Dustin Poirier hobbled in on crutches after way-too-many kicks made it tough to bend his right leg. He had stitches in his face, may have broken his left hand.
Season 2, episode 1 | “Alligator Man” | March 1
“Robbin’ season. Christmas approaches and everybody gotta eat.”
It didn’t take long for Atlanta’s season two to live up to its theme: robbin’ season. Off the rip, you just knew the two young boys were ’bout to hit a lick. The way they were talking in the apartment, from the special order they gave at the drive-thru. But really, the most dead giveaway is Tay-K’s “The Race” lyrics, Pop a n—– then I go out my way, being played as they completed their order.
Darius is right, though. Everybody gotta eat. Hence the guy in the fast-food spot running a holiday hustle and the two young men sticking up the place. The distraught young lady in the back seat is presumably a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only unbelievable thing from the opening scene is that no one got hit with a bullet (that we know of).
Elsewhere, even Earn gets robbed: An employee at the storage unit he sleeps in — remember he’s homeless — tells him he has to vacate and then proceeds to take a handful of Earn’s personal belongings. That isn’t much of a shock to Earn. Sleeping in a storage unit doesn’t lend itself to a long shelf life. But what is a shock is seeing that his cousin Paper Boi (who is on house arrest) and Darius aren’t on speaking terms. Never mind that he has the most awkward exchange of the entire episode when he calls Paper Boi’s girl “Regina” when her name is Tara. Earn is more concerned about why the two friends “don’t wanna talk” than about why they’re, in fact, not talking.
Nevertheless, leave it to Earn and Darius to produce a classic car scene. Darius is taking Earn to meet with his parole officer; this stems from when he was caught with marijuana after Paper Boi shot the guy at the end of last season’s first episode (“The Big Bang”) and him spending all of episode two in jail (“Streets On Lock”). Their first classic conversation occurred in last season’s “The Streisand Effect” when Darius told Earn how AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from breaking the all-time sex record. And that black people didn’t know who (the white) Steve McQueen is. This time around, however, Darius ignores Earn, saying his parents are going to visit his dying uncle in Florida. Instead, the exchange about “Florida Man” being the “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” who shoots unarmed black teens, kills flamingos, eats people’s faces and beats up people in hospitals is an instant classic exchange in a series with plenty. “Florida Man” is, in Darius’ world, a ploy by the government to keep black people from moving to Florida and/or registering to vote in the state. But “Florida Man” is a representation of outrageous yet very real stories that have arisen out of the Sunshine State this decade. It’s such an Atlanta conversation that you’re forced to say, “Well, you know, he might be on to something.”
The episode takes a dark turn, but at the same time becomes more illuminating, when Earn promises Alfred he’s going to visit Willie, played by Katt Williams. Judging from context clues, Willie is Paper Boi’s dad and Earn’s uncle. His girlfriend/live-in-rival, Yvonne, claims to have been kidnapped by Willie and is actually locked in a bedroom. Willie claims Yvonne stole $50 from him while he was asleep. She claims she didn’t, saying that Willie must have drunk it (he’s later seen sniffing coke in the kitchen). It’s also here we learn why the episode is titled “Alligator Man” — because Willie keeps a pet alligator, Coach, in his house. Yes, you read that right.
The cops eventually arrive. Both Yvonne and Willie try to downplay the situation, although Willie (as we can already tell) takes it too far. Earn’s attempts to make peace are unsuccessful. Willie says Earn’ll soon learn that “family is business.” Earn’s clap back is the most sobering revelation of the entire episode. But Earn and his uncle’s eventual heart-to-heart reveals two men struggling to get a grasp on life. Pride weighs down both men. “What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn says. “Someone everybody knew was smart. But ended up being a know-it-all, f— up that just let s— happen to him.”
A subplot to this episode is the reality of the unknown. We don’t know (yet) why Darius and Paper Boi aren’t talking. We know Paper Boi’s mother died — but we don’t know how Willie may have played a role in that. And we don’t fully know why Earn is holding an emotional grudge toward his Uncle Willie with regard to his mother. It’s part of the larger arc of this season. We know these characters. We know their hopes and dreams. We know their fears. We even know Darius’ deep-rooted conspiracy theories. But we still don’t know their entire story.
