Twenty years ago this spring, Warren G released Regulate…G Funk Era, a triple-platinum album that helped enshrine the louche, laid-back sound of West Coast hip-hop—“funked out with a gangsta twist,” as his homey Nate Dogg put it. But that era soon fizzled, and after Tupac was killed in ’96, the California scene met with a different funk: years-long commercial doldrums. Only the Game, a Dr. Dre protégé whose three No. 1 albums are thick with early-to-mid-’90s nostalgia, broke through in the meantime. But the gin-and-juice hangover finally seems to be lifting, as gritty California rappers sidestep or reinvent G-funk and barge back into the mainstream.
Earlier this month, South Central L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q went to No. 1 with his shadowy, ferocious third album, Oxymoron. As the resident gangsta in the Black Hippy collective led by Kendrick Lamar—last year’s most obsessed-over rapper—Q brings a sharp new ambivalence to Tupac’s idea of the thug life. He raps not only about dealing Oxycontin but also about becoming addicted to Xanax, Percocet, and Valium. On the harrowing “Prescription/Oxymoron,” he even splices in a recording of his young daughter trying to wake him from a drug stupor.
If the dazzling shape-shifter Kendrick is on L.A.’s frontier, the gruff, brutally honest Schoolboy Q represents the West Coast’s uncompromising core. “Real Crippy since I hopped off the swing” is how he sums up his early gang links on “The Purge,” which deliberately teams him with ’90s California notable Kurupt and Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator (whose crew remains more underground, breakout R&B star Frank Ocean aside). Still, Q doesn’t take himself too seriously: On “Studio,” Oxymoron’s wry love song, he skips the sex “metaphors” and explicitly mimics what else he can do with his tongue.
When YG (pictured)—a Compton upstart with a rugged major-label debut, My Krazy Life, and a long simmering top 20 single, “My Hitta”—reveals his romantic side, he’s no less blunt or amusing. “Do It to Ya” borrows its pillow talk from the playground, and its convivial groove from “Let’s Play House” by Tha Dogg Pound. YG’s less evolved than Schoolboy Q, who guests on Krazy along with Kendrick and big names including Drake and Jeezy, his mentor. But he’s a vivid, unflappable MC, bolstered by key L.A. producer DJ Mustard, the buoyant minimalist who also worked up Tyga’s 2011 smash “Rack City.” If there’s a Compton sound right now, this is it.
The Bay Area’s just as crucial to West Coast hip-hop, of course. 100s, a permed pimp-rap revivalist from Berkeley, pays tribute to Too $hort on the silky, slightly ridiculous mixtape Ivry. But the region’s latest star is the 21-year-old rapper-producer Sage the Gemini. Remember Me, his club-tailored major-label bow, shores up his two radio smashes, the stripped-down twerk anthems “Red Nose” and “Gas Pedal,” with a stream of pulsing beats and drowsy vocals. “I’m trying to keep this here alive,” he raps, calling himself “the Bay’s respirator” on the (actually pretty great) Justin Bieber remix of “Gas Pedal.” But this isn’t thug life support. The California rap contingent has birthed a whole new era.