Almost There: Atlanta’s Enduring Hip-Hop Hustle

“For every successful rapper and singer, there are hundreds of starving artists. I’m talking rib-touching hunger.”
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This been years in the making, this shit wasn’t overnight.”—Grip “GTA East Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta is small. So tiny, around every corner, a celebrity waits for someone to recognize them. Through my driver’s side window, I once saw Future standing alongside New Zealand radio DJ Zane Lowe right in front of Walters on Decatur St. The glare from his smile nearly blinded me. 

My friend, rapper, and fellow music journalist, Michael Penn II, was in the passenger seat eating barbecue. He began to wipe his hands, telling me to pull over, but by the time he escaped my Nissan Maxima with clean fingers, the two were in a black van, driving away.

I imagine that’s how it feels to be an independent, emerging rapper living in or right outside Atlanta: constantly experiencing proximity to wealth and celebrity, but never quite touching it.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, on any given day, a rapper or musician could have a studio session at Patchwerk or Tree Sounds and find Young Thug or Missy Elliott in the building. The same can be said about restaurants. As a child, I once saw Usher, on my mom’s birthday, eating at Pappadeaux on the North Side. On a different birthday, I saw the late Shawty Lo, eating at a Red Lobster on the West Side. 

I don’t have any photos to prove these celebrity sightings true, but they were there, in restaurants full of people, crafting my image of Black Hollywood.  

My observation of Atlanta is from the outskirts. Although I was born in Grady Hospital, I grew up 30 minutes south of the city in Rex, Georgia. So, from my perspective, Atlanta is both a familiar dwelling place and an unpredictable wonderland. I spent time in the city growing up, but I didn’t experience Atlanta until I could drive on the same roads BMF used to traffic drugs. 

That’s why men like Big Meech and Michael Vick are mythical to me. Although they were merely men, words can’t describe the impact they had on Atlanta’s psychology and spirit. One moving drugs, the other moving his feet. 

The spirit of Atlanta is a hustler’s spirit. It’s why so much of the music that comes from the city is motivated by the come-up. For every successful rapper and singer, there are hundreds of starving artists. I’m talking rib-touching hunger. Sometimes it’s figurative, sometimes it’s literal, you never know, but you can feel it here, collective starvation. 

When I listen to Kenny Mason, an emerging artist from Atlanta’s West Side, I hear a young man who missed more than a few meals on the road to making his dreams come true. He lived or witnessed things only the city could show. Atlanta is in him, not on him. 

The same can be said of rappers Trouble and J.I.D, T.I. and Grip, Young Nudy and Goodie Mob, Yung L.A. and Young Scooter, Yung Baby Tate and bktherula, Diamond and Princess, Lil Baby and the late Bankroll Fresh. Historically, the greatest artists bred by Atlanta, both natives and transplants, are those who interpret their honest surroundings through song. 

Authenticity matters in Atlanta-made rap music because the city, where most rappers roam, is small, requiring you to be the same rapper on records as you are outside. Else, the city will see a fraud. You can be many things in Atlanta, but you can’t be a fraud; that’s why the price of respect is high. Being real could cost you your life, but you can’t be fake, that’s unacceptable.

I started writing this essay while listening to Michael Aristotle’s Almost There album. It’s a strong, versatile offering from a rapper who, like so many, is on the come-up. He has a look, a sound, and the credentials to breakthrough, but there’s a sense of uncertainty at the heart of Almost There. No song on the project confidently says, “I made it,” but they all say, “I’m almost there.” 

The beauty of this feeling, especially for young rappers in Atlanta, is they can all remember a time when their favorite artists were all almost there. Atlanta remembers iLoveMakonnen before Drake; Two-9 before EarDrummers; KEY! before Kenny Beats; Childish Gambino before “Redbone;” 6LACK before “PRBLMS.” No one starts at the top of the mountain here. You have to climb, doing so while everyone watches, but before they believe. 

Everyone may dream in Atlanta, but no one really believes in miracles. Maybe it’s because the Hawks have never won an NBA championship, nor have the Falcons notched a Super Bowl victory, but the artists here only allow themselves a taste of disillusion. There’s no sure thing. No guarantee. It could all fall apart before ever getting started. You could very well be stuck right where you are, almost there. 

That’s why the city breeds inventive anthems that motivate the community to sing along. They create the chants to challenge the overwhelming doubt that lies in the city’s underbelly. One of my favorite newcomers is iivrson, a twenty-something rapper who makes “get up and get it” music. “I been stressing on the low,” he belts out to begin “Pressure,” one of two songs on his YouTube page. 

When iivrson raps, “I can’t take no breaks / All this fucking weight / I pick up the pace / This gonna change the game / This gonna change the game / Watch I motivate/ I got what it takes,” you feel his stress in your bones, but you also feel his will to overcome. That’s what I hear in emerging artists like David the Tragic and Wiley From Atlanta, Muddy Mya and Miss Mulatto, Jaye Newton and Deante’ Hitchcock, Wesson and Horus Ra Mindset; the list is long and continuous.

Like so many of the artists named who are making a name for themselves, iivrson could be easily misunderstood or devoured by the masses. Who knows if his recently-released “AAA Battery” will hit, or if it will be a song released later. His success is unpredictable but foreseeable, another artist who is almost there.

In a city where everyone is trying to emerge, with their own unique sound and style, it’s only a matter of time before another someone defies the impossible.

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