Barack Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, but Obama’s America was founded on September 2, 2008, the release date of Young Jeezy’s The Recession. The album was standard Jeezy fare–everyman coke rap laced with mid-aughts trap exuberance–but its narrative arc was unmistakable: The first track is “The Recession” and the last track is the Obama-boosting “My President.” Straight up: Obama’s America was the promised land. Then and now, it was hard to parse what Jeezy expected that promised land to offer beyond blue Lamborghinis with matching blue rims (not the worst deal, honestly), but the overall message was clear: whatever Obama’s America offered, it had to be better than Bush’s America. In 2008, the hope was real.
Eight years in, reality is realer. And you can feel it in rap. Rappers in 2016 sound buried alive, shook as hell. From its cover art to it final seconds, which feature a Ricky Litany of slain black males, YG’s Still Brazy is a hot, stifling fever dream. YG raps like he’s reporting live from a doomsday bunker. “I’m a nigga and I can’t go outside” he declares on “Blacks on Browns.” “Had to put the black gates where I live at” he announces on “Word is Bond.” His paranoia is grounded by “Who Shot Me,” where he discloses that he was shot by unknown assailants, but repeat listens reveal that Still Brazy isn’t about one man’s sudden existentialism. YG isn’t spooked by the fangs of the snakes outside his gates and possibly in his ranks. He’s shaken by the very fabric of reality. “Don’t let Donald Trump win, that nigga cancer” he pleads on “fdt,” peeking out the blinds. “There’s a war outside” has been a trope of woke rap for years, but in YG’s hands the notion isn’t just some clumsy metaphor: It’s the latest report from the neighborhood watch.
Views, Drake’s overwrought top-seller, is just as paranoid. Repeatedly, Drake alludes to evil forces working to spirit him away. “My enemies wanna be friends with my other enemies” he alleges on “Hype.” “I got a price on my head” he attests on “Weston Road Flows.” “Toast to the days when they wasn’t out to get me” he sneers on “Views.” Drake was praised for his villainous use of memes to clinch his 2015 victory against Meek Mill, but on Views, we see the toll of that tradecraft. Beneath every flipped meme is a trudge through the timeline, a fraught space where pictures of happy exes prick egos faster than thumbs can swipe. Drake has always blurred the distinction between confessions and boasts, but here the line between the two is so clear that it hurts. He tries to sound exhilarated when he raps “And I’m back inside the Matrix” on “Grammys,” but instead of that hot white room of infinite possibility, all I imagine is the Architect’s control room: one man, alone, omniscient, but utterly disconnected.
Open Mike Eagle’s experience of Obama’s America is less lonely, but just as alienating. Though Hella Personal Film Festival presents itself as a diary, every entry sprawls beyond the page, intimate yet urgently public. “No one smiles at me ‘cause I’m a black man, Mike wails on “Smiling.” “It’s your stereotype but it’s alive in my brain,” he murmurs on “Reprieve.” Mike is both monitored by the white gaze and contracted to monitor himself under its guidelines, the worst job. He reacts by withdrawing into humor, but even his jokes are touched by the specter of Obama-era surveillance: “Every time I close my eyes, a tiny Obama in a drone flies by,” he raps on “Drunk Dreaming.”
Paranoia in rap has always featured nightmarish images of death, violence, and surveillance (see “Temperature’s Rising,” “Endangered Species,” “Stick Talk”), but what makes these three albums so urgent, so 2016, is the persistent futility of technology. Open Mike Eagle constantly checks his phone even as its leads him to cringe-worthy Lena Dunham quotes and viral videos of black death (“I Went Outside Today,” “A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night”). Drake uses his phone to chronicle the growing distance between himself and an old flame, longing for a booty call that he knows will never come (“Hotline Bling”). YG builds an arsenal in anticipation of an enemy that he wouldn’t even recognize (“Still Brazy,” “Who Shot Me?”). In Silicon Valley, technology promises the future; in black America, it confirms the present.
But amazingly, even in this crazy world of legal bulk data collection, blatantly racist presidential candidates, and bomb-toting police robots, Drake, YG, and Open Mike Eagle still find ways to navigate the abyss. “Since I got popped, I purchased about 50 straps,” YG cheers on “Word is Bond,” eager for someone to step. “I had to let go of us to show myself what I could do” Drake explains to an ex on “Feel No Ways.” Unconvinced that they can vanquish their paranoia, they use it as motivation. “The world’s in my palm so I’m checking the whole Earth,” Open Mike Eagle smirks on the manic “Check to Check,” embracing his inner drone. The paranoia remains, but ultimately it’s an afterthought. When reality itself is the enemy, every breath–whether labored, anxious, or choked–becomes a fucking triumph.
Jeezy ended The Recession with “My President,” but in hindsight the more appropriate song would’ve been “Vacation.” Exhausted, he wheezes out the bridge, “Said I’m stressed out, so tired / Got to, move on,” and then lists potential vacation spots; all of his destinations hilariously turn out to be coke markets, but that’s exactly his point. Hope was real, but the trap–that hyper-tenuous space between exclusion and opportunity, poverty and promise–was always realer. Most of us, including Drake, have probably never been in the trap, but Obama’s America has felt just as fraught, paranoia penetrating our news, our relationships, our job searches, and our daily routines. Now’s it in our music.
And that’s probably a good thing, because if reality isn’t safe, the need for change is no longer abstract. It’s the only need.