The Best Hip-Hop of 2012

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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Ab-Soul
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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JJ DOOM
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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Curren$y
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

5 – 1

Artist: The Coup

Album: Sorry to Bother You

Label: Anti-/Epitaph

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The Coup
Sorry to Bother You

The beauty of the Coup’s Sorry to Bother You is that it demonstrates, through its music rather than its rhetoric, what makes a movement successful. First, you must have something worthwhile to say, or “dope lines” in the Coup’s parlance. Second, you need good timing, as evidenced by the album’s deft sequencing and astute arrangements.

Lyrically, frontman Boots Riley is as fresh as ever (“This is the last kiss Martin ever gave to Coretta”) and always clever (“Statistics is the tool of the complicit”). Musically, the album is masterfully wrought from rebellious guitars, curvy grooves, riotous rhythms, and an astonishing assortment of little musical conspiracies in strategically placed accordions, cymbals, and kazoos. It’s hip-hop with helpings of disco (“Guillotine”), rock (“Land of 7 Billion Dances”), punk (“You Are Not a Riot”), new wave (“Strange Arithmetic”), and brilliant flourishes of tenderness (“Violet”). Every now and then, this album gives me images of Black Panther Party founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale dressing up like OutKast and singing songs along the lines of Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kicker’s “Monster Mash” and 1950s malt shop tunes. And somehow, that’s a good thing.

If indeed government informants exist (and I’m not saying they do; please don’t tap my phone), Boots Riley and his merry Marxist band the Coup just might put them out of a job. Sorry to Bother You finds the Coup continuing a streak of funky and humorous collections bent on socioeconomic justice, combatting oppression, and sometimes advocating plain ol’ love. But this one just might stump The Powers That Be, to the point that even the “one-percent” will want to dance to it. Quentin B. Huff



 

Artist: El-P

Album: Cancer 4 Cure

Label: Fat Possum

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El-P
Fat Possum

If I’m sitting anywhere near a sampler, turntable, PC mixing software, or microphone, I’m just staring at them shaking my head while something involving El-P plays in the background. Due to his brand of rigorous work ethic, El-Producto rarely surfaces during his years off, which made the time leading up to his 2012 release so engaging as he released remix DJ sets that included Justin Bieber and got tangled up with New York goofballs like Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Das Racist. It also signaled that a post-Def Jux El-P might just be open to making an album that’s slightly less insular than his previous solo efforts. It’s hard to say how much working with those dudes outside his circle, let alone cutting an entire LP with Killer Mike, rubbed off on El-P’s approach to music-making, but Cancer 4 Cure is undeniably his most accessible work yet.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s also really fucking good, almost astoundingly so. All of the stuff we’ve come to expect from him is here, from conspiracy-fueled paranoia to sci-fi imagery to b-boy braggadocio. It’s all framed in this package that feels so familiarly El-P, just with the more esoteric edges trimmed off in favor of a brisk, badass album that has few if any peers. The guy’s grown as a rapper with every release he’s been associated with, but this is the first album where I’m really feeling him as a guy who carries a full album on his own. Cancer 4 Cure feels dangerous the way most great hip-hop albums do, but for the first time El-P doesn’t feel exclusive the way he seemed so greatly interested in being in the past. If you’ve been scared of giving El-P a shot in the past, it’s time to stop feeling that way. David Amidon

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

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Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city

As is the Internet’s (minor aside: how fun is it that we can now refer to everyone in major cities with a blog or freelancing job as “the Internet”?) wont, Kendrick Lamar’s official debut album good kid, m.A.A.d. city quickly inspired the usual cycle of backlash to the backlash to the hype, creating the sort of inevitable opinion crunch we connected hip-hop heads have become known for. So let’s forget all of that hyperbole for a moment and talk about what the album actually is. It’s cohesive, in the way multi-producer albums so rarely are these days, through both Lamar’s storytelling conceit and the producers’ apparent eagerness to realize his vision. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is nervously infectious in the way all OutKast’s best hits were down to the lush hip-hop as funk instrumental from Sounwave. “Poetic Justice” is the year’s best radio hit that wasn’t, while “m.A.A.d. city” feels like a summary of every notable element of Los Angeles hip-hop from the past three decades. And “Swimming Pools” may be the most subversively anti-drinking song in years.

