I hate winter. I love wintry raps. Call me a seasonal masochist, but few things strike me quite like desolate, hopeless, haunting raps. Sunny music is a wonderful thing, but music that inspires a chill and paranoia is just a slight cut above the rest. Brick bars are the best bars, is what I am trying to tell you. And as with most art, not all winter raps are created equal. The best winter music has the propensity to jar our senses and overwhelm us. There is a thin line between ice cold and thrilling raps and frozen solid, unmoving music that feels immeasurably heavy and off-putting.
Wintry raps capture the endless whiteout and precious crystal feeling of a snowstorm just as well as they capture the way Timberlands slurp and plod through slush. Cantankerous hail battering the eaves of apartment buildings and the groans of a structure tensing from the cold must be captured in the same breath as the now-insipid cityscapes and paranoia of early-drawn nights. Winter raps take the endless and seemingly hopeless quality of winter and turn those facets into a fleshed-out art piece. The music itself does not inspire hope in the traditional sense, but we are getting the promise that something can always be made from something, and in our case, that something is incredible.
As you may have guessed, this is the art of winter rap music: a study of records that are just desolate enough. A study of the records emanating the cries of snowy rooftops and frozen pipes. Looking at work by Ka, GZA, Armand Hammer, and Mobb Deep, we’ll break down the four essential elements of the perfect winter rap album. Yes, these are all New York City acts. Winter on the East Coast is absolutely brutal, so the music follows suit. Are these artists and albums the definitive list of perfect winter raps? No. Any offering from the Definitive Jux label could slot into this category, for one. But am I the First Lady and do I make the rules? Yes.
When I say desolation, I mean music that makes you feel like you’re trekking through a frozen wasteland. We’re looking for beats that creep and prod at us but leave little to grab onto in terms of stable ground. Desolate production comes from the high notes tucked in the back of the beat, playing us like a sunny winter day tricks us into thinking there's warmth. But as we know, brightness does not stand in for a promise of an enveloping comfort. Nothing is comfortable here. Desolate production succeeds when sauntering chords, a distant rock influence, and dusty percussion come together to rattle our attention. There’s a welcome static to these beats, reminiscent of snowy television sets when the storm rocks the power lines. The imagery is in the arrangement, and the meticulous layering of winter rap music tells us everything we need to know about a true East Coast winter.
Take the dusting of keys and bells in the back of “Living In the World Today” from Liquid Swords, along with the drum-less, piano-and-bell-driven void that is Ka’s Honor Killed the Samurai. Where bells might summon images of Christmas, on Honor Killed The Samurai, we are strapped to find joy and merriment. Instead, we are treated to thoughtful, furrowed brow music that haunts and provokes thought in the same time signature. Ka’s stripped production creates the sensation of without. His music presents a strain and nettles us with the absence of perceived essentials as if we are stranded in the storm with few resources. Disconcerting, it sounds incredible.
Of course, there are also the stringent chords on GZA’s “Cold World,” an obvious pick in name alone, that mimic the strips of sunlight peeking through an otherwise bleak sky. Just desolate enough. To this end, think of the brief and spiraling magic of Mobb Deep’s “Trife Life,” and how brick and crushing the song becomes once the bars and bass kick in. Just desolate enough. There is no false sense of comfort to these songs, but rather the notion that comfort is a fading memory. It is harrowing without being heavy-handed. Artful, I’d say.
Armand Hammer, the NY duo comprised of billy woods and Elucid, bring a very different type of desolation to their music. Their music operates in a specific and forced darkness, blooming in the spaces where the sun once appeared. In place of sunlight, in this new space of imposed nighttime, Armand Hammer offer a tempered chaos that sounds pure as grey, sidewalk-gurgled snow. Armand Hammer’s latest offering, Paraffin, was described by billy woods as “crude gasoline… a slow-burning, oily, not-safe compound,” and as we know so well, nothing burns and bites like bitter cold.
Paraffin sounds like slush and ice crawling through a sewer. Opener “Sweet Mickey” brings the swirl of a snowstorm, delivered at a grainy distance as if we can only take in the weather below the storm drains. Where Coltrane had sheets of sound, Armand Hammer may well be sheets of slicing ice. The crude and haphazard sounds of Paraffin mimic the fugue state of a disorienting and unforgiving snow, and recalls the slant chords of Liquid Swords’ “Killah Hills 10304.” The lineage of winter raps cannot be denied.
Special attention must also be paid to an album’s sample selection. Are we getting ominous reads of morality guides? Are we being led down dark corridors in jagged cities with every crackle of a vocal performance? If you find yourself checking these boxes, you’re happening upon some superb winter rap music. Congratulations.
