Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG

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I swear this will be done before 2015 ends.

Catch up on the list here.

If you were to ask the world who ran the L.A. rap game, they would all say Kendrick Lamar. As the protege of Dr. Dre, the bearer of the torch passed down from Snoop and Game, the good kid from the mad city who remembered the lessons from MC Eiht, Kendrick deserves the key to the city. But K.Dot is too universal now, he’s hanging out with Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons and Ellen Degeneres. He doesn’t inspire the same hometown rapture that Chance The Rapper does for Chicago or Drake does for Toronto. Kendrick knows this because his sister told him: YG is the prince of the city. Take a drive down the 110 and it’s obvious that the Young Gangsta is L.A.’s favorite. After years of building up grassroots support, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, My Krazy Life, is a classic Angeleno album and the best major label effort since Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.

 YG once said that “it’s easy to make a classic album” and judging from My Krazy Life he must have the secret. Rappers have been trying to figure out how to make great albums on major labels for the last fifteen years, yet YG makes it look so effortless that you have to wonder why everyone else has been failing. His debut hits all of the major label cliches but they’re not just boxes he’s checking off, they’re integral parts of a cohesive body of work. My Krazy Life has the strongest identity of any album in 2014. He’s done what no other rapper since Kendrick has been able to do; take a personal story with real stakes and transpose that over the canvas of a major label album. Guest stars show up in the perfect spots, sex jams are given context, and a narrative is built through the tape. Starting with the opening lines of YG’s mom warning him to not end up in jail like his dad, he takes us through a gangbanging odyssey, soundtracking the parties, petty crime, heartbreak, and the inevitable consequences.

My Krazy Life avoids cliche thanks to YG’s strong writing. He might be the most underrated MC in the game right now. He’s an incredibly descriptive rapper, charging his verses with an immediacy that doesn’t exist with his ratchet peers. “Meet The Flockers” puts the listener right in the middle of a home invasion. “I Just Wanna Party” and “Who Do You Love” toe the line of dangerous exuberance; party tracks with an undercurrent of menace. There are a lot of fantastic rappers on this record. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Schoolboy Q, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Jeezy; not a single one upstage YG. He not only holds his own, he is the star of each song.

YG isn’t the only star though. This record owes just as much to DJ Mustard, who provides the same consistency musically as YG does lyrically. Mustard was one of the all stars of 2014 as his sound shaped not only the music of L.A. but all of mainstream hip hop as well. With all of his hits on the radio, My Krazy Life was an opportunity to flex his muscle and show his sound is capable of holding up a classic. And the tape is loaded with gems. There’s the aggressiveness of “BPT,” the R&B throwback of “Do It To Ya,” and the eastern flavored euphoria of “Left, Right.” There are sonic easter eggs hidden throughout the album, making you think you’re listening to a classic West Coast album without actually making an inferior copy of one. That’s why My Krazy Life is so spectacular: it was able to update a classic formula that people had left for dead. If you grew up in California, it’s impossible not to like this album.

My Krazy Life, above all else, is a showcase of the best producer/MC partnership in the game. YG and DJ Mustard know each other. DJ Mustard provides the canvas to make a hit, and YG’s elastic flows find all the nuances in his beats to make them stand apart. Like the other partnerships on this list, they bring the best out in each other. There were rumors that they were in a fight and now YG’s new single isn’t produced by Mustard, and Mustard’s new mixtape doesn’t have YG on it. If they have to go their separate ways, they will both be fine. But at least for one album they were able to make a West Coast masterpiece.

Read the original review here.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: #3 – Run The Jewels

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Almost at the finish line. Check out the previous albums in these  three  posts.

