Image via Steelz/Instagram

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Steven Louis saw Idlewild in theaters.

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Aside from Dan Campbell vowing to eat kneecaps and run through brick walls, this is my favorite introductory press conference in recent memory. Steelz connects time and space through Southern California almost tectonically – his mother immigrated from Mexico to Long Beach, and his uncle was next-door neighbors with founding Eastsidaz rapper Goldie Loc. At just nine years old, he found himself in indo-fogged studio sessions with Tha Dogg Pound. At time of publication, he’s produced for Snoop and Nipsey while helping vanguard an independent New West Renaissance. But popping in Los Angeles carries decidedly less American social capital than it used to – be it the city’s rhythmic idiosyncrasies and stilted lingo, its Draconian gang enhancements emanating from judges’ chambers, or its insatiable jealousy streak around the corners.

The first time I met Steelz, last summer at Inglewood’s Level Up Store, G Perico called him the best-kept secret in all of rap music. Fittingly, this coming-out fête sets off in LA before parading out east to New York and up north to Detroit. Perico hydroplanes on the inverted jazz arc – “ain’t no secret I’mma target / from one side of the tracks to the n— that’s across it / my affiliation make you think I’m from Boston / in something brand new sliding up and down Slauson.” And in a flourish reminiscent of Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” remix, Steelz reprograms his drum machine to match each verse, lacing Brooklyn driller Rah Swish with superboosted 808s and Allstar JR with a zappy Detroit bassline. POWER 106’s Justin Credible rides shotgun. We should not need any semblance of a reintroduction after this. The “best-kept secret” has been simulcasted.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald once posited that “there are no second acts in American life.” F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t know shit about the McChicken. Originally introduced as a menu item in 1980, it was pulled twice due to paltry sales and overall consumer apathy. The mayo-lettuce-dark meat amalgam we know and love was at one point replaced by something called the “Deluxe Arch,” only to become the subject of grassroots petition in 1997. The McChicken is a symbol of resilience. If you, reader, are persisting in spite of any man-made obstacle, you are a McChicken. Michigan’s 1Up Tee is absolutely, unequivocally a McChicken.

Don’t get it misconstrued – his ladies are eating prime rib – because this is a metaphysical connection we’re dealing with. Where most of the Detroit/Flint underworld turns to barrel-out shit-talk, this work is largely warm and aspirational. He’s been a steady build for the past two years, and 2024 feels like the return on investment. The packaging is almost comically unassuming, but the product and consistency are there. The Dollar Menu pricing will not last much longer.

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La Habra multi-hyphenate and Low End apostle Jonwayne had been entertaining his own retirement talk since 2015. Up until last week, he hadn’t rapped for an audience beyond his Patreon subscribers in six years. This new drop is both disarming and heartening, a miniaturist sleight-of-hand assurance of dopeness. “No Joke” assumes magic from nothing but claustrophobic jazz piano, a ticking snare and a squawking bicycle horn. Acidity seeps from the lemon wedges into the transmission.

Jonwayne makes a Jerome Bettis line work in 2024 and proudly waves his cease-and-desist letter from Marlboro; the unhurried delivery takes on increasingly psychedelic qualities as he leads us to the top of the ledge before confessing his fear of flying. This all hits like suspended, translucent light in contrast to the density of his Stones Throw output. Jon’s touch on the boards was never in question, but it’s assuring to hear his pen and flow cross the rubicon from clever to cool. Welcome back.

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Simulate the post-DatPiff rap game 1,000 times and I’m still not sure we’d ever see this current iteration of Erick the Architect’s career. A decade ago, he was most commonly recognized as the third member of Flatbush Zombies, the self-effacing producer of “Thug Waffle” that ceded verses to his more conspicuous brothers-in-arms, Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice. While New York City peers like A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$ and Issa Gold elbowed their way to instant stardom, Erick Elliott worked the subterranean, improving as both a cross-genre musician and an avant-garde visual stylist.

Despite the Zombies’ status as instant legends of the indie circuit, he moved west, established a solo act and linked up with James Blake. He’s now a festival stage mainstay and, with “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” the latest addition to the Funkadelic multiverse. Erick and George Clinton spin scripture from the blotting paper, not so much gliding over as gliding through the warbly strings of intergenerational groove. The never meet your heroes axiom gets tossed out the window when that aforementioned hero suggests splitting shrooms, buying furs and trying on sequined brigadier caps. “Everyone’s keeping secrets for oiling,” Clinton wails into the East River. “Has Ezekiel’s Wheel gone squeaky?” A statement in the form of a question, it seems.

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A cerulean expressway reveals itself from Compton to Phoenix. The opps, martyrs and mythos differ in name, but the code remains comprehensively unchanged. “Slide Wit Da Crips” traffics in brute indiscretion – you’re either in or you’re out, and you better be in – and it brings steely, contemporary expansion to a beloved West Coast archetype. This beat may have been genetically engineered for crunching Buick Riviera subwoofers. Rum Nitty is in the desert valley poled up to the gills, paranoia positioning him in nonstop attack mode, his menace smoothed out only by the sunburnt G-funk synths crawling under the hook. Geechi Gotti is posted up in the Sixties with something resembling a hockey stick that is definitely not a hockey stick. Geno Foehunnit goes dumb, then goes duck hunting. To paraphrase Geechi, when it’s real, you can tell, you can see it in their eyes. Divert your gaze if you have any outstanding questions or concerns.

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Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood has molded the current sound of music perhaps more than any three-mile radius on the planet, from Chief Keef’s intergalactic Glo Up to Lil Durk’s open-heart blues. Now for something delightfully rearview – Ann Marie’s “Hello (Nice to Meet You)” has the familiar warmth of a 106 & Park mainstay, a mid-aughts R&B/rap crossover equal parts sexy and thugged out. Side-chick accusations, jealous rages erupting through the phone…it’s a tale as old as time, just as Angela Lansbury sang it. Ann Marie’s confidence is through the roof, turning a dome to a stadium. She cooks better, she looks better, and just for fun, she flows better too. Her latest EP, Poison, is a bit all over the place, and probably by design. But “Hello” is club-ready right now, the most alluring and enchanting princess from Chicago since Tink scaled Mount Sinai.

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