Winter prompts darkness. Mobb Deep prompts darkness. Aside from sounding terrifying, much of winter rap is about a loss of something, as winter is the season of death. Across The Infamous, Prodigy and Havoc patter on about the death of their boyhood. This is the type of gutting, hair-raising content brought on by cold. The creep of reality is unrelenting, much like frost, snow, sleet, and the rest of the winter works. Everything luscious has been stripped down to its essentials, and at the core of Mobb Deep are a pair of young men robbed of their innocence.
The frame of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous may well be the blueprint for winter rap writing. On “Survival of the Fittest,” even just taking in the name, Prodigy begins his verse with a harrowing image: “There's a war goin' on outside no man is safe from / You could run, but you can't hide forever / From these streets that we done took / You walkin' with your head down, scared to look.” These are lyrics that create a sense of paranoia and fear. This is writing that takes on a decrepit tone, and yet somehow makes these dark images feel weighty and tangible. They do not fizzle away, in part thanks to the depth of the vocal delivery, and that is what makes this writing so impactful. Each bar of a winter rap is a reality-dipped uppercut.
Meanwhile, Armand Hammer rap about the horrors of the real world with a tinge of comedy coming from billy woods. When tackling the drone of capitalism (“No Days Off,” “VX”), woods and Elucid adopt knowing tones. They’ve yet to resign, equal to the understanding that spring will invariably come, and in that, they are uncompromising in a fresh way. Armand Hammer is their own resistance, which is welcome in the scope of winter raps, where it might be so easy to fall victim to somber moods and morose messaging. For his part, Elucid’s delivery is unabashed all its own. He is not biting so much as his every bar chomps at the bit of a difficult-to-swallow concept. Mealy topics and mealy raps come together to make something wintry and nicely paralyzing. Armand Hammer speak the truth, and truth oft inspires fear.
We must also take note of the penchant for samurai that color some of the samples, bars, and album titles in this pantheon of winter raps. In that breath, Ka’s Honor Killed the Samurai appears like an extended play addition to the opening skit on GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” The two albums feel more like companion pieces, despite the subdued sonics of the former. What we can glean from this is the steely quality of samurai and 10-times-folded metal blades make them both staple winter motifs. Winter is precise and cutting, after all.
Something wicked is approached on Liquid Swords’ penultimate “I Gotcha Back.” There's a swing and lilt to the piano, but it is not the joy of stride piano and live jazz. Instead, these keys sound like a haunting and toothy grin. The smirk of someone not to be trusted is the aura of the track, leading us right into a terrifying final sample. The song is wailing and uneasy. Hearing each following second summons an anxiety of what could possibly come, keeping us nicely on our toes. At the intersection of chilling and grotesque, this track holds all the country.
In tandem, Armand Hammer's Paraffin sounds like a smattering of dark alley raps. The consistent static and hazard of the production mimic eroded and crumbling bricks, the danger of black ice, and the true fear of making a wrong turn in the dead of an early-onset night. We are left with the sensation that something, some aura, has snapped and the worst is yet to come. At every turn on wax, Elucid’s delivery especially is hounding, disorienting, and thriving in the din of his own making. It is positively chilling, and to that end, a phenomenal display of winter rap music.
The thesis of The Infamous is a lack of safety. At every turn on wax, Mobb Deep remind us that security is a myth unlike any other. The bars and production coalesce to form one singular promise: life is not promised. Goodness, too, is not promised, and crooks lurk in all the cavities of the city. An uncertain existence is an unnerving one, and in that department, Mobb Deep have mastered the art of making teeth chatter and skin crawl from pure anxiety and maladjustment. We could even go so far as to suggest they’ve created the blueprint for timeless and disturbed music. We would be correct.
Finally, we have the incessant drones of Ka’s “Ours.” Few songs mimic the endless and airy whipping of a total whiteout winter storm like the finalistic and resigned sound of Ka spitting “These seconds, these minutes are ours” ad nauseum on the hook. The song feels very trapping, but not full-bodied per the lack of drums. We are caught in an inescapable vortex; there is nary a foothold for us to take comfort in. Though the hook is only four bars, it is his numbingly slow delivery that drives the point of our encampment. Perhaps nothing is as unnerving as the absence of movement and the consequent absence of freedom. If there is one thing a rough winter will teach you, too, it is that your mobility is a misunderstood privilege. We have nowhere to go on “Ours.” It is the perfect winter song.
Does It Make You Feel Like You’re Walking Down a Cold, Dirty, Snow-Covered Alley?
No? Then it probably isn’t good winter rap. Sorry, I don’t actually make the rules.
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