For some artists, “predictable” is a dirty word. Predictability can lead to stale music and, even scarier, to dedicated fans hopping off the bandwagon. However, some artists benefit from playing to and refining their strengths instead of reinventing themselves with every release; not everyone needs to be Kanye West to catch a listener’s ear. There’s value in finding a lane and sticking to it, reinforcing what works about your music instead of adding unnecessary flourishes.
Under the right circumstances, being labeled as “predictable” doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There’s both beauty and value in having the self-awareness to know what about your music works and turning it into a sound defined enough to attract repeat customers. If it ain’t broke, keep building until your foundation becomes undeniable.
Take Harlem rapper Smoke DZA. I remember exactly where I was—my college dorm room, 2012, gearing up to press play on the Domo Genesis and Alchemist collab No Idols—when I heard his raps for the first time. “Power Ballad,” the fifth track on No Idols, is anchored by a triumphant guitar lick and drum loop fit for a professional wrestler. Genesis delivers an energetic verse, but DZA engineers his tale of smoking an entire jar of girl scout cookie weed to be shouted during any given one-fall: “Talkin’ that west coast, I got it from my homeboy / I hate green weed like Guru fans hate Solar.”
DZA’s specificity renewed my appreciation for weed rap, especially as a non-smoker. His voice billowed like smoke but hit like a freight train. He gained a new fan the day I heard “Power Ballad.” As I went back through his discography, a pattern began to emerge in his subjects: weed, clothes, wrestling, and Harlem corner boy dreams turned reality.
There isn’t a ton of variety in DZA’s raps, and yet, he became a brick-and-mortar superhero of his own making. From collab projects with producers Harry Fraud (2016’s He Has Risen) and Pete Rock (2016’s Don’t Smoke Rock) to solo projects like 2018’s Not For Sale and February’s A Closed Mouth Don’t Get Fed, DZA settling into a dependable lane of luxe rap makes each listening experience a guaranteed good time.
On Closed Mouth, DZA’s lane is most apparent on the standout selection, “Brick On My Neck.” Even when he raps about the future, his words bob with as much swagger as the white fur he wore at Summer Jam. DZA’s strong fanbase has come to expect aspirational chronicles from the Harlem stalwart, and he’s more than willing to deliver.
Of course, Smoke DZA is far from the only artist providing predictability in hip-hop with a deft touch. New Orleans’ Curren$y, also known as Spitta, is as prolific and dependable a rapper as they come. Spitta got his start under Master P’s No Limit Records in the late 1990s before signing with Young Money Entertainment in 2002. His debut album, 2006’s Music To Fly To, was his first step toward building the Jet Life brand that would eventually become a mini-empire. Fourteen years, dozens of projects, and uncountable amounts of blunt smoke later, the now 38-year-old rapper has emerged as a Teflon figure with a steadfast identity within rap’s underground. He’s the guy you come to when you’re in the mood for songs about money, weed, cars, and sneakers in a warbled stream-of-consciousness.
Much like his New York cousin Smoke DZA, Curren$y established his rap formula early on and has never steered away from it. Talk of NBA 2K sessions and Chevy El Caminos at picnics on 2010’s Pilot Talk transitions smoothly to “Big Yacht Music Pt. 1,” a song from this past January’s The Tonite Show With Curren$y: “High as fuck but your thoughts still on the ground / Two feet, ten toes, four tires on the road / One of my controllers broke button stuck, game on, go mode.” After all these years, the only thing different is the scenery. We ain’t mad.
Believing in a sound or approach enough to stake an entire career on it requires a certain amount of bravery. No one could’ve imagined the heights Griselda Records would climb to when the label was founded in 2014. Conway The Machine’s 2015 tape Reject 2, Westside Gunn’s 2016 album FLYGOD, and Benny The Butcher’s 2016 tape My First Brick felt unstuck in time when they were first released: all three artists were focused on modernizing the boom bap sound they grew up on. Hard-nosed bars and beats quickly became Griselda’s aesthetic, endearing them to a crowd starving for the freshest work off the stove.
Eventually, the label Westside Gunn built signed a partnership deal with Eminem’s Shady Records in 2017. At the time, many fans—myself included—were cautiously optimistic, as Eminem has a reputation for signing artists only to later force them to execute his brand of stadium-pop. With WWCD, the group’s major-label debut, released in 2019, the Griselda Gang were left to their devices and allowed to double down on their gritty drug tales as they saw fit.
Predictably, and thankfully, WWCD standout selections like “Cruiser Weight Coke” and “Moselle” don’t sound out of place given the trio’s discrography. “I’m 5’8” but 6’11” when I stand on my bricks” is but one of a seemingly endless stream of Benny’s coke quotables. Griselda has yet to abandon the formula responsible for catapulting them to stardom; in fact, their commitment to it has only brought them new fans since their signing with Shady.
During their sold-out show in Detroit two weeks ago, Griselda used their growing platform to announce the signing of Detroit rapper Boldy James, another underground stalwart. With little fanfare, Boldy has consistently created music with a visceral Detroit street edge. since releasing Grand Quarters in 2013. His deadpan delivery and descriptive gifts have helped to paint pictures of Detroit’s darker corners. “From the drug zone, with them same seven sixes / From the catcher’s mitt, repping that dirty glove; Murder Mitten,” he raps on “One of One.” The crowds may have been small, but his words still dripped with fiery urgency.
Seven years later, Boldy’s labors are finally bearing fruit; thanks in no small part to The Price of Tea In China, his excellent collaborative album with Los Angeles producer Alchemist. In Boldy’s world, dope resembling “granola, oatmeal” (“Phone Bill”) is still being moved across state lines “wrapped in paper towel” (“Scrape The Bowl”). On “Speed Demon Freestyle,” Boldy is haunted by images of people “bleeding from the mouth, thick as mucus.” Without changing his style, Boldy has breached the surface of a rap world once again hungry for introspective street bars.
If his verse on Westside Gunn’s “It’s Possible” is any indication, Boldy’s predictable brand of coke rap will fit right into the Griselda aesthetic.
Being predictable is no different than being reliable. By creating a foundation built on routine, rappers can focus on their strengths without worrying whether or not their bandwagon will get any lighter. Why would you stop serving a meal if it tastes good and people continue to order it?