Maybe those answers will arise over the course of season two, but Willie gives Earn a gold-plated handgun (is it Chekhov’s?) that looks straight out of Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye and a piece of advice: “If you don’t wanna end up like me, get rid of that ‘chip on your shoulder’ s—. It’s not worth the time.” It’s an OG comedian/actor who had the world in his palms, but self-inflicted mistakes ruptured the potential he had in his hands — giving a current comedian/actor with nothing but green pastures ahead of him game he needs to survive not just the game but his own pitfalls. Earn also takes a framed picture of his Uncle Willie and mother before he leaves. Williams absolutely shines in this episode, adding to a very impressive 2018 for the controversial comedian that also includes a standout comedy special in Great America.
The episode ends on three separate notes: hilarious, comforting and similar. Hilarious because eventually Coach the Alligator makes his appearance. This allows Uncle Willie to peel out the back door with the fastest speed known to man. Not Usain-Bolt-in-the-Olympics speed, but run-from-the-police speed. Comforting because Paper Boi and Darius move toward peace. And similar because Earn leaves Paper Boi’s house still homeless. It’s darker in Atlanta, just as many predicted.
The hiatus lasted well over a year, but the wait is finally, nearly over. Atlanta, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning FX series starring renaissance man Donald Glover (“Earn”), Zazie Beetz (“Van”), Brian Tyree Henry (“Paper Boi”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Darius”), returns Thursday with the premiere of season two. It’s dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” a direct homage to ATL slang for the time of year when robberies tend to increase: during the holiday season.
“You might get your package stolen off your front porch. While we were there, my neighbor got her car stolen from her driveway. It’s a tense … time,” Stephen Glover, executive producer and writer, said at the Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena in January. “Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”
There really were no terrible moments from season one — the episodes truly range from “good” to “phenomenal.” That being said, a power ranking is in order. And after reading ours, the real fun arrives with your rankings. Hit us up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and let us know where you stand. Enough talking, though. Without further ado …
10. Episode 4 — “The Streisand Effect”
This is the episode where we meet Zan, the social media troll who gets the best of Paper Boi after a series of tweets, Instagram posts and videos sullying his good name in these Atlanta streets. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that illustrates how much people invest in social media these days. But the true crutch of the episode lies with Darius and Earn.
AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. By ’69, he was already No. 3 on the all-time list. By ’71, he would’ve beat that boy, fa sho. — Darius
Earn needs money because he’s broke (as hell). Darius takes on a journey to get money that involves a thrift store, pawning off a sword, and a Cane Corso dog. The only catch is Earn won’t get the money until September, prompting Earn to utter one of the more sobering realities in the first season: Poor people don’t have time to invest because they’re too busy not trying to be poor. A dope episode, but in comparison to the rest of the episodes — well, someone had to finish in 10th.
9. Episode 1 — “The Big Bang”
This starts out with a bang, quite literally, as Paper Boi shoots a guy who kicked a side rearview mirror from his car. It was an example of how pride becomes the downfall for so many. It’s in this episode that we meet the major players. Earn’s broke and living part time with his girlfriend, Vanessa, and their daughter. Paper Boi is selling drugs and trying to get his rap career poppin’. And Darius is just Darius. And to know Darius is to love Darius. Is Earn opportunistic with regard to trying to get on with his cousin, who has a hit record in the A? Of course he is, but as we’d come to find out, he does have his cousin’s best interests at heart.
On the lowest of keys, though, the best part of this episode is Earn’s reaction to Dave (a white guy) saying the N-word when describing a party he’d attended, and how Earn used the white guy’s ignorance against him and also tried to hustle him out of money to get Paper Boi’s song played on the radio. When asked to tell the same story again, but this time around Paper Boi and Darius, Dave not surprisingly omitted the N-word.
8. Episode 5 — “Nobody Beats The Biebs”
We have Darius who goes to a shooting range. Everyone looks at him crazy when his target practice is a dog and not a human. He doesn’t understand how shooting a dog is considered inhumane when shooting a human is completely normal. The situation becomes so heated that the owner points a gun at Darius telling him to leave. We could get into a lot of discussion about Darius’ experience in this episode alone — it’s harrowing. At least he made us laugh, though. Meanwhile, across town, Earn and Paper Boi attend a celebrity basketball game. Earn is mistaken by Janice for another black guy she knew (who she says ruined her career). Earn uses the perks for a while.
It’s Paper Boi who is forced to deal with Black Justin Bieber. Now I’m not saying Black Bieber is seeing eye to eye with Dave Chappelle’s “Black Bush” skit, but it’s damn close if it isn’t. We see Black Bieber doing all sorts of outlandish things: urinating in public, mushing a reporter in the face and generally acting out. Everyone thinks it’s adorable. “He’s just trying to figure it out,” the singer Lloyd says in a brief cameo. The twist is, of course, he’s black. Paper Boi and Black Bieber eventually end up fighting, but Black Bieber wins everyone back. He turns his backward cap forward. He apologizes and performs a new song right there at the news conference. Everyone instantly forgives Black Bieber while Paper Boi stands in the back wondering what the hell just happened. It’s an interesting case study: white celebrity behavior vs. black celebrity behavior.
