RJ’s music comes from the heart of Los Angeles, and his latest for YG’s and DJ Mustard’s label bumps and snaps like summer in a way only West Coast artists can portray.
Regionalism in hip-hop is one of its greatest achievements. These sounds and signifiers tie together generational experiences like time capsules of micro-cultures contained within a larger unique one. Though the homogenized internet has rendered some regional (mostly southern) sounds ubiquitous, West Coast hip-hop hasn’t wavered. From L.A. to the Bay, their respective styles, both characterized by funky lowrider basslines, have outlasted commercial assimilation without getting swallowed up and regurgitated ad nauseam. It is in this lane, along this open stretch of California highway, where RJ shines.
The Los Angeles rapper first captured his city with a slew of local hits—the biggest being his 2015 single “Get Rich”—that proved his mettle without a major label or blog cosigns. Now, with steady assists from his 400 Summers label heads YG and DJ Mustard he uses MrLA to expand his sound, replacing some of the street-acclaimed grittiness of his O.M.M.I.O. mixtapes with radio-ready selections. He’s aiming for clubs far beyond Cali when he declares he “came a long way to ball in your section” on lead single “Brackin.”
MrLA feels like summer in a way only West Coast artists can portray. It’s spacious and carefree but never far removed from the season’s more sinister side. It opens with a FaceTime call inviting him to the set with the promise of dice games and other festivities. As RJ heads out of the house, a souped up car starts as “Blammer” morphs into the soundtrack of rolling through the hood, windows down, the sun beaming. The single-note piano and stripped down g-funk courtesy of DJ Mustard and frequent collaborator Authentic coupled with RJ’s cautionary melodies set the perfect scene—at once laid back and urgent.
Authenticity bleeds through RJ’s lyrics, never betraying the truth of his own tangled existence for better and worse. On “Want Me Broke,” he confesses being “stuck swinging in between unity and egos,” a recurring theme throughout. He isn’t encouraging trouble, but he’s prepared for it nevertheless, always one foot in and one foot out. It’s fitting for an artist who, in a 2015 interview with L.A. Weekly, acknowledged the potential for stereotyping. “People have different moods and do different things in a regular day, so why judge them in only one light?” he said. “I’m not just a gangsta rapper. I go through different moods, and the music reflects that.”
MrLA resists the urge to stay in only one pocket. The Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Is It Mine” ventures towards the breezy pop lands Ty and Mustard are already familiar with. “Blindfold,” which shares half of its real estate with Migos’ Quavo, finds RJ dabbling in dirty south swagger he undoubtedly picked up from his time in Atlanta. Unsurprisingly, he’s at his best when’s basking in hometown pride. The “Gin and Juice” sample and Schoolboy Q feature on “Hennebeeto” are shameless in its dignified L.A. rap roots to create one of the album’s more memorable tracks. The sturdy production of RJ mainstays Larry Jayy and Swish, the latter who also anchored YG’s Still Brazy in Mustard’s absence, also help give the album continuity.
The bittersweet quality of regional rap is knowing that no matter how loud you play it or how hard it rattles the speakers—or, worse, earbuds outside of car-centric cities—it’s not hitting the way it does at home. RJ’s music, like that of his predecessors, is an esoteric experience, a vehicle thrusting listeners into a world not their own but just accessible enough to enjoy. Fleeting as the summer, MrLA is over quickly—the details become fuzzy and only standout moments remain as nostalgia sets in. Fortunately, in this case, a 270-day wait isn’t required to run it back.