Buddy’s Superghetto is brief but invigorating

The album is an eclectic mix of rap and R&B crooning that shows off the Compton-bred lyricist’s impressive range.

Photo/artwork by Renell Medrano
Culture

The successful monetization of music streaming has served primarily to keep major labels at the top of a food chain they created. After a decade of panic about declining CD sales, revenue from DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music made those companies wildly profitable once again, all while having normalized smaller recording budgets and more restrictive contracts. This has had a variety of effects on rappers who look to navigate that major label system and those who choose to work outside it, most of them economic. But there have been creative knock-ons that have reshaped many of the rap albums released in this era.

At first, the approach most artists took to Billboard’s rules about how streams would count for charting purposes was to release extra-long albums stuffed with as many tracks as possible, a full listen of an 18-track LP being more valuable than a listen of one with 12. The trend was cemented in 2016, with Drake’s 20-song, 80-minute Views; two years later, it had reached the realm of the absurd, with acts like the Migos funneling their Spotify listeners toward 72-song playlists that looped their new, already 24-song album three times in a row.

But more recently, those same streaming platforms have been flooded with rap albums, including those by many major artists, that are as short as any LPs in the genre since the late 1980s. Stars routinely release music in 20- to 35-minute batches, describing many records that used to be EPs as proper albums. There are many reasons this is now a feasible approach, from the radical drop in lead time and overhead required to issue music to a mass audience to the disappearance of the blowback artists once received for charging full retail price for less product.

The thing uniting records from these two poles — the deliberately overstuffed and the conspicuously lean — is that they feel overwhelmingly like the product of the rules and realities that govern streamed music, rather than the natural shape these bodies of work demand. Kanye West’s series of seven-song albums from the summer of 2018 is perhaps the only high-profile use of the briefer format to be clearly staked on its aesthetic value, though that argument was undercut by the rushed, sloppy manner in which West rolled out his own, headlining installment of that project.

Superghetto, the new, 32-minute album by the Compton-bred rapper Buddy, is an exception to this rule, a record that uses its brevity to keep the listener on their heels, that successfully manages to feel as if it’s constantly molting and evolving until it cuts off. This relentless forward momentum unites the vast array of musical styles Buddy deploys throughout. In sloppier hands, this collection would seem disjointed; even a competent artist might make a version of Superghetto that is a survey of styles they can slip between, a resume for more focused work. But Buddy makes this eclecticism a tool in a more interesting project, one that shows how a stylistic omnivore can move from one texture to the next — pulling from his contemporaries, his influences, his city’s musical lineages—to draw a roundabout portrait of a single person.

Raised in Compton by parents who valued religion and the arts — his father was the choir director at a church — Buddy grew up on stage, starring in plays like Oliver With a Twist, The Wiz, and Dreamgirls at conservatory schools in mid-city and in nearby Long Beach. The technical education was crucial, as was his willingness to explore every corner of L.A. County. He would later title three of his records after the streets where he was living or working when he recorded them, each embodying the tone of its locale: Ocean & Montana’s beachside brightness, the oppressive sunbake of Harlan & Alondra’s Compton, the near-Valley grit of Magnolia. As with his shifting between musical styles, this itinerance is grounded by an integrity in Buddy’s music — his work never feels iterative of other artists’, nor does he try on styles like costumes, like The Game.

While the industry got its hooks into him early — Pharrell signed him when he was only 15; he had a single produced by the Neptunes and featuring Kendrick Lamar before he could vote — Buddy’s exploration of his hometown (and his own psyche) has been largely self-directed. His is the kind of career that would have, in the ‘90s, likely ground to a halt, or be ground to dust by corporate machinery. No singles have popped, no high-profile guest turns parlayed into solo stardom; without the technical or legal workarounds provided by the internet, Buddy might have languished behind the scenes for years. But with mixtapes in the traditional mold (2014’s Idle Time) and the lower-risk, lower-overhead sanctioned albums that streaming makes possible, Buddy has been able to stretch himself as a writer and vocalist while keeping one foot out of the spotlight.

None of which is to say he shies away from pop. Much of Superghetto’s second half leans on Buddy’s singing voice, which bends toward syrupy R&B (the T-Pain-assisted “Happy Hour”), the shimmering “High School Crush,” and even New Wave on the irresistible penultimate song, “Bad News,” which reimagines Compton as a suburb of 1980s Miami. At his best, Buddy merges this chameleonic streak with a spine of irrepressible rapping chops: see “Ain’t Fair,” the album’s Organized Noize-produced high point, which is breezy despite a staccato, technically challenging pair of verses about hopping back and forth from Heathrow to LAX, gobbling champagne and oxtails. Late on that song, he invokes an artist who was similarly multitalented, and whose career was defined by a breathless pace that mirrors Superghetto’s: “Never settle, I embody Makavali/I get better, I get better, I get better, I get better.”

But that aforementioned rapping spine is what stitches the album together as its genres meld and its pace accelerates. Buddy smartly opens Superghetto with “Hoochie Mama,” a classicist L.A. rap song stripped to the screws: all bass rattle and adolescent swagger. He works well in this mode, but is even more compelling on “Black 2,” a single first released back in the summer of 2020, when protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans spread nationwide. Whether wistfully shouting out local diners or litigating the ugliest parts of American politics, Buddy’s pen is scalpel-precise; Superghetto is a shrewd deployment of that perspective, musically dexterous and short enough to be compulsively replayable.