7. Episode 2 — “Streets On Lock”
The criminal justice system is addressed here — in its own special Atlanta way. Earn and Paper Boi are still in holding following the shooting. While Paper Boi is bailed out at the beginning of the episode, Earn is locked up until Van bails him out at the end.
“You been arrested for weed. It’s not that bad, right?” — Earn
“Well, it’s not as good as not getting arrested for weed, man.” — Paper Boi
Earn sees what it’s like from the inside. The arguments, the stories of innocence, the mentally unstable who receive anything but rehabilitation, the violence and even the drama. Earn gets a crash course in the prison-industrial complex. On the outside, Paper Boi and Darius celebrate temporary freedom with a stop at Atlanta’s famed J.R. Crickets, where they’re given lemon pepper wet chicken wings. This episode became such a hot topic that Crickets actually added lemon pepper wet to its real-life menu afterward. Paper Boi also comes to understand how his actions affect the youth: He sees kids playing with toy guns, saying they’re mimicking him — a subtle reference to Tamir Rice.
6. Episode 3 — “Go For Broke”
Or, as it will always be remembered, the Migos episode. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff guest star as dope boys copping work from Paper Boi and Darius. The scene is hilarious, as the two attempt to get out of the situation with both the money and their lives intact. Elsewhere, Earn takes Van out to eat. Earn’s broke, so he’s expecting to see a happy hour menu, only the restaurant has recently been redesigned and everything on the menu is way too rich for Earn’s blood. Thanks to a waitress who upsells him on food and drinks all night, Earn has to call Paper Boi — in the middle of a drug deal, mind you — to wire him money so he can pay for the bill. Earn’s poverty hits home on a spiritual level. Especially when he calls his bank the next morning to report his debit card stolen.
5. Episode 10 — “The Jacket”
Here’s the thing to know about season one. The first half was dope, but the second half is incredible. So much so that the finale, a great episode that really brings a lot of things into perspective, is only No. 5. Earn loses his jacket at a house party and uses Paper Boi’s Snapchat. He eventually figures out he left the jacket in an Uber. The Big 3 of Earn, Paper Boi and Darius drive out to get it, only to find themselves involved in a police sting that leaves the Uber driver dead — with Earn’s jacket on.
We eventually learn why it was so important to retrieve the coat. Earn is homeless. He needed the jacket because he believed a set of keys were in the pocket. The keys unlocked a storage unit where he was spending many nights. The finale is a power episode about the societal trauma of being black in America. Only hours after the same day they were pulled over by the feds and watched a man die, Earn is cooking for Van and their daughter. Pride, the same pride we saw on display in the first episode, won’t let Earn sleep at Van’s another night without being able to fully provide for his family.
4. Episode 6 — “Value”
Prior to this, we had never seen one character carry an episode. And prior to this, we didn’t really know Van. Much like Earn, Van’s trying to figure out a lot of things. Many of which were only compounded by the most uncomfortable moment of the entire season: her dinner date with old friend Jayde. Van is more of the blue-collar, just-trying-to-provide-for-my-daughter type, while Jayde is the type to post her meals on Instagram and “date” NBA and NFL players. After a falling-out at dinner, the two make up and get high at the top of a parking deck.
That’s all well and good, but Van has a drug test the next day. The most unusual and surreal scene of the entire season is Van frantically searching for clean urine — going so far as to slice open her daughter’s dirty diapers to get it. She goes full Breaking Bad in the kitchen, and it works — until it doesn’t. Van gets all the way to the goal line and fumbles. The condom with the urine, literally, pops in her face. She admits to smoking weed. She’s fired. And now both parents are without a source of consistent income. If she wasn’t already, Van instantly became a fan favorite after this episode. Sometimes you just have to get high to funnel out the nonsense in your life. And sometimes you do have to go to desperate measures to pass a drug test.
3. Episode 9 — “Juneteenth”
A lot of people put this in their top two — and I’m not mad at that. The episode starts off with Earn waking up beside another woman, only to realize he’s late to meet up with Van. She picks him up outside the unnamed woman’s apartment and the two ride off, in virtual silence, to a Juneteenth party her ostentatious friend Monique is throwing with her annoyingly hilarious white husband who’s too woke for his own good.
