Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, weird tweets, fashion trends—and anything else that catches his attention.
Brooklyn-via-Florida rapper Niontay blends regional styles from around the country into his own sound
On a chilly night in May, a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd gathered at the Bowery Ballroom in New York’s Lower East Side to marvel at Mavi’s twisty, thoughtful raps. In the middle of his set, though, a mysterious guest appeared. As Mavi stepped to the side to rehydrate, he handed the mic off to a small figure with his wicks in a headwrap, who timidly strolled to the center of the stage without much of an introduction. A nearly drumless beat with No Limit-like laser-beam effects started up, and he slid into a breathless, purring cadence somewhere between the laid-back strides of a Detroit rapper like Baby Smoove and the cool-headed bounce of Cash Money’s B.G. For three minutes he hardly missed a word. Once the beat faded out, he quietly gave the mic back to Mavi and retreated to the back corner. I could feel everyone around me thinking the same thing: Who the hell is this guy?
Niontay was born in Milwaukee, moved to Central Florida as a kid, and now lives in Brooklyn. The 24-year-old’s music pulls from the South, Midwest, and East Coast equally without sounding forced. The track he performed at the Mavi show, “Thank Allah,” from his recent mixtape Dontay’s Inferno, is one of my favorite rap songs of the year—a relentless marathon of cold punchlines and flexes. His flow is all over the map, too: He can lay a stone-faced delivery over a hearty chipmunk-soul loop fit to soundtrack a downtown New York streetwear shop, or raise his pitch to Florida-fast-music levels, or unlock a Babyface Ray-style groove. Everything hits. He’s also an adaptable and shifty lyricist, loose without feeling aimless, personal but unafraid to talk some shit. Lines like “Tryna’ put my little sister in school off audio” and “Doin’ a heel flip on the way to your bitch crib” live just a couple of seconds apart on “Blitzberg.”
In July, sitting in his Flatbush bedroom, blocks away from Prospect Park, Niontay rolls up a little bit of weed on a dresser. A television mounted on the wall displays a paused session of Grand Theft Auto V. Posters of Cassius Clay and legendary Boston Celtics Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish are stuck to the walls, and a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey hangs above the bed. A cat roams around the spacious apartment, but Niontay doesn’t pay him much mind; the pet was left here by a friend who might not be coming back.
Dressed in a black tank, sweatshorts, and Adidas slides, Niontay admits that landing on Dontay’s Inferno’s blend of regional flavors wasn’t quite as effortless as it sounds. “I was struggling bro, I was overthinking it. I was telling people the project was almost done and it was nowhere near.” It wasn’t until he had a conversation with a friend that the tape started to bloom. That confidant was the New York underground rap luminary MIKE, who not only features on Dontay’s Inferno but also released the record on his 10k label. “I didn’t know which sound the tape should be, then MIKE told me, ‘Bro your strength is that you can do all that shit in one.’ After that, I locked in.”
Fiddling with the modest studio setup at his bedroom’s desk, he details the path that has led to this moment. Around age 5, he moved from Milwaukee to Central Florida with his mom, but still spent summer and spring breaks back in the 414 area. (Coo Coo Cal, one of Milwaukee’s hometown rap heroes, is his older cousin.) But after his father passed away when Niontay was 10, Kissimmee, a small city that most outsiders only know because of Disney World, became his full-time home. “Asking me about going to Disney World is like asking a New Yorker about going to New Year’s ball drop,” he jokes. He spent most of his time early on in Florida hooping and trying to stay out of trouble. The music he listened to included everything from online discoveries like Keef and Blu and Exile to around-the-way mainstays like Boosie and Ball Greezy, plus anything chopped and screwed.
In 2019, he moved to New York, getting by mostly on modeling gigs. He had tried rapping a bit back in Florida, but nothing too serious. After a drunken night freestyling in Brooklyn, he started releasing SoundCloud experiments like his breezy EP Blood Diamond with Jersey producer SUIQE. Eventually, through a friendship with D.C. rapper Sideshow, he built a bond with MIKE, leading to their fruitful creative partnership.
In early August, at Elsewhere in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Niontay graduated to a full set, opening for Sideshow. Initially he was nervous—“I fucked up off the dribble,” he told the crowd after missing an early cue—but he quickly caught a stride, doing most of Dontay’s Inferno in a hypnotic blur. This time a handful of fans knew the words—and one of them happened to be Earl Sweatshirt, mouthing along near the back of the venue. Again, “Thank Allah” hooked the room, with those who were unfamiliar looking around to make sure they weren’t the only ones dazzled. A dude near the bar summed up the overall reaction: “Yo, what the fuck was that song?”
