The Nina mobile app is now available on iOS.Download from the App Store.
hero image

Around The World With POW: January Edition

The POW Rap-Up

This month, Uncle Murda rings in the New Year with a three-part “Rap-Up” commemorating 2023. Discover this New York tradition and the biggest bubbling songs and artists from the West Coast, the South, and the UK.

By passionweiss


Passion of the Weiss is the last rap blog. Founded in '05, it has survived blogroll purges, broken 404 links, and cyber-attacks (allegedly) from October's Very Own to persevere as one of the only daily publishing independent music sites. With a primary focus on hip-hop, its coverage also includes dance music, psychedelia, sports, and other miscellaneous skepticism. Its regional Rap Up features a collection of some of its most knowledgeable contributors identifying one bubbling song from their respective regions, aiming to capture the diffuse spirit of a multi-faced and global genre. Read POW here.

Brooklyn, NY

Uncle Murda - “Rap Up 2023” (Pt. 1-3)

We all have our New Year's traditions. Some people wear diapers for a day and a half, standing in ankle-deep muck in Times Square to watch the back of Anderson Cooper’s head during commercial breaks until they’re kettled out of the asshole of the earth at the stroke of midnight. Some people throw on When Harry Met Sally or Phantom Thread. Some eat greens with black eyed peas. Others drink champagne and eat caviar.

In my apartment, we pull the electric heater that looks like a fake fireplace out of storage. I wake up my kids at exactly 11:40:41 if they fall asleep early. We gather around the Bluetooth speaker in front of the fire, and as the ball drops, we listen to “East Noo YAWK”’s Uncle Murda reflecting on the year that has just passed. 

For those unfamiliar, Leonard Grant, or Uncle Murda, is from Brooklyn’s infamous Louis Heaton Pink Houses near the Linden Multiplex, a few blocks from the Conduit. He had the good fortune of being managed by DJ Green Lantern in the dying days of the mixtape-as-industry farm system. 

In 2007, Murda was in the right place at the right time. His proximity to Brooklyn royalty landed him on Fabolous’ “Brooklyn” remix, and he’s still somehow coasting off those fumes today. He spent time on Roc-A-Fella as it dissolved, then landed on the G-Unit ghostship in the late 2010s, where he apparently remains to this day (he’s apparently been on tour with 50 Cent for the last six months). According to his own Wikipedia page, after almost two decades as a professional recording artist, he’s never released a studio album.

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Uncle Murda, if not the work of actually sitting and listening to him. He has one of the great all-time monikers in rap history. I believe there’s a trunk in Uncle Murda’s attic, and if you should open it, a child’s ethereal tenor calls across the room to the heavens. His voice has always been weathered, ugly, abrasive, and perfect. That has never changed, and I wouldn’t say he has a single elite skill as a rapper. There isn’t an Uncle Murda hook, or punchline, or flow that stands out in my memory. But he was blessed with an unstoppable motor, and he’s completely and utterly shameless. So 19 years later, here we are.

The tradition of an end of the year recap in verse originated with Virginia's Mad Skillz, who made the Rap Up a delightful end-of-year tradition starting in 2002. But in 2014, without any apparent invitation or excuse, Uncle Murda jumped on Skillz’s corner and started making his own versions concurrently. Skillz ignored it until 2017 when he finally pushed back, eviscerating Murda with a diss track, but time comes for us all, and after an 18 year run, Skillz didn’t answer the bell at the end of 2021, leaving the role of rap’s annual griot to Unc. 

