Two Cheers for the Best Rapper You've Never Heard Of
I recently spent 10 days spread across the last week of February and the first bit of March "vacationing" in the town of Habana Vieja, the capital of a small island about a 45-minute flight outside of Miami.
I don't think it's possible to overstate just how beautifully outdated Habana Vieja continues to be. The old American cars, the dilapidated buildings, the broken brick roads ... everything about the place appealed to my personal aesthetic. Listen, I can admit I have hipster tendencies. And I'm acutely aware that once the embargo's completely lifted, Old Havana and its surrounding neighborhoods could very well become the C***n Brooklyn. The folks living there see it coming, too. Gentrification of another country? I mean, it's not quite colonialism, but ... wait, I'm veering way off-topic. Forgive me.
This is all to say that despite the glorious old-timeyness of the place, there was one aspect of the trip that kept me antsy throughout most of it: there's virtually zero internet access on the island. We were told about various Wi-Fi hotspots across the city, but those hotspots only work if you buy some sort of access card. The equivalent of $3 for an hour. (I passed.) We were also told that we'd be able to get online at the building where we'd be getting our daily lectures about the island and its history. We were bamboozled. Led astray. We didn't get a username or password until Day 3, and once we did, the 22 of us who made the trip all tried to open Safari and Firefox and Twitter and Facebook all at once.
Spoiler alert: None of us got much accomplished, if anything at all.
By Thursday ... actually, the fact I made it to Thursday with no telephone or internet service is a feat. I'm clapping for myself in-between keystrokes right now. I mean, I had e-mails to check, pictures to post on Instagram, Twitters to lurk! I decided to skip lunch and hoard all the Internet while I could.
But oddly enough, I wasn't very pressed to hear Kendrick Lamar's project, and I didn't have very high expectations for Collegrove, either.
Nope. The only one I absolutely needed to hear is the one you've probably never heard about.
Abbas Hamad is a 30-year-old Sudanese rapper born in Paris and raised in Queens. He's the best artist not named Jermaine Cole on Dreamville Records. He's also released one of the ten-best rap records of this decade.
2014 was a slow (read: bad) year for hip-hop. Folks spent the first nine months of the year waiting for something to happen ... but nothing happened. Migos and No Label II kept me entertained for the bulk of it, and other folks had moments, but rap's heavyweights largely sat 2014 out, with Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive coming at year's end and projects from Drake, Big Sean, and Kendrick Lamar following in rapid succession once the new year hit.
Hamad, rap moniker Bas, released Last Winter, his first LP - and the very first record released by Dreamville - that April. I'd been somewhat aware of Bas's existence before then, but moreso as a byproduct of my Cole fandom than for anything Bas had done in particular. His second mixtape, Quarter Water Raised Me Vol. II, became A Thing True Rap Fans Must Care About, but I balked. The song that got the mixtape all that attention, the J. Cole-featured "Lit," was very dope. Regardless, I mostly attributed that song's greatness to Jermaine (He made it rapping / Now at the shows, he's the main attraction / Another shot of Henny, so I'm faded, asking / "How long do this drug called fame be lasting?").
The next time I heard Bas, Last Winter was a week old. He and Jermaine released a video for "My N***a Just Made Bail," a song so good that it's ridiculous it's actually the fifth- or sixth-best thing on the album. Cole once again had the best verse on the song, sure. But Bas got busy himself (They hate us but not more they hate theyselves / I guess that they gotta motivate theyselves / We will never correlate, you will never see my plane / Right in front of you but your vision is so plain). And that beat. Rappers luck into amazing instrumentals all the time, so whatever. But on a massive sample size of two songs, Bas was batting 1.000 with me. "Last Winter might could be good," I thought. And so I downloaded. The download might've been illegal. You don't know my life.
At this point, I don't think any hip-hop fan views the GRAMMYs as a thing for which rap artists should strive. Nonetheless, it does exist as the trophy that validates a rapper's foray into the mainstream. Music producer Terrace Martin argued as much when discussing the creation of Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly, concluding that while Kendrick and his team weren't actively hoping for such lofty accolades when creating the album, the nomination itself means it touched enough ears to be considered worthy of the commendations given.
So, for reference: 2015's GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Album went to Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Also nominated: 3 albums I never wanted to hear (Iggy Azalea, Common, Wiz Khalifa), 1 album that was solid but ultimately forgettable (Childish Gambino), and the album that probably should've won but never stood a chance (ScHoolboy Q).
By GRAMMY nomination time that year, I went on record (on Twitter, which I've since deleted, so I could be lying for all you know, I suppose) arguing Bas deserved a nod from the folks responsible for the whole nomination process. I liked Oxymoron. Because the Internet was fine. But the other nominees, including the winner, were exceptionally meh. As were Rick Ross's two (!) 2014 albums, and Future's bid at pop stardom, and Ab-Soul's These Days, and T.I.'s Paperwork, and Jeezy's Seen It All.
Last Winter was damned good. I now know Bas is a full seven years older than I am, but Last Winter is clearly the musings of a colored man in his mid-20s. The whole thing is an ode to travel and meaningful experiences and trying to make something of yourself while not knowing exactly what "making something of yourself" means. The album's manifesto, "New World Order," sees Bas trying to pretend like he knows what to do with all this success, but it's clear he has no clue what's going on. "My N***a Just Made Bail" is pure celebration, a party for a newly-freed friend who can now participate in Bas's good fortune. "Your World" is Bas's struggle between fighting for his own dreams while not neglecting and ultimately leaving the lady who's been holding him down. It's ultra-relatable, if nothing else.
Fortunately, it's more than something else. It's sonically brilliant. Bas says he didn't start rapping until 2010, and that was more because it was something to do than some huge desire to become a rap star. But for a guy who sorta-kinda fell into this, his ear for music is incredible. Musicians frequently cite their desire to create "sonic landscapes," projects with supreme musical fluidity. The rookie did it on his first try.
Oh, and he can spit. His cadence is super unique and the bars are stellar at best and meaningful at worst. You root for Bas the entire time. Yeah, he's a flawed character. But he's trying, and he's trying as hard as he can. You don't want the movie to end until he figures it all out.
Too High to Riot is Bas's second studio album, the one that likely went under the radar because of the rap superstars who hogged the spotlight. It sold only 8,000 copies in its first week, debuting at number forty-nine on the Billboard 200 and number seven on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Charts. He got beaten by not only Kendrick and 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, but probably by four not-new rap albums that aren't nearly as well-done. The breaks, I suppose.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on where you personally land – Bas doesn't seem too concerned with making people see how good he is. "Something we've learned is you should just focus on your core," he told Elliott Wilson and Brian Miller during his appearance on their Rap Radar Podcast. "Every time we just play to our core, they tend to just heat it up. ... That's how those outside people come into the fold anyways."
"Housewives," the first single, is nothing short of incredible. I'm only a few listens in, but "Penthouse" is likely to make my year-end best songs list and give me a few Instagram captions. His raps, amazingly, are just as relatable as before; in a way, he's grown alongside those of us who could empathize with his struggles two years ago: not quite as unsure, but still very much unsure; not as afraid, but aware that nothing is promised. I can't call it better than Last Winter yet, nor can I say I'll ever be able to make that call. But he's definitely avoided the sophomore slump. Two-for-two.
So, two cheers for the best rapper you've never heard of. Bas laments his old existence on "Housewives," upset he couldn't seem to discover his purpose.
Well thank God he's found it now. Hopefully everyone else sees it soon, too.