Long before the Migos flow saturated the FM dial, a Vallejo rapper named Mac Dre was perfecting the absurdist call-and-response. Now, more than a decade after Dre’s untimely passing, the Bay Area has another promising hip-hop hero: Nef The Pharaoh, a young E-40 protégé hailing from the Valley-Jo.
Nef’s 2017 mixtape, The Chang Project, is unmistakably a Bay Area affair. But Nef demonstrates his broader ambitions from the jump, merging 707 swag with prevailing trends in chart-topping hip-hop. The lead track, “Chang You Are My Life,” features production that borrows from the Dirty South: trilling, rapid-fire hi-hats, screwed-down vocal manipulations, and a spacey, EDM-inflected sheen. However, the song’s bass line makes it clear that Neffie remains loyal to his hometown. It’s raspy, raw, and undeniably buoyant, recalling some of the grittiest passages from the Luniz’s seminal Operation Stackola and the bacchanal energy of Mac Dre’s “Feelin’ Myself.”
If “Chang You Are My Life” fuses ’90s Bay grooves and modern trap flourishes, the tape’s second track, “Out There,” grafts tropical bass tones onto a golden-era East Coast classic, merging a clonking marimba melody with the shimmying, tribal beat from Busta Rhymes’ innovative 1997 track “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
Although The Chang Project makes gestures of respect to those who have come before, it also looks with determination toward the future. Nef’s biggest name collaborator, Ty Dolla $ign, is applied appropriately on the Architekz-produced “Back Out,” the mixtape’s unabashed lovemaking anthem. Here, Ty croons over another reverberant tropical bass beat, spitting the kind of autotuned lines (“the booty got a mind of its own”) that only he could hope to sing with a straight face.
While Nef the Pharaoh is best known for party songs, The Chang Project proves that he has range. Throughout the tape, Nef repeatedly reminds the listener of the bleak realities of his hometown, though he’s never more direct than he is on “LOE Gino’s Interlude.” Featuring Berkeley MC LOE Gino, the contemplative song gives a shout-out to Maya Angelou and laments violence, generational trauma, and the paralyzing fear of police brutality.
Still, there’s little doubt Neffie knows how to turn up. Case in point: “Bling Blaow,” The Chang Project’s strongest track by far. With a bombastically simple chorus (“Look at my neck / Bling! Blaow!”) and a fiery guest verse from SOB x RBE’s Slimmy B, the song exemplifies Nef’s ability to seamlessly integrate a multitude of styles, from Mac Dre’s sardonic uptalk to flashy triplet flows.
It may just be the perfect bridge between the North Bay and North Atlanta.
We’ll be posting our top ten local albums of 2017 everyday through Dec. 22. Check back here to see which other albums made our list.