In a year when Definitive Jux has gone on hiatus and Fat Beats has packed up its snail mail addresses for the greener pixels of its online presence, a healthy love of downloadable mixtapes makes a lot of sense. Most of them are free. Yet, the fact that mixtapes are often more anticipated, more exciting, and even more satisfying than traditional releases is remarkable. It is perhaps a return to the original block party that pushes the DJs back to the fore as mediator between hot new material and eager listeners.
Still, free music has been accompanied by a robust work ethic, but instead of hustling tapes out of car trunks like in the old days, artists took to the tools at hand, or fingertip: Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, and blogs. Kanye West, in particular, must’ve fantasized about this back when he signed up for Twitter, as he proceeded to turn the end of the week into the free track release day he called G.O.O.D. Friday. You can trace “Monster Mondays” (thanks, Swizz Beatz) and “Timbo Thursdays” (thanks, Timbaland) back to West. Meanwhile, Madlib churned out monthly Medicine Shows. Oddisee released seasonal EPs and travel-themed instrumentals.
Quite a few producers emerged from the background to take on microphone duties. Some of these we were familiar with, like Black Milk and Kanye West. Some we were glad to get to know better, like Kno and Nottz. Others took us by surprise, like Big K.R.I.T. and Roc Marciano. In addition to collaborating, we noticed producers who were experimenting with a wider range of techniques, song structures, and instruments. We’re seeing songs with longer running times, offering richer soundscapes to give room to more solos and varied textures.
Let’s not forget the ladies. When the discussion on hip-hop at last turned to them, a number of declarations came, including work from Rah Digga (Classic), Dessa (A Badly Broken Code), Eternia (At Last, with Moss), Boog Brown & Apollo Brown (Brown Study), Psalm One (Woman @ Work, a free album), Marz Lovejoy (This Little Light of Mine, an EP), and of course Nicki Minaj (Pink Friday). With Minaj, when was the last time a release by a female rapper was so highly anticipated?
In a year when Jay-Z publishes a non-linear memoir loosely organized around his rap lyrics, we’ve arrived at another crossroads to decode. Where will things go? Big, multilayered, and epic-sounding, like Big Boi, Black Milk, and Kanye West? Or sleeker, smoother, more pared down, like Big K.R.I.T. and Freeway & Jake-One? “Weed rap” or “emo”? Mainstream or underground? Old or new school? Sociopolitical or house party? This year it was all of the above. Quentin B. Huff
For my honorable mention pick, I had to choose between: Black Milk’s Album of the Year (which I’ve spun the heck out of since it dropped), Skyzoo & Illmind’s Live from the Tape Deck (which was dope), the hunger and passion in Eternia & Moss’s At Last, the return of a dynamic duo in Reflection Eternal’s Revolutions Per Minute, Kno’s fantastic production in Death Is Silent, and Serengeti & Hi-Fidel’s narrative concept album Saturday Night (which, logically, requires hearing 2009’s part one, Friday Night). I took the album less often reviewed, and that made all the difference (apologies to Robert Frost). I’m going with Hezekiah’s Conscious Porn, a concept album in its own right in which a doctor endeavors to guide his female patient through a “mind-fucking” process that will shed her inhibitions and make her more open-minded. While the skits make opening your mind sound similar to the group-think they are designed to denounce, the actual songs are forward-thinking and freewheeling, melding R&B, soul, James Brown funk, and rap into a swirling union. Bonus points for the album title, a song about the pressures of abortion (“The Clinic”), and the guest spots from Talib Kweli, Bahamadia, and Raheem DeVaughn. Quentin B. Huff
