ASAP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP
Over the past two years, plenty of free projects have come to match the quality of their cost-applied counterparts. Of the many mixtapes released this year, LiveLoveA$AP stands as the cream of that particular crop. Rocky isn’t an especially impressive rapper by some of the genre’s older standards, but as a master of ceremonies, he’s already plenty confident. Rocky simply exists within these songs in a way that they become unimaginable under any other voice, his cockiness infused by an odd blend of equal parts Cam’ron and Juicy J. His carefree, enthusiastic attitude works as a great foil for the spacey, Houston-by-way-of-Jersey production of Clams Casino, who along with some others whipped up an awe-inspiring fusion of Ski Beatz jazz and Mike Dean atmosphere for Rocky to swag all over. The only thing missing from LiveLoveA$AP is the summer weather it was so obviously made for, but that only guarantees a necessary revisit as 2012’s summer days creep closer. — David Amidon
Danny Brown – XXX [Fool’s Gold]
Disclaimer: XXX is certainly not for everyone, nor does it desire to be. After all, its creator wears skinny jeans practically out of spite and wears his hair in a Dragonball Z-like fashion for similar reasons. Danny Brown also relies heavily on an extremely nasal, erratic delivery that some might consider the sign of a serious, Ol’ Dirty Bastard-like drug problem. The design is all very deliberate, though, and XXX finds Brown embracing his outsider status wholeheartedly by rapping over music more suited for beat tape connoisseurs and indie blogs than former drug dealers.
Within this unique, somewhat abrasive atmosphere, however, lies a whole lot of visceral pain and unique honesty. Brown dissects his family’s struggles with addictions, mocks artists gold-digging for radio hits, laments the decade’s party culture and the stress it puts on young women, pens odes to 2Pac and cunnilingus, and takes plenty of well-timed breaks to simply act a fool. All of these subjects are coated with some of the most creative metaphors, imagery, and similes since Eminem’s heyday, making it a must-hear for any fan of hardcore, dense lyricism in their hip-hop. — David Amidon
Elzhi – Elmatic
Older heads seem to find Elmatic easy to shrug off, and I suppose I can see why. After all, It’s just one of our current era’s best rappers spewing some of the year’s best bars over some of yesteryear’s best beats replayed by a full band called Will Sessions. Er…on second thought, maybe I can’t. The recreation effort by Will Sessions is so astounding and satisfying Fat Beats ended up releasing the instrumentals on their own, along with a YouTube video of DJ Premier sitting by a turntable in amazement as the beats take him back in time while sounding indisputably now. And Elzhi simply obliterates these beats, going bar for bar with them just as Nas did all those years ago. Elmatic could never be the definitive record that Illmatic was — there’s just not enough context for it and Elzhi’s not quite as focused as the young Nasir. But nostalgia aside, there’s very few records this year that could compare with Elmatic‘s high standard of quality, making it all the more impressive that the project was originally released for free. — David Amidon
This article was originally published on 12 December 2011. It has been reformatted.