Sometimes quirks can be part of a distinctive vision. It’s not an easy thing to gauge at close range. Some artists don’t figure themselves out until they’ve lost their fleeting mainstream attention. Or critics don’t realize that an insidious-seeming fad has something strange and enduring going on inside of it.
One of those situations seems to apply to “hyphy,” a Bay Area hip hop sound identified with its high-speed, trunk-rocking low end, its arcane slang and tokenism, and its infatuation with cars (it is hip hop, after all) and MDMA (really?). Starting a few years ago, a few hyphy hits got national airplay, became popular ringtones, and caused protective heads to condemn the genre as another hole in the heart of “real hip hop.” Even then, it wasn’t quite new – E-40, the scene’s most recognizable figure, has been a star since the early ’90s, working with 2Pac and heavily influencing Snoop Dogg. But SF rap didn’t really catch on this time, either. In 2007, the world has largely forgotten that West Coast hip hop exists – Angelinos Crooked I and the Game talk too much about “the new West” and “bringing the West back,” implying that it went somewhere, while the Bay plays mostly to the Bay.
About these new hyphy records, though… they’re some of the hungriest, catchiest, most innovative pop-rap discs on the market. Without a blessing from defensive NYC zealots or smugly dominant Southern drawlers, Turf Talk, E-40 and the Federation keep dropping weirder, more confident party music, maintaining the bizarre hyphy aesthetic and mythos. And now, after a lot of troublesome hold-ups, the Federation drops It’s Whateva, which might be the world’s first experimental hyphy album. It’s the White Album of hyphy! Go ahead and giggle, but if you accept that high-speed dance music can showcase ideas and artistry, this is a fun one to shuffle into an iPod.
At 21 tracks and almost 80 minutes, It’s Whateva is a sprawler, and takes a few easy outs. Sure, it indulges in a lot of the clichés that’ve been around since the first rapper looked through a window for quick freestyle material, but it also takes a lot of chances. Held together by Rick Rock’s fleet, thrilling, ominous, bottomless production, it pulls off thudding menace (“Playtime Is Over”), lax g-funk (“My Rimz”), overwhelming mutant disco (the irresistible lead single “Get Naked You Beezy”), a Tone Loc homage (“College Girl”), and, most strangely and successfully, a bitter, haunting Prince-style ballad (“When I Was Your Man”). If "Black Roses" and “Fly Away” is any indication, the Feds aren’t ready to sell glossy false-metal or serious social commentary, respectively. But they’ve got no deficit of ambition.