I struggled mightily between including either EARL or Smoke DZA’s George Kush da Button in this spot, so consider that your shout-out, DZA. But when thinking about the term “honorable mention”, and considering the similar Pilot Talk is already included on our list, I eventually decided we just had to give a nod to the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill ‘Em All crew out of California. Spearheaded by Tyler the Creator, himself only 18 or 19, the group burst onto the blogosphere this year with a disgustingly unique style. Blending horrorcore motifs with spacey, Neptunes-circa-2002-style synth beats and everyman type raps, the crew seems destined to continue making marks in hip-hop for a while. And none of their projects made this more evident than the works of then-15-year-old Earl Sweatshirt. His approach to lyricism is eerily similar to the most indulgent of early Eminem raps. He gleefully raps with a voice seemingly five years his senior about the ways in which he will rape and murder various women, while constantly managing to make the whole ordeal seem lighthearted and humorous. Lines like “I keep it flowing like blood out my competition’s slit wrists” are just too hard not to offer an approving head nod, and it’s something that doesn’t even jump out on first listen. Earl’s rap is just so effortless, and his combination of MF DOOM and Eminem so appealing, that listening to this brief 30-minute free album should feel like an auditory vacation for most serious rap heads. In a genre where more and more artists seem more interested in imitating the successful ideas of others than crafting a unique lane for themselves, a 16 year-old kid manages to stand out more than most as a seriously dangerous MC. EARL may one day prove to be little more than a hint of what’s to come. And that’s a problem, because as it stands Earl’s already proven himself easily capable of crafting one of the best albums in a given year. And he’s just getting started. David Amidon
Freeway & Jake One
The Stimulus Package
My fellow hip-hoppers, I am pleased to inform you that the heavily bearded Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, rapper Freeway and Seattle, Washington, producer Jake One have joined forces on this Rhymesayers release to demonstrate a strategy for reinvigorating the rap aesthetic. With The Stimulus Package, Freeway & Jake One have developed a program for getting our artistic economy back on track. First, rhymers must utilize song concepts in such ways as: stringing a list of rap artists into a narrative (“Throw Your Hands Up”), analogizing the rap game to the drug game (“The Product”), constructing verses as fan letters à la Eminem’s “Stan” (“Stimulus Outro”), and personifying music as a passionate lover (“Freekin’ the Beat”). Second, it never hurts to display good old fashioned lyrical hunger, especially if you add the right details. It’s even better if you can weave in a compelling tale. Third, and despite what other folks do, the judicious inclusion of guest rappers is key—Raekwon, Bun B, Young Chris, Omilio Sparks, and Birdman are quite enough. You don’t want to get upstaged (although Bun B nearly steals the show with his cameo). Finally, entrust your work to a fine beat maker who is diverse enough to give you punchy beats and rubbery bass lines for your boom bap, a smooth soul lean for your Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-style R&B joint, and the right tin-and-synth connection for your trap rap. Yes, The Stimulus Package could use some better hooks. But, look. Let’s be clear. Jumpstarting our ailing conditions won’t happen overnight. We, um, have to be vigilant. It takes time to craft rap you can believe in. Quentin B. Huff
Nas & Damian Marley
(Universal Republic/Def Jam; US: 18 May 2010; UK: 17 May 2010)
Nas & Damian Marley
Ever see The Odd Couple, the television series about two roommates who couldn’t be more different? One is clean and orderly, the other’s a slob, and they work through their differences in hilarious ways. That’s how the idea of Nasir “Nas” Jones collaborating with Damian Marley first struck me—not just because of Nasir’s divorce from Kelis (the Odd Couple characters were divorced), but also due to the difference in musical styles. “And my man’ll speak patois”, Nas rhymes about Marley in album opener “As We Enter”, “And I can speak rap star”. The worry was that this great rap artist, and son of a celebrated jazz musician, wouldn’t be able to match styles with a great reggae artist and son of a music icon. The collaboration works surprisingly well, with Nas continuing his string of (self-)righteous concept albums balanced against Marley’s life-worn vocals and roots-oriented music. This last ingredient, the music, at least pressed pause on all that talk about Nas having poor taste in beats. Over a full, expansive band, Nas and “Junior Gong” tackle socioeconomics, leadership, and personal relationships with lyrical images of Africa and religion as the ties that bind the musicians, their topics, and their audiences. Guests include K’naan, Stephen Marley, Dennis Brown, Lil Wayne, and Joss Stone. Extra credit for a portion of the proceeds being earmarked for African relief projects. Quentin B. Huff
