Kingface Mixtape: Outcry

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every hip-hop fan knows the unique exhilaration of hearing a favorite rapper yell, scream, or wail on a track. while contemporary rappers continue to innovate the various cries we hear across hip-hop, there is no city crying out like Los Angeles.

warbles, groans, screams, yelps, and whispers are just a few of the sounds you’ll find in the plethora of exciting new hip-hop coming out of the city, from the party screeches of Shoreline Mafia to the chillingly depressed howls of 03 Greedo. over the past few years, many hip-hop listeners and critics have become obsessed with Greedo, Shoreline, and a deep lineup of young artists from Los Angeles including Drakeo the Ruler, Rucci, Azjah, Ron-Ron the Producer, and SG. the emergent scene has already become known as a true renaissance.

i’m interested in the various poetics of crying out: what happens when one noise can mediate and communicate some of the most intense emotions?

one only gathers the bubble of air into their throat because something has handed them a weapon too dangerous or lovely to keep in their hands. outcry is a triptych: feeling, noise, memory. its stakes are often more than individual––lurking in these moments of extreme affect are the significances of history, power, and memory.

i. feeling

the rapper Azjah’s voice sends a precarious shiver through my shoulders toward my neck. it is a delicate balance of satisfaction, pain, and anxiety. on her 2019 single “Spotlight”, the Princess of Compton spits her chorus in a distressed tone with chilling howls for ad-libs. as the StreetsAndTrickey beat bounces effortlessly into claps with minimal background keys, these howls mark the most significant moments of Azjah’s emotional performance.

when she says all the fake ones so damn crooked , she moans so! behind the line in an almost exasperated defeat, just before declaring triumph: yeah you in the spotlight, i took it . in these exhilarating moments of emotional complexity, Azjah achieves an aesthetic all of her own while tapping into some of the best stylistic impulses of her contemporaries.

the song “No Feelings” finds Azjah sipping from a styrofoam cup with her brother’s name on it: #FREECHOLO. it’s a harrowing reminder that too many Black folks and an unconscionable amount of Black rappers in LA are sitting in bars. in the wake of such violence, Azjah declares an end to feelings: i was in my feelings, had to stop that shit / that rolley bling i cop that bitch .

feeling comes to us in multiple ways, but music speaks to the body before it is registered by our consciousness, coming to us like instinct. it is these moments of affect, moments known all too well by those whose bodies are criminalized––a stomach dropping in fear, a chest shaking with anger––that you can hear in Azjah’s music. even when she’s trying to escape her own feelings, her stone-skipping flow comes as polished as a poem and as raw as a scream.

ii. noise

screams are timeless. i reflect on this while listening to 03 Greedo, the legendary Gardena-born and Watts-bred rapper who was sent back to prison last year. like Azjah, 03 Greedo has a knack for moaning ad-libs, but he also has a signature habit of elongating the ends of his lines from croons toward primal screams. it’s a haunting gesture that enriches every Greedo song and underscores his choice to call his catalogue “pain music.”

sometimes, crying out in bursts of laughter and fits of joy can be freedom. other times, it is the freedom that marks unfreedom, the free expression of that pain which has restrained you, like how all the first gangsta rap songs specifically decry the violence of the police. the noise created can’t be ignored; it reverberates unforgettable through history.

it takes me through time. when Azjah and 03 howl, i hear Abbey Lincoln’s chilling screams in her 1960 bebop duet with Max Roach from his album We Insist! . for Roach and Lincoln, freedom, like screaming, is an act in three parts—thus the title of their duet, “The Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace.”

on “Prayer”, Lincoln releases unshaped cries into the frantic percussion of Roach’s drumming. you can hear the pain of the oppressed (the album is especially concerned with transatlantic slavery and South African apartheid) like a ghost howling through her open mouth, but you can also sense the deep spiritual and emotive power of her cries. it’s uncanny how similar her vocalizations sound to Greedo’s painful croon.

on “Protest”, Lincoln completely lets go. she smashes and shrieks with her voice, tearing the song into shifting sensations of anger and grief. in this section, she’s shrieking for real—a scream that would not only haunt jazz history but her own history as an artist.

these screams create vivid dimensions of lived trauma, harrowing loss, and unrestrained musicianship. both jazz and gangsta rap are primarily affective languages, even if Roach and Lincoln’s politically charged duet seems a far cry (no pun intended) from 03 Greedo and Azjah’s gangsta ballads.

the similar and differing aesthetics of these artists’ screams underscore the importance of memory to a poetics of outcry: when LA’s youngest rappers are taking hip-hop into the future, you can still hear the past as clear as day.

finishing his verse on Drakeo the Ruler’s “Out the Slums” with an ominous bar, Greedo promises to fully bring the past into all his utterances:

now watch a ghost on your stage, stuck again / here I am, here I am

iii. memory

what’s remembered is now. i remember learning to jerk in 2019; it was the New Boyz, not Lil Wayne, who convinced me to buy my first pair of skinny jeans. for a time, my brother and i would spend all day watching videos of LA dancers jerkin’. while Audio Push, the New Boyz, and many young Black folks affiliated with gangs were pushing this aesthetic from the Inland Empire, the four members of Pink Dollaz were tearing up Inglewood.

two of those members, twins from birth, now go by Cam & China. their single “Cereal” is a showcase of everything that’s incredible about the pair: their unbelievably tangible chemistry, knack for humorous insults, and indelible performance energy. on “Cereal”, this energy becomes a wave of powerfully-roared lines that read like threats at the end of their bars, almost cousins to the growls of Meek Mill. they spit, money talking, boy you outta pocket, before full-throttle shouting better watch the way you spend it !

while the renaissance moves at full speed, Cam & China hold the keys to the city’s memory, continuing the brilliant outcries of Pink Dollaz long after jerkin’ lost popularity.

all cries help us remember. it’s why it feels impossible to write about screaming without talking about Rodney King, the Sacramento native who was the victim of brutal public assault by the Los Angeles Police Department on March 3, 1991, whose screams were heard and recorded harrowingly by a large public audience. it’s why Elizabeth Alexander’s writing connects the screams of Rodney King to those of Frederick Douglass’ Aunt Hester, whom Douglass watches brutally whipped when he is too young to fully comprehend the violence (see footnote). it’s why i hear Abbey Lincoln in 03 Greedo’s autotuned wail.

when a scream is finished, it lingers in the head for a while, ringing the ears and sitting in the throat like memory. so will the outcry of LA’s finest rappers, haunting and blessing the city for years to come.

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footnote:

“‘Can You Be BLACK And Look At This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s), Elizabeth Alexander

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Calen Firedancing