Despite it being the 22nd-largest city in the US, Boston has always fought above its weight class in terms of historical and cultural significance. The birthplace of the American Revolution, the setting of countless classic movies and the home to four historic sports franchises, Beantown has always done the most with its small population size.
Its contributions to hip-hop, on the other hand, have been more akin to what you might expect from a city with a population of less than a million. Aside from the late Guru of Gang Starr (a native of Roxbury), veteran Dorchester emcee Akrobatik and oft-underappreciated producer Statik Selektah, there have not been many wicked Bostonian offerings to hip-hop through the years.
However, if you shine a spotlight on the future of Boston's hip-hop scene, you’ll quickly take note of the rapidly changing tide.
In just the past two years, Cousin Stizz, Joyner Lucas (of nearby Worcester) and Michael Christmas have all gained national attention, and each has the potential to gain even more in the near future. More importantly, though, their emergence has brought some much-needed awareness to Boston’s extended rap scene—one that is relatively contained at the moment but ready explode on a national level.
Sharing in these sentiments is Latrell James, a Boston rapper/producer who has collaborated with Stizz and Christmas, and is perhaps the artist most involved in Boston’s emerging rap scene. The 27-year-old recipient of a Cheerios commercial plug, James is encouraged by the city's recent hip-hop embrace. “It’s the best it’s ever been," he told me. "I don’t think there’s been a time where we’ve had this many artists who are this active and focusing on the one common goal, which is to shine a light on ‘the scene.’ It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
James isn’t quite sure how this has all started to coalesce, only that it seems to have happened overnight. He describes it as if "a switch was flipped," where every artist who was keeping to themselves and doing music on the side suddenly realized that their music was just as good, if not better than everything they were hearing on the radio.
Aside from Cousin Stizz’s hazy Southern trap, Michael Christmas’s soulful sing-rapping, and Joyner Lucas’s extensive story-spitting, there's Dutch Rebelle's NY-style street rap, Token spitting bars like the second coming of Eminem and PLAD Fine$$e's unique brand of "lyrical internet trap." Basically, something for everyone.
To get you more familiar with the Boston scene, we have selected five artists (in no particular order) that best represent the city's slept-on pool of talent.
Latrell James (@IamLatrellJames)
As I mentioned in the opening, James prides himself on being a sort-of plug within the Boston scene, having worked with many of the artists mentioned in this article, as well as many who are not. James' own music also does well as a representation of Boston’s diverse hip-hop. He rarely sticks to one style, instead opting to sonically joyride on a track-by-track basis.
On songs like “Break the Rules,” James dives into trap influences, whereas on “Beautiful Day,” he raps fuller bars over soul-drenched beats. On standout "Flying Nimbus," he simply floats, and listeners will too. The only consistent quality across James’ music is just that—the quality. No matter what style he affects, he always makes it his own.
James has a currently-untitled new project on the way, but in the meantime, you can check out 2016’s Twelve above.
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TeaMarrr is the kind of newcomer that James was talking about when he described a switch being flipped. An R&B singer who occasionally raps over mostly soulful beats, TeaMarrr’s cuts are steeped in heavy nostalgia with light notes of childhood days gone by. All of her tracks are heavily introspective but never in a conceited way. She looks into her own life and those of her close friends because she wants listeners to relate and take away their own meanings or interpretations.
Also, how can you not love an artist that references Yu-Gi-Oh not just in a song’s lyrics, but in the actual title itself?
Though a relative newcomer to the scene, TeaMarrr's fully-formed sound can be found on her debut EP, Thanks For the Chapstick, released in May.
Jefe REPLAY (@JefeREPLAY)
With a calm confidence that only occasionally verges on cockiness, Jefe REPLAY makes some damn smooth trap music. Occasionally, he'll get hyped up ("J.A.P.A.N.") and it’s a good time, but where he really excels is on toned down tracks like “Ain’t Shit Free.” Jefe spits instantly retweet-able gems like “If you ain’t help me flip that zone, you ain’t moving with me / If you ain’t help me get this far, Jefe pass you swiftly” with regularity.
The nuggets of wisdom Jefe drops are kind of like that of a sagely older brother, someone who’s been there before and is now finally moving past the bullshit. Though he never goes as in-depth as someone like Joyner Lucas, that’s not the point. His music is dope because of how much he says without actually saying much at all.
Jefe's next album, Proper Finessements, is slated for release "soon."
Avenue makes the kind of music that proves classic NY golden era rap will never go out of style. On a record like “Harry The Greek’s,” in the span of three minutes and six seconds, Avenue deals clean bars, gritty bars, suave bars—basically, any and every kind of bar, over sleek, minimalist production.
Avenue is the kind of artist that bets on himself because if his flow and lyrics don’t deliver in harmony, the record would fall completely flat. There are no catchy hooks to bail him out and the same goes for the production—there's no flash in sight. This gamble almost always pays off, though, leading to the creation of compelling records that resonate strongly.
Avenue's second LP, Mass Ave & Lennox, was released in May.
$ean Wire (@SeanWire_)
$ean Wire is a textbook example of the potential that is created when rappers embrace melody in their verses as well as their hooks. Taking cues from an artist like Isaiah Rashad, Wire’s hybrid-vocals sync perfectly with the abstract and pointedly symbolic nature of his lyrics.
Listening to “MoonLight,” a standout selection on his SoundCloud, is like receiving a message in a bottle, sent from an unknown source and drifting specifically to you, the listener, by some sort of cosmic intervention. It’s one thing to make music that implants thoughts and emotions, but it’s another, rarer thing entirely to make something that evokes them.
Wire's debut LP, HIM$, was released last August, but a slew of Tropicana Bwoy-produced records suggests a new project is on the way.