Spitting Game

Oakland’s Gen Z rap sets a new standard in hip-hop

Oakland has never had a shortage of rap talent. Whether it’s Too $hort’s Born to Mack in 1987, Soul of Mischief busting flows from 93 ’Til Infinity or Mistah F.A.B. on Da Baydestrian in 2007, there are decades’ worth of crates delivering Bay Area slaps.

The Millennial internet age is no different. Oakland, with social media’s rise, continues to produce heavy hitters in the industry, including ALLBLACK, Kamaiyah and G-Eazy, who’ve collectively garnered just as much—if not more—global popularity than their forebears.

With each turn of the rhyme-book’s page, each generation adds their own flavor, style and sound to the history of our region’s world-respected rap scene, while honoring the pioneers.

Now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to spit game and share what they’ve got on their minds. Though still young and largely undefined, today’s generation is beginning to speak out and share their life stories on albums, giving us a fresh dimension into the lives of Oakland’s youth, circa 2021. Undoubtedly, this age group has entered a much more fragmented world of hyper-reality, since they’ve only known a life of iPhones, Netflix, Tik Tok, Spotify and YouTube, all while witnessing the first Black president, surviving a near collapse of our social systems with Trump in office, and of course, attending high school virtually for the past 12 months.

In many ways, they have lived through the same tribulations as generations before them, while also navigating new set of obstacles; it’s as if they’re learning how to redefine society like a chain code algorithm that morphs by the day. Perhaps more than ever, our times visibly demand a youth leadership movement.

That’s where two of Oakland’s rising teens—Jwalt and Nito—emerged to claim their spots among their generation’s best, and to provide a platform to showcase the lives they’re living. The young lyricists are at the forefront of the city’s most recent wave of rap talent, and each released a successful debut album—Jwalt’s Sincerely Yours and Nito’s Tears in the Rain—during the pandemic.

“I really wanted to give an insight into who I am, as Justin Walton,” 19-year-old Jwalt says. “I touched on topics like mental illness to relationships to family to where I want to be in hip-hop. I wanted to tell a story with different aspects of me and where I’m going so my people could relate.”

Rather than buying into the trendier sounds and topics that seem to be synonymous with Oakland’s rap history, these two young men are taking a different approach by sticking to the more lyrical, jazzier and foundational elements of the game, while giving nods to their biggest influences.

“I want to put on for the entire Bay,” Nito, a 19-year-old Mexican American from East Oakland, says. “But I also have a sense of different production styles and sounds, like jazz. I don’t think Oakland rappers get enough credit for being lyrical, but we definitely have bars out here.”

They’re well-versed in the rap world, giving credit to local artists such as Hieroglyphics, E-40, Larry June and Iamsu, but also acknowledging influences including Lauryn Hill, Common and Kanye West. Their respective sounds incorporate everything from’ 80s G-funk sound to ’90s boom-bap aesthetics to dropping ’05 hyphy references while crediting modern artists like Kendrick Lamar.

And though they’re young enough to still be in a high school or college undergrad classroom, they have hella wisdom to impart.

“I’m honestly not trying to be the best of all time, because everyone has a different standard for that,” Nito says. “If anything, I just want to be the best version of myself, and hopefully others can see themselves reflected in that.”

In paying close attention to Nito’s music, I encountered the young Chicano’s tender, introspective wonderings about the world. Though he references things like violence and death in his community—the album is actually dedicated to a friend he lost too soon, due to an opioid overdose—he never plays into it. Rather than reinforcing the worst aspects of his surroundings, which are often glorified in street rap, he chooses to speak against negativity while searching for a path forward into a healthier, happier and more uplifting lifestyle for him and his family.

“There’s a lot of questions in this album that I couldn’t answer,” he says. “Like, finding faith. But I tried to get to a point of better understanding. My parents are Mexican, so I had to figure out a lot about this country for myself, and my music is like therapy for that.”

Songs like “Sacrifices” and “Momma’s Boy” exemplify his optimistic-yet-tempered spirit—the perspective of someone who still maintains unwavering hope, despite seeing tough days. His lyrics encapsulate what many Gen Zers endure on a daily basis; they are like an instruction manual on how to avoid being crushed by the overwhelming flood of imagery and temptations on flashing screens, while finding a sense of purpose, joy and individuality among it all.