Van and Earn front like they’re married in an effort to look better in front of new company. But it’s impossible in a house full of characters — and a house full of black workers. In fact, the only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it. The couple is outed when two valets recognize Earn as Paper Boi’s manager. Monique frowns upon his line of work, causing Craig to check Monique, but by then it’s too late. Earn leaves in disgust with Van not far behind. The lesson? Never sell your soul for an opportunity that wasn’t meant for you to begin with.
Fun Fact: If you go back and watch the episode, you’ll find Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! album cover in Craig’s study. We just didn’t know what it was at the time.
2. Episode 8 — “The Club”
Now if we’re talking my favorite episode, it’s this one. Classic Atlanta in every sense of the words. The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun. The celebrities are paid to be there. For those in gen pop (aka, non-VIP) it’s all a game of territory — sections are the highest form of real estate, and bottles are the highest form of cultural currency. Everyone’s just trying to one-up each other.
“F— the club!” — Paper Boi
We really remember this episode for three solid reasons. One, for Marcus Miles’ invisible car. Two, for Earn’s unsuccessful attempt to get their club appearance money from a snake promoter (and then Paper Boi roughing up that same party promoter). And three, for Darius leaving the club after he wasn’t allowed back in the same section the bouncer saw him leave. Darius played the situation perfectly. He went home to eat cereal and play video games.
1. Episode 7 — “B.A.N.”
An episode so good that even the commercials, in actuality part of the episode, deserve their own separate piece. Seriously, the Swisher Sweets and Dodge Charger commercials made this an instant classic in black television history. As for the episode itself, Paper Boi sits down with Dr. Debra Holt on Black American News’ Montague. After some comments he made on Twitter about Caitlyn Jenner, Paper Boi is accused on the show of being transphobic. He claims he isn’t, saying he doesn’t have anything against the community. Although he’s accused of it, Paper Boi says he never said the trans community shouldn’t have rights. But he finds it hard to fully support that community’s call for freedom when people who look like him are still fighting for theirs. Much to the chagrin of the host, the two come to an understanding.
The “trans-racial” story runs away with MVP honors in this episode as it follows Antoine Smalls, an obviously black male who identifies as Harrison Booth, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. He’s invited on the show, where he quickly shocks the host and guest. Smalls says he feels deeply ridiculed by black people for not being more understanding of his lifestyle. But he’s also quick to call gay marriage an “abomination.” The hypocrisy is enough to send an already tickled Paper Boi over the edge in laughter, while Montague and Dr. Holt are left to wonder, whereas the rest of us knew, almost as soon as the credits began rolling — this was Atlanta’s magnum opus.
Many of us remember the high-flying, 6-foot-6 phenom who took the NBA by a storm that could only be known as “Vinsanity.” From his jaw-dropping dunks to his captivating energy, Vince Carter’s journey is one of epic proportions. And so much of it is captured in The Carter Effect.
The documentary, directed by Sean Menard and executive produced by LeBron James, catapults viewers back in time to explore how the eight-time NBA All-Star played a major role in solidifying the Toronto Raptors’ notoriety in the NBA and creating a basketball culture that put the city on the map.
Friday night, Uninterrupted teamed up with Beats by Dre for a screening of the film, followed by a panel discussion featuring Menard and executive producers Maverick Carter, Future The Prince and Tristan Thompson. Cleveland Cavaliers forward and Toronto native Thompson explained just how influential Carter was for both him and his city growing up.
“Vince was our Michael Jordan,” he said.
The film, which features Tracy McGrady, Thompson, Carter and Toronto native and rapper Drake (who is also one of the film’s executive producers), captures the intoxicating thrill Carter’s arrival brought to a hockey town whose basketball team was seen as a joke amid a league of popular teams in American cities.
Throughout the film, Carter discusses his arrival in Toronto, his legendary win in the 2000 slam dunk contest, his role in making the city a destination for athletes and celebrities and his heartbreaking departure. All of it is placed in the context of Toronto’s contributions to music, art and culture. The lesson: Carter is a large part of the reason that we take the city seriously today. Future The Prince truly drove that point home, telling the audience there might not be a Drake if Carter hadn’t come first.
“If you had told me 20 years ago that a half-white Jewish kid from Toronto who sings and raps would be as big as he is today,” he said. “I would say there’s no way.”
LOS ANGELES — At the intersection of hoops and hip-hop, one thing has always been the case. “We all think we supposed to be in the league,” the legendary MC Snoop Dogg professes, “just like all NBA players think they supposed to be rappers.”