“Run The Jewels is the answer to the question of what’s popping!” So states El-P, one half of the most charming and unlikely success stories of the decade. Two hall of fame solo artists, Dungeon Family B-lister Killer Mike and New York underground stalwart El-P, link together and create the best music of their careers, uniting young and old, north and south, and black and white in the process. I’ve told this story before because they’ve been on these lists before: their first team up, Killer Mike’s (El-P produced) R.A.P. Music was one of the best albums of 2012 and their original Run The Jewels landed on the 2013 list. But those last two albums seem like experiments compared to this. Whereas R.A.P. Music was an aesthetic partnership that marveled at the difference of sounds and styles being combined and the RTJ debut was a low stakes shit-talk record, Run The Jewels 2 finds the partnership fully complete. Their chemistry is organic, their personalities complement each other, and they’ve brought the fire that made them so special as solo artists and made some new and inspiring.

“I’M BOUT TO BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT” Killer Mike bellows on opening track “Jeopardy” and what follows is 11 songs of revolutionary wildfire, burning down corrupt police, capitalist pigs, misogynistic hypocrites, the military industrial complex, and whatever helpless fuck boys get in the way. Killer Mike says it best:

“Me and El-P got time to kill, got folks to kill on overkill. He hangin’ out the window, I hold the wheel, one black, one white, we shoot to kill
That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”

On their previous album, Killer Mike was the star of the show, contending for a spot on the All Rap team. He’s phenomenal here, tip toeing on the track like a ballerina, and then bludgeoning everything in his path. But this time El-P goes bar for bar with Mike, rapping better than I’ve ever heard him. He plays the sneer to Mike’s roar, tossing up such devastating insults that you have to pause the tape to fully internalize them (“You can all run backward through a field of dicks” or “I’d fall back if your casting calls are ending in semen”). His double time sneaks in and out of the beat, linking verses together and keeping pace with the gleeful mania of the record. Nothing is as fun as listening to the two of them tag team a song, trading bars back and forth.

What’s different about this record though is that it’s not just Mike and El. After signing to Mass Appeal, Run The Jewels expanded in scope and the guest artists up the ante. Zach De La Rocha (formerly of Rage Against The Machine) delivers an absolutely blistering verse on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” shouting out Miles Davis and Phillip K. Dick in the same breath and predicting mass factory closures. Beyonce collaborator BOOTS adds a drip of pathos on “Early.” But Gangsta Boo might just steal the show on “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” delivering a filthy, man-eating verse that flips the script on decades of rap sexual norms.

The production has grown as well. El-P’s work on the first RTJ stripped his dissonant industrial sound to the bare essentials, playing like a reworking of Rick Rubin’s rock rap. He’s built that sound into something new here, and there’s really nothing else right now that sounds like it. Listen to “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the way he incorporates Police Academy’s Michael Winslow vocal noises to create the schizophrenic atmosphere. Or the sledgehammer riffs on “Blockbuster Night Part 1″ that could accompany a Mad Max chase scene. Or the chanting breakdowns in “All Due Respect.” Or the ghostly guitar that drifts in and out of “Crown.” El-Producto earns his moniker here, proving he can reinvent his sound fifteen years after his debut.

All of this would be enough to make Run The Jewel 2 a major album. What makes it so special, and so universal, is how it became the major hip hop response to the civil unrest in the country. Killer Mike became a pundit after this, appearing on CNN and Bill Maher, but his views are clear on the album. There’s the fury of the riots (“we killin them for freedom cuz they tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it, the lord’ll sort them”), the pain of injustice (“I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away right in front of my beautiful son”), and the guilt of survival (“Give me the fame and I promise to change, won’t be the same, won’t be the same type of man who puts cocaine in this lady’s hands”). No other rapper is delivering such nuanced commentary. El-P is right there with him, letting Mike speak his mind while stretching the issues into universal problems. Someone tell Macklemore that this is how you deal with social injustice without looking like some kind of white messiah. Run The Jewels takes the anti-fuckboy creed on their first album and utilizes it for something positive. It was the album America needed.

