The Best Hip-Hop of 2012

Quentin B. Huff, David Amidon, Dave Heaton, Gary Suarez, Dean Van Nguyen
Killer Mike

From riotous humor to sociopolitical commentary, hip-hop in 2012 gave us quality and variety.

At the end of 1992, Dr. Dre's now-iconic G-funk album The Chronic exploded on the scene to leave an indelible mark on hip-hop history. With its buffet of soul and funk, sincerity and banality, current events and personal vendetta, the success of The Chronic ushered in a new era of hip-hop production and album making. Ten years earlier, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's 1982 single "The Message" impacted hip-hop with a similar amount of innovation and gravitas. No one -- not the hip-hoppers of the 1980s, not the ones of the 1990s -- could have predicted the hip-hop scene of 2012. I mean, who could've predicted that the Snoop Doggy Dogg of 1992, whose turn on The Chronic made him a star, would announce in 2012 that he's had a spiritual awakening, plans to release a reggae album, states that he's Bob Marley reincarnated, and that he's changing his name to "Snoop Lion"?

But his name change, along with Mos Def's switch to "Yasiin Bey", suggests the malleability of the hip-hop brand, which is present in today's music. Rappers have taken the traditional mixtape model and, like sonic alchemy, created a new form of excitement outside of albums and the major label experience. Big K.R.I.T., Joey Bada$$, Freddie Gibbs, and many others literally gave away great music. Vocal deliveries themselves are stretched and altered, straddling the fence between emceeing and singing, while concepts and conceits are explored, ballooned through hyperbole and humor, yet nevertheless focused on the personal and the sublimely human.

Like hip-hop in 1992 (see Pete Rock & CL Smooth's Mecca & the Soul Brother, the Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, and Gang Starr's Daily Operation), releases in 2012 expanded the strengths of their individual artists, thereby expanding the art as a whole. Fans looking for boom bap (or those "trapped in the '90s", to quote Nas on Life Is Good) can rely on Skyzoo's A Dream Deferred or Apollo Brown's collaborations with both O.C. and Guilty Simpson.

Want to get political? Try I Self Divine's The Sound of Low Class Amerika, Brother Ali's Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, or Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music. Or, since our own Dave Heaton describes Brother Ali's work as "keeping the tradition of Public Enemy, etc. alive", have a listen to Chuck D "spittin' on the senior circuit" on Public Enemy's Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp.

Contributor David Amidon compares Action Bronson's riotous humor to Redman's 1992 opus Whut? Thee Album. Interested in the abstract and the off-kilter? Our own Gary Suarez would recommend JJ Doom for your consideration, and I'd probably add Billy Woods and El-P.

So many artists made records that pleased us in 2012, it wouldn't be possible to name them all. Roc Marciano, Lupe Fiasco, SpaceGhostPurrp, Masta Ace, Schoolboy Q, Homeboy Sandman, Rick Ross, Saigon, Large Professor, Oddisee, Blu & Exile, Aesop Rock, Murs & Fashawn -- wow, these, and the ones mentioned earlier, are only a few from the entire field. With this many worthy contenders, choosing the "best" often involves deciding which releases made the most impact on us on a personal level, rather than predicting which ones will change the genre. Sometimes, that's as it should be. Quentin B. Huff


Best Albums

Artist: Ab-Soul

Album: Control System

Label: TopDawg Entertainment


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Control System

The final member of Black Hippy to stand up and be counted, Ab-Soul began 2012 as the least visible member of the four-man collective and probably ended the year in much the same position. Odd, because Control System is the strongest Black Hippy release not to bear Kendrick Lamar’s name. Ab may lack Kendrick’s sinuous flow and knack for creating fully three-dimensional words in his rhymes, but he excels in building intricate bars with clever wordplay and coupling his raps with well-chosen beats. This attention to detail and fine ear for picking instrumentation correctly (on Control System, he leans towards minimalist jazz samples and horror movie-esque compositions) underlines Ab as an artist with a vision of how to construct a really great hip-hop records—refreshing, since he's a part of a generation who often spit bottomless rhymes on whatever beats they can scrape together. It’s been said that great rappers don’t always make great albums, which is true. Well Ab is less a natural-born rhyme slayer than he is a shining student of the game, and with Control System, that astute ability has equated to a best-of-the-year album contender. Dean Van Nguyen