So the godfather of West Coast rap approached Adidas about creating a special event for 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And at #747WarehouseSt — the brand’s two-day All-Star experience, which mixes fashion, sport and music — his vision came to life, via the first annual East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop celebrity game. The two teams featured only artists, and were coached by none other than Snoop and Atlanta hip-hop star 2 Chainz.
“What happened was, I was sitting back at home watching the [official] celebrity game, trying to figure out a way to put something together … where we could have a good time, and it was only rappers,” said Snoop at news conference before Friday’s game — which he pulled up to an hour late with his fellow coach 2 Chainz, who came with a lit blunt in hand as well as his 4-year-old French Bulldog, Trappy Doo. “So I hit my nephew 2 Chainz up, and told him what I was thinking. He came in with a few ideas, and we matched these ideas together.”
— Aaron Dodson (@aardodson) February 16, 2018
Snoop’s roster boasted the likes of David Banner, Chris Brown, K Camp, Chevy Woods, and himself, of course, while 2 Chainz rolled with a squad that included Trinidad James, Young M.A., Wale and Lil Dicky. Originally listed as a player for the East squad, Quavo of the Migos pulled out at the last minute to take his talents to the NBA’s official Celebrity All-Star Game, during which he dazzled the crowd with an MVP performance.
“My roster was based sheerly off the way artists walked. If you’re onstage going back and forth, there’s a sort of athleticism to it,” said 2 Chainz, who served as strictly the coach of the East, having broke his leg last July. Snoop’s general manager skills followed a more traditional scouting approach. “A lot of the people on my team, I played with him, or I’ve played against them, in [other] celebrity games,” he said. “I’m just a fan of rappers that love the ball.”
— adidas (@adidas) February 17, 2018
The rappers-turned-hoopers took to the multicolored court, named after Pharrell, in custom Adidas jerseys that all appropriately featured the word “Rapper” on the back. Actor/comedian Michael Rapaport and rapper Fat Joe served as the AND1 Mixtape-inspired on-court commentators of the contest, from which Snoop’s West team emerged victorious. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. even made an appearance on the court. He’s a Nike-endorsed athlete, but on this afternoon, he couldn’t resist experiencing this cultural moment, brought to the people by Adidas.
A Toronto to New York flight usually takes less than an hour. But don’t expect Drake to stand in line at customs to be in New York this weekend as the Grammys return to Manhattan for the first time in 15 years. For the first time since 2008 — the year before his genre-bending third mixtape, So Far Gone, altered hip-hop’s sound, structure and release pattern — Drake will not be an official part of Grammy festivities. In recent times, music’s biggest night and one of music’s biggest names haven’t exactly seen eye to eye.
Drake’s 2017 More Life was not submitted for 2018 Grammy consideration. According to Billboard’s anonymous source “close to the nomination process,” the decision was Drake’s.
The 35-time nominee has won (only) three times. Drake captured the last two for the huge sales/radio/video/streaming smash “Hotline Bling” and later took to his OVO Sound show on Apple’s Beats 1 to voice frustration. “Even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song, the only category they can manage to fit me in is a rap category. Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past, or because I’m black, I can’t figure out why,” he said. “I won two awards last night, but I don’t even want them. … It feels weird for some reason.”
There’s a possibility that he’s still in his feelings a year later. He kind of made his statement with the recent Scary Hours, a duo of songs. The bouncy, anthemic and A-side-ish “God’s Plan” is soon to be a No. 1 pop hit. It and “Diplomatic Immunity” — patented, introspective, sans hook — end Drake’s self-imposed musical sabbatical.
In the nearly a year since “getting back to his regular life,” hip-hop continued to be music’s trendsetter. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z were the authors of the year’s most analyzed and celebrated projects — records that dealt with self-atonement and generational and emotional dispositions. Migos and Cardi B dominated airwaves with monster records. Tyler, the Creator dropped a career-defining number. Bruno Mars cemented himself as pop culture’s king. And Toronto’s newest wunderkind, Daniel Caesar, emancipated another layer of The 6’s musical identity with Freudian. The timing of Hours’ release, a week to the day that Grammys weekend kicked off, wasn’t random. Nothing Drake does ever is.
“I’m not sure he’s trying to shake anybody at the Grammys, but I do think what he’s saying is, ‘I’m recharged,’ ” said longtime New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica, “Like, ‘That’s cool. Have your party. But I’m coming.’ I assume what he’s saying is ‘The summer is mine.’ ”
In the coming months, rumors of a new Drake album will become reality. He’s been dealing with whether to stay in constant pursuit of immortality, or to fall back and let music figure out how to operate without him. The clues to this tug of war are in his own music, hidden in plain sight.