Murda said he started doing his own Rap Ups because he thought he could bring something that was missing to the table. He’s not exactly wrong. His Rap Ups were the “R-Rated Version,” while Mad Skillz delivered the PG-13. There is an interesting contrast between the two approaches to the same concept. Consider 2014, the first year both men tried their hand at the exercise. Skillz opens celebrating Lupita Nyong'o’s well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, reflects on Ellen’s much celebrated and incredibly corny Oscar selfie, and reports on who won the Super Bowl. Murda opens with a rumor that Diddy put his hands on Drake, claims that Troy Ave got ILoveMakonnen snuffed, and related a Chris Brown IG post where he claimed that his girl fucked Drake. Skillz was making fun time capsule recaps speaking to a monoculture in the dying moments of the idea as a possibility; Murda was pursuing a much slimmer demographic.

When we talk about the deleterious effects of the internet on society, we most often focus on young people: How social media and screen addiction is shaping the way children, our future, grapple with life. We don’t spend enough time considering the ways it affects people like 43-year-old Uncle Murda, who is most certainly a very on his phone type of older Guy. In the manner that turn-of-the-century college students once swapped out “The News” for John Stewart’s Daily Show, others have abandoned harsh reality for The Shade Room, a news outlet fed by an economy of Black celebrity gossip. It’s sports-adjacent and rap-adjacent and thirst trap-adjacent, a digital supermarket checkout tabloid with nearly 30 million subscribers.

In Uncle Murda’s hands, the Rap Up became a dark and disturbing recitation of which minor celebrities have beef, who was arrested, who may or may not have snitched, who cheated, and who played themselves in an Instagram story. It's a return to Hawthorne’s small town puritanical red letter justice in a digital age—rife with a 90s high school mean girl ruthlessness and a northeast Black conservative alpha male’s homophobia and misogyny. Unc released three (3!) installments of the Rap Up this year, which clock in at nearly 20 minutes total, and I can only describe the act of listening to it as having pure poison funneled down into your ear. There was a draft of this that recounted everything Murda said on all three tracks, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” style, for another three pages. But when it was done, I decided it was a) Very evil shit, and b) I couldn’t imagine Nina’s readers being invested in who Lori Harvey is currently fucking. 

Click on the YouTube links above and spend the next 20 minutes considering how Uncle Murda and those like him digest another horrendous year, as we draw ever closer to the end of the American experience—or don’t. Happy New Year! - Abe Beame

Sacramento, Ca.

DB.Boutabag - “Can’t Control It”

DB.Boutabag is keeping alive the tradition of the West Coast bop: the type of California-centric, turn-up music that somehow encapsulates the entire state in all its gold-rushed glory. Almost everything he raps over comes complete with the type of claps, snaps, and snares popular in dance rap. You could easily imagine him being playing during dance-offs in a Sacramento-based remake of Drumline.

Over the last four years, the South Sacramento rapper has been slowly building buzz, honing his hood-pep-rally sound with a staggering 10 mixtapes and a series of popular songs on YouTube. Yet it feels like DB.Boutabag has only now completely locked in and finally solved the equation of how to make the perfect Sacaramento house party music.

The best DB.Boutabag verses are quick and funny, like the type of raps you think up with your friends three beers deep in a desperate attempt to cure the malaise at some boring party. He’s never taking himself too seriously with lines like “skater boy Nike’s in this bitch, but I’m ballin,” or when he turns a stack of money into a phallic object in the video for “That One Thing.” Even his choice of lingo is absurd, referring to thousands of dollars as dog shit, slang that seemingly stems from Michigan. 

But the perfect DB.Boutabag song isn’t as cavalier as I’m making it sound. He’s nailed his style more recently with succinct hook-writing and an ability to create a more complete song than his contemporaries. His music is also just purely fun in a way a lot of the rap coming out of Stockton and the rest of Northern California just isn’t these days. 

