“Don’t overthink shit.”—Kenny Beats, The Cave
Five months ago, producer Kenny Beats decided to turn his studio sessions into the most casual game show ever. The rules are simple: Invite a rapper into the space dubbed The Cave, create a beat from scratch in 10 minutes, and have them record a freestyle. It’s a recipe for hip-hop mayhem that fits perfectly within the confines of a YouTube show.
The Cave stands as a modern twist on an old hip-hop formula. It’s Rap City’s basement by way of Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia; Yo! MTV Raps with the spontaneity of Rhythm Roulette and a YouTuber’s DIY flair for editing.
What truly elevates The Cave to premier behind-the-scenes content are the moments outside the booth: Kenny reminiscing on the origin of the “whoa” dance with Maxo Kream; Rico Nasty fuming after being told that she dresses as if she works at Old Navy; Kenny speaking with incarcerated California spitter 03 Greedo on the phone from his jail cell.
These moments—combined with the editing powers of Aris aka SiraSounds—enshrine each of the first 12 episodes of The Cave as a grassroots effort to unite artists and fans through memes and music.
“It is meant to serve not only as entertainment but also as inspiration for those who want to be creative with their friends. For that reason, the feel of this show is intentionally DIY, not slick and over-produced, not over-thought. This was all conceptualized, designed, produced, and edited in-house by the DOTS family. That is all to say, you can do it too, using the people you have around you and tools that are already available.” —YouTube description of 'The Cave' Episode 12
To celebrate the end of season one, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to rank each episode of The Cave from worst to best. This list was a herculean effort, so if you don’t agree with our ranking, please take it up with Officer Beats.
12. Lil Yachty
How can a person once known as the King of The Teens come across so crotchety? Every minute of Yachty’s episode of The Cave feels like an hour. Not only does he bring in his own producer to work alongside Kenny (no disrespect to the very talented 30 Roc), he seems out of it and distant. The radiant personality Yachty has harnessed throughout his career is nowhere to be found inside or out of this booth. His freestyle sounds tired and phoned-in. Lil Boat’s good ship has crashed.
11. Smino + Monté Booker
No one melds rap and R&B quite like Smino and super-producer Monte Booker. The duo joined Kenny for episode number two and brought their signature styles in spades. This episode only ranks so low on our list because, while excellent, it’s more of a showcase for Monte than it is for Smino. The chemistry between Monte and Kenny is impressive, and the way Smino integrates his futuristic soul is exemplary (“Boom-baptize these hoes” goes super hard). Looking back, I guess I just wanted more.
The man who gave Kenny his “Whoa!” made it to The Cave for its eleventh episode. Their rapport in the studio gives away their sparkling friendship. KEY! taking a cigarette break feels less like disrespect and more like the quirk of your most lovingly annoying homie. The Atlanta native’s freestyle is energetic and hits deep in the New Orleans swing pocket he requested, but it’s also on the pedestrian side compared to most of the talent on this list. Ending it on a hearty “Dude!!” doesn’t hurt, though.
9. Doja Cat
The look on Kenny’s face when Doja Cat asks him to make his drums “cuter” is priceless. Doja has proven time and time again that she's able to find sweetness in grooves of aggression. Clad in a rainbow-strap backpack and a pair of flower sunglasses, her appearance on episode seven follows a colorful and charming suit. Modelo beer in hand, she enters the booth like Hello Kitty with bad bitch energy. Ending her freestyle with a merch plug, and employing a line like “I go at a little nigga neck like a Pez,” proves Doja is pep personified.
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8. Maxo Kream
Maxo Kream’s music has more bounce than a low rider. That bounce spoke to Kenny, who laid out distorted rhythms in episode eight. Maxo’s freestyle is equal parts street and silky (“Cucamonga cracker killer / and Whoa Kenny, that’s my cracker”), but it’s his personality that helps this episode shine. We get the history of Houston rap music. We also get Maxo begging his friends to stop sending SoundCloud links because they’re scaring away the ladies. Everything about this episode is endearing and hilarious. Moments like these cleanse the palette before the freestyle knocks you on your ass.
