Best hip-hop album of 2014? It ain’t hard to tell which release should get the crown—why, clearly it’s the 20th anniversary of Nas’s 1994 opus Illmatic! No, not really, but isn’t it cool to see Illmatic get the double-disc (original LP + remixes) anniversary treatment, along with a documentary (Time Is Illmatic) about its creation?
Back in 1994, hip-hop experienced paradigm-shifting growth via a slew of diverse and innovative releases. Did we realize this at the time? Perhaps with Illmatic or Notorious B.I.G.‘s Ready to Die, but I’m not sure we understood the full creative import of Organized Konfusion’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda or Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb as building blocks to a more expansive aesthetic. Yet, here we are, decades later, with many of the same innovators still in action: Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets has another album with Shabazz Palaces; Common had Resurrection in 1994, and this year he’s got Nobody’s Smiling; DJ Premier and Guru joined forces for Gang Starr’s fourth LP Hard to Earn, and Premier has teamed up with Royce da 5’9” for a new project, entitled PRhyme.
Truth is, it’s premature to compare the 2010s to the 1990s, but tell that to those of us calling Killer Mike the new Ice Cube and El-P the new Bomb Squad. I know I’m guilty of it, thinking of how great it is to have had OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in ‘94 and to have Big K.R.I.T.‘s Cadillactica now. Besides, Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man released Tical near the end of 1994, so it seems appropriate that Wu-Tang Clan and Ghostface Killah would have albums in December 2014. Unfortunately, timing makes them ineligible for our current list of superlatives.
Nevertheless, hip-hop is experiencing an important push of stylistic diversity, craft, and experimentation through its elder statesmen (Common, Ghostface, Pharoahe Monch, the Roots, and so on), as well as through the talents of newer acts (Clipping, Vince Staples, Ratking, Schoolboy Q, YG, to name a few). Time will tell whether our favorite 2014 releases should receive that coveted “anniversary” treatment in 2034. Quentin B. Huff
For Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q stepped up from his past releases by lessening and smoothing out some aspects of his music (the declarative creepiness) in favor of heightening everything overall—the atmosphere, the arrogance, the sense of epic-ness. From the opening, where his daughter’s voice declares, “My dad is a gangsta,” it’s clear what setting we’ve entered. This is designed as classic West Coast gangsta rap, and is the year’s finest rendition of that—it’s tough, dark, arrogant party music with undertones of remorse and inner turmoil. The title follows 2012’s Habits and Contradictions in portraying Schoolboy Q as conflicted, ever doing things he feels bad about after, with guest MCs serving as devils and angels on his shoulder (mostly the former). Woven into an album of tough-hitting power anthems is a series of carefully detailed stories about childhood, about growing up in a complicated environment. His daughter’s voice starts off the album for more reasons than one. Dave Heaton
Cynics might see Nobody’s Smiling as opportunistic or even exploitative: Hollywood celebrity Common returns to his hometown of Chicago to cry about its violence and feature some of its current homegrown hip-hop talent. That might be a valid argument, but it’s hard to care when listening to the actual music. Nobody’s Smiling is the best thing Common’s done in roughly a decade, at least, and one of the most consistent, cohesive hip-hop albums of the year. A key reason for its success is the degree to which Common knows when to yield the spotlight to others; his skills on the mic seem stronger because he spends less time on it. His second straight album produced entirely by No I.D., it has its own musical style, one synced up well with the content of the songs. It’s Common’s least ego-driven album in perhaps his career, and in 2014 he wears that approach well. Dave Heaton
Open Mike Eagle
A Dark Comedy
No hip-hop label had as creatively fertile a year as Hellfyre Club. Between Busdriver’s dense adrenaline rush Perfect Hair and Milo’s free-associative A Toothpaste Suburb, there seemed little room for yet another great album from the tiny label. But then there was Open Mike Eagle, whose A Dark Comedy set a new quality bar for the Hellyfyre squad both in terms of incisive wit and comedian guest verses (word to Hannibal Burress’s honest-to-God flow on “Doug Stamper”). Mike’s delivery is slippery, playing with sparse beats that sound almost lo-fi, giving A Dark Comedy an intimate feel. Mike has a talent for pairing raw truth with lyrical goofs, and the record is full of biting social commentary paired with gut-busting observations, constant one-two punches of hard truths and playful non-sequiturs. On “Qualifiers”, Mike has some dagger-sharp things to say about white perceptions of black artists’ ability to speak for their demographic, but he keeps the song from skewing too serious by invoking a chorus of “We’re the best, mostly / Sometimes the freshest rhymers / We the tightest, kinda / Respect my qualifiers,” a casual middle finger to the swag rap aesthetic, proving that one needn’t be boastful to shine bright. Adam Finley
If There’s a Hell Below
It’s no mistake that the cover for Black Milk’s No Poison, No Paradise recalls the unsettling yucky-ness of Boogie Down Productions’ cover for 1992’s Sex & Violence: our world is populated by some harsh realities, despite our wish to mitigate them through humor and comedy. Black Milk’s 2014 set, If There’s a Hell Below, features a close-up on a bugged pair of eyes, as if to magnify the horror from the previous album. Black’s music is insular yet more intimate, wherein Black takes care to de-escalate the electronic-meets-banging-drums rampage previously heard on albums Tronic and Album of the Year. Instead, he has dimmed the lights, turned up the bass to increase the moodiness, and incorporated some boogeyman vocal effects. Better still, he’s improved his rapping beyond the usual producer-is-decent syndrome, although it seems impossible to stay lyrically complacent on an album populated with cameos from Blu, Bun B, familiar pals Random Axe, and energetic legend Pete Rock (!). And dig this: the title of If There’s a Hell Below borrows a line from Curtis Mayfield but it delivers hip-hop soul in a style reminiscent of Roy Ayers. Quentin B. Huff
I have a hard time describing what draws me to Lese Majesty. There’s something hypnotic in every note and Ishmael Butler’s words slide around strangely and enticingly. That’s part of it, but there’s something more. Lese Majesty feels like a monolithic record. The sound it conveys is the size of a Giza pyramid and as easy to get lost in as the Labyrinth. Indeed, the simple act of putting on headphones when the first moments of “Dawn in Luxor” warp into reality is akin to being transported to another planet. It’s the sort of album that’s terrifyingly easy to get lost in, and, more importantly, intoxicating enough to keep you coming back again and again. Nathan Stevens