But, of course, we’re talking about Kendrick Lamar’s album because of its storytelling, because of how close to his own heart this music is, and how honestly he transmits that feeling from his heart to our own. If you’re trying to place good kid, m.A.A.d. city in the context of “classics” past and present, whether you’re some random listener or the number of writers on public forums (from message boards to Pitchfork to my own review), I’d contend you might be doing it wrong, or attempting to be “that guy”. The bottom line is, in a year that’s continued hip-hop’s second life that began late 2009, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is one of the ultimately great ones. There’s no peer pressure going on here…I nearly totally hated the guy two years ago. It’s just that damn fun and amazing in equal measure. David Amidon

 

Artist: Nas

Album: Life Is Good

Label: Def Jam

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Nas
Life Is Good

On what basis does Nas’ 2012 release claim life to be good? What’s so good about it? We would probably expect Nas to be worn down — from his divorce (“Bye Bye”), from reports of money problems, from the woes of being a father (“Daughters”), from senseless violence (“Accident Murderers”), from critics constantly comparing his output to his debut and hassling him over his beat selections. Nas graces his album cover positioned a little bit like the front view of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, except with a portion of ex-wife Kelis’ wedding dress draped across his knee.

But Nas sounds invigorated, hungry even. Okay, so “Summer on Smash” isn’t the greatest, but the overall project is quite a delight, especially with the deluxe edition’s four bonus tracks (“Nasty”, “The Black Bond”, “Roses”, “Where’s the Love”). Nas lets his intricate and witty wordplay shine, accompanied by high class crooning from Mary J. Blige (“Reach Out”), Anthony Hamilton (“World’s an Addiction”), Victoria Monet (“You Wouldn’t Understand”), and the late Amy Winehouse (“Cherry Wine”).

For those who enjoy obligatory references to Nas’s debut, Ill-whatchamacallit, there’s a lone guest verse from a rapper, in this case Rick Ross, and the album title certainly flips the script on the old Nas track “Life’s a B*tch”. This deep into his career, Nas found a nimble balance between his reach and his grasp, and gave hip-hop a high-five. In the process, he’s done the improbable: he made both fans and haters of previous Nas records Hip-Hop Is Dead and Untitled agree that Life Is Good is actually good. Quentin B. Huff

 

Artist: Killer Mike

Album: R.A.P. Music

Label: Williams Street

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Killer Mike
R.A.P. Music

R.A.P. Music attracted plenty of comparisons to Ice Cube’s 1991 classic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and with good reason. Just like when Cube’s west coast flows fused so perfectly with the Bomb Squad’s bombastic east coast beats, Killer Mike and El-P made an unlikely but incredibly compatible rapper/producer partnership. And like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, the record is infused with anger, with Mike aiming his crosshairs at political corruption, crooked cops, and failed Reagonomics. It’s the kind of rebellious rap that two decades ago sparked so many essential albums, marginalized over the years by noughties economic prosperity and hip-hop’s increased commercialism. But in the year when the hip-hop generation saw the death of Trayvon Martin — who was young enough to be their own son — how fitting the best hip-hop album of the year had something to say about American race relations.

The best rap album of the year, yes. But it’s also the best “rapped” album of the year. Mike’s killer flow is furious yet retains its head-bobbing southern cadence, while El-P’s vicious synths and mauling drum loops provide the perfect foil. For example, Mike’s double-time flow on the icy “BOB” retread “Southern Fried” is insane, while he wisely trades in technical proficiency for straightforward punch on “Reagan”, one of the album’s real talking points.

Killer Mike has always been a great rapper, of course, but never has he achieved this level of focus. R.A.P. Music is a lean 12 tracks with almost no guest spots and just the one producer, who provides zero filler from front to back. “This album was created entirely by Jamie and Mike,” says Killer to open “JoJo’s Chillin”, acknowledging El-P’s considerable contribution. Whether it was great chemistry, El-P’s strict studio rule or the result of a duo determined to claim recognition they so deserved, Jamie and Mike have crafted a classic. Dean Van Nguyen

Dope Mixtapes

Artist: XV

Album: Popular Culture

Label: self-released

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XV
Popular Culture

Hip-hop as sonic collage, as reflector of the world at large, as a musical and cultural chameleon that takes on the colors and textures of its surroundings — that’s a theme that been done already. It’s arguably embedded in the hip-hop aesthetic. Wale’s The Mixtape about Nothing channeled hip-hop’s use of popular culture through the sitcom Seinfeld and dug up a few of Wale’s truths in the process. XV enters this arena with a mixtape loaded with a wider range of references, from both film and television, spanning such recent touchstones as Inception (in the song “Kick”) and Breaking Bad (it was a matter of time before someone rapped, “I ball like Walter White”). Oldies like Star Wars (“Jedi Night”) and Full House (“Mary Kate & Ashley”), and characters like Willy Wonka (“Wonkavator”), are also included in the fun. XV goes in seriously from the opening to the ending credits, looking for his “15 minutes of fame” on the appropriately titled “Andy Warhol” and along the way convincing listeners he intends to get it. Quentin B. Huff

DOWNLOAD: “Popular Culture”

 

Artist: Meek Mill

Album: Dreamchasers 2

Label: Maybach Music Group/Warner Bros.