In his decade-long drive to reach rap’s Mount Olympus, Drake has become the most successful post-808s & Heartbreaks artist. He has best synthesized the DNA of hip-hop and R&B to embody an unfiltered sense of emotion. After So Far Gone’s runaway success, Drake’s mesh of singing and rapping was diagnosed in influential circles as a detriment to rap’s brashness, and/or as a flavor of the moment — nothing sustainable. This made Drake not only an eternal brooder but also (even with his relentless success) an underdog attempting to plant his OVO flag in the center of hip-hop. “[Drake was] driven by feelings,” said Caramanica, “pioneering or popularizing a musical approach that not everybody at that time was on board with.”
Underdog Drake, though, opens the doors for King Drake. From February 2015 to March 2017, Drake released four projects: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, What A Time To Be Alive with Future, Views and More Life. He embarked on two marathon tours: Summer Sixteen, with Future, and his international leg, the Boy Meets World Tour. Drake was also involved in rap’s most publicized beef since the days of Jay-Z and Nas. Meek Mill vs. Drake was a battle the More Life rapper won, but its aftereffects haunt him.
Drake has been enjoying a tidal wave of success. His fingerprints are all over the musical spectrum, with a king’s ransom of hits: his first No. 1 as a lead artist in “One Dance”; its spiritual twin, “Controlla”; the Tyra Banks-assisted “Child’s Play”; DJ Khaled’s “For Free”; and Rihanna’s international smash “Work.” Statistically, Drake had no peers with his 2016 behemoth Views — he is the first to crack a billion streams on Apple Music.
By his own admission, life at the top of rap’s food chain is exhausting. Sorry if I’m way less friendly, he noted on “Work,” I got n—as trying to end me. “To be completely honest with you, I was having trouble figuring myself in rap at the time,” he said last year. “I was a very defensive individual just coming off the situations I’d come off of.”
I’m not a one-hit wonder, they know all my stuff/ You let me turn into the n—a that you almost was/ I done see a lot of s— and I done been in things/ And I never started nothin’, I just finish things — Drake on French Montana’s “No Shopping” (2016)
So, whether it’s due to Views’ lukewarm critical and social media reception, the anxieties of fame, the claims of his experimentation with ghostwriting or a potluck of the three, it can seem like Drake never had an opportunity to flourish in his global success — even as he’s all smiles courtside.
This bellicose introspection has been noted by those closest to him. His producer/creative partner, Noah “40” Shebib, constantly reminded Drake of this moody, at times even messy persona during Views’ recording sessions. “ was like, ‘Man you really sound aggressive and defensive,’ ” Drake recalled. And Drake’s mother saw the change in her otherwise jovial only child. In her message at the end of 2017’s “Can’t Have Everything,” she wondered whether Drake’s new alienated attitude would “hold him back in life.”
Nowhere did his mental merry-go-round present itself in more contradictory terms than on More Life. With nearly 90 million global streams in its first 24 hours on Apple Music and 61.3 million global streams in the same time frame on Spotify, Life was more critically embraced than Views. Drake had seemingly entered a new chapter: applying pressure on rap’s jugular. N—-s see me in person/ First thing they say is, ‘I know you need a break,’ he rhymes on “Sacrifices.” Hell, nah, I feel great/ Ready now, why wait?
Between Jan. 21, 2017, when he recorded “Sacrifices,” and Life’s release on March 18, Drake’s mentality seemed to change. His breaking point arrived on Life’s melancholy “Do Not Disturb.” He reminisced on the Views era: Yeah, ducked a lot of spiteful moves/ I was an angry youth when I was writing Views, he confessed. Saw a side of myself that I just never knew/ I’ll probably self-destruct if I ever lose/ But I never do.
“Disturb” wasn’t just Life’s final song. It was the last song he recorded for the project — a bon voyage to rap, a la Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer.” More importantly, the curtain call held the album’s most important revelation. Take summer off, ’cause they tell me I need recovery/ Maybe gettin’ back to my regular life will humble me/ I’ll be back in 2018 to give you the summary … More Life.
“Everybody who has the throne loses the throne. That’s just the definition of the throne. It’s got nothing to do with Jay [Z], [Kanye West], Drake or any individual,” said Caramanica. “Rather than continue to pump out music and sort of be in perpetual competition, the healthiest thing to do was to step away.”
