen to an artist like Atlanta’s Young Jeezy, in part, for his blunt evocation of place: run-down drug houses, musty strip joints, classic cars orbiting the perimeter. We listen to an artist like A$AP Rocky for rich evocations of everywhere and nowhere.
Such geographical unmooring is partly a function of fringe experimentalism—conventions are always easier to ignore when commercial stakes are lower. This is certainly the case in the music of Spaceghostpurrp, A$AP Rocky’s friend and crew-mate, an inspired weirdo from the same Miami neighborhood as Rick Ross whose dank, lo-fi mixtape tracks evoke Memphis, Tenn.’s Three Six Mafia.* But regionalism is eroding at the genre’s center as well. Ever since Drake’s forlorn mixtape track “Houstatlantavegas,” the Canadian star has cultivated an aura of placelessness in his music, wringing pathos from tales of a life spent largely in clubs, hotels, and airports. As far as the hip-hop map is concerned, Drake’s hometown, Toronto, is a nonsignifying blank spot, and he more or less keeps it that way in his lyrics, mentioning the city but not bringing it to life as a place that you can picture in your head. Like Banks and Rocky, Drake nods to the tradition of hometown name-checking without letting his hometown say much about who he is.
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