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Meek Mill
Dreamchasers 2

Forget the bottle-tossing, bloviating blasphemy charges, and budding Twitter beef with, uh, Cassidy. All that tabloid business and nonsense distracts from the real reasons behind this young Philly MC’s come up. One listen to this sequel to his 2011 mixtape puts everything into perspective. Preceding his Maybach Music Group LP Dreams & Nightmares, Dreamchasers 2 might end up dwarfing his debut. With more than 3.7 million official downloads via DatPiff, it certainly has reached a hell of a lot more ears. It also didn’t hurt that “Amen”, Meek’s quirky collaboration with Drake and Jeremih, became a hip-hop radio staple that outlasted its summertime release. Even with a formidable roster of guests including 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, some of the best cuts (“Big Dreams”, “The Ride”) feature Meek on his own, spitting rhymes while simultaneously coming to terms with his relatively newfound fame. It’s a story we’ve all certainly heard before, but that’s beside the point. Gary Suarez

DOWNLOAD: “Dreamchasers 2”

 

Artist: Action Bronson

Album: Rare Chandeliers

Label: Vice

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Action Bronson
Rare Chandeliers

It’s important to note that when Bronson is on his game, I really struggle to be objective about his music. If it weren’t for my excitement over this tape, which dropped just a week before our year-end deadline, it certainly wouldn’t be included in this list. But I’ve just got to give a shout out to it because I probably haven’t heard a more front-to-back hilarious and technically sound piece of hip-hop since the glory days of Redman and De la Soul. Some find it really easy to compare Bronson to his obvious influences and degrade him for such a thing, but, look: Ghostface Killah is my favorite rapper of all-time from an entertainment perspective, so even if you want to call Bronson’s music an on-going parody of Supreme Clientele, I’m going to be there on the edge of my seat waiting for the download link to appear. Aided by seasoned producer Alchemist, Rare Chandeliers achieves something that most would never expect a pair of white boys from separate American coasts to achieve — it’s a blaxploitation hip-hop album, so full of absurd imagery and patently ridiculous situational language that it feels awesomely distinct from the rest of the landscape. Rare Chandeliers is unique, it’s goofy, and it’s a hell of a good time. Honestly, not just my favorite mixtape of the year, but very, very close to my favorite hip-hop release of 2012 period. David Amidon

DOWNLOAD: “Rare Chandeliers”

 

Artist: Joey Bada$$

Album: 1999

Label: Cinematic/Creative Control

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Joey Bada$$
1999

Few would consider hip-hop’s golden age to have extended as far as 1999. By then the knock-around Brooklyn beats that defined the era had largely been phased out, replaced by more big-business bling and lush, “Big Pimpin’” instrumentation. But for 17-year-old MC Joey Bada$$, 1999 was a special year. It’s a time when his earliest memories of music are probably drawn from; when boom-bap beats crafted by Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and others flowed through this Flatbush native’s home. Being raised on this music is the only way Joey could have crafted his debut mixtape 1999 so organically. Over 15 glorious tracks, Badass recreates these old school flavours with eagle-eye accuracy, helped massively by the dead-on production by Chuck Strangers, Bruce LeeKix, and Freddy Joachim — their work sitting perfectly next to beats jacked from J Dilla, MF Doom, and Lord Finesse. Meanwhile, Joey’s laidback flow is the perfect companion to the rich instrumentation, and he crams each bar with syllable after syllable for even more boom-bap bang. Dean Van Nguyen

DOWNLOAD: “1999”

 

Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

Album: 4eva N a Day

Label: Cinematic/Def Jam

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Big K.R.I.T.
4eva N a Day

Thick, syrupy Southern beats. Deep fried bass. Smooth, luscious vocals from a confident emcee. Words of wisdom laced with life experience. That’s the way Big K.R.I.T. puts it down, helped along by his own precise production sense as well as his love for hip-hop, plush cars, and Southern living. And it works too, from the optimistic never-say-die aesthetic of the title track to the road-weary “Red Eye” and its muck of relationship woes. After Big K.R.I.T.’s momentous entries into the game with 2010’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and 2011’s Return of 4eva, 4eva N a Day is a worthy addition to his impeccably consistent mixtape series. Cutting down on guests and features, 4eva N a Day also functions as a judicious offset to his studio debut Live from the Underground. Big K.R.I.T. makes the case for all of us who feel as though the mixtape scene is often superior to the traditional album approach. Perhaps there’s also room for a similar argument in favor of the underground relative to the mainstream. K.R.I.T. continues along an impressive path. Quentin B. Huff

DOWNLOAD: “4eva N a Day”

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