I saw Run The Jewels live a couple summers ago in San Francisco. It was a fantastic show. As fun as it was, the most powerful part was when Killer Mike dedicated a song to Oscar Grant, the kid who was murdered by BART police in Oakland. It was maybe the most powerful concert experience I’ve ever witnessed. A year later Run The Jewels had a concert in St. Louis right after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted for murdering Mike Brown. Once again Killer Mike took the stage and spoke for the grief and rage of the people. It was touching and it was moving and it was more grounded and emotional than anything else about it. It was a reminder of how important hip hop can be. And it’s proof that these two rappers earned every second of their latter day fortune.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #4 – Rich Gang

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Reacquaint yourself with the list here and here.

Atlanta is one of the most creative and chaotic places in rap, offering up new stars and seeing them fizzle out in the time span it takes a major label to make a decision. It has the greatest rap infrastructure in the country, but in 2014 it yielded more hot singles than lasting projects. Enter Birdman, CEO of Cash Money Records, always on the hunt for new talent, taking two of ATL’s hottest new rappers under his wing and putting them in his own collective, Rich Gang. It was a match made in heaven. Tha Tour Part 1 is a showcase for the chemistry between Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, their natural pop instincts highlighted by the opulent sparkle of breakout producer London On Da Track, and their shrill ebullience given gravitas by Birdman’s (absolutely essential) shit talk peppered all over the record. The tape was supposed to just be a preview; an advertisement for greater things to come. But Tha Tour Part 1 exceeded expectations and ended up as the best mixtape of the year.

Young Thug spent 2014 as a rap supernova, stopping time and bending gravity with every verse. But he always did his best work with partners who either provided a strong base to bounce off of (see T.I. or Trae The Truth), or ones who could keep up the energy and let Thug stay in the stratosphere (see PeeWee Longway and Bloody Jay). But Quan is different. They speak the same language and carve out areas in their music that weren’t there before. Their chemistry is vidid in every bar; the way they finish each other’s thoughts, the way they relate to what the other said, the obscure references to each other’s songs. There are strong solo moments on the tape. Quan delivers a touching love ballad in “Milk Marie” and Thugga goes super saiyan on opener “Givenchy,” but they really just act as filler for the glorious duets that highlight the mixtape. Quan claimed that him and Thug were the best duo since Outkast and that’s a heavy crown to bear. But after hearing them harmonize (harmonies! in rap!) it’s hard not to believe it too.

There a ton of great moments on Tha Tour Part 1, from the bonkers beats from London On Da Track and Dun Deal, to the way Birdman describes his bathroom, to Young Thug saying Uber (UUUUUU-BAHHH, it can never be said any other way now), but the thread connecting this large, unorganized project is the fraternity between the two leads. Rich Homie Quan plays the romantic, always searching for love, always crusading for a better lot in life. Thugga Thug plays the cynic, enjoying the moment while hardening his heart for the next. They’re like a rap game Boy Meets World. It’s a partnership that allows them to celebrate the joys of cunnilingus in “Tell Em (Lies)” and then drop a heartbreakingly poignant song about teaching their kids how to grow up on “Freestyle” without any dissonance. It’s a reminder that these guys are artists and their music has just as much depth as any other rap out there.

Looking back from a distance, the best mixtape of 2014 seems like a lost opportunity. The cast and characters that made this tape so wonderful are no longer together. Rich Homie Quan has focused on his solo career, leading to a rift with him and Young Thug. Birdman’s relationship with Thug has shifted from inspirational to menacing due to all the drama with his former protege Lil Wayne. Tha Tour Pt. 1 was named for two reasons: there would be a tour featuring Quan and Thug, and there would be a part two. Neither has happened. If this was going to be their one moment it would have been great if they made it truly spectacular: cleaned up the sound quality, edited out the excess tracks, added their hit single “Lifestyle” and some other standouts from the hundreds of songs they recorded, and really carved out their spot in rap history. But alas, Tha Tour Pt. 1 remains a beautiful anomaly, a brief moment where the sum total of its parts added up to something greater than the individuals. 

