[10 December 2013]
Jewel running, megalomania, acid rap, and sasquatches—hip-hop continues to surprise in 2013.
—Quentin B. Huff, David Amidon, Francesca D’Arcy-Orga, Adam Finley, David Grossman, Dave Heaton, Logan Smithson, Nathan Stevens, and Emanuel Wallace
There are few groups that have as much cinematic flair as Wu-Tang Clan, but this album brings it to a whole new level. Ghost has never been one to be understated and, depending on how you look at it, 12 Reasons to Die has the dumbest or coolest plot ever. The Godfather, noir films, and a whole lot of b-movies get melted together into a story where Tony Starks is resurrected through the power of vinyl and becomes the invincible Ghostface Killah. Oh yes, it’s batshit insane and Ghost revels in it. The only person on here that seems to enjoy it more is producer Adrian Younge. His score to Ghost’s tale is deeply influenced by equal parts Ennio Morricone and Curtis Mayfield. Snares that sound like gunshots, over-the-top gospel singing, and grimy bass lines bring a certain menace to every word that Ghost spits. Twelve Reasons is gritty, unflinching, and above all a blast. It’s a fantastic addition to the Clan’s mythos and one of their finest releases. All it needs is a proper theatre release. Nathan Stevens
With No Poison No Paradise, Detroit, Michigan’s Curtis Cross (Black Milk) navigates and merges hip-hop’s innate tensions (fact vs. fiction, willpower vs. circumstance), and juxtaposes them against his own (rapper vs. producer, drums vs. synthesizers), to find his golden mean. “Digital and analog / Gotta have them both inside my catalog,” he rhymes in album opener “Interpret Sabotage”. Where 2008’s Tronic saw Black crafting a stunning departure wrought from swirling synth and space-age futuristic blips, 2010’s Album of the Year detailed a difficult period in the artist’s life over uncompromising percussion. Here, No Poison No Paradise might as well be the musical equivalent of simultaneously yelling and whispering the phrase “No pain, no gain.”
Through the fictional character of Sonny, Black Milk builds a willfully fragmented but compelling narrative, upping his flow with variety, wit, and bitter truth. Tales of peer pressure and life lessons keep pace with spiritual upbringing and a sense of destiny (“I know that I’ve been on this road forever”), quilted together by musical patches, samples, and snippets of dialogue. It’s a warm yet somber listen, brimming with subtle innovations, from expertly mixed backing vocals to the dense and muted vibe of Perfected on Puritan Ave and the bubbling low end of X chords. One listen to the instrumental “Sonny, Jr. (Dreams)”, assisted by Robert Glasper and Dwele, and it’s clear that the album’s musical layers aren’t screaming to be stripped back and analyzed. Rather, they yearn, patiently, to be discovered. Quentin B. Huff
In June of 2012, after a string of critically acclaimed mixtapes, Big K.R.I.T. finally released his album Live from the Underground. Sample clearance issues and other delays seemed to affect the final product and sales suffered. Some, including K.R.I.T. himself, wondered if he really had what it took to be a star on the main stage. Never one to be easily deterred, K.R.I.T. went back into the lab fueled by the doubters and his own belief that he failed his fans to methodically craft King Remembered in Time—a 17-track-deep project billed as a mixtape, although it exceeds the quality of many proper retail albums on store shelves. With the spirit of his southern hip-hop forefathers in tow, Big K.R.I.T. followed the same formulaic approach that he had been using for years—starting off with crunk trunk-rattlers, before gradually getting deeper. This time around, he does it at a higher level. The stuntastic “Shine On” never clashes with the reflective “REM”. The southernplayalistic “Serve This Royalty” perfectly complements the ambitious “Bigger Picture”. Just as with his other projects, King Remembered in Time was produced (save for one track) and mixed solely by K.R.I.T. in true DIY fashion. As time goes by, K.R.I.T. will surely be remembered from this point forward, if he keeps dropping albums like this one. Emanuel Wallace
It’s easy to mistake J. Cole‘s unflashiness for dullness, and to see his reverence for past hip-hop legends, expressed throughout Born Sinner, for coattail-riding. He doesn’t make big, dramatic moves or carry a larger-than-life persona. Yet that’s exactly the charm of Born Sinner, an understated but thoughtful album from someone with a clear love for, and knowledge of, hip-hop. He has a consistently sturdy hand when he’s just bragging or flowing for the sake of it, but he also goes beyond that, gets deeper. Temptation is nominally the subject of the album. Yet he has a way of declaring a subject within a song and then widening it as he rhymes, making the end result more far-reaching and powerful than you expected. That’s true of all the album’s highlights: “Let Nas Down”, “Runaway”, the title track, and the hit “Crooked Smile”. J Cole isn’t the type of MC to garner attention for every move he makes; in the long run that might make him better, as he’s quietly building an accomplished career. Dave Heaton