A New York drill temperature check
As the summer winds down, New York’s fast-moving drill scene is as complicated, exciting, and misguided as ever. As the genre continues to embed itself into the city’s culture, the next generations keep coming. Lately, the song soundtracking the streets is Kyle Richh, Jenn Carter, and TaTa’s “Bent.” It’s what I hear out of car windows and at the basketball courts, and it’s even getting a little bit of radio play. The Brooklyn trio have been on a run of party anthems this year—a hard pivot away from their lame-as-fuck 2022 track “Notti Bop” (which is sadly still doing numbers). “Bent,” produced by Jersey club-rap architect MCVertt, gets my shoulders shimmying every time (I’ll let the teenagers have all the hip movements). I could stand for the BPM to be turned up a few more notches, but the vocal intensity and thrashing beat makes for a banger anyway.
Upper West Side crew Sweepers ENT.—Sdot Go, Jay Hound, NazGPG, and Jay5ive—don’t have any BPM problems. Their songs are fast and chaotic, and always make it sound like the world is about to cave in on itself. They combine full-throated deliveries and crashing, gun-click rhythms, and twist lighthearted samples into nightmares—they got A Boogie’s catchy anthem “Timeless” to sound like this. Songs like Sdot Go and Jay Hound’s “Focus Up” and “150 K” have been in my rotation all summer. Unfortunately their new group mixtape S.W.E.E.P.S. is disappointing. It feels more like a collection of songs that they could easily clear rather than the real hits.
I hope Bobby TooTact doesn’t start worrying about clearing samples anytime soon; the Harlem rapper’s drill flips of J Hus’ “Who Told U” (which includes a Mayor Adams diss that feels more resonant every day) and Byron Messia’s “Talibans” are essential.
As always, new drill phenoms continue to fall from the sky. One morning this summer, M Row just seemed to be everywhere with “Bad Day,” which shamelessly jacks Sweepers’ swagger. It represents the worst of popular drill music not only because M Row is lacking in charisma, but because he’s all about meaningless beef and disses.
If you need a palate cleanser, Kenzo B’s “BFFR” is straight-up fun as hell. The handclap-driven beat might give you war flashbacks to Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” era, but the Bronx native tears it up with some no-nonsense trash talking. And, of course, there is Ice Spice’s “Deli,” which is fine: The hook is sticky, but producer Riot’s club bounce doesn’t quite have the zip it needs. I just wish “Actin’ a Smoochie” was getting a push instead. Justice for “Actin’ a Smoochie”!
2sdxrt3all: “Pain Feel”
At first, the screamed outbursts of 2sdxrt3all—pronounced “dirtball,” somehow—will crack you up. The Newman, Georgia rapper is constantly switching between a somewhat regular, clenched-jaw flow and shouted ad-libs, making it feel like two minds are trapped in his body. I had a hard time taking it seriously. Then I listened to his recent mixtape gotta be geeked, where his bit feels less like a goofy gimmick and more like a purposeful tactic to deepen his music’s gloom. On “Pain Feel,” one of a handful of standouts, his hollering feels closer to the wounded roars of YoungBoy than the moshpit chants of Sheck Wes. Don’t get me wrong—I still can’t help but laugh at it sometimes (especially when he yells “nigga, oatmeal!”). But his jekyll-and-hyde schtick really clicks once you realize it’s silly and deadass at the same time.
Lukah: “Beautifully Blackface”
Memphis’ Lukah is a fiery rapper with a knack for fleshing out full-album concepts. His latest, Permanently Blackface (The 1st Expression), continues the streak: It’s a furious and unblinking portrait of being Black in America that diagnoses the attitudes and ideologies that inhibit racial progress. But it’s the beats that bring it all together, a collection of brooding piano riffs and doomsday drums that feel like they should be blaring out of speakers in late-’90s Queensbridge. Producer Hollow Sol’s instrumental on “Beautifully Blackface” is the best of the bunch: The drums thump, and the trembling keys capture the same ill-fated mood as gothic noir scores. Lukah is rapping as well as ever, fantasizing about a future without compromise.
This has been a banner year for producers reinventing themselves as rappers, from Lunchbox to Cash Cobain. Now we can add Jersey’s Maajins to that list. He had his breakout moment as a beatmaker in 2021, co-producing Tana and Slump6s’ viral rage sensation “Antisocial” and its remix when he was barely into his teens. As a rapper-producer he’s got a solid mixtape under his belt with this month’s teenage feelings., which polishes up his elastic melodic style. It’s not all the way there yet, but “Outlaw” has a few cool vocal moments, including soaring background ad-libs and croons that feel like they end with a shrug. But the song’s beat is still the main draw. It’s a slow-cooker with what sounds like a quavering guitar laid over the slinky noise rippling underneath—more than enough to elevate rapping that is still coming along.
Headline of the week: “Hot Boys Star B.G. Released From Prison”
Going to run back “Knock Out” to celebrate all the Hot Boys being home and healthy.