As Stockton’s rap scene rises to prominence within a Bay Area already teeming with established talent, 24-year-old EBK Young Joc may be the city’s most promising young voice. Though more interested in skateboarding and the West Coast’s then-flourishing jerkin’ movement as a kid, Joc was inspired to start rapping in 2017 by his late brother Mobbalay after finishing a stint in juvenile detention. That same year, he launched the EBK Hotboiiz clique, laying the groundwork for a small empire of Thizzler On the Roof regulars who fuse the laid-back traffic music of their SoCal counterparts with the jittery Detroit energy that has spread to all corners of the country over the past few years and the harsh brooding dead-eyed melancholy of Chicago Drill.

The title of Joc’s sixth full-length project, Hotboiiz:4L, may suggest a feature-heavy affair highlighting his collective, but the record is more noteworthy for its solo experimentation than a lone posse cut and two other guest appearances by EBK associates. At a hefty 21 tracks, the record is an inconsistent but occasionally brilliant outing that finds Joc toying with a diverse array of sounds in rapid succession. It’s a welcome departure from the rumbling, drill-adjacent formula that pervaded last year’s succinct City of God project, but one that’s not without growing pains.

“Most of my songs, I don’t really do hooks,” Joc told Passion of the Weiss in 2021. “That comes from [Mobbalay]. He said fuck a hook, so I’m also saying fuck a hook.” His anti-chorus sentiment has relaxed a bit since then, but the ethos still remains on early single “24/7,” bookended by a small bundle of bars used more like punctuation than as an attention-grabber. The track’s brevity and spacious production accentuate Joc’s nonchalant delivery, introducing a familiar sample of the Ella Mai feature on Meek Mill’s song of the same name, warping the vocals beyond recognition as he slides effortlessly into the pocket. The romantic source material, coupled with Joc’s conversational flow create a strange dissonance when juxtaposed against lyrics like “Talkin’ baseball when we hit his ball cap / Talkin’ bodies? We with all that.” Every emotion expressed on Hotboiiz:4L competes against an underlying paranoia; understandable considering the series of tragic losses—including Joc’s friends and frequent collaborators Bris and Young Slo-Be—that has undercut Stockton’s emergence.

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“Hey Arnold” is the record’s standout offering: a poetic reflection on Joc’s come up built around impressionistic and reverb-soaked piano. Whispered adlibs echo amid a swirling soundscape, providing extra commentary or emphasis like an internal monologue as his thoughts race, fixating on the suspicious sounds coming from his front porch and stressing reluctance to accept help from others. The song’s ephemeral, hookless structure seems to lack a definitive beginning or end—it’s a brief peek into Joc’s Id on an average day, more diary entry than song.

Unfortunately, Joc’s kitchen-sink approach to Hotboiiz:4L ensures that these bright spots are surrounded by quite a few half-baked experiments. “Bongos,” a minimalist track that harkens back to the era when DJ Mustard’s “ratchet” production style dominated the charts, fails to transcend its own gimmick. While much of Joc’s appeal usually stems from his casual presence in the booth, here he lacks the charisma and punchline-heavy wit required to ride this sort of skeletal beat. Even Joc himself seems to feel out of place on the track, letting the instrumental ride out for a few seconds mid-song before awkwardly resuming, leaning on tired tropes about teachers telling him he “wouldn’t be shit” and shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus. On paper, this should be a fun exercise in swag-rap nostalgia, but in practice, it feels more like an outtake better left on the cutting room floor.

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Opener “Need Love,” on the other hand, falls flat by playing it too safe, decorating a cookie-cutter west coast beat with uninspired shit-talk like “How you lovin’ on that bitch when you let bro hit?” and “Watch me purging through the city like I’m Michael Myers.” While leaner Joc projects like Forever 21 and City of God played out like aural highlight reels, stacking up as many bars as possible atop zany sample-based production, here we’re able to see what he sounds like when he’s not forced to make cuts, blunting the urgent vigor that has made his music so appealing in the past. When it’s front-loaded alongside similarly conventional cuts like “U Got Yo Glock On You,” the album’s more inventive tracks get buried in the mix. Hotboiiz sounds better when it’s structured around its weirdest moments, like the minute-long posse cut “Affiliations,” which sprints through five back-to-back verses, or the dissonant drill snippet “Where Yo Pole At,” which embody Joc’s no-hook ethos by bending song structure to his will.

This lack of focus on Joc’s strengths makes Hotboiiz:4L a frustrating listen. Though the manic, fast-paced sequencing of its back end is a breakthrough for the emcee, molding a unique take on contemporary California rap, it’s bogged down by work that is uncharacteristically phoned-in. His capricious taste in beats and curt, visceral writing style are features, not bugs: there’s no need to pad the spaces in between his quirkier ideas with far less interesting filler.