Drake, in essence, dropped More Life and went on about living his. There were no videos from the project, nor was there a need to rush out singles. As a result, Drake’s 430-week run of at least one song on the Billboard Hot 100 — a run, by context, that spanned all but 124 days of Barack Obama’s tenure as president — was snapped. He let go. Almost as if to say, “I’ve done this at such a high level for such a long time. I’m confident enough to walk away. I need to walk away.”
There was his short-lived fling with Jennifer Lopez, a romance Drake characteristically translated to his music. He paid homage to his Toronto superstar prophyte Vince Carter in a candid sit-down with basketball stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh. He further embedded himself with his hometown Toronto Raptors by co-designing the team’s City Edition jerseys. Drake donated $200,000 to Hurricane Harvey victims, and tragedy struck even closer to home as he served as pallbearer at the funeral of his friend Anthony “Fif” Soares.
Drake’s vow of a 2018 “summary” has interesting timing. He returns at a time when his two most high-profile associates-turned-competitors, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, are celebrated for projects (both of which released after More Life) that largely helped shape the conversation in hip-hop last year. Both DAMN. and 4:44 are nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. “The type of record that Jay made can only be made by someone who is middle-aged and reflective,” Caramanica said, “[whereas] Kendrick’s [project] is political, socially aware, religiously invested. It’s a much more earthy, grounded endeavor. It’s just not what Drake does.”
Maybe. At 31, Drake’s portfolio continues to expand. The most successful rapper 35 and under/ I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under, he waxed on 2016’s “Weston Road Flows.” That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded. Whether 35 is a hard date is a question better left for the year 2021. For now, as he said last year, leaving music is off in the distance. “But,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I do plan on expanding — to take six months or a year and do some great films.”
Since the turn of the century, Pharrell, Kanye West and Drake represent the holy trinity of songcraft. While the (warranted) debate rages about whether, in fact, Drake has a classic album to his name, there is no debate about his ability to shift conversations and birth new dialogues. Drake’s credibility lives and dies on him being Drake: the emo, wickedly selfish yet fiercely loyal, boastful, successfully paranoid extroverted introvert and modern-day Billy Dee Williams who can’t seem to find love in any of the strip clubs he frequents.
“I think if you look at earlier artists who have some version of the throne, where they may have gone wrong is chasing a younger sound when they were trying to fit in a place where they didn’t naturally fit in,” said Caramanica. “My hope is that Drake will be astute enough to not do that.”
Hip-hop has always been a culture of many melding ingredients — The Lyricist, The DJ, The B-Boy and The Graffiti Artist — all pieces of a movement created in the ’70s. And as much as the culture has changed, so have its components. They have grown and blossomed and blurred the lines with many other genres.
Enter DJ Set Free, the Bronx, New York-born, Queens, New York- and Philly-raised DJ who was signed to the infamous Tommy Boy Records in 1997 as a member of a group named Deadly Snakes. He was also one of the label’s beat makers. One short year later, he was working for AND1 as its director of entertainment marketing. One day while watching a VHS tape of Rafer Alston playing at Rucker Park, he turned down the sound as he normally did and started mixing some records when he suddenly had an epiphany. Later that year, The And1 Mixtape Vol. 1. was released.
The groundbreaking streetball series mixing hip-hop with ostentatious displays of skill became the blueprint for future NBA players such as Jarrett Jack, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Durant and countless others. Jack remembers pooling his money with a friend to buy one of the Volumes and watching it every day after school and practicing and mimicking the moves he saw on the VHS tape. After working on six of the 10 volumes and inspiring a generation of future basketball players, the marketing executive moved on to his next creation, The Compound, a studio, incubator and creative space for his marketing firm, The Oval Co.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “compound” is to put together (parts) so as to form a whole: Combine compound ingredients. In 2007, when Free was consulting and collaborating with companies such as EA Sports, Universal Records and Nike’s LeBron 5 and 6 sneakers, he starting calling his music studio The Compound. He also started to incorporate action figures, art and video games into his work — the methodology was to build a playground for creativity across multiple artistic genres. “Music studios are boring, nothing stimulating to look at, just plain walls, soundboards and big equipment. In photography studios, all you have are lights and white backgrounds. Why not have a place that intrigues and stimulates with art, visuals, and sounds?” he said.
