Rarely does the sequel become better than the original.
Hit-Boy returns to a familiar concept of keeping your composure in difficult times on his latest album Surf Or Drown. It ends on “Composure, Pt. 2,” a continuation of a record he was featured on with Nas that concluded King’s Disease II. The 35-year-old producer and occasional rapper has a gift for rhyming, delivering personal hardships and reflections on career bumps with an open heart. He mentions the times visiting his father Big Hit in jail when he was younger, how Kanye West told him face-to-face that he was holding him back, and nearly losing everything. “2017, I was laid out on the floor, crying / my account had read that I had zero dollars / I felt like Anthony Hopkins, I had to find solace,” he raps.
The lyrics hold the meaning of keeping your head above water, overcoming any obstacles that halt your success. Hit-Boy says six years ago, he was down on his luck. “Having millions of dollars, having label and artist deals and it all goes away,” Hit says over Zoom, likely referring to his Hits Since ’87 (HS87) imprint with Interscope. “You got to look yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘What am I without all of this shit?’ I was already great, you know what I mean? So I just took that route instead of folding.”
“Composure, Pt. 2” is Hit-Boy’s way of sharing lessons learned, telling fans he rode his wave instead of drowning in the sea of his pitfalls. It’s another reason to not just check Hit-Boy for his beats, but for his rhymes too. He’s been in the conversation these past few weeks for his raps after responding appropriately to Hitmaka, who spoke about his catalog during a Hot 97 interview earlier this month for not having any radio hits. Hit-Boy dropped “Slipping Into Darkness” after teasing his “Control”-esque verse in the studio that has him rapping over an Alchemist beat and Al rapping over a Hit-Boy beat. Full of ammunition for contemporary producers including Hitmaka, he called out Southside, Metro Boomin’, and DJ Mustard in the same song, even claiming he was the best student Kanye West has ever had. It’s that kind of confidence that makes Surf Or Drown an album that raises the bar for him as a rapper, coming at the art form with a chip on his shoulder.
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Without asking Hit-Boy directly about Hitmaka, he makes a point about separating himself from other producers. “If you really look at what the dude Yung Berg is saying, ‘Oh, he ain’t got no radio hits.’ Okay, that’s what defines you? That’s what makes you the shit?” Hit says, sounding fired up after suggesting several hundred thousand dollars go into getting radio play.
“Every song I ever made I wasn’t trying to make a radio song. I always made shit that I thought was ill. That’s why when I do catch a radio song, it doesn’t sound like the other shit on the radio. “Clique” didn’t sound like anything on the radio when it came out. “N****s In Paris,” whatever the case may be. I’m always trying to be ahead of the curve. That’s just my thing, taking my power back. I can’t say I’m defined [by the radio] because I’m No. 1 on RapCaviar or I’m defined by No. 1 on Billboard. All that sh*t can be gone. I’m going straight off the hip with this sh*t. I’m going off all talent. I don’t have any homeboys at these companies. ‘Oh, we automatically gonna put Hit-Boy in there.’ I don’t think hardly any of the sh*t I do with Nas is going on RapCaviar for whatever reason, let alone my own s*it. I gotta compartmentalize and understand that this game is the game and you gotta play it how it goes. Or just play this sh*t on your own rules and how you want to do it.”
Whatever rulebook Hit is playing with, it is clearly working. He has enamored hip-hop heads for his unrivaled run producing for Nas, Benny the Butcher, Pacman da Gunman, Dreezy, and Musiq Soulchild. In between, he hasn’t stopped releasing solo music, kicking off his return with “CORSA” featuring Dom Kennedy, followed by more singles like “The Tide.” Hearing Hit-Boy and Nas on “The Tide” together is like witnessing Styles P and Jadakiss go back and forth, making no mistake that Nas has rubbed off on him. “I get to learn so much. It’s just like a dictionary, a book full of knowledge of years and years of just hip-hop, street shit. He be on his fly shit. Whatever it is, I can sit there and really talk to him and just really learn,” he says.
Surf Or Drown was a year-and-a-half-long journey, with some of the beat ideas formulated during the pandemic but all coming to fruition after the fact. “It was a real development process because at first I wasn’t even going to call it Surf Or Drown,” Hit says. “I had a whole other name for it, but I was just making songs and I kept updating my playlist every time I would make a new song. And I just felt everything I was doing was getting better because I’m producing with so many artists, I’m able to just download a lot of their DNA. So, I’m applying that directly to what I do and it’s just working out great for me.”