“I keep dog shit on me, big shit poppin,” DB.Boutabag begins on “Can’t Control It.” The production, handled by RawMit, is definitely a DB.Boutabag type beat, but it’s a little slower than normal, with an R&B sample at its center and a subdued DB.Boutabag harmonizing with the production by then end of it. It’s further proof that he can be versatile while staying in his own lane and why investing in a unique sound ultimately pays off. Just ask Certified Trapper, who blew up last year by releasing DIY videos on YouTube of variations of the same stripped-down, clap-heavy song. DB.Boutabag is similarly carving out a niche in Northern California, quickly building an impressive catalog, paying homage to the greats and aligning himself with the future stars of SoCal rap. - Donald Morrison 

Birmingham, UK 

Marnz Malone - “Cold Hearted World 2”

Marnz Malone, aka Double M, may appear to be a cog in the machine. He’s part of the online cultural phenomenon featuring British rappers like OFB’s SJ and Liverpool’s Mazza popping off from a jail freestyle while behind bars. 

Releasing the right song at the right time to create a moment is never an easy task. When an artist is locked up, there is the risk that the attention economy can dwindle. No matter how talented they are, being in prison is a difficult hand to play. Eventually, someone else comes out with a hot song and people move on. 

Marnz Malone might be the exception. The North Birmingham rapper is currently serving a 11-year sentence for a firearm charge. Despite that, he’s signed a distribution deal, collaborated with West London’s talent London’s A2 Anti and used the profits of his stand-out project Maktub to host a giveaway for his Newtown home (as you can see in the “Cold Hearted World 2” music video.) Along with a dedicated management team, he’s accomplished from prison.

“Cold Hearted World 2” has similar framings from its prequel. mikeallure’s pensive trap beat is laced with sober piano keys and gives Marnz space to re-adopt bars as he does in the song’s beginning: “Bro I used to beg my mum for shoes but I know I got every color forces.” Marnz looks back to add further insight during this turbulent time: “God planned this for me, I don’t force it.”

There is no fluff, just diaristic entries of picking up bullet casings in daylight, to remembering your mum washing your clothes with the same bathwater that you bathed in. The system can surrender Double M’s liberty, but they can never stop the clocks nor his hustle. - Ethan Herlock

Long Beach, Ca. 

Top Rank Gang - “Mafia Bidness”

Rap groups are certainly not exclusive to LA, but some of the most fun rap to come out of the extended city over the past decade-plus comes from crews, oftentimes trickled down through gang culture. There was the moment Shoreline Mafia’s blend of Republican-shocking lean antics and dreary-eyed get money tactics made its way past UCLA frat parties and into the mainstream consciousness. The Stinc Team with the late Drakeo the Ruler and his brother Ralfy The Plug changed the entire sonics of the city and surrounding areas. The Baby Stone Gorillas are making real noise now. The Hoovers were stamping themselves as permanent fixtures on the LA rap scene, too, before some of their main players were incarcerated over the last few years.

But the music out of Long Beach’s crews was some of the original sound that stamped the LA area (we don’t need to detour through the history of Snoop and Warren G). And now, we have Top Rank Gang, a collective of rappers from Long Beach that have been 30 years in the making. 

TRG is one of the most notorious Asian gangs on the West Coast, with sets from Stockton to Fresno, Pomona to Long Beach. The Long Beach TRG set had a massive heyday in the 90s, but numbers dwindled after pointless racial wars with Sureño Long Beach gangs. The politics of it all don’t particularly matter, but they’re still on the scene today and the rap group that goes by the name of the collective has started to make waves with their music. They’ve been collaborating with some bigger names around LA, touring with Big Sad 1900, and their videos have been racking up views with strong engagement. 

No Days Off” has a real intimacy to the sound and shows the appeal. The first thing you hear is the “Saturday Love” sample, then two dogs appear with chains dangling around their necks before these goofy inked up guys with boy-ish faces start rapping. The swagger isn’t get it out the mud tough—it’s more of a rich, sunny, and luxurious, I hang with the white neighbors, but test me if you want type of vibe. 

