It’s fitting that it took a West Coast rapper — specifically one from Los Angeles, California — to bring the craft of jacking for beats full circle. When Ice Cube first coined the term and the practice in 1990, he probably had no idea it would become a trend rap would never grow out of. Yet, here we are, nearly 30 years later, with notable names throughout the genre clamoring for a piece of a beat from the rapper that Cube called “an acquired taste, but when you get it, it’s fire.”
So far, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Soulja Boy, Tyga, YG, and Young MA have all gone in over Blueface’s surprise success, “Thotiana,” either through appearances on its official remixes or on their own attention arresting freestyles. Their contributions have helped it steadily gain momentum in the past four weeks to climb all the way into the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s top 20. The song, produced by a veritable unknown producer, Scum Beats, and residing on his debut mixtape, Famous Cryp, shows no signs of slowing down commercially. More than that, though, it’s become rap’s first breakthrough single of the year, and possibly the genre’s first true multi-generational, cross-category favorite in nearly a decade.
That might sound like a big claim to make, but when was the last time so many rappers, from rookies to vets, encompassing pop rap, gangsta rap, and sensibilities both contemporary and throwback all wanted to jump on the same beat? There hasn’t been a culture-shifting song with so much gravitational pull in hip-hop since “Exhibit C,” the 2009 Jay Electronica single that heralded the expected coming of one of rap’s generational talents and flooded the internet with dozens of freestyles, remixes, and rip-offs from nearly every notable name in rap.
Seriously, name any 2000s-era rapper. There’s a reasonable chance they had their name an “Exhibit C” freestyle floating around. Big KRIT? Yup. Cassidy? Sure. Fabolous? Of course. Papoose? You know it. Jay Electronica and Just Blaze had happened upon one of those cultural moments that gets remembered as an instant classic, one of those songs that everyone just had to be or have a part of — even if only a dimly received, not quite well-timed sliver of it.
Now, I’m not saying that “Thotiana” is exactly like that. For one thing, despite my staunch defense of Blueface’s, err, unconventional flow, I don’t think that anyone will argue that he’s the lyrical mastermind that Jay Electronica is, least of all Blueface himself. Where Jay Elec set that bar high enough that it almost seemed a challenge to all takers to try and match or surpass the feats of wordplay he delivered on “Exhibit C,” Blueface’s flow “Thotiana” is about as serious as its goofily punned title. Naturally for the era, it’s become a phenomenon as much for the energetic dance accompanying it on Instagram and the “Emo Blueface” meme as for anything Blue actually says on the track.
Yet, that same magnetism, that same momentum, that same vibrational shift in the way we perceive hip-hop seems to be swirling around Blueface today the same way it did Jay Electronica in 2009 — or to take it back further, Clipse in 2002, after the similarly intense gravity of their lunchroom table demolishing single “Grindin’” (intriguingly, Young MA also obliterated that beat as well in recent weeks, establishing herself as rap’s reigning champion beat jacker). Whether you like it or not, Blueface has the rap game’s attention in a cobra clutch right now.
This is another place where it’s possible for his and Jay Electronica’s paths to diverge. Despite a near deafening buzz surrounding his name in 2009, Jay eventually allowed all of that momentum to peter out without releasing so much as a five-song EP to validate it. He hasn’t put out any more than one or two tracks a year since, and the returns have seemingly diminished as well. The most notable thing we got out the brief but bright regency of Jay Electronica on rap’s Iron Throne (which was, indeed, short like leprechauns) was a Sprite commercial. Yikes.
This is where Blueface has to pay attention to the details to ensure he delivers on the promise of his snowballing hit. Like Jay before him, the incandescence of his ridiculously successful first major hit threatens to outshine his personal glow. The flame that flares brightest often burns out the fastest. Rap has more than its share of one-hit wonders who are better known for wishing they were ballers or praising the Bronx (“Uptown, baby!”) than carving out lasting legacies in the still growing genre. If Blueface doesn’t want to be one of them, he needs to follow-up with a project that proves his rise wasn’t a fluke.
But even if he doesn’t, having this moment wouldn’t be the worst thing. After all, with so many of his prominent peers itching to get a piece of his song, it’s a lock that “Thotiana,” like “Exhibit C” and “Grindin’” before it, will be a moment that hip-hop fondly looks back on. And like its forebears, there will be no doubt about who brought it into the spotlight, even as rap fans debate keep up the eternal debate: Who ripped it best? For my money, you can’t get better than the original.