Maturity probably isn’t the first word you would associate with any member of Odd Future. But despite Tyler’s raps about sasquatches and gorditas, Doris manages to be the most mature release from the OF crew not named Channel Orange. Earl‘s only 19, but his lyrical content demolishes peers and elders alike. The emotional potency in “Chum”, “Burgundy”, and “Sunday” is stunning. Earl also tries his hand at production work and excels in all areas, making murky darkness cling to every track. The guests here also rise to Earl’s level. Domo Genius sounds incredibly hungry on his verses, Frank Ocean brings levity on “Sunday”, and Doris also is given a hand by outside producers. The Neptunes’ neon background on “Burgundy” amplifies Earl’s confusion over newfound fame and jazz-hop masters BADBADNOTGOOD give a breathtaking instrumental for Earl’s tired flow on “Hoarse.” Doris is made of fantastic self-revealing moments, jaw dropping lines, and some of the year’s best bars. When you end an album with the line “Young, black, and jaded, vision hazy strolling through the night,” you have to have something backing it up. Make no mistake, Earl isn’t good for his age; he’s great, period. Nathan Stevens
What else could you possibly want from a rap album? A place to run for cover, maybe. But everywhere you look here, thoughts are cloudy and it’s starting to rain molly. A very clever exploration of the different meanings of one word? Danny Brown’s third album is a hard look at the past and the present. Childhood memories are terrifying nightmares, sex doesn’t satisfy. There’s nowhere to go but down, way down. Which is where he goes on the later part of the album, a hall of mirrors built on dubstep, but it’s not like the beats here are exactly friendly or easy to the ears. Every track on the album is abrasive in one way or another, and Brown usually ends up with the bruises to show for it. He’s got the flow to survive it, though—there’s no repetition here, every drug taken and bottle downed feels unique, like Tolstoy’s sad families. Brown’s been a G-Unit cast-off and an internet phenom, but Old pole vaults him into rap’s elite. David Grossman
4Chance the Rapper
Mixtapes have always been the perfect way to garner critical recognition and a loyal fan base, and Chance the Rapper has managed to gain both of these with his second mixtape Acid Rap. Yes, it’s officially hip-hop, but beyond that, it’s a superb culmination of a variety of genres, all merged together to form arguably one of the best records of the year.
Chancelor Bennett has undoubtedly seen more than the average 20-year-old and his experiences are laced throughout the mixtape. Chicago, the city Bennett hails from, has a reputation for high crime rates, but Acid Rap isn’t a body of work that generically incorporates these concepts like so many hip-hop albums. It’s distinctively personal, a journey into the best—but more often worst—aspects of this young man’s life.
This intense subject matter is juxtaposed with playful, witty, intelligent lyrics, and beats which sample some of the best of hip-hop, including A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, and B.I.G. Chance may have seen darker times than many of his peers, but you can’t escape the youthfulness that dominates his flow and his admiration for classic hip-hop heavyweights. Acid Rap quite literally shut down the internet, and for good reason. It’s a stellar mixtape, and Chance has a bright future ahead of him. He’s lived up to the hype once before, and once again he’s positioned himself perfectly for future success and acclaim. Francesca D’Arcy-Orga
Pusha T’s solo debut is raw, rugged hip-hop at its finest. The heavy attention to lyricism and wordplay gives My Name Is My Name an old-school feel, but there are enough modernized intricacies to make the album refreshing. Pusha proves why he’s one of the most talented rappers around, supplying quotable bars and cold-hearted cocaine references that can get you feeling like you used to move Johnson & Johnson. Not many rappers can paint an image as clearly as the 36-year-old cocaine cowboy. Pusha T sets the tone of the album on “King Push” when he says, “I rap, nigga / ‘bout trap niggas / I don’t sing hooks.”
