Ralfy the Plug’s Skateboard P is cryptic but defiant
Even after his brother Drakeo the Ruler’s death, Ralfy continues to hone his singular style.
Last December, Drakeo the Ruler was murdered backstage at a festival in his hometown of Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to perform for just the second time since beating two potential life sentences and being improbably freed from jail. The 28-year-old rapper’s music was a reticulation of slang that could be inscrutable to outsiders, with flows that could burrow into or unmoor themselves from beats at a moment’s notice. He had quickly become one of the most influential new acts in the genre, his hushed delivery and off-kilter cadences filtering out across L.A. County, up to the Bay and Sacramento, and East, through Michigan and Texas. He was bitten but never quite replicated by an outsider.
Drakeo’s music was so unique, in fact, that it would be tempting to imagine it growing in a vacuum, immune to influence. But like most great rappers, he honed his craft as a social one. One of the key foils in his development was his younger brother, Ralfy the Plug. Over the half-decade between Drakeo’s breakthrough and his death, he and Ralfy — along with their network of collaborators, the Stinc Team — remade the city’s street rap scene in their own image, replacing the ratchet music that dominated the early 2010s with what the brothers dubbed “nervous music,” which has its roots in that and other L.A. antecedents, its contemporary scenes in Baton Rouge and the Bay, and the confrontationally digital bounce of turn-of-the-century Cash Money.
The Stinc Team — which grew out of a jerkin’ crew, pivoted to home invasions, and would later be mischaracterized by prosecutors as a gang — was a smartly constructed rap group, its complementary members mutating the sound into poppier or more serrated versions of itself. (Take the silky-voiced Sayso the Mac or the late Ketchy the Great, respectively.) But Drakeo and Ralfy provided the stylistic spine. And while Drakeo was the more celebrated solo artist in his lifetime, one of the key elements in the Stincs’ music (and in Drakeo’s specifically) has always been the outre sense of humor that is best embodied in Ralfy’s.
One imagines that levity was hard to maintain. Though he did not face any life sentences, Ralfy spent three years in jail as he awaited trial on a series of charges, mostly related to the purchase, with stolen credit cards, of luxury goods from stores like Neiman Marcus. (He was convicted on several of these but released in 2020.) Even before his brother’s death, Ralfy was forced to endure that incarceration, the smearing of his rap group as a criminal gang, the deaths of friends including Ketchy, and the convictions of others.
And yet when he was released, his music was as full of verve and sly humor as ever. Ralfy took a significant creative leap earlier this year with Pastor Ralfy 2, which was his boldest, funniest, most singular record to date. His latest effort, Skateboard P, expands on this, finding him scathing as ever when rapping about his enemies in and out of the justice system, and redoubling his commitment to record label independence.
From the tape’s opening moments, Ralfy underlines the tauntingly synthetic nature of his music. “Anti Social” is just one of many songs where lines that Ralfy punches in are arranged with significant overlap. Where Drakeo rapped as if he were mumbling under his breath to himself, Ralfy’s delivery, which is at times even more muted, is reminiscent of a quiet inner monologue. On “Anti Social” and tracks like “Know No Better,” that hush, combined with the stacking of competing vocal takes, has a nearly hallucinatory effect. Each threat, each joke at a hater’s expense, seems to fly by at warp speed, even on the songs that are narcotic midtempos.
When it comes to sourcing beats, Ralfy and the rest of the Stinc Team work similarly to how Jay-Z did at the height of his powers: They maintain relationships with the most respected and creatively daring producers in their scene but cede most of each project to whoever has the hot hand at the moment, rather than taking a track or two from a wide variety of contributors. In keeping with this approach, Skateboard P is overseen mostly by Fizzle and Al B Smoov, each of them linchpins of the new L.A. scene. (Ron-Ron the Producer, one of its godfathers, shows up for “On My Grind.”) The music is that familiar blend of hyper-digital sound — but includes some its strangest iterations yet.
There are simple horror-movie melodies and songs whose electronic fuzz feels like an opioid high; tracks about luxury department stores (“Neiman”) are playfully wistful and those about getting money (well, “Gettin Money”) lean on flute melodies that remind of the odd persistence of 50 Cent’s “Just a Lil’ Bit” on L.A. radio. And “Fantastic,” the tape’s lone Drakeo collaboration, is one of the most rhythmically fascinating rap beats this year, its drums pulsing and disappearing at cartoonishly separated intervals.
Like most Stinc tapes, Skateboard P is long, though its 25 tracks run only 67 minutes. Fortunately, these songs seldom blend into one another, due in part to the producers’ ingenuity but mostly to the way Ralfy recalls an auteur from another era: Gucci Mane. He likes to title songs not after a theme or an organizing concept, but after a joke buried inside it, or to make a whole track out of a word game. P includes a record called “Triple Dog Dare You” (though this is not the song where he recalls stealing GameBoys on the playground during recess). A cut called “Cereal Killers” affords him enough tonal latitude to breezily compare his wave of style to a typhoon before, moments later, recalling the time he “cried in [his] soul” at the sight of a snitch.
Like his brother, Ralfy has leveraged police and prosecutors’ fixation on rappers’ lyrics to his rhetorical benefit. “Better read them indictments,” he raps early on the album, “them guns was loaded.” Elsewhere, he taunts rival rappers about not being able to put out music until their court paperwork confirms they haven’t turned informant. From the criminal landscape to musical mores, Skateboard P is an act of shrewd synthesis, adapting to its era while retaining enough mystery and tonal ambiguity to elude easy decoding, a Rosetta stone for L.A. County.