Get the mixtape here. It’s free!

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: #5 – Shabazz Palaces

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At long last, Hungry Hippopotamus is here to finally answer the question of what the best albums of 2014 were. About mid-way through the next year, I’ll be dropping the rest of 2014’s top 10 one at a time. If like the rest of the planet you are fully invested in the present and need to remind yourself of the list, check out part one here.

Here we are at part 2! The top 5 albums of 2014 are all marked by the teamwork that it took to make them. In a rap era where groups suffer because everybody wants to be a solo star (R.I.P. Black Hippy) and a year that was defined by conflict and ugliness, these albums were made by duos who realized that they could be more than the sum of their parts. A rare find in today’s rap landscape.

5: Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

Lèse–Majesté, French for treason against a sovereign power, or offending a ruler. It couldn’t be more apt for Shabazz Palaces’ sophomore album, a quietly revolutionary record that sounds like the aural equivalent of giving the middle finger as you speed away in your getaway van.

When Shabazz Palaces dropped their critically acclaimed debut album Black Up in 2011, it seemed like a watershed moment for a new era of underground hip hop. In one of the best origin stories of the decade, Ishmael Butler, formerly Butterfly of successful jazz rap 90’s group Digable Planets, moved to Seattle, changed his name to Palaceer Lazaro and teamed up with producer Tendai Maraire to release two murky, powerful EP’s under the moniker of Shabazz Palaces. Black Up seemed like a revolution but four years later it remains an oddity, a dense statement that’s transmitted from outside of even the outermost layers of the genre. Now they return with their sophomore record Lese Majesty, which is even more insular, abstract, and confounding. It’s the best they’ve ever sounded.

Maraire takes the reins on this album, driving Lese Majesty into ethereal territory that sounds like aliens trying to cover cool jazz classics. This is maybe the most singular album of the year; songs blend into each other seamlessly, sparse soundscapes are peppered with futuristic loops. It’s a confounding first listen, ominous chimes playing against sci-fi theremins. But Lese Majesty creates a whole galaxy with Maraire’s sounds. The albums sounds like traveling through space; bumpy asteroid belts give way to adrenaline infused chase scenes, creeping waves of tension are balanced with disarmingly beautiful pockets of serenity. When the album finishes, it feels like you’ve gone somewhere.

Ish Butler plays more as a tour guide than MC, dialing back his role to focus on Maraire’s collages. He chants more than raps, but his rhymes are economical. In few words he’s able to mash together panafricanism, afro-futurism, science fiction, and hip hop history all together. Plus he sounds dope doing it, a rap Gandalf dropping lessons and being fly at the same time. His performance is what pushes Lese Majesty from being a curioso’s project to a powerful statement. He completes the metaphorical link of ancient African kings to interstellar rulers.

Lese Majesty is a pocket galaxy, a self contained universe that feels completely detached from modern times. It all blurs together except for the few moments it breaks open, like in the bitterly sarcastic “#CAKE” or the solemnly beautiful “Motion Sickness.” It is rare for any artist today to have such a strong identity that doesn’t revolve around the same signposts as everyone else, but Shabazz Palaces’ artistry can be found in every part of the album, from the stirring videos to the song titles. In an awful year, and a year where hip hop was forcibly made political, Lese Majesty showed a different type of rebellion. It is revolution through escape, a reminder of black excellence, a sign of worlds beyond that can be better than the one we have now. Treason through dreaming, an insult to the throne.

   

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: Part 1

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Make like Birdman and fly into the past to view the best albums of 2013 and 2012 after this!

