Stizz, Shhnow, pizza and the pursuit of happiness

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Many qualities that recommend the city of Atlanta, and far fewer that recommend the city of Boston, but neither city can make pizza. So when the two independent contractors—the young veteran Cousin Stizz, and the ascendent young mixtape rapper Tony Shhnow—came to town for a Friday night show in Bushwick in April, I had to take them to L’Industrie, one of the very best neo-slice shops in the borough, if not the city. 

In a world where very little communication is relaxed and straightforward, the process of setting up a sit down with the touring rappers was a pleasant aberration. I didn’t encounter the customary Russian nesting doll of handlers, very little of the obnoxious back and forth over terms and conditions, no label goalies sitting in on the interview with a cautious glove hovering in front of the net, no entourage, security, artifice or bullshit. There was a lack of ceremony, a handmade intimacy to the process. 

When they rolled up that spring afternoon, their lowkey, comfortable attire matched their energy. Stizz rocked a knit hat, a Union hoodie, relaxed fit khakis and Habibi Dunks. Shhnow was in a black hoodie with a print leather jacket, gray khakis and low, gleaming, white-on-white AF1s. With the exception of Shhnow’s elaborate needlepoint neck mural, and a few key glittering signifiers you’d have to look closely to pick up on, they could’ve been working dudes comfortable blowing a whole paycheck on StockX, who wandered over from the East end of Fulton Ave for lunch. 

We were sitting at a picnic table in the shop’s enclosed, slim seating area, located on a South 2nd Street curb, just beyond the hellmouth of the Williamsburg Bridge, eating burrata slices and crushing cans of Estrella Jalisco, when I asked both artists to offer their definitions of success: what success means to them in the context of their careers, and their lives. How much of it did they want, how much of it was enough?

You could argue that all the rap that has ever been made is swag rap. But for our purposes today, the modern definition of “Swag Rap” is a specific subgenre. It is a branch off a trunk that contains traces of Snap Rap, and the strange, drug fueled, mixtape/coke rap that emanated from Atlanta from the late aughts into the 2010s. It is musical, stomping and anthemic, songs dipped in fermented honey and left out in the sun. It is rambling, at times mischaracterized as mumbling, at the very least it’s drunk and high. You could print out the lyrics to any given swag song, it would read like a pedestrian laundry list of outlandish threats and boasts, sprayed with the buckshot of nonsensical ad libs. You’d be missing the point. The secret sauce that powers the music is it is so intensely technical that it could be better explained as “Craft Rap.” The words, assembled with an architect’s precision, lean on each other like Jenga blocks, a tower of babble. A good swag rapper will stutter and moan and sing, will vamp and scat, but is slavishly devoted, tethered to the four on the floor. The magic is what happens in between. 

The rise and fall of the style is best expressed by Migos, an uncle, a nephew, and a cousin from North Atlanta who are the genre’s most successful artists in praxis, popularity, and sales.

The group beat against the glass ceiling of the industry in the years after their debut, never quite able to transfer the life and energy of their mixtapes to a proper album, until 2016. That year, forces of culture coalesced behind the growing momentum of their best and weirdest song, “Bad and Boujee”, and finally launched the trio into the stratosphere, transforming each member into a celebrity and icon. That album, Culture, debuted at number one on the Billboard Albums Chart and went platinum. Their brand of rap proliferated, reaching beyond Atlanta and becoming ubiquitous. It has since spawned its own variants and microgenres in several American rap scenes, from California to Michigan, and perhaps because of this saturation, their ensuing Culture trilogy has produced diminishing returns commercially and critically. 

And taking a long view of rap’s current landscape reveals the entire genre has fared a similar fate. There’s sunny and/or emo pop rap on one end, stretching the definitions of rap itself, scrubbed of its stylistic fingerprints like Manhattan private school kids who have dialect-coached out their accents. And for the nerds and die-hards, there’s the rambling Michigan rap and neo upstate Griselda shit, which bear little to no resemblance to swag’s once dominant, language-and-pocket obsessed hold on the charts. At least for now, in this cyclical medium, it’s a mothballed industry. I believe it’s fair to say the proverbial bloom of the art that Tony Shhnow and Cousin Stizz practice has faded from the rose.

Both artists come to swag rap, and the idea of a modern rap career, from angles as diametrically opposed as their respective corners of America. Despite recording literally everyday for nearly a decade, Stizz has practiced a disciplined, old school ethos that brings to mind the music release practices of a rockist, perfectionist 90s East Coast rapper. His albums and mixtapes, dating back to 2015, are considered, edited, polished jewels, meted out to his fanbase deliberately with long breaks in between. As a result of this care, and his undeniable talent and charisma, he achieved what was once considered the pinnacle of a traditional 90s rap career, around the same time Migos was achieving their collective apex. He signed with RCA, got a major label release, and had a hit song go national. They’ve since parted ways.

