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.

5 - 1

Artist: The Coup

Album: Sorry to Bother You

Label: Anti-/Epitaph


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 5

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 4

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 3

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 2

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 1

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

Prev Page
Next Page
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.