Much has been made out of the weakness of this year. None of our flagship superstars dropped any albums. The dearly departed A$AP Yams claimed that this was the worst year in hip hop history. Even I acknowledged that this year was a difficult one and that the normal album format for major labels doesn’t encompass what happened in 2014. We’re now a good fifteen years into the new century and we’re beginning to notice some trends; one of them being that the capitalistic enterprise of music (and all art) is starting to eat itself. We’ve got Grammy nominees being released on soundcloud for free! But nevertheless there were still great albums released this year and it is an injustice to focus on the negative without rewarding the positive! So here we go, the Hungry Hippopotamus best albums of the year!

But before we start, a few words. There is only ten albums on this years list. That’s not to discredit what would be #15-#11, but with all the turmoil this year they just didn’t seem as important. The music I loved this year took me to another place, and mainly sonically. I needed production that I could fall into, and that’s a trend on this list. For most of my life I’ve been obsessed the lyrical side of music; I suppose I’m maturing. With apologies to D’Angelo, Cozz, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Taylor McFerrin, Lana Del Rey, and Open Mike Eagle, we will begin.

10: DJ Quik – The Midnight Life

The 2014 Tim Duncan award for continued excellence as a veteran in the game goes to L.A’s own David Blake. DJ Quik is a legend here in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre may be the golden child taking his G-Funk and making it global, but Quik has and always will be the cult hero, L.A.’s own secret. He’s been producing and rapping for almost a quarter century now and his whole discography is pretty much unimpeachable. Now on his tenth studio album he sounds more vital than ever. There’s no overarching theme to The Midnight Life. It’s a collection of great songs that can play in the BBQ during summer. But it indirectly turns into a critique of modern pop rap, as if he’s challenging DJ Mustard and company to step up and make some more interesting tunes. Quik remains an underrated rapper, witty and spiteful, and he’s in fine form playing the curmudgeon. He eulogizes the death of gangsta rap and R&B on “Pet Semetary” and points out his relevance in “Puffin’ The Dragon.” But Quik is more than just a rapper; he’s a composer, a DJ. The Midnight Life is a tour of brilliant production, great guest spots, and anachronistic sounds. The album starts off with a skit where someone asks Quik what hip hop needs and he responds with “a banjo,” ands sure enough the first song features the dopest banjo riff in hip hop history. Then there’s the dance funkgasm of “Back That Shit Up,” the train rumblings of “Trapped On The Track,” the James Blake impression on “Shine” and the beautiful instrumental “Bacon’s Groove” which features Rob “Fonksta” Bacon just noodling guitar out of his mind. Quik has this incredible ability to make unorthodox sounds seem timeless, as if they were always meant to be there. It’s clear this invigorates his guests as well. Old and new west coast artists meet on The Midnight Life. Frequent Quik collaborator Suga Free slices through “Broken Down” like a warm knife, and Mack 10 of famed L.A. group Westside Connection just bulldozes the Troutman-on-steroids of “The Conduct.” Former Dre protégé Bishop Lamont is rescued on “Trapped On The Tracks” and Dom Kennedy continues his life as an American hero on “Life Jacket” (He starts off his verse with “Tryin to burn something, buy a lot of books these days, tryin to learn something”). In a year where Los Angeles became rap’s top city again, The Midnight Life is a reminder that it always has and always will be.