In his content, there’s the looming shadow of the father and son and holy ghost of Boston rap, Guru, who would liberally sprinkle his verses with hard earned, old soul jewels. And yet Stizz is far from a traditional East Coast rapper. At his best, he’s producing music you could dance on a couch to in Meatpacking or strip to in the Old Fourth Ward. But on his arrogant and ignorant ear worms, Stizz will occasionally wrong foot you with wisdom and universal truths that reward multiple listens. His albums have the quality of blunt sessions with a cool uncle, or perhaps, appropriately, an older, thoughtful, existential cousin. And this is why, though they couldn’t be any further apart sonically, Stizz reminds me most of Devin the Dude, the Houston rapper who both was of his city and not of this Earth, the congenial pothead lunchpail rapper that made knowable rap, whose greatest asset was his ability to convey a relatability, and a likeability, through his bars.

Going purely off entire albums available to stream off Apple Music at the time I’m writing this, Tony Shhnow has released 11 projects since the year 2020. In this approach, he’s pure Atlanta, a studio rat with ADHD, the demonseed of late aughts/early 2010s Guwop in which a triple disc concept mixtape would be a casual day in the midst of a year that you could probably attach an output of at least 365 proper songs to. 

Much of Tony’s music is spacy but lyrical, a descendent of Quavo and Takeoff and Borges. He has the mastery of pocket and tempo necessary to make accomplished swag. What separates him from the modern history of the rap coming out of his city as well as his stylistic forefathers is a sensibility smuggled in from the bizarro Soundcloud era and its cloud rap, both in his predilection for dreamy, ambient beats the Weeknd might’ve once considered sobbing over, and the brief and structureless tracks that form the majority of his catalog. A long Tony Shhnow song could potentially exceed two minutes. A Tony Shhnow hook is typically more of a refrain you might hear once. 

But in spite of all these contrasts, the two rappers share a stylistic underpinning that aligns when putting their bodies of work side by side. One is a Southern influenced East Coast rapper, the other an East Coast influenced Southern rapper. They cite the same formative influences: Wayne’s run as the best rapper alive, the aforementioned, unprecedented, maximalist Gucci mixtape period, Future pre-Pluto, Trap or Die era Jeezy and other neighbors and peers that made music within this milieu. 

As articulated by Shhnow and bumper stickered by Cousin Stizz, you might refer to their work as “TrapPack”: A warm, fun, lyrically inclined nerd rap that plays comfortably on any street corner. Rawkus tinted Rap-A-Lot. A backpack in which the laptop, the heavily scribbled in marble composition book, the grinder and the grabba leaves coexist with the glock, the scale, and a circa 2007 Drama tape. 

It’s why with a little thought, there’s logic to the rapper from Massachusetts making the decision to embark on a national tour with the rapper from Georgia, and making the agreement to do so with a few casual texts exchanged directly between the two young men one night a few months earlier. As Shhnow explained to me at one point during our conversation, “If my fans didn’t know who Stizz was, they know by the end of the night. And if Stizz fans didn’t know me? They know me by the end of the night.” Regardless of how good the business decision is (I think it makes quite a bit of sense), it’s a better life goal: To go on tour with a friend whose music you respect, sure, but more importantly, who you’re comfortable hanging out with regularly, on the humble.

I’ll admit I came into our conversation with an agenda. I wanted to use my access to understand what it’s like to be an artist at Shhnow and Stizz’s exact level of fame. When I pitched this piece around, it was rejected by the other editors I shopped it to on the grounds that these artists were “too niche” for their publications. It is perhaps a polite dodge from a writer whose work they’re uninterested in, but also a potentially fair assessment of how the industry currently views these two rappers. I was interested in learning how they felt about their prescribed current level of fame and how they coped with those perceived limitations.

The retail quality I experienced in setting up an interview with Stizz and Shhnow extends to their approach to their music and the relationships they maintain with their followings. There are no casual Cousin Stizz or Tony Shhnow fans. Shhnow views making music like selling drugs: “No cap, in the trap I had good customer service. Deadass, I had the best quality shit that was consistently there, so I just look at it like that. I’m consistently there for my fans. I’m gonna drop all the time. I’m gonna interact and all that. Whatever you request? I’m gonna try and give it to you. If you want a feature from me, I’m gonna try to pursue that. You want me to work with a certain producer? You want me to work with a certain director? I’m gonna try to get that done, as if I’m in the trap and you wanted this certain type of strain or whatever.”