(Rappers I Know; US: 16 Mar 2010; UK: 16 Mar 2010)
In a year full of breakout new rappers akin to the 2003 NBA Draft, Danny Brown stands tall above them all. The man is simply a distiller of the purest ideal of hip-hop: creativity. Whether he’s describing the reactions a pregnant woman has to his latest vial of crack, explaining the lack of good-natured activity in Detroit, exploring addiction to Adderall and alcohol, or simply clarifying that plenty of women have licked his member, it’s a guarantee Brown is going to do it like no rapper you’ve heard before. That The Hybrid was released for free on his Bandcamp is even more shocking. If you’ve never heard Danny Brown rap before, it may take a while to accept his aesthetic. Brown raps in two distinct voices, one more regular and typical of hip-hop and one very animated, pitchy, and aggressive tone. The first few times I heard this album I couldn’t endear myself to the latter, but over time that delivery has revealed itself to be one of Brown’s greatest strengths. It allows his comparison of Adderall pills to Flintstone vitamins to come off as humorous and self-defeating rather than self-serious and admired. It essentially allows Brown to say a lot of remorseful, ugly things about the world he lives in and deliver it as though he’s aware of its ugliness, desensitized to it, and in the end a vessel for it. The production doesn’t hurt matters, either. The album sounds prototypically Detroit, and does no good for anyone arguing Detroit isn’t the best place for hip-hop producers right now. The music is a very clean sort of grimy that works expertly off Brown’s more manic, rough persona and allows heads to nod that may not have come to fully appreciate Brown himself yet. This is especially true on the moodier pieces that close the album out, “Drinks on Me” and “Generation Rx”. The Hybrid is an album that dutifully lives up to its name. Brown is both a tremendous gangsta-type MC and a beyond-capable conscious rapper, a guy who puts no effort into hiding who he is, but shows a special gift for recognizing the errors of who he’s become. David Amidon
(E1 Music; US: 27 Jul 2010; UK: 27 Jul 2010)
Enough could be written about the trials and tribulations of Slum Village to fill a book or green light a movie, but being that Villa Manifesto is the last document of the Detroit pioneers’ careers, it seems more appropriate to simply celebrate what a great album the crew turned out. Nowhere else will you hear Baatin, T3, J Dilla, and Elzhi all rapping for nearly an album. That in and of itself is nearly enough to sell the record on hip-hop. But musically, there is very little of Villa Manifesto that can be reproached, either. “Faster” is a fantastic surprise of a pop song, something the group had never really tried to pull off before. “Dance with You” is the disco-rap cut you’d never have expected them to try either, while songs like “The Set Up” find Hi-Tek lacing up tracks he should have saved for his collaboration with Kweli, and “2000 Beyond” proves that any track with ?uestlove drumming is doper than dope. The raps are perhaps not the main selling point of the record, but that speaks as much to the production as the skills of the MCs. Young RJ, Black Milk’s former collaborator, arguably one-ups Black’s own Album of the Year with his production here, a varied set of funky, soulful beats that have few peers in 2010. Baatin bears his heart in regards to his strong addictions on record for the first time, T3 and Dilla sound more in pocket than ever, and Elzhi, when the group allows him to appear, continues to certify himself as the most detail-oriented rapper in the home of 8 Mile. Villa Manifesto is an album that consistently captures the artistic spirits of its members no matter what ill fates awaited them at the end of its production. It works as both an excellent point of entry for newcomers to the group, and as a perfect swan song for longtime fans. It’s a shame the group was never able to capture the sound of Fan-Tas-Tic again, but Villa Manifesto is without a doubt the greatest thing they’ve given us since. It’s a true shame we won’t get to hear anything more from them, but they had a hell of a run. Villa Manifesto is one hell of a victory lap. David Amidon