My Name Is My Name is easily one of the most impressive displays of lyricism of the year and contains some of 2013’s best verses, as Pusha shows off his versatility. He exercises a variety of flows, including a channeling of his inner Ma$e, and even gets personal on “40 Acres”. The production is minimalistic and intelligently doesn’t overshadow Pusha’s performance. The beats are big and full of bass, giving life to the album and forming a unique theme, with a reunion with Pharrell triggering a nice blast of nostalgia.
Even as a rap veteran, Pusha T manages to capture the energy and hunger of a young rapper trying to break into the scene. He may have had a tremendously successful career with Malice as the Clipse, but Pusha still feels like he has something to prove to the world. Thankfully for us listeners, the pressure Pusha T places on himself results in him putting his best effort into each song. My Name Is My Name has substance, style, and passion, and no doubt is an album that will still be appreciated a decade from now. Logan Smithson
The former radio heavyweight who went all art rap on us is back again with “black Tims all on your couch again, black dick all in your spouse again.” That lyric is taken from “On Sight”, an uneven blast of jagged electro-rap perfectly triangulated to confound Middle America. It’s no accident that it opens Yeezus. As Kanye said in a New York Times interview, “I don’t have some type of romantic relationship with the public.” Nothing could be more true. He’s not a charmer. He lashes out, acts awkwardly, and seems hardwired to annoy. Still, he has elevated hip-hop to an artistic plane that few have attempted, and Yeezus is another unqualified win. It’s fierce and edgy, a peek into the mind of our favorite rap supervillain. The track titles alone (“Black Skinheads”, “I Am a God”, “New Slaves”) suggest a willful attempt to shun the relative safety of other big-name rap albums. The wild production, firebrand lyricism, atypical percussion, and jarring tonal shifts all point to an album that is hard to penetrate but deeply rewarding for the dig. Kanye recently told Ellen DeGeneres that he was “trying to create the new Disney”, and despite his un-family-friendly product, he has a singular vision not dissimilar to Walt’s. Hate him all you want, just don’t use that as an excuse to diminish his work. If Beethoven had had access to Twitter, you’d probably think he was an asshole, too.
Maybe Kanye’s achievement is best expressed through contrast. Jay-Z aired a commercial during the NBA finals and placed his album’s artwork next to the actual Magna Carta, bending over backwards to convince us his album was an event. Kanye didn’t need a performance art documentary or a corporate sponsorship to show that Yeezus is an event. All it takes is one listen. Adam Finley
1Run the Jewels
R.A.P. Music, 2012’s out-of-nowhere collaboration between strange bedfellows El-P and Killer Mike, ran away with our best hip-hop album nod last year. So perhaps the revelation that the two would be joining forces again so soon tipped readers off to what this staff would be gushing over in 2013. Apologies for failing to surprise. But, man. Run the Jewels is a great fucking crew! The album dropped for free via internet music pioneers Fool’s Gold in June and it’s sincerely been a wrap for this writer ever since. Both artists have long been known for their political raps; Killer Mike constantly compared to Ice Cube, El-P consistently paranoid the government is going to take his lunch money. In pursuit of those tropes they dominated hip-hop in 2012 for PopMatters, but Run the Jewels is a decidedly different affair. If this duo’s catalog was the best pair of Public Enemy albums last year, then this is their take on good old Def Squad-era braggadocio.