The rappers are both incredibly ambitious and hungry to “graduate” to the “next stage” of their careers. Tony’s answer to my initial question of goals in terms of career and the nature of success is that he wants to “buy his city”, or at least his road. Stizz’s is a vague and noble future in which he has enough “to take care of everybody I need to take care of and not think about it no more. Whenever I get to whatever that level is, when I can take care of my people and not worry about anything? I’m straight.” In this, he’s stating a belief that there is a dollar amount a human being can make that will erase worry. He and Tony know it is a long time and several million dollars away, but in fact attainable if they could just grind a little harder, run faster, stretch out their arms further.

To me, it sounds like a moving goal post. That a few million dollars from now, in their already remarkable careers, the checking account balance that each artist believes would satisfy them will still be a few million away. A utopian conception of cure-all wealth that can never truly be resolved. Something I wouldn’t bother trying to explain to them as an older person, because it’s something you have to go through and that no one can tell you, is this all goes very quickly, and it’s entirely possible wherever unimaginable places their careers take them, they may be surprised when they look back on Fridays like these, when they were young and ascendant and just barely making a living off their art, about to take the stage at a small venue in Bushwick, laughing over pizza and afternoon beers with their friends and a random reporter in stoned anonymity, and realize it never got any better than this. 

From a distance, wealth appears to be a great smoother of things, an insulation from the casual aggravations and pain of life that may just wind up replacing itself with smaller and pettier aggravations and pain that feels just as large and real when you finally make it to the mountaintop. At one point, Stizz told me, “I don’t think money makes you not happy, I don’t think fame makes you not happy. I think the choices and the way you deal with shit does. I could be depressed right now, rich or poor. Rap or no rap, it’s how you choose to deal with it. If you know who you are, it doesn’t really affect where you’re going. I could get a million dollars and sit in my crib.” 

I suggest that this sentiment perhaps ignores a common and tragic narrative running through the modern history of American fame, in which nearly everyone who achieves the level of fame, success and wealth Stizz is imagining, regardless of initial socioeconomic standing, gender, race, or orientation, is brutally and mercilessly gripped by this insatiable monkey’s paw that grants the holder their every wish and wrecks inconceivable havoc and devastation on their lives and mental health. But both Stizz and Shhnow insist this is simple user error, that money couldn’t possibly change their worldviews or mindstates. That when they are given their opportunity, they will solve the crisis of modern fame. And I’m a schmuck incredibly lucky to be sharing a picnic table with them, so I let it go. 

But listening back to our conversation, I half suspect their advertised ambition is a function of youth. A story they have to tell themselves to continue to grow their lives and careers. Stizz and Shhnow seem to understand they could theoretically at least try to make music that would give them better opportunities to achieve the fame and accompanying wealth they claim to desire, but the temerity of that idea also seems remote and offensive. Moving on from RCA helped move Stizz’s emphasis in the process of making music. His concentration immediately shifted from making one or two songs he believed his label might consider hits, to simply doing the best with the material in front of him. You can tell he greatly prefers this latter model of expectation-free creation. What they’re explaining is an artist’s integrity, the refusal to compromise art for pieces of silver. That they’ve been able to amass a following and build the promising career they have, given this standard, is remarkable. They are rap’s Crash Davis, “RAPPER’S RAPPERS” who make serious, honest music (even when it’s fun and playful). 

It’s why I’d guess, if they were being honest with themselves, what they’d realize is what they crave, perhaps what we all crave, isn’t money or fame, but freedom. They want the time and space to be inspired, and to share the fruits of that inspiration with the world on their own terms.

Sometimes I think what hastened the American slide from semi scalable Capitalism to grim and dystopian Late Capitalism was a collective refusal to accept what a “reasonable” level of accomplishment afforded us in this country under the old graduated income tax with a spine of moderating oversight. It was succumbing, unapologetically, to the wholesale embrace of greed and excess. We all criticize Reagan for his many crimes, but we seem to have digested his politics, philosophies, and the way we view our lives and careers on an individual level. There’s an emphasis even the most altruistic and left-leaning of us seem to place on promotion, expansion, and accumulation. There will always be another book to write, a post to go viral, a follower to gain, a better job, a better life. Artists are of course not immune to this carcinogen of thought, but I wonder if for them, as for us, there are happy middles to exist in, and if maybe Stizz and Shhnow will find it, and if maybe they already have. 

At one point I asked the rappers whose career they admire, who they want to be like one day. Stizz runs the gamut with Jay-Z, Nipsey, and Curren$y. Shhnow says Master P, who built an independent local empire with his friends and family, but pushes back on the idea of starting his own label, with an important caveat that coheres with my projection of both artists: “I don’t want to finesse anybody out their craft. I’m really against that shit. I’d keep it on some distribution shit, like ‘I got the plug’, you feel me? I ain’t trying to lock nobody up. I want everyone to win. I feel like there’s so much money out here, there’s so many possibilities, being musicians.”