The eccentricities strut through the screen like their goons would through enemy turf. Their flows blend together immaculately, with each pass off to the next member ramping up the energy. But it never reaches a climax, instead it steadily bubbles just beneath the surface. It’s a relaxed energy, like they’ve got enemies, but there’s really nothing to worry about. The material content of their raps and their style isn’t anything specifically new, but it’s a fun 3rd generation Shoreline take on Long Beach rap, and songs like these make them feel more approachable than they probably are in real life.  - Harley Geffner 

Tampa, Fla/Atlanta, GA. 

Kent Loon and Chester Watson - “Free YSL”

Over 50 songs bear the name, “Free YSL.” There is the would-be liberatory anthem from Kansas City’s SleazyWorld Go, two minutes of heartless slaughter which probably doesn’t help Young Thug’s odds of acquittal considering it comes from a project titled “Where The Shooters Be.” There is the auto-tune snake-organ funk banger from Milwaukee eccentric Certified Trapper, which to my ears has no connection to the ongoing trial of the Atlanta rap legend, Young Thug and his YSL crew. But Trapper is certainly a spiritual heir to Thug’s left-hand path prolificacy.

Michigan’s BFB Packman and Gizzle Gilliante wait till the end of their money-counting-in-a-brand-new-starter condo reverie to reference the Fulton County district attorney’s plot to use the rapper’s lyrics against him. Over a Pierre Bourne beat, UnoTheActivist channeled his own attempt to mirror the gravity-agnostic Easter pink Super Saiyan attack of vintage Thug, with a hook that just repeats “Free YSL” over and over. There is a salvo from Soundcloud abyss immortal Black Kray that sounds like it’s being rapped from the inside of the last level of a video game and broadcast over a GTL prison call. And we can’t ignore ANKLEJOHN”S Griselda-type driveby that shouts “Free Thugger” a few seconds in. 

The most popular of all might be Belgian rapper Hamza’s “Free YSL” which has over 20 million streams on Spotify alone. Don’t ask these ignorant American ears to explain what he’s saying, but I can tell you that he’s using a slatt-by-numbers Barter 6 flow. 

The latest addition to the Free YSL sub-genre comes from the Tampa and Georgia duo of Kent Loon and Chester Watson. Full disclosure: I work with both artists so my opinions are inherently biased. But even if I were not invested in the success of the Nü Age crew, I would be in favor of every single contribution to the “Free YSL” canon. In this particular one, the Monotone Samurai and Kent Loon (not Clark Kent) drop a tag-team levitation that prove why the rap duo is basically Plato’s perfect form—something that Thug and Rich Homie Quan confirmed once and for all on the Rich Gang project. 

As with every “Free YSL” song, this isn’t a broadside against the outlandish claims that District Attorney Fani Willis has thrown at Thug and practically everyone he ever called slime over the last dozen years. But it’s a reminder that as we speak, arguably the greatest rapper of the last decade, is being hauled into a grim Atlanta courthouse, and forced to fight for his life. Just last week, they were playing “Lifestyle” before the judge and jury, which is sort of like singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" on the way to the gallows. At one point, Thug’s attorney asked a Thug associate on the stand whether he had ever seen Serena Williams crip-walk (he replied “I don’t watch tennis”).

My point is that this entire situation is a politically motivated farce, helmed by a D.A. with national ambitions, who has overbooked and overcharged YSL simply because they are the most popular rap crew to emerge from Atlanta since Brick Squad. Whether or not you believe what’s being alleged inside the courtroom, the use of lyrics against a defendant is an affront to hip-hop, Black culture, and art itself. Using RICO statues to indict a hip-hop crew as a gang is a manipulation of language that erases generations of slang for insidious means.

When Drakeo was locked up for three years under similarly trumped up charges, we would talk constantly about his frustration that more rappers weren’t speaking up for him. As he saw it, if the state was willing to do this to him, they could do it to anyone. May there be another 50 of these songs released—until the title of them becomes a reality. - Jeff Weiss

Nina is an independent music ecosystem.

Join over 5000 artists, labels, and listeners using Nina to share their music, build their context and directly support artists.


Now Playing