Artist: JJ DOOM

Album: Key to the Kuffs

Label: Lex


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Key to the Kuffs

This is a portrait of the artist in exile. Sure, MF Doom burned a few bridges with no-shows and insufficient doppelgängers, but none of those vexing shenanigans warrant banishment. Caught in an immigration limbo that has apparently stranded him in the U.K., the ever-pseudonymous Daniel Dumile tries to communicate his displacement to us mortals on this weirdly wondrous collaboration with underrated producer and Lex mainstay Jneiro Janel. A most personal record by a veritable enigma, Janel's intergalactic boom bap lends itself incredibly well to the thematic foreignness, the strangeness, the otherworldliness of it all. It's not all one-note for the Venomous Villain, obviously, and his obsessions take center stage frequently, as on the self-explanatory "GMO". He's hardly the most straightforward of rappers, and as usual, keen listeners will need to do some spelunking in the caverns of rhyme. On "Banished", Doom ends a rapid-fire series of bars with probably the least opaque verse of his post-KMD career: "Please, enough's enough." Gary Suarez


Artist: Curren$y

Album: The Stoned Immaculate

Label: Warner Bros.


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The Stoned Immaculate

The long improbable journey to Curren$y's first proper major label full-length reads like a roadmap to what should have been a devastating failure. Previously linked and inked with No Limit, Cash Money/Young Money, and Dame Dash's short-lived Roc-A-Fella reboot, the New Orleans rapper probably felt like damaged goods. Yet despite it all Curren$y's managed to rise above and, more often than not, even overshadow the figureheads and crews thankfully left behind. Despite boasting nearly as many beatsmiths as it has tracks, The Stoned Immaculate makes for a cohesive chilled-out listening experience that never sounds homogenous or monotonous. From unconventional R&B outliers Estelle and Pharrell to contemporary rap radio familiars 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa, the caliber of guests suggests some careful curating on Curren$y's part, a welcome aberration when even the biggest rappers in the game today needlessly bog down their albums with subpar verses from unremarkable protégés and hangers-on. Is this cloud rap? Maybe. Gary Suarez


Artist: Brother Ali

Album: Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

Label: Rhymesayers


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Brother Ali
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

"I wanna make this country what it says it is," Brother Ali declares at the start. You can call this political rap, keeping the tradition of Public Enemy, etc., alive; he offers powerful dissections of America's legacy of injustice and oppression, occasionally with likeminded folk like Cornel West in tow. But he's also a humanist who expresses his opinions as if he has serious concern for the soul of humanity. He raps breathlessly, emotion high in his throat, whether he's getting philosophical, thinking about community and struggle, or personal, analyzing past mistakes and sadness from his life (divorce, friendships, economic struggles). More so than ever, on this album Brother Ali cogently balances urgency and humility, anger and gratitude, in his rhymes. The soulful production of Jake One gels perfectly with the meaning and delivery of Brother Ali's words, rounding the circle to complete this stirring, very human, reflective work. Dave Heaton


Artist: Apollo Brown & Guilty Simpson

Album: Dice Game

Label: Mello Music


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Apollo Brown & Guilty Simpson
Dice Game

Apollo Brown's name was on the lips of most hip-hop fans this year, for the fresh, majestic new-soul production on his album with O.C., Trophies, and on this album with Guilty Simpson, himself no stranger to collaborations. The music here fits Guilty's swagger well, fits his persona as the smoothly tough guy who grew up wild but has matured into a wise O.G. Beautiful-sounding boasts and brags could be one definition of hip-hop; here the braggadocio moves gorgeously, with style and grit. As the album proceeds they take things deeper, into a portrait of human struggles, with addiction, poverty, injustice, and themselves. The music's scope and tone is cinematic, with some songs given an appropriate horror-movie vibe, both scary and somber. Simpson too turns his rhymes into vivid portraits of city life, with a message of steadfast determination as the key to success in life. Both artists are quietly building artistically successful careers on their own terms, and they came together at just the right time. Dave Heaton

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