5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4 [Jewel Runners/BMG]
Run the Jewels 4 operates in high-velocity friction, and the result is a lyrical inferno over intense beats and seething synths. Propelled by dynamic-duo-meets-odd-couple Killer Mike (Michael Render) and El-P (Jaime Meline), it’s a whirlwind of innovative and rebellious disruption. Mike brings the daring elements (“I got one round left, a hundred cops outside”). Meanwhile, El-P’s the one who knew all along the world was going to hell — he’s already resigned himself to it (“I’m not so sure opportunity’s knocking / it’s probably the law”).
Espousing stark contrasts without room for gradations, Run the Jewels 4 depicts a world fueled by political elitism and corporate hegemony. Oppression is systemic and “born of lies” that are justified by disinformation and algorithms. Guests abound — thanks to Greg Nice, D.J. Premier, Gangsta Boo, 2 Chainz, Pharrell, and Zach De La Rocha — and they join the party as comrades in arms. Much like Busta Rhymes’s similarly energized sequel Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, this record’s not going to convince you of its worldview. It assumes your agreement; otherwise, you must be working for the other side (“Not sayin’ it’s a conspiracy but you’re all against me”).
It’s also a world in a spiral, collapsing on itself so that time operates in a cycle rather than a straight line. When Mike challenges us to “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar” (in “JU$T”), he’s offering a perspective on the past as well as a statement of how history becomes relevant to the current moment. In “A Few Words for the Firing Squad”, when Mavis Staples aches with urgency to tell us there’s a “grenade in my heart / and the pin is in their palm,” you know it’s the future fallout of that pin being pulled that should inform what we do in the present. — Quentin Huff
4. Growing Concerns Poetry Collective — BIG DARK BRIGHT FUTURE [Independent]
Don’t be scared: they may be called the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective, but this trio’s aesthetic places them firmly in discussion over what is the best hip-hop record of the year.
While the division of labor is stark (Jeff Austin makes all of the music, while Mykele Deville and McKenzie Chinn do all of the vocals, both with rapping and spoken-word segments), the end result is nothing short of transcendent. Floating on a cloud of indie-rock dreamwave vibes, Deville and Chinn deliver biting, pointed, and downright beautiful pieces. Chinn especially takes daily observations and transforms them into statements both profane and deeply felt.
This is a record that challenges your perspective and assumptions, covering topics ranging from labor shortages due to poor public transpiration access to discovering the beauty of self-pleasure to the significance of reparations. All of these topics are heady by themselves, but presented in such a beautiful, sanguine environment, we can’t help but be compelled by each and every story by this Chicago collective. “You can’t call the cops on a body that can turn into light,” Chinn tells us on “First You Need a Body”, and in her journey of discovering her powers, we can’t help but stare in wonder. Each listen is its own rare gift. —Evan Sawdey
3. Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide [Rhymesayers]
After years of us music hipsters comparing Aesop Rock’s weighty and sometimes inscrutable lyrics to the dense prose of James Joyce, his Spirit World Field Guide brings Rod Serling to mind. Here, Aesop Rock (Ian Bavitz) plays host to a labyrinth of intricate rhyme patterns describing an alternate realm seemingly situated between a dream-like state and hyperawareness. He offers his notes from his “Spirit World travels” as a “guide for anyone whose path may lead them to this unwavering otherness.”
The paranoia of past Aesop Rock releases is still there (“Dog at the Door”), but this record conveys a physical and psychological displacement that’s at once arresting and cathartic. I think it’s Aesop’s actual travels, to Peru in particular, that inform the album. You can feel the movement in each song, from his frenetic delivery to the delightfully wonky basslines and bubbly sound effects fit for videogames. Spirit World Field Guide is best enjoyed with headphones so that you can catch all the lyrics, but also so you can catch every beep, blip, and tone in the production.
In the track “Button Masher”, he says, “I’m not exactly Major Tom,” but this album is a peculiar space oddity that rewards frequent visits. –Quentin Huff
2. Serengeti and Kenny Segal – Ajai [Fake Four]
Serengeti (David Cohn) is a man of a thousand personas, underground rap’s Lon Chaney. Not only does he tell a rousing story, he fully inhabits the narrative with an uncanny eye for detail.
Such is the lush rendering of Kenny Dennis, Serengeti’s Chicago, Illinois, middle-aged, and mustachioed alter ego. Across multiple releases, we learned that Kenny loves actor Brian Dennehy, drinking O’Doul’s, eating bratwurst, rap music from the 1990s, and a woman named Jueles. This Kenny character is so well-drawn, he has his own rap release as a member of the Tha Grimm Teachaz, a fictionalized rap group from nearly 30 years ago who lost a record deal after bickering with Shaq.
This time around, Kenny Dennis shares half of the record with Ajai, a new Serengeti creation. Ajai is a middling comedian who adores fashion, but he regularly embarrasses (“Don’t Wear That Suit Ajai”) his ultra-supportive and more accomplished wife (“Company Softball”). This dude loves sneakers like Jacob Latimore’s Emmett character on The Chi. A shipping mix-up sends his shoes to Kenny Dennis. Producer Kenny Segal provides the soundtrack, successfully merging lo-fi and crackling boom bap with moody and experimental emo.
Between Ajai’s “drops” and Kenny’s souvenirs in Jueles’ trunk, the album’s focus on tangible things helps us make sense of the intangible underpinnings. Ajai says, “Clothes are just clothes / I like the way that I look.” But we also assign meanings and emotions to our things: “I like the people in line / I like the effort it took.” We are reflective of our possessions, and sometimes the things we own begin to own us. –Quentin Huff
1. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able [Republic]
“Already infamous, limitless, Getty Images / Foul temperament, you start shit, we endin’ it / It’s mad last wishes, gas mask kisses / The thin line between savants and savages” — Black Thought on “Good Morning.”
It’s hard to zone in on a definitive Black Thought moment because his career has been nothing but definitive moments. From his seminal albums with The Roots to his remarkable solo output, he has commented extensively about the Black experience and how it has changed and evolved with him over the decades.
With Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able, he’s crafted a demanding document that amazingly doubles up as one of the most immediately accessible works in his canon. Featuring spoken word samples from fiery civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and lyrics that refer to himself as “half killer and half Hugh Masekela,” there is a passion that runs through Black Thought’s verses that is palpable.
His wit and his wealth of knowledge bleed over every second of Cane & Able‘s 34-minute runtime, marinating every song in his wisdom. In four short bars off of “State Prison”, he crams several millennia worth of history into a mere 12 seconds: “They be like: Black, well, who knew we’d be receivin’ a new you / That’s part Zulu and Farrakhan meets Pharaoh Khufu? / Misinterpret my level of genius and call it cuckoo / But the Swahili meaning of freedom is still Uhuru.”
With able and lively production from overlooked legend Sean C and a roster of guests ranging from the most welcome (Pusha T, ScHoolboy Q, Killer Mike) to the wholly unexpected (Portugal. The Man on three whole tracks), Cane & Able does everything a great rap album should do: it challenges you, it surprises you, it entertains you, and it has you keep coming back for more. There isn’t a definitive Black Thought moment because of albums like Cane & Able: we don’t know what apex he’s going to hit next. —Evan Sawdey