9: Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

In the millennial hype circuit, it’s hard for anybody to debut with a good chance. The only hope is to come out of the ether with no expectations and blow everybody way. There isn’t a much higher pressure than being the first A&R signing of the premier talent label in the game. So when Isaiah Rashad dropped his first project on Top Dawg Entertainment, there seemed to be no way that he could live up to the impeccable standards of the label of Kendrick and Black Hippy. More than living up to those standards, looking back you can make a case for Cilvia Demo being the best thing TDE did all year. Coming from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Isaiah does for southern music what Black Hippy did for L.A. He bleeds his influences and idols into a lo-fi jazzy intimate portrait of his life, adding layers to the original music that inspired him. His heroes are held up as role models for his own life, his music a safety net to fall into. But these clichés are saved by his own nuanced perspectives on his relationships. His familial ties come straight from Arthur Miller, as the specter of his deadbeat dad casts a shadow over everything in his life, from his relationship with his own son to his own childhood depression. Songs like “Heavenly Father” and “Hereditary” are some of the more moving ballads we heard in hip hop this year. No that this was an entirely somber affair. He spazzes out on tracks like “Webbie Flow” and “Modest” and drops knowledge and pays homage on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Brad Jordan.” Isaiah carries the entire project himself, none of his fellow TDE stars join in until the last song. But what’s most chilling about the tape was Isaiah’s foresight, where on first single “Ronnie Drake” he raps into his sons eyes “I hope they don’t kill you cuz you black today, they only feel you when you pass away.” Cilvia Demo is the best debut in a year filled with them and Isaiah Rashad wins the 2014 Rookie Of The Year for being able to toss aside the pressures and make an archetypal coming of age album while keeping his personality and sound intact. Hopefully he can stay the course on TDE.

Read the original review here

8: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

 It takes guts to stare at something as deep as something as death and not come away sounding corny. But Flying Lotus is not afraid of big ideas. His previous albums have tackled the city he’s from, the inner workings of the mind, and nothing less than the universe itself. But You’re Dead! is the most impressive of these works because Flying Lotus doesn’t deal with abstraction here. This is death in all its horror; the pain of a lost loved one, the grotesquerie of the afterlife, the relief of passing. It takes a gentle touch to be able to balance all these emotions, especially instrumentally. You’re Dead! flies through at a breakneck speed, with the usual experimentalist quality of his past work underwritten by some of the strongest musicianship he’s ever had. Anchored by compatriot bassist Thundercat and the rest of his Brainfeeder crew, Flying Lotus got a dream team of collaborators to fill out his acid jazz dreams. Legends Herbie Hancock and Ennio Morricone drop by while Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg cement FlyLo’s status as the reigning west coast wizard. But this is still a singular work of art from the man himself. Even though he was dealing with live musicians, Flying Lotus said he treated them as samples, piecing their work into a larger tapestry. And it shows; the Kendrick assisted Dylan Thomas styled piece de resistance of “Never Catch Me” slots right in front Snoops macabre humor in “Dead Man Walking.” Everything is placed in just the right spot for the journey. The opening orchestration of “Theme,” the elegant guitar lick of “Turkey Dog Coma,” and the stunning crescendo of “Ascension” which transforms You’re Dead! into a cathartic release and if it doesn’t bring you to tears then you forgot how to listen to a whole album. To face something like death with such earnestness, without pretention, irony, or sarcasm, to handle loss and tragedy in such an open way, this is what art and hip hop is all about. Here’s hoping Flying Lotus can bring some of his mojo to the rest of the rap scene.

7: Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

 

Nicki Minaj may have had an all star year that solidified her status as the queen of rap, but she’s certainly not alone anymore. Azealia Banks swept the rug from under her when she dropped her debut album with no warning. Looking back it’s an absolute triumph, but there was a possibility that Broke With Expensive Taste was never going to see the light of day. After breaking through with the explosive “212” four years ago, Azealia spent the ensuing years sabotaging her career through petulant internet feuds, label disputes, and an overall bad attitude. But the talent was always there, as her mixtapes and EP’s proved, and after Interscope decided they didn’t want anything to do with Azealia, they still let her keep this album so she could release it on an independent label. It’s their loss. Broke With Expensive Taste is an essential album of the zeitgeist, an explosion of ideas that carry across multiple genres. The punk rock of “Yung Rapunxel,” the vogue pop of “Soda” and “Chasing Time,” the surf rock of “Nude Beach A Go Go,” the jazzy boom bap of “Desperado” or the Latin euphoria of “Gimme A Chance,” it’s a perfect textbook for hip hop’s globalization. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Azealia, who proves her talent with every bar. She switches between dense internal rhymes to diva soaked singing even better than her pop counterparts Nicki and Drake, and she’s great at both. Even the least essential of her songs here can be saved by her brash wit and slippery flow. A couplet off opener “Idle Delilah,” “He said the puss deeper than the deep blue sea, indeed the puss deeper than the three Fugees.” A love letter to the diversity of New York, it’s the best and most vibrant work the mecca of hip hop has put out all decade. With beats that travel the world but a verbal style rooted in the streets of Harlem, Broke With Expensive Taste is a brilliant, messy, kaleidoscope of sounds. Nicki may have wanted to lay out a blueprint for female rappers with her album The Pinkprint, but Azealia’s beat her to the punch. Brash, arrogant, introspective, and intimate, this is an album that proves there’s no barriers for not just female rappers but all of hip hop. And with her incisive comments on the state of the genre, hopefully she stays around for a while.