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As a whole, the album is a continuation of the Hit-Boy universe with appearances from Dom Kennedy (“State Champ,” “CORSA”), Curren$y (“Tony Fontana III”), North London rapper Avelino (“2 Certified”), James Fauntleroy and his son C3 (“MTR”), who previously appeared on Nas’ “Once A Man, Twice A Child,” and Hemet, California’s own Spank Nitti (“Just Ask”). Hit wrestles with topics like how desensitized we are in seeing graphic images of the deaths of PnB Rock and Takeoff on social media and how hard it still is to grasp Nip’s absence in hip-hop every day, rapping on “Just Ask,” “Truthfully, I ain’t trust sh*t since y’all took Nip/I’m thankful for all the messages that I took in.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Hit says. “I got three of my Grammys in the studio, one of them is with Nip. Then I got three pictures of Nip in my studio just because to me it is mind-blowing that I was able to make his last song that he put out. Willingly and wholeheartedly, I helped put that together. It’s crazy how our relationship has always been rooted in family.”
“My dad, Big Hit, who is rapping on my intro, he’s back in prison now but when he came home in 2013, he was doing music,” Hit continues. “Nip was supportive of that, he would tweet it out. He would pull up, rock with my dad, chop it up with him, whatever the case was. It’s always been respect. It’s deeper than just the music.”
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Hit also included the instrumentals of the Surf Or Drown songs he recorded on for other rappers to drop freestyles. “It’s my gift to the culture,” he says. “If Kanye put all the instrumentals for Late Registration up when I was 18 years old listening to that, I could’ve been freestyling to them shits. I just thought it was ill. Also, one of my favorite moments in hip-hop was when Dr. Dre released The Chronic instrumentals. I might’ve been 13, 14. I used to load all those instrumentals and try to get bars off of them.”
Whether you’re a new Hit-Boy fan or have been on his wavy shit since day one, Hit originally wanted to be a rapper before switching to production. He started rapping when he was 13 years old, getting inspired by Bow Wow and other artists on BET’s 106 & Park and Rap City. “I’m seeing all these people that look like me that’s doing their thing, getting money, getting tours, getting fresh. I wanna be a part of this. I literally just picked up a pad, I ain’t know what I was going to write,” Hit says. “I didn’t even understand that I had a story, coming from a pops who was locked up. My parents had me when I was 15, 16. I already had a story, but just putting it into context so people could understand. That’s what I had to learn.”
Hit was in pursuit of being his best self, developing his aesthetic and figuring out his rhyming style until he found his voice. There are blog-era relics you can dig up that have early Hit-Boy raps like Cyhi The Prynce’s “Entourage” or “Old School Caddy” with Kid Cudi during his G.O.O.D. Music days. But everyone’s collective minds remember that one day in the summer of 2012 when he dropped “Jay-Z Interview,” causing Rap Twitter to go crazy over his rapping abilities. “Jay-Z Interview” not only showed people that he could rap, but it allowed him to start his journey as a producer rapper. “It was a real, started from the bottom type of thing. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, why is he rapping? He just made ‘N****a in Paris.’ Why is he freestyling?’ I got a lot of that and I had to really fight through that,” he says. “And just seeing people dissing the sh*t out of me. Now, I am at the point where it doesn’t matter if you’re showing me love or hate, I’m just gonna look at it as all the same. That’s one person’s perspective and I’ma appreciate the love and just ignore the hate.”
Early reactions online have said Surf Or Drown is Hit-Boy’s best rapping thus far, showing his growth and improvement over the years. You can see the progression from his solo efforts HITstory, Tony Fontana, and The Chauncey Hollis Project. And not to mention the collab albums he’s done with Dom Kennedy as Half-a-Mil.
Now that Hit-Boy has gotten praise for reenergizing Nas and modernizing his sound to Grammy-winning status, you can expect to see more Hit-Boy raps on a consistent basis, working on two additional volumes of Surf Or Drown for 2023. On the music industry side of things, he is in a better place to relaunch and rebrand Surf Club, a collective of young artists, producers, and writers. According to Hit, Surf Club has a new joint venture with Empire Publishing that was announced in January, he plans to sign artists through his label deal with Def Jam, and he has the creative control and freedom to release his rap music independently. If you think Hit has accomplished everything already in his mid-30s, he’s far from the level of greatness and influence on the next generation where he wants it to be at. As long as he remains humble and applies himself to be a better artist, he’ll get there.
“I used to say I want to have No. 1 albums on Billboard as an artist,” Hit says. “You want to be the best, you want to be considered the greatest. But it takes a lot of things to happen to get you to that place. Just as long as I keep progressing and I am personally getting better, then I’m good. I’ma be where I am supposed to be wherever I am going.”