Nito’s vulnerability shows itself again in “Can’t Cry,” an elegiac track in which the lyricist genuinely contemplates his sadness and mourning: “Bitterness and pain I’m holding in / and it always grows within / due to all the evil sh*t in life I hope it f*cking ends.” He goes on to outline the struggle of not being able to express his emotions without being treated as “a coward,” seeing teens his age resort to drugs and getting pregnant, and experiencing stress similar to a war veteran’s PTSD. His poetry reminds me of a young Tupac; a broken-but-still-exuberant philosopher analyzing his environment.

Though there are some upbeat tracks, like “Funk You Up,” the album is mostly an unfiltered look into the mind and heart of an East Oakland teenager wondering about mortality, societal ills and mental health. The Gen Z rapper rarely uses offensive language, while employing complex rhyme schemes and soundscapes that would feel right at home on an early Del the Funky Homosapien or 3x Krazy album.

Similarly, Jwalt flexes intelligent bars to dissect a complex sense of his modern teenage self as a product of growing up in Oakland. A proud Black scholar who graduated from Oakland School for the Arts and currently attends New York University, Jwalt’s first full-length project, Yours Truly, touches on ideas of love, self-care and emotional fragility.

Whereas Nito’s focus is anchored in the love of friends and community, Jwalt’s admiration is narrated as a blossoming relationship between himself and a young woman, while also acknowledging his city at-large.

A spoken-word artist, Jwalt’s lineage flows from page to stage in his cadence and diction. His “Intro” track, a confessional poem, introduces readers to an eclectic portrayal of himself through his astrological background, his anxiety and his endless search for meaning through hip-hop. It’s a dedication and a love letter, one he even directs to his future son with a set of instructions for him upon entering society as a Black kid.

“We need to focus on things that matter, like how we’re feeling or what we’re going through, especially as young men of color and the genre we’re in,” Walton says. “It’s kinda rare to see young men of color talking about what they’re going through or their emotions. A lot of people mask that up.”

His album functions like a movie in which we follow Jwalt as he attends his classes—in “School Freestyle (Tribute to Nip) [Interlude],” his classmate drops a beat on the lunch table—and tries to develop a deeper connection with his female interest (“Girl of My Dreams”), all while continuing to declare his love for her and for the Bay, before signing off with his single, “The Kid,” a coda that acts as a thesis statement to remind listeners who he is as a person and how that fuels his creative growth.

After splashing onto the scene in 2018’s Best of Thizzler Cypher video—where Jwalt kills the instrumental with a tribute verse about Bay Area greats like Mac Dre and the Jacka—he steadily ascended. The teenage emcee followed up his album release in 2021 by dropping his newest single, “The Taking,” which ESPN featured on its NBA promotional commercials. Walton also recently signed and partnered with Create Music Group, a music distribution company with clients including Snoop Dogg, Tory Lanez, Migos and Trippie Redd.

“It’s huge; I hope others can continue to do this from hearing our music, and do it their own way,” Walton says. “We’re painting a new picture of what it means to be young men of color from Oakland, and what we go through on a day-to-day basis like regular people, feel me?”

Though Nito has yet to reach Jwalt’s commercial level—Walton has already performed with Nas and Wu Tang Clan—he’s just as driven and is proud of his underground status, which is a part of his identity as a young man trying to find balance in a world of glorified imagery.

“I’m not really on social media; I’m tuned out, it’s not my thing,” he says. “I do waste hella time on Twitter, not gonna lie, but social media poses a challenge that no other generation has had to deal with like us. But the more we get to the basics, like what makes us human, there’s always gonna be a connection. If hip-hop grows, the world grows with us.”

The two young men exude a sense of self confidence, but never cockiness; both allow their humility to shine through in their music. Rather than try to gas them up as something they’re not, we should take notes on how they’ve established an idiosyncratic sense of self by resisting the status quo, while still very much respecting what came before them. You can hear it in their flows, and you can definitely feel it in their presence.

When our interview ends, they both receive calls from their moms—each asking about chores and errands to be run later that day. It’s endearing, and it reminds me just how young these two talented artists are. And if they get enough love and support from local fans to keep them going, they’ll continue to represent as the Bay Area’s youngest and dopest voices for years to come.

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