If nothing is more American than squeaky-tight concentrations of wealth and opportunity, then hip-hop is a uniquely American art form. Rappers in the vast middle of the country have a stingy support system and are less likely to gain traction, but OMB Peezy, a 21-year-old rapper who splits his time between Mobile, Alabama and the Bay Area, has had a momentous 2018 — no thanks to his obscure, unhelpful ZIP code and the skeletally hobbled infrastructure therein.
The Orange Grove section of North Mobile is smoggy and tumbledown, best known for its pollution and alarming murder rate. Writing in Savage Inequalities some 27 years ago, Jonathan Kozol called the low-lying black communities alongside the Mississippi River “an ugly metaphor of filth and overspill and chemical effusions”; this description fits Orange Grove to a tee.
Located adjacent to a large saltwater port, there’s not much to see here; just aging railroad tracks and monochromatic public housing units. Improbable though it may sound to pearl-clutching suburbanites, Mobile, for all its baggage and all its pent-up disaffection waiting to be mixed and mastered, has no hip-hop scene to speak of. It’s certainly never produced a rapper of Peezy’s stature. A few are nationally visible, like Rich Boy (formerly of Polow da Don’s Zone 4 imprint), but only Peezy has had the wits about him to make a great record.
Almost to a person, the residents of Orange Grove understand what they’re up against; their ZIP code presents a barrier to acceptance from the wider world. Peezy, through no doing of his own, is treated like a mythically fearsome golem — or, worse, someone not to be taken seriously. If you’re going to listen to Peezy, brace yourself for a healthy resentment of outsiders harvested from the lead-contaminated planes of Orange Grove, which even among communities of color is unique in how savagely it’s been exploited.
If anything Peezy has had it harder than most. As a preteen, he made the pilgrimage to the Bay Area, only to find himself homeless.
“When we came to California, we were living in a shelter,” Peezy explained to a YouTube interviewer last August. “My mama and them, they had rented a U-Haul; we ain’t never give that motherfucker back…we was deep as fuck in the back of that motherfucker. We ain’t have a lot of money.”
“I went to the shelter with my sister’s shirt on,” he continued. “I ain’t have no shoes. It was some out-the-mud shit.”
“That wasn’t even the first time I’d been in a shelter, though, you feel me? I’d been in the Penelope House in Mobile…a nigga ain’t never had shit. I wasn’t tripping off not having shit.” But, Peezy hastened to add, “I ain’t never slept in box or nothing. I ain’t never slept on no sidewalk.”
In March 2017, Peezy inked a recording contract with Sick Wid It, the label owned by legendary Vajello rapper E-40. If he leaves Sick Wid It, we’ll still have at least one brilliant memento from his time there: Loyalty Over Love. Given the remote location of its narrator, it comes as no surprise that Loyalty Over Love is studded with unestablished newbies. Despite, or perhaps because of, their youth and inexperience, Peezy’s producers know exactly what they’re doing. Without exception, the beats on Loyalty Over Love are solid. Very often they’re more than that: “Yeah Yeah,” with its hiccuping interspersings of blues guitar, has an energy that could have only originated from the Gulf Coast, a region famous for its raucous nightlife and zaftig, frolicsome partygoers; it’s one of the liveliest rap tracks of the year.
With his punky wardrobe, shoulder-length dreads and ever-generous armful of prescription pill bottles, Peezy has the look — and eagerness to provoke — of a rapper his age. But at heart, Peezy probably has more common with his forebears than his immediate peers. Listening to Loyalty Over Love, it’s clear that Velazquez’s mesosystem was shaped in pivotal part by Boosie Badazz and the Trill Entertainment family. He’s got the same enthusiasm for aphoristic club chants, the same appealingly sloppy flow, the same taunting lisp and the same high-pitched voice (it often sounds like helium is coursing through Peezy’s larynx). Like Boosie in his lean-swelling prime, Peezy drinks enough Promethazine cough syrup to sink a ship, most of all, Peezy has the same bawdy sense of humor.
What comes next for Peezy? It’s possible that his career peaked two Decembers ago, when, by some stroke of luck, his song “Lay Down” became a runaway hit. That may never happen again because Peezy lacks the studied primness of a crossover star; he makes music for dingy roadside clubs. Loyalty Over Love is a portal into a ruggedly insular world that few could begin to understand.
Either way, Peezy’s success is a badly needed win for his bedeviled homestead. Finally, an Orange Grove rapper has gotten a crack at the milch cow. Finally, an Orange Grove rapper has “made it.” Who knows what kind of positive ramifications this could have for other artists in the area? Perhaps most important, for our purposes, is the homeless young person who inherited Peezy’s bed at the Penelope House in Mobile. To that child and thousands more like him, Peezy is an exemplar of ingenuity and perseverance.
Then again, the fact that this local boy has gone good is sufficiently heartening in and of itself. In a sea of outrages and crises, Peezy sticks out like the best kind of sore thumb.