The Compound was originally located in Southwest Philadelphia, but three years later, Free and his wife Liza decided that a relocation to New York was the best choice for their growing endeavor. They choose the South Bronx as The Compound’s new home. Free believed it was symbolic to bring his studio and his interpretation of the genre’s evolution and growth to the birthplace of hip-hop. Walking into The Compound is like a Hypebeast’s dream come true: a wall full of Kaws toys, along with the KAWS x Air Jordan 4 sneakers, basketball jerseys signed by Allen Iverson, Shumpert, John Starks and an Akai MPC 3000 production center signed by The Alchemist, 88-Keys, Prince Paul, DJ Green Lantern and others, are just a few of the gems you see at first glance.
One of the oldest sayings in hip-hop is that “rappers want to be ballers and ballers want to be rappers.” Ask Free his most memorable memory in The Compound and he’ll say, “Hands down, it was one night when Brooklyn rapper Sandman, Yasiin Bey [Mos Def] and Iman Shumpert and me were just hanging out. I was playing with some beats and a cypher broke out. First Sandman went in the booth and dropped a hot verse. Not to be outdone, Yasiin Bey went next and set fire to the mic. Next then went Shumpert, and no one expected much, and he proved everyone wrong. He went on to hold his own with two veteran lyricists and earn their respect on the mic.”
When asked about his next big thing, Free just grinned and said that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the AND1 mixtapes and something game-changing is in the works.
Patrol Officer Quincy Iverson The Man on the street 26 years in uniform (retired)
“I get that hate from both sides I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”“I get that hate from both sides, I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”
When the lieutenant knocked on the door for the background check, Quincy Iverson was blasting N.W.A. through his stereo speakers and drinking his second 40-ounce of the day. He was four months out of the Army, a newlywed, working as a Sears carpet cleaner and in need of a better job. Iverson let the white cop in and turned down the music.
Three decades later, Iverson still isn’t sure how he got hired by the Akron Police Department. He had a juvenile record from teenage stunts like stealing from the mall. He flunked eighth grade after a house fire forced him to relocate to a hostile neighborhood and fight his way home most days. At 5-foot-5½, he worried about meeting the height requirement. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper, not a cop. “But the grace of God, some way, somehow, they hired me,” Iverson said.
Before retiring in September, Iverson, 50, spent 26 years as a patrol officer on the same hardscrabble streets where he grew up, got married and raised his own three children. Akron’s population of 198,000 is 30 percent black and has been declining since tire manufacturers such as Goodyear and Firestone began moving factories elsewhere. The poverty rate (26 percent) and murders (30 in 2016) are rising. The police force of 450 officers is about 20 percent black. Despite Akron’s problems, Iverson reps his city as hard as native son LeBron James has. He can hardly walk a block without someone giving him some dap or a hug — and he’s not going anywhere.
Iverson spent his entire police career on the frontlines, riding in a patrol car, responding to trouble of all kinds. He’s grateful he never had to fire his weapon, although he was shot at several times. He’s arrested more young brothers than he can remember, including some who thanked him years later. Iverson often felt tugged in opposite directions by his loyalty to the black community and his responsibility to his job. It’s the same mix of emotions he felt over the police killing of Tamir Rice, 40 miles up the road in Cleveland. He was saddened by another black life snuffed out, and disagreed with how the white officer rushed up to 12-year-old Tamir in his patrol car, rather than checking out the situation more carefully. But Iverson also knew that if the only information he received on a call was black male with a handgun, and that suspect made one wrong move, “the kid probably would have got it. He reaches, I don’t have a split second to say, ‘Hopefully this gun ain’t real.’ How Scarface say, you only got a minute to pray and a second to die? It’s a bad get-down, bruh, either way.”
Rap has always been Iverson’s oxygen. He started performing in junior high school and was inspired by lyrical pioneers such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. His crew gained some local fame, but a rapper in Akron before the internet, and more than a decade before Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Ohio on the hip-hop map, had little chance of going national. And Iverson’s day job didn’t help matters, once N.W.A. F’d tha Police and rap became dominated by those who broke the law, not enforced it. Iverson concealed his identity behind a rap name, the Copley Road Bully, that combined his neighborhood and his childhood misbehavior, and he never stopped writing lyrics, making beats and recording songs.
The Undefeated asked Iverson to describe, through his music, his career on the police force. And we followed him with cameras through Akron’s streets, from his favorite breakfast diner to the family gathering spot of his sister’s house, to document Iverson’s story of being “too black for the badge, too blue for the ’hood.”
On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.
The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.
For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.
The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.
“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.
The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.
Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.
But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.
Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.
The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.
While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.
“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.
Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.
“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”
Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.
“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.
There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.
And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.
The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”