Broadcast on BET over three nights — the first episode was shown on October 10 prior to the 2023 BET Hip-Hop Awards — Welcome to Rap City explores the history of the much-missed video program. The filmmakers acknowledge that Rap City debuted in 1989 after BET tried to offload rap videos onto its secondary program, Video Vibrations, instead of giving them equal attention on its flagship program, Video Soul. But they downplay how BET only created Video Vibrations’ memorable “Rap Week” and then Rap City in response to MTV’s groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, which debuted in 1988 and made people loudly question why the biggest Black-owned cable station in the country didn’t embrace the genre. (Meanwhile, a tacitly displayed photo of BET founder Robert Johnson with President George H.W. Bush nods to Johnson’s politically conservative background.) Initially, Rap City‘s production values were noticeably poorer than Yo! MTV Raps, although they yielded a homespun charm with riotously funny host Chris “The Mayor” Thomas; and, later, smoothed-out host Prince DaJour. The program’s main value, as one person notes, is that “they showed everything,” thanks to broadcasting two hours every weekday while Yo! MTV Raps stuck to six hourly shows. (Doctor Dré and Ed Lover handled Yo! MTV Raps‘ weekday afternoon segments, while Fab 5 Freddy hosted the main Friday night showcase.) It didn’t truly hit its stride until 1994 and after Yo! MTV Raps was inexplicably canceled, Joe Clair and Big Lez joined as hosts, and BET increased the show’s budget, allowing the program to travel beyond the East Coast. The filmmakers make much of Clair’s 1997 interview with the Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles, which became the rapper’s last filmed television appearance. (The interview didn’t air until a week after Biggie was murdered.) But all in all, Welcome to Rap City has way too many talking heads. With due respect to Debra Lee and Stephen G. Hill, no one needs to see a phalanx of television and music executives congratulating themselves. Fans want vintage clips of “WRAP Radio,” “The Basement” ciphers, Chris Thomas doing his arm-bounce dance, Big Lez flexing and flirting, Joe Clair’s lovably bad freestyles, and Big Tigger disarming guests with his infectious goofiness. By centering the backroom machinations that led to Rap City’s rise and fall, Welcome to Rap City underplays the earthy appeal that made the program so special. A handful of rap stars appear, including Ludacris, T.I., Eve, Dipset, and Trina. Given Rap City‘s massive impact, it feels like there should be many more. Former The Source editor Selwyn Seyfu Hinds adds important historical context. Welcome to Rap City is directed by Rahman Ali Bug and marks a collaboration between BET Media Group and Mass Appeal.
Brooklyn rapper Michael “MIKE” Bonema is a prolific performer — this is his second 2023 project following Faith Is a Rock, a collaboration with Wiki and The Alchemist highlighted by the standout single “Mayors a Cop.” His tics have grown familiar, from his muddy, baritone flow and viscous diction to self-produced lo-fi loops, making it difficult to differentiate between his sundry projects. Burning Desire has a handful of WTF moments that abruptly shift the usual gears, particularly “African Sex Freak Fantasy,” a number produced by North Carolina musician Gawd that’s larded with distorted bass. Mostly, though, MIKE sticks to a well-established formula. Some of his beats are quite nice and buttery, like when he slows-and-chops Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Real Love,” and ends “They Don’t Stop in the Rain” with the Notorious B.I.G.’s chorus on “Crush on You.” His raps have a punched-in quality, a volley of bars that usually last around a minute or so, followed by a refrain to tie them together. (He compares his style to “a Sistine” on “Sixteens.”) The technique, so common among rappers in the 2020s, yields some standout lines, like when he raps, “I couldn’t cope with my feelings like Romeo” on “Snake Charm,” which is produced by Laron. Near the final third of Burning Desire, MIKE invites Lila Ramani of Brooklyn band Crumb to sing solo on “Should Be!” The haunting number feels like a palate cleanser and leads to one of the album’s strongest cuts, “What You Say You Are.” As MIKE raps, “I’m Michael Myers with the dreads,” he invokes the best aspects of his persona: A hungry striver full of Brooklyn swagger, trembling from the city’s elements and overeager to share his troubles. Not coincidentally, “What You Say You Are” lasts over three minutes and feels like a hearty dish instead of the minute-long nibbles that define so much of Burning Desire. The guests include Earl Sweatshirt and Larry June — both of whom deliver solid cameos — as well as British musicians Klein, Venna, and Mark William Lewis; experimental vocalist Liv.e, rappers Niontay and El Cousteau, and others. The evocative album art was illustrated by Ghanaian movie-poster veteran D.A. Jasper. MIKE released Burning Desire on his 10k label. * (Recommended)