Music

The Best Hip-Hop of 2014

This year's push of stylistic diversity, craft, and experimentation adds fuel to hip-hop's movement into the future.

Best hip-hop album of 2014? It ain't hard to tell which release should get the crown -- why, clearly it's the 20th anniversary of Nas's 1994 opus Illmatic! No, not really, but isn't it cool to see Illmatic get the double-disc (original LP + remixes) anniversary treatment, along with a documentary (Time Is Illmatic) about its creation?

Back in 1994, hip-hop experienced paradigm-shifting growth via a slew of diverse and innovative releases. Did we realize this at the time? Perhaps with Illmatic or Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, but I'm not sure we understood the full creative import of Organized Konfusion's Stress: The Extinction Agenda or Digable Planets' Blowout Comb as building blocks to a more expansive aesthetic. Yet, here we are, decades later, with many of the same innovators still in action: Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets has another album with Shabazz Palaces; Common had Resurrection in 1994, and this year he's got Nobody's Smiling; DJ Premier and Guru joined forces for Gang Starr's fourth LP Hard to Earn, and Premier has teamed up with Royce da 5'9" for a new project, entitled PRhyme.

Truth is, it's premature to compare the 2010s to the 1990s, but tell that to those of us calling Killer Mike the new Ice Cube and El-P the new Bomb Squad. I know I'm guilty of it, thinking of how great it is to have had OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in '94 and to have Big K.R.I.T.'s Cadillactica now. Besides, Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man released Tical near the end of 1994, so it seems appropriate that Wu-Tang Clan and Ghostface Killah would have albums in December 2014. Unfortunately, timing makes them ineligible for our current list of superlatives.

Nevertheless, hip-hop is experiencing an important push of stylistic diversity, craft, and experimentation through its elder statesmen (Common, Ghostface, Pharoahe Monch, the Roots, and so on), as well as through the talents of newer acts (Clipping, Vince Staples, Ratking, Schoolboy Q, YG, to name a few). Time will tell whether our favorite 2014 releases should receive that coveted "anniversary" treatment in 2034. Quentin B. Huff

 
Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron

Label: Top Dawg/Interscope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/s/schoolboy_q-oxymoron.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 10

Display Width: 200

Schoolboy Q
Oxymoron

For Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q stepped up from his past releases by lessening and smoothing out some aspects of his music (the declarative creepiness) in favor of heightening everything overall -- the atmosphere, the arrogance, the sense of epic-ness. From the opening, where his daughter's voice declares, "My dad is a gangsta," it's clear what setting we've entered. This is designed as classic West Coast gangsta rap, and is the year's finest rendition of that -- it's tough, dark, arrogant party music with undertones of remorse and inner turmoil. The title follows 2012's Habits and Contradictions in portraying Schoolboy Q as conflicted, ever doing things he feels bad about after, with guest MCs serving as devils and angels on his shoulder (mostly the former). Woven into an album of tough-hitting power anthems is a series of carefully detailed stories about childhood, about growing up in a complicated environment. His daughter's voice starts off the album for more reasons than one. Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Common

Album: Nobody's Smiling

Label: Def Jam

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/common.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 9

Display Width: 200

Common
Nobody's Smiling

Cynics might see Nobody's Smiling as opportunistic or even exploitative: Hollywood celebrity Common returns to his hometown of Chicago to cry about its violence and feature some of its current homegrown hip-hop talent. That might be a valid argument, but it's hard to care when listening to the actual music. Nobody's Smiling is the best thing Common's done in roughly a decade, at least, and one of the most consistent, cohesive hip-hop albums of the year. A key reason for its success is the degree to which Common knows when to yield the spotlight to others; his skills on the mic seem stronger because he spends less time on it. His second straight album produced entirely by No I.D., it has its own musical style, one synced up well with the content of the songs. It's Common's least ego-driven album in perhaps his career, and in 2014 he wears that approach well. Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Open Mike Eagle

Album: A Dark Comedy

Label: Hellfyre Club

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/o/omeagle.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 8

Display Width: 200

Open Mike Eagle
A Dark Comedy

No hip-hop label had as creatively fertile a year as Hellfyre Club. Between Busdriver's dense adrenaline rush Perfect Hair and Milo's free-associative A Toothpaste Suburb, there seemed little room for yet another great album from the tiny label. But then there was Open Mike Eagle, whose A Dark Comedy set a new quality bar for the Hellyfyre squad both in terms of incisive wit and comedian guest verses (word to Hannibal Burress's honest-to-God flow on "Doug Stamper"). Mike's delivery is slippery, playing with sparse beats that sound almost lo-fi, giving A Dark Comedy an intimate feel. Mike has a talent for pairing raw truth with lyrical goofs, and the record is full of biting social commentary paired with gut-busting observations, constant one-two punches of hard truths and playful non-sequiturs. On "Qualifiers", Mike has some dagger-sharp things to say about white perceptions of black artists' ability to speak for their demographic, but he keeps the song from skewing too serious by invoking a chorus of "We're the best, mostly / Sometimes the freshest rhymers / We the tightest, kinda / Respect my qualifiers," a casual middle finger to the swag rap aesthetic, proving that one needn't be boastful to shine bright. Adam Finley

 
Artist: Black Milk

Album: If There's a Hell Below

Label: Computer Ugly

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/blackmilkif.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 7

Display Width: 200

Black Milk
If There's a Hell Below

It's no mistake that the cover for Black Milk's No Poison, No Paradise recalls the unsettling yucky-ness of Boogie Down Productions' cover for 1992's Sex & Violence: our world is populated by some harsh realities, despite our wish to mitigate them through humor and comedy. Black Milk's 2014 set, If There's a Hell Below, features a close-up on a bugged pair of eyes, as if to magnify the horror from the previous album. Black's music is insular yet more intimate, wherein Black takes care to de-escalate the electronic-meets-banging-drums rampage previously heard on albums Tronic and Album of the Year. Instead, he has dimmed the lights, turned up the bass to increase the moodiness, and incorporated some boogeyman vocal effects. Better still, he's improved his rapping beyond the usual producer-is-decent syndrome, although it seems impossible to stay lyrically complacent on an album populated with cameos from Blu, Bun B, familiar pals Random Axe, and energetic legend Pete Rock (!). And dig this: the title of If There's a Hell Below borrows a line from Curtis Mayfield but it delivers hip-hop soul in a style reminiscent of Roy Ayers. Quentin B. Huff

 
Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Album: Lese Majesty

Label: Sub Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/popmatters30.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 6

Display Width: 200

Shabazz Palaces
Lese Majesty

I have a hard time describing what draws me to Lese Majesty. There's something hypnotic in every note and Ishmael Butler's words slide around strangely and enticingly. That's part of it, but there's something more. Lese Majesty feels like a monolithic record. The sound it conveys is the size of a Giza pyramid and as easy to get lost in as the Labyrinth. Indeed, the simple act of putting on headphones when the first moments of "Dawn in Luxor" warp into reality is akin to being transported to another planet. It's the sort of album that's terrifyingly easy to get lost in, and, more importantly, intoxicating enough to keep you coming back again and again. Nathan Stevens

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image