But I think that if I were posed my own question, if I could choose any current rap career in this industry I’d want for myself, at least on a shallow and passive level from the outside looking in, I might opt for either Cousin Stizz or Tony Shhnow. 

The venue rests on a now vital, once remote strip in Bushwick, off the Jefferson L stop. It’s a 500 person capacity oasis that feels like an Emirates petro oligarch tax dodge. The financials are all out of whack. It would appear any money the “business” could’ve hoped to make in the immediate aftermath of the next few post pandemic years, which it opened in the middle of, went to a several million dollar lighting program, with the rest going towards a robust public relations campaign. It’s not that the venue is bad, quite the opposite. It’s Oz. It’s a Vegas strip club fantasia with Michael Bay production values. It doesn’t make any sense in context.

The floor, for both the opener Shhnow, and headliner Stizz, is medium. At best 30% full, and it reluctantly dawns on me that perhaps, at least sometimes, the editors I’m pitching to are smarter than I am and see things I either can’t see or refuse to acknowledge. Like most of the rap shows I’ve ever been to in Brooklyn, the crowd is predominantly male, nodding in unison, tirelessly keeping arms waving in the air, synced to every lyric both Shhnow and Stizz deliver.

With the possible exception of the many New York v. Boston sporting events I’ve attended in my life, I’ve never been in a space packed with more dudes in C’s button downs, Sox bullpen jackets, and Pats jerseys. It’s a crowd with intention. They know what they’re here for. They’re an easy bunch to make sport of, but something that can’t be criticized was their very real and tangible love. I would guess at least a handful of those grungy Boston rap dudes, those walking marks, would tell you that Friday was the best night of their young lives, and really mean it.   

For certain artists, particularly these artists in Bushwick on this night, a degree of obscurity can work as a filter, cheese cloth lining a fine mesh sieve. It reaps wheat from chaff, removes the impurities: the casuals, the rubberneckers gawking at a spectacle with no emotional attachment, the “haters”, leaving only people who are there, not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

The idea of the cultural monolith is dead in our increasingly atomized and polarized country, but as I watched the show and its fervent revelers, I wondered, what if the margins of culture have become a more comfortable and enjoyable plane of existence? It’s antithetical to a modern reading of American fame and capitalism, but I thought about our lunch hours earlier, then watched each artist on stage, being showered by unqualified love and adoration by their collective fanbase in a show that won’t be covered breathlessly by every major culture outlet in the city, trying out a number of sensationlized idiotic takes. I couldn’t help but feel that in fact, to be stage left, just apart from rap and culture’s central dialogue, is the true desirable position we’re all missing. 

There’s no hand wringing over what this all means, or what this is all for. They’re two moderately successful rappers with impeccable Q ratings, who have made a career off swag rap, which in and of itself has always been a rather joyful, language obsessed, technician’s interpretation of the medium. It’s a style that was engineered to attract nerds and vibe hunters, feel-great weed smoke and head knock music, and that was very much indicative of the room I found myself in that Friday evening. 

Stizz is a slight figure who imposes a major presence on stage, a performer who shows his years of major label polish. He was bouncing to his cacophonous beats, commanding the room in a way that few rappers even attempt to anymore. There was only a DJ behind him playing his tracks, loud but not drowning his vocals, and there was Tony, who opened, then after a few blunts, joined Stizz on stage, not to perform or hold a mic, just to serve as a silhouette vibing in the background, there not for us, or even Stizz, but himself, enjoying the show and showing silent support for his friend.

Stizz stalked the stage decorated with a Jesus piece, crowned by a Red Sox hat with a Trini flag patched over an ear. After the show, I’d ask both Stizz and Tony how they felt about the crowd and their performances. They told me they were happy to be in New York, happy to get reps in, and happy to simply be here in the world, getting paid to perform. And perhaps they were being honest. 

But many years from now, what I’ll remember is the great Cousin Stizz, a consummate professional, tearing down this small venue in the middle of nowhere in northeast Brooklyn, feeding his few, intensely loyal fans nothing but energy and oxygen. 

I close my eyes and there’s his electric visage, perched with a knee up on a speaker, spitting with aggression into the mic then taking a beat, looking out over his dominion triumphantly, doing what he loves. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll never again be as young, or as powerful, or as good as he is at this moment. Right now, I can see his white shirt, and the glittering fronts shielding his wide smile, cast gold in the golden light.

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