Kembe X, Spin magazine, and hip-hop's new underground | Bleader

Kembe X, Spin magazine, and hip-hop's new underground


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Underground hip-hop made the cover of Spin this month, but as ambitious as the issue is, it's somewhat flawed in execution. In particular, the cover story, titled Live From the New Underground, feels forced in its efforts to describe a national DIY rap movement as it coalesces—partially because of the awkward confines author Brandon Soderberg creates for the new scene. His definition of the "new underground" is pretty basic—hip-hop artists who do things themselves, usually online, and without help from big labels or other folks with deep pockets—but he celebrates certain artists and omits others who also fall into this broad category, apparently according to his personal taste or some other obscure metric he's not sharing.

For instance, what makes Yelawolf a member of the "new underground" and Wale a "former underground survivor"? The two have followed similar career paths; both found acclaim releasing mix tapes that incorporated regional styles (Yelawolf's Alabama spin on southern rap, Wale's blend of hip-hop and D.C. go-go); both had major-label deals (with Columbia and Interscope), got dropped, and returned to the grind; both inked new major-label deals via imprints run by more popular rappers (Eminem's Shady is under the Interscope umbrella, and Rick Ross's Maybach Music is a part of Warner Brothers); and both released highly anticipated albums last month that have received mixed reviews (Radioactive and Ambition), the worst of which say the rappers stumbled trying to make pop albums that dilute their fierce regional sounds, styles, and identities. (True, Wale did release an album on Interscope before getting dumped, and Yelawolf didn't get that chance with Columbia.)

Soderberg's selections are well chosen to paint a picture of a fascinating collection of artists leading hip-hop's charge in the Internet age, but cutting out certain rappers for, say, quickly nabbing a major-label deal (Kreayshawn) undermines his project—there's an extreme diversity of voices operating under the radar, and countless hip-hop acts have helped build the DIY movement he describes by distributing music online and on their own.

Admittedly, some just happen to make better music than others. Like, for instance, Chicago rapper Kembe X, one of the underground acts Spin didn't get around to mentioning.

Last Friday Kembe dropped his debut mix tape, Self Rule, and it's a burner. It also brings to mind one of the finer points of Soderberg's piece: that as the new underground scene has grown, mix tapes have begun to sound less like promos to toss at fans between albums and more like fully fleshed-out, thoughtful collections. Self Rule is packed with soulful instrumentals that hark back to hip-hop's golden age, and Kembe's rapping seals the deal. His laid-back, stoner-friendly flow bounces off his boom-bap beats, and he spits with confidence, delivering clever lines about escaping adolescence with a buoyant verve. It'd be impressive even if you didn't know Kembe had knocked this out at the tender age of 17. He may not be as outré as Danny Brown, Yelawolf, or Cities Aviv (all profiled in Live From the New Underground), but if he can keep making music as solid as Self Rule, he shouldn't need to be.