Last night, Desiigner finally released the long-awaited, panda-less video for his smash hit, “Panda,” the song that made the Bed-Stuy native the first NYC rapper to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart since Jay Z in 2009 with “Empire State of Mind.” This places the teenage MC among the ranks of Mims, 50 Cent, Ja Rule, and, of course, Hov. I think I’m supposed to be mad about all of this. Based on the Twitter chatter, I think the anger has something to do with dude being from Brooklyn but sounding like Atlanta’s Future—who took shots at Desiigner. Mind you, rappers from New York haven’t sounded like New York for at least the last decade. With the Internet literally being everything when it comes to new music discovery, it feels naive as fuck to think that because someone grew up in an area, they HAVE to sound like the cats who came before them. Like, have we forgetten how trill Harlem’s A$AP Rocky sounds?
Still, the specific knock against Desiigner is that his flow on “Panda” is too close to Future’s. It’s not just sounding like a city he can’t claim—it sounds like he’s doing karaoke of an unreleased Future demo.
Just a few weeks ago, Desiigner’s career was on everyone’s lips over a freestyle for Tim Westwood. Some cats wanted to blow their brains out after hearing Desiigner spit, and others said they couldn’t understand what he was saying. And then some people thought they were just hearing the sound of doing all the drugs. And honestly, I don’t get it. Maybe I spent too many years sitting by the radio listening to Mystikal tell me that I wasn’t ready yet, or trying to decipher the patois in some of my favorite ‘90s dancehall hits, but I can’t possibly be mad at Desiigner. Not for that freestyle. Fact is, he didn’t sound like Future there. His abilities go deeper than that.
Let’s not act like Desiigner doesn’t have something going on in this clip. Westwood’s “styles on top of styles” comment is exactly right. For a freestyle, dude’s hitting you with rapid-fire lines about everything from putting on Hannibal Lecter masks to not being Jody, the Baby Boy. Whipping the raw like a slave on the stove? “Hakuna matata, put two in your noggin’?” This guy is so animated, he’s matching his foot stomps to his flows. He wants the preacher to preach with him, then grab the gat and squeeze it with him. Desiigner isn’t winning any “Lyricist of the Year” awards, but you can’t really argue that dude is just some meth’d out zombie (or Future stand-in) who isn’t giving some thought to the words coming out of his mouth.
Desiigner comes from the same borough as the animated Busta Rhymes. The same borough that birthed the double-time flow that both Jaz-O and Jay Z made famous in the early ‘90s. The same borough that birthed the crazy insane personality of an Ol Dirty Bastard. This regional lineage doesn’t mean that Desiigner is on par with those lyricists, but it suggests that he does have ties to his birthplace, that the Desiigner = Future argument is one-dimensional. You can see it in the “Panda” video.
Wisely, a lot of the “Panda” footage seems to have been shot with Desiigner attached to some kind of steady cam, allowing the camera to capture his spastic movements and dancing in a way that makes them feel even more frantic. It’s different, especially for people who expect Desiigner to be just a Future clone. He’s pulling pistols, jacking whips, and getting freaky with a shorty who has a panda painted on her backside. It’s hard to say there’s a real method to his madness, as we have so little to go on, but Desiigner is painting himself with some of the same insane tones as the Joker or some of your favorite off-kilter anti-heroes.
Desiigner’s wave has much more to do with his performance and charisma than the words coming out of his mouth.
Like so much of the latest wave of New York rappers, Desiigner doesn’t have that “New York” sound. But do you want all MCs to sound how they’re “supposed” to sound like because of their region? Rolling Stone questioned Desiigner’s authenticity—how could a teen from Brooklyn have “broads in Atlanta,” right? I also imagine Rolling Stone must’ve been SHOCKED to discover that Rick Ross didn’t know the real Noriega. Has anyone told Rolling Stone how imaginary hip-hop’s staggering body count truly is? It’s old hat, in 2016, to get so wrapped up in rap boasts. Sure, much of hip-hop’s history has been about who’s keeping it the “realest,” but why is it so hard to dismiss certain portions of the lyrics and persona in rap, but want so desperately to believe others?
Set aside questions of authenticity. Desiigner’s wave has much more to do with his performance and charisma than the words coming out of his mouth. While some rappers can be the most lyrical/miracle/spiritual MCs on the mic, the impact of those words can be diminished by paltry, stagnant deliveries.
Consider Desiigner, whose spastic (and vomit-inducing) moves add an extra element to his live performance that separates him from the shows where it’s 5011 guys on stage, and just one dude actually doing the rapping while the goons are just…there. Action Bronson’s a dope rapper, but you have to figure that people are paying to see which rowdy concert-goer he’s going to bodyslam, or clothesline. There’s an art to taking that track you’re turning up to in the whip and making it an exciting live performance. Desiigner can do that. You see that he has a presence in the video, even if it’s lacking in other ways. His freestyle shows that Desiigner’s got enough charisma, personality, and energy to keep the conversation going. Kanye may have jump-started his ascent, but Desiigner’s gonna have to keep himself gassed from here on out.