Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2013

Jewel running, megalomania, acid rap, and sasquatches -- hip-hop continues to surprise in 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

 
Artist: Ghostface Killah

Album: Twelve Reasons to Die

Label: Soul Temple

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Ghostface Killah
Twelve Reasons to Die

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

 
Artist: Black Milk

Album: No Poison No Paradise

Label: Fat Beats

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Black Milk
No Poison No Paradise

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

 
Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

Album: King Remembered in Time

Label: Multi / Cinematic Music Group

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Big K.R.I.T.
King Remembered in Time

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

 
Artist: J. Cole

Album: Born Sinner

Label: Roc Nation/Columbia

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J. Cole
Born Sinner

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

 
Artist: Earl Sweatshirt

Album: Doris

Label: Columbia

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Earl Sweatshirt
Doris

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

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