To hear these men completely flip the script, to go from the rage of “Reagan” and “Drones Over Brooklyn” to absurdist fantasies like “Sea Legs” is just a revelation; these men appear infallible in their artistry. El-P opens the latter cut with the prescient line “really fell out the lane with this shit”, a truth that summarizes the entirety of the record beautifully. Killer Mike explores drug use in a Lil’ Wayne-like haze heretofore seemingly far removed from his wheelhouse. “Psilocybin got me slidin’, slippin’ into another dimension / Me and this woman made love in Kismet,” Mike says, deep into a stripper-induced stupor that includes blunt smoke, MDMA, and metaphysical double-suicide as a means to an end in the VIP room (“No Come Down”). 2013 has featured plenty of odes to strippers, but the imagination on display in Mike’s version goes a long way towards explaining just how rampant the creativity is on this album. When El-P makes a threat, he doesn’t just stomp your face or plot wiser: “We could double dutch in a minefield / Hell gets just the right temperature / Break beat minister / Riverdance cleats on your face for the finisher.” The imagery throughout this album is so often an enigmatic banana clip of new ideas as to make its 36-minute run-time mentally exhausting in the most hip-hop of ways.
The raps are fantastic enough, but the continued blend of old school electro, sci-fi paranoia, and even hints of EDM strobe light mania from El-P and collaborators Wilder Zoby and Little Shalimar on the musical end pushes everything over the edge. Many rap artists have been struggling for the past two or three years to figure out the right mix of dubstep-induced dancefloor fury and prototypical hip-hop corner brags, and I’m here to tell you this unlikely pair has figured it out. It’s a shame that whatever politics are in place hid most of these cuts from the radio, because in a better world I could’ve gone to happy hour and done the Diddy Bop (I can’t dance!) to “Banana Clipper” or “Get It”. It’s an underrated aspect of this album perhaps because neither artist has sounded so openly ready to throw a party (in the past, even when Mike made happy songs he couldn’t help but snarl), but marrying the most imaginative battle raps we’ve heard outside of the YouTube circuit to some truly futuristic breakbeats is perhaps Run the Jewels‘s greatest triumph. As now and next as all this sounds, at the end of the day it’s an ode to hip-hop from the park, to Grandmaster Caz and pre-Dr. Octagon Kool Keith. It’s a celebration album at its core; if you haven’t already, you really ought to join the party. David Amidon
Brother Ali flew in low under the radar with one of this year’s most interesting rap projects. Billed as a set of demos, Left in the Deck is much more: a mini-concept album themed around the two sides of a cassette tape, featuring Ali in fighting form over sparse Jake One production. Ali showcases his talent for storytelling as always, but Left in the Deck also shows off a burgeoning technical prowess. What else is there to say when one rapper’s demo reel is worth more spins than most big-budget hip-hop albums put out this year? Adam Finley
The Stuyvesants are a production duo based in New York—in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to be exact. Allan Cole produces the tracks and Dorien Victor is the collector of the records that are sampled. This summer, they dropped Refined, an album of 25 soulful and mellow grooves that were perfect for a leisurely stroll through the streets, a long road trip, or just your run-of-the-mill social gathering. Standout tracks include the ultra-smooth “Portlyn” and the upbeat and bouncy “Sunshine”. Emanuel Wallace
Talib Kweli is not a “prisoner” of anything, least of all the expectations of being a so-called “conscious” rapper. According to him, “consciousness” is just a matter of being “awake”. Besides, no producer can make a beat that can hold him, as he again dominates this offering with his multisyllabic flow and customized similes. But it’s not just a protest against society’s various prisons—of politics and ideology, of thought, of physical incarceration—Prisoner of Conscious has a lot of love in it. There are songs about love and relationships, as well as Kweli’s genuine love for music. That vibe also comes from a cool cast of supporting artists. The collaborations allow Kweli to blend his style with singers like Miguel and Marsha Ambrosius, shift a little from his comfort zone with Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar, and update familiar territory with Busta Rhymes and Nelly. This is good stuff. The only thing better would be if Kweli and his old partner in rhyme could become prisoners of a new Black Star album. Quentin B. Huff
Of all the posthumous releases since J Dilla’s death, this seems most in his spirit. His younger brother Illa J continues to evolve as a rapper, getting downright strange in an exciting way, and is joined by steadfast Frank Nitt and some true special guests. The beats from Dilla’s apparently huge leftover collection seem carefully chosen, consistently evoking classic Pharcyde. And then, hey, there’s Slim Kid Tre himself! A fun ride. Dave Heaton