"The Percs killin' me slowly," howls bad boy local rapper NLE Choppa on his signature song, "Shotta Flow." If Choppa, 17, is suffering under the yoke of addiction, you can't tell from his music, which is spry, rambunctious, and geyser-like — in other words, the exact sort of club-rap on which this city has long staked its reputation. You could say Choppa lends a 2020 makeover to earlier configurations of Memphis hip-hop.
Choppa is protective of his hometown: "I don't know," he tells the Flyer. "So many good artists are in Memphis. It's always been a lot of good artists, but we're just kinda underappreciated."
For Choppa, turning up comes as naturally as breathing; he's a creature of Memphis' strobe-lit skating rinks. Not only that, but his mother Angela seems to have passed down a rapturous and very Jamaican appetite for fun. Had it not been for her, Choppa's sturdiest achievement so far — sprinkling patois in rap's everyday vocabulary — might never have come to pass.
- NLE Choppa
"'Shottas' is really just a Jamaican thing, a Jamaican term," he says. "And my mom being from there, I was exposed to that culture." Asked if he was reared on dancehall music, Choppa doesn't miss a beat: "Oh, yeah."
Choppa had a softer landing than many in hip-hop, where broken homes far outnumber stable ones. (His father, like his mother, is, by all accounts, present and supportive.) But this dude is self-made. As he puts it, "My success mostly comes from having that independence. I never asked for nothing."
It was Choppa who, if not pioneered, then certainly perfected one of the greatest flows in current hip-hop, a galloping, joyously bumpy cascade of syllables. It was Choppa who built a thriving brand from scratch. And it was Choppa who proved a hard-nosed negotiator: Rare is the teenager who knows a skunk, or a lousy distribution deal, when he smells one. (Over the summer, Choppa launched his own imprint, the Warner-aligned No Love Entertainment, but not before clearing his share of hurdles.)
"My phone was blowing up; I had all these offers, but I didn't get overwhelmed because this is what I wanted," Choppa says. "This is what I had been praying for for so long."
All of which is to say young people have good reason to idolize Choppa. And idolize him they do, ascribing a near-liturgical weight to his every public utterance. Part of it has to do with Choppa's charisma, which is almost generational; it stopped millions of fans cold the first time they heard "Capo," last year's crunk-and-disorderly street anthem. Only Choppa could paper the airwaves with a tacit endorsement of the NFL's most reviled QB ("I got good aim in the pocket like I'm Brady") and not catch any grief for it.
On record, Choppa sounds like he's nearing transition from man to Tasmanian devil. In conversation, he's much different. He speaks in a serenely undaunted drawl. He seems content — a justifiable state of mind when you consider the year he's had. For months now, he's sat atop Billboard's Emerging Artists chart. His songs have been streamed over one billion times. "Shotta Flow" is at 850 million streams and counting. He's currently touring behind Cottonwood, his EP from late December. Cottonwood is awash in guns, gore, and splatter, but it'll get your shoulders shimmying. It also includes a verse from the great Meek Mill, who, like Choppa, is telegenic but quarrelsome. "Meek is definitely an influence just in how true he stays to himself and how outspoken he is," Choppa says.
If you stay apprised of his Twitter activity, you know Choppa gets asked this question more than any other: "When's the album coming out?" Fans were hoping to ring in the new year with Choppa's new full-length, Top Shotta; now, it looks like they'll have to wait until spring. Meanwhile, Choppa himself is looking farther afield.
"I wanna be the biggest artist," he says matter-of-factly. "And I don't see why I shouldn't be."