7. Rico Nasty
Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats argue like they’re brother and sister. The energy the duo brings to their collaborations (Nasty, Anger Management) is palpable. Episode three finds Kenny putting together a demented thump accented with piano keys for Rico to color with her sugary trap sounds. Her flow is steady but comfortable, the kind of performance you’d expect from someone who just asked her big brother if he bought his pants from The Gap. Her usual rabid energy is slightly dimmed here but is no less potent than her rep suggests.
After the scorched earth performance that is his collaboration with Kenny, “Puff Daddy,” JPEGMAFIA headlining the first episode of The Cave makes perfect sense. As a producer himself, Peggy and Kenny share unique chemistry that makes their session quick and efficient. Clad in a Mega Man hockey jersey, Peggy enters the booth with a tinnitus-inducing beat and undeniable energy. He quickly finds a flow and then rips it to shreds (“Niggas tried to Vietnam me / But I’ve been playin’ with pistols since you watchin’ Toonami”). The meat and potatoes approach doesn’t diminish the fact Peggy’s pet Tamagotchi had to die for this. Tragic.
It takes a lot to impress the Atlanta wordsmiths that makeup Dreamville’s EarthGang. While constructing a beat for the duo during episode ten, however. that is exactly what Kenny managed to accomplish. “Where you gettin’ these beats from, man? What planet? What year? What dimension?” WowGr8 asks, flabbergasted. Jokes about Kenny’s new police-centric nickname and a Pimp My Ride reboot lead to WowGr8 and Olu cutting loose over a stomping groove. EarthGang’s vocal experimentation is second to none, and it shines through on both of their verses. Their debut album, MirrorLand, is dropping in September and it can't come soon enough.
4. Freddie Gibbs
What happens when a rapper who can rap over anything meets a producer who can bend to any style? Episode four finds Freddie Gibbs and Kenny Beats answer this question with some piercing drug raps. A ripe Lil Sko sample becomes the foundation for a beat made of pure menace. Gibbs’ fierce flow switches and his jokey candor during their downtime make his appearance formidable and enjoyable. This episode is fun, functional, and as pure as the neon green Off-White Air Force 1s on Freddie’s feet.
3. Denzel Curry
Denzel Curry is walking lightning in search of a bottle. The one-person rap army was Kenny’s guest for the season finale, and he didn’t disappoint. Curry introduces the internet to the late CeddyBu, contemplates scoring the next Star Wars movie, and flaunts a freshly shaved head before storming the booth with an earth-shattering verse. His verse is funny (“I do not care, nigga, I’m Ed Sheeran”), nerdy (“Flames all on my body like I’m Charmander”), and vicious (“I may not be Nas or Lil Nas X / But Denzel hit a nigga through the solar plex”) in equal measure. The gossamer vocal loop Kenny picked to surf Curry’s distorted drums only adds to the performance’s allure.
2. Vince Staples
“DEAD HOMIES, BREAD ON ME / KENNY BEATS IS THE POLICE”
These were the words that Vince Staples used to ruin Kenny Beats’ career. The Long Beach rapper’s deadpan affect and distaste for beat tags take episode six to new heights. The beat that Kenny cooks up for Vince—which would sound at home on 2018’s FM!—gives the former Def Jam emcee ample room to let off some bars (“Why your neck look like a freezer but you sleepin’ on IKEA?”) and create everlasting memes in the same breath (read: “Kenny Beats is the police”). Vince’s episode of The Cave is a hilarious masterclass in trolling stress management.
1. Zack Fox
Welcome to the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog crip-walking. Dusty Reeboks and beats made for pro-lifers and Bernie Sanders fans. A top hat on top of some headphones on top of a dad hat. Depression taking on the form of balls dipped in Thousand Island dressing. Every second of episode number five is its own highlight reel. Zack Fox produces rare energy from Kenny Beats, accidentally creating one of the year’s best songs in “Jesus Is The One (I Got Depression).” The stress and the joy mount in equal measure. Fox’s trip to The Cave is not only the best episode of the series; it’s peak internet content.