Used to be, if you were an MC from Brooklyn it was expected of you to plant your borough’s flag in its richly-tilled hip-hop soil and persist to ride out for Kings County’s esteemed tradition until death. Nab a beat from Premo here, grab a co-sign from Stretch and The Barber there. The applicable idiom being: “Toe the line,” dammit.
Not anymore. And not so in the mind of Brooklyn underground MC, Sene, either. On his sophomore full-length album, Brooklyknight, the Sheepshead Bay-raised Puerto Rican rapper spits observational philosophy over spacious, forward-leaning slaps informed by five impressionable years spent in Southern California (where he linked with musical kin Blu who produced his solo debut, A Day Late And A Dollar Short), and the keen sense that his beloved native land no longer resembles the version of yesterday.
Sections of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick are the most recent areas to be gripped by the tentacles of gentrification, the hipster culture creep spawning food co-ops, yoga studios and vinyl record stores eastward into the borough. The land of Marcberg does still exist — Brownsville, East New York, Coney Island, et al — poverty and inequity are not endangered species and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. But aforementioned terrain that was once familiar to a native like Sene must appear nearly exotic now, which might explain why many of Brooklyknight’s tracks seem rapped from above the earth: the buoyant, hollowed-out spaces of “Footprints” are occupied by fleeting nostalgia from Sene’s childhood; the drug-blighted, block business-driven street life of “Brooklyknight” is sketched with airy synth, the scene laid out by the MC like one of the flyover shots in Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. This album owes much to Sene’s expanded sonic preferences, likely inspired by potent Cali weed and perpetual sunshine, as much as the socioeconomic evolution of gentrified Brooklyn underlain by the well-documented and perpetual crab-in-a-barrel existence of Roc Marciano’s borough.
Sene’s flow is distinctly influenced by SoCal representatives like Blu who shows up on the orchestral march, “Backboards”. Both MCs have a knack for keeping their raps hard and grounded despite artistic acumens that allow for frequent creative wanderings (see: NoYork!). Evidence seems like another influence in that he and Sene share the value of lyrical thriftiness. Not a single word is wasted on “Cult Classic”, not even in the form of a hook as Sene is content to summarize his musical vision in concise verses and allow electronic whirring sound effects be the only bridge between.
In many ways, Sene is the perfect new hip-hop representative for Brooklyn’s youth movement: someone whose artistic ambition is matched only by his potential to improve. More importantly, though, if you’re a head concerned with the direction New York’s rap scene is going, he seems like an MC you can trust — one willing to pull up roots to experience life on another coast but remain stubbornly loyal to his hometown. A$AP Rocky already proved that hip-hop borders no longer exist, so it’s important to keep an open mind if one hopes to transcend old ideas of regionality. The youth demographic of today’s Brooklyn is flexible, swift and diverse, and its MCs should be too. That’s not to say its hip-hop tradition should be carried by folks who can’t stake an original claim to its hallowed ground, however.