For many casual hip-hop fans, the term “West Coast hip-hop” is synonymous with “gangsta rap.” The often controversial and explicit lyrics of artists such as N.W.A., Ice T, and Snoop Dogg propelled gangsta rap into the spotlight in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s, and the sound came to embody all that the West Coast had to offer. Those who have delved deeper into hip-hop, though, recognize that, while gangsta rap is an important part of West Coast hip-hop, there exist a number of other subgenres that cannot be overlooked. For starters, California boasts a rich alternative hip-hop community, with groups such as Jurassic 5 and Souls of Mischief paving the way; while Dre and Snoop were busy spitting misogynistic verses detailing their sexual exploits, Pharcyde switched things up on “Passing Me By” by rapping about the women who evaded their love. And of course, it’s important not to discount the movement that took hold in the Bay Area in the 90s, with E-40 and Keak Da Sneak showing listeners how to get hyphy. The bottom line is that West Coast hip-hop can take on a variety of meanings, so when I heard that Co$$ was considered by LA Times to be “Los Angeles’s most underrated rapper,” I was unsure of what to expect from his debut album.
Co$$ certainly has an element of gangsta rap in his music, as he doesn’t shy away from repping the California streets that birthed him. He does so, though, with creative rhymes and a flexible delivery that helps him avoid the clichÃ©s and simplistic lyrics that often plague mainstream hip-hop today. On “Khakis and Taylors,” over aggressive synths and hardcore drums, Co$$ pays homage to the lifestyle he grew up with, rapping “Sippin’ that 4-0, runnin’ with four oz./ Runnin’ from po-pos, hoppin’ over fence like a pogo.” One of his hardest verses is found on the head-bobbing track “Da Meanest,” as he spits “I’m killa-Cali raised but they knew that/Try to change my killa-Cali ways I be goin’ over heads like a doo rag.”
Co$$ is far from a one-dimensional rapper, though, and the depth of both the beats and lyrics on “Before I Awoke” keep things sounding fresh throughout. The lead single “Spaceman” features a flowing jazz piano, as well as a high-pitched synth on the chorus straight out of the g-funk era, that mesh with Co$$’s laid back delivery. “Pot Ash” is even jazzier, with a crooning trumpet sample and soft piano keys that give the track a nostalgic feel as he reflects on his father’s death. Co$$ also slows things down on “Love Is,” looking back on past failed relationships and lamenting the one that got away. Perhaps the catchiest song, though, is the album’s opening track, “Risen,” as the spacy gliding synths lay the foundation for a truly majestic beat. Co$$’s steady flow never falters, and his seamless transition between the chorus and the verses allows the listener to get lost in the music.
At this point, it is clear that Co$$ is a step above your average emcee, and he brings a fresh and insightful perspective on love, life, the streets, and even religion. The main drawback of “Before I Awoke,” then, lies not in the rhymes but in the beats. There are times when it feels like there is simply too much going on, as certain instruments overpower the rest of the track and take away from the lyrics. “10-4,” for example, features a constant ear-splitting electronic synth that makes it hard to actually pay attention to what Co$$ has to say, and I found myself quickly skipping over the song. There’s nothing wrong with complexity in hip-hop beats, but a hailstorm of sounds coming at the listener can make it difficult to appreciate the music.
Luckily, the few shortcomings don’t take away from the fact that “Before I Awoke” is a polished debut album from the up-and-coming emcee, bringing a fresh sound to West Coast hip-hop. Co$$ blends jazz hip-hop, gangsta rap, g-funk, and electronica together to create a unique sound, and his sharp delivery and ability to switch things up on the mic ensure that he can keep up with the wide range of beats. What’s more, Co$$ isn’t afraid to dig down and explore his personal issues, giving the album a raw and authentic feel that separates it from most mainstream rap today. Throw in guest appearances from Blu and Aloe Blacc, among others, and “Before I Awoke” is enough to wet any hip-hop fan’s appetite. Simply put, if Co$$ isn’t LA’s most underrated rapper, then I don’t know who is.