We are all from somewhere. As essential as the supporting cast is to our story, so is the notion of place. Where we are from is integral to who we are, who we become, and who we can grow to be. All of the classic debut albums—Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic, and, of course, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik—are as tied to place as they are to the rappers laying themselves on wax for the very first time. All great debuts require place, because, without place, you aren't telling the story of yourself. You are merely providing sketches, and as exciting as those sketches may be, they will always be wanting for the color that place provides. Without a gracious nod to location, there is no debut album. Place is too integral to storytelling to be omitted.
While cynicists may decry the death of lyricism and storytelling in rap, the newest rising class of artists have used their debuts to prove that storytelling is alive and well. Moreover, by using place to flesh out their introductory autobiographies, Boogie, JID, and Wiki, all stand to be some of the most adept and personable writers to debut in the last handful of years. Beyond a window-display of persona, each of these projects is dedicated to and born of the cities housing each of the rappers. City is, without question, inseparable from music, but it is most crucial to the debut where fans are hungry to learn as much as they can in as well-crafted a package as possible.
“Even though I was from the hood. Young, like 14, I was in church, so I fell in love with music early. Besides music it was girls. It was music, girls, and gang banging was all I knew growing up. My reality… At first I was on gospel rapping. It didn't last so long in Compton. ‘Cause you can't do that much gospel rapping in Compton.” —Boogie, “Compton Rapper Boogie Tells Personal Stories for the Internet Age”
On his Shady Records debut, Everythings For Sale, Boogie’s sound is as informed by the sprawl of his block as it is by its constraints. The album opens with a startling gunshot, one that reminds us that before filling our headphones, Boogie was gang banging and gunshots were ringing in his ears with regularity.
In that same breath, the singing that colors the album is a nod to his upbringing in the church and his early leaning towards “gospel rapping.” Boogie even speaks to God on “Lolsmh (Interlude)” with the fiery irreverence of a scorned believer. Though Compton did not seem the place to invite more gospel tendencies, Boogie manages to sneak them onto the project and craft melodies in his own, Compton-influenced image. Even from “Tired / Reflections” to “Silent Ride,” we get a full picture of who Boogie is, who he was, and where he would like to go. All of this, of course, is inevitably tied to his Compton roots.
Taken literally, when we try to venture to new terrain (“Soho”) there is an immediate recoil on Boogie’s part. The catchy factor of “Please no more meeting at Soho” belies the greater truth: you cannot take Boogie out of Compton and expect him to thrive in the same way. This is why despite borrowing a fresh and frenetic flow and tapping J.I.D, by the end of the track, Boogie returns to his native Compton with a maelstrom of bars over a severe piano line. The crescendo of emotion is cut off and we bleed into “Skydive,” a singing cut that underscores Boogie’s gospel roots once more. Even when Boogie is explicit about his gang banging (“Rainy Days,” “Self Destruction”), the singing and self-effacing nature of his music permeate the record and gives us a clear picture of Boogie’s city and how his city made him Boogie.
It follows, then, that while J.I.D’s The Never Story is an apt picture of a young man chasing his dreams, it is also a portrait of our favorite East Atlanta playboy coming into his own. In a similar vein to Boogie, Atlanta’s expected sound is as much part of J.I.D’s blueprint as it is a jumping off point to evolve. That is to say, he does not sound like your standard Future of Young Thug clone, but he does not sound misplaced in his musical leanings, either. The melodies of The Never Story and the stories (“Hereditary,” “All Bad”) themselves are Atlanta through and through, but the miraculous and breakneck flows J.I.D brings to the table are squarely his own. The Never Story thusly becomes a clinic in J.I.D asserting who he is because of his city, without letting the city dominate his personality. He finds balance and symbiosis, and The Never Story endures as a result.
The hunger and camaraderie of The Never Story, too, makes it an Atlanta affair. With guest spots from EarthGang and 6LACK filling out the record, we hear J.I.D consciously keeping the album close to the chest. Beyond being Atlanta artists, these are the men with which J.I.D struggled through career lows with, as reported by our very own Yoh:
“Back in ‘16, we joked about a concert he headlined in East Atlanta Village, and how he arrived with 6LACK and members of the Spillage Village collective—which, beyond J.I.D, includes EARTHGANG duo Doctor Dot and Johnny Venus—to an empty venue. No one bought a ticket; the aches of an artist on the rise.”
To have EarthGang and 6LACK on the album was an act of rewriting history, just as Atlanta rewrote the hip-hop landscape time after time with their collection of pivotal artists (T.I, Jeezy, Future, etc.). There is a reason why OutKast worked out of The Dungeon, and why The Dungeon Family name was so attached to dank place, as opposed to any other moniker of success and creativity. When you hear their names, your mind goes to a single image. There is no debut album without place. This is why it is imperative that you can hear J.I.D is from Atlanta every time he tries for an unexpected inflection, changes the pace of his delivery, and mentions cruising in his beat up Pontiac. He may not be trolling the Dungeon, but he is a product of East Atlanta.
“I live in a town, well, I’d say it’s a city / That’s got everything to give to me / I do get down, pray, say that I’m silly / I don’t want the bullshit to get to me” —Wiki, “Litt 15”
Meanwhile, New York’s Wiki spits about the deli and the train on his commercial solo debut No Mountains in Manhattan. There is no veiled mystery to the album. This is a record about each of the five boroughs, about the sights and smells of being “City park kids running through the fountains.” NMIM is an album for New York City art kids, by New York City art kids, with our favorite Mayoral candidate, Wiki, at the helm. All we need to hear is the first rattling train sample, and we know exactly where this album was made, and consequently, where Wiki was fashioned into the artist we see him as today.
Damn near every bar on NMIM is a serenade to the city. And before we even get into the songs, the track list itself is an ode: “Mayor,” “Chinatown Swing,” “Stick Ball,” “Nutcrackers,” and so on. What we have here is an album, but also a tour of every street and avenue Wiki has cased in his twenty-something years of life. While anyone can report on a place, Wiki takes the extra step to insert himself into the picture, telling the complete story of himself and his art. We get every detail of his city as a crucial part of his identity (“Said rap about you so I spit bout the train” on “Islander”) along with how he finds solace in the city on “Nutcrackers.” There is a reverence and glee to “Pretty Bull”: “Cause I got my whole crew coming son / Everyone of them, it’s like every night in the tunnel in one,” showing off how New York gave Wiki his sense of family.
Wiki’s peace is Manhattan, which becomes especially significant as he begins to unravel his Puerto Rican identity in the final third of the album. We get a sense that Wiki’s delineation of “mutt” does not satisfy him, and as he discovers who he is, we hear how Manhattan is just as much his heritage as Ireland and Puerto Rico. The satisfaction of hearing Wiki croon “Told me it’s more than PR / Told me I was Boricua” is amplified because we are tasked with piecing together how each of the boroughs fits into this grander picture of Wiki The Man. We realize that he does not find the roots of his identity without his city.
Yet, the roots of identity are bigger than Wiki. None of the above artists find their identity without leaning into and using their city as a lens to better see themselves. It is an important project, the one of self-discovery, that we all embark on whether we know it or not. And the best artists and the best debut albums take that project and take their city, and combine them into a telling final product. A debut album as focused on place as it is on people will never feel hollow. Thankfully, telling the story of where you are from should be as natural as telling the story of who you are. It would be foolish to ever separate the two.