Read the original review here.

 

6: Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Oxymoron isn’t what we thought or wanted it to be. The sequencing is so terrible that a common consumer doesn’t know where the deluxe tracks begin or end. Lead singles “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” were made after the album to give it pop appeal and don’t mesh with the rest of the work. The major label mishandling has been symbolic of the tragic fall of TDE, the indie label that doesn’t seem to know how to handle the big time. But now we’re in an ironic situation that the most anticipated album of 2014 has transformed to the most underrated. Oxymoron is, at its heart, an uncompromising slice of L.A. gang life. Kendrick may be digestible for the masses, but Q’s work is Greek tragedy; watching the one’s who do the worst live the best, being forced into habits that slowly destroy you, or “living to die-oxymoron.” This is what gangsta rap’s been about for decades now and Q peels back his life for a first person demonstration. There’s no tidy cinematic structure but his personal story is all there, splattered over the record like a Jackson Pollack painting. “Hoover Street” flashes back to Q’s childhood, being shown his first gun and watching his uncle steal for drug money. “Los Awesome” is the manic gangsta party before drifting into the soft sounds of addiction that foreshadow “His & Her Fiend.” “Prescription/Oxymoron” is a vivid depiction of his cycle between drug dealing, abuse, and addiction. “Blind Threats” is his moment of doubt in the gardens of Gethsemane while “Break The Bank” is his moment of resolve, knowing he’s doing it for his daughter and his music. “Hell Of A Night” is the hedonistic party that never finds the relief he craves. This is usually the part where I say all of this is held together by Schoolboy Q, but Oxymoron is messy and abrasive. The same goes for the beats, a master selection of unorthodox sounds that still find a groove thanks to a who’s who of L.A. producers (TDE’s own Digi-Phonics crew, Alchemist, Tyler the Creator, DJ Dahi) and all-star draft picks that know how to make the bad sound good (Mike Will Made It, Pharrell, Clams Casino). And Quincy can still rap his ass off. He’s traded his youthful hunger for a weathered snarl and scope-like vision. He can easily mow down a sparse beat as he can build up a breathtaking story.Oxymoron is a slower, deeper, darker album than its predecessor Habits & Contradictions. To look at the tiny flaws is to miss the triumph of the whole. The fact that it was released at all should be celebrated as a miracle.

Read the original review here.

 

That’s it for part one! Yes I am aware that four of the five albums were from L.A., but that’s because it’s the best city in the world making the best music in the world. Check back soon for the top five albums of the year and see if we can travel around the country!

There Ain’t No Award For That: The 2014 All-Star Team

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 Kentucky Basketball

Steph Curry with the shot…

Welcome to the 2014 Hungry Hippopotamus end of year extravaganza! Because the only proper way to welcome the new year is to take stock of the 12 months that just passed, the next few articles on this site are going to rank the best hip hop of the year. Unfortunately this year was terrible, though not necessarily in the musical sense. Even without the usual superstars dropping hugely anticipated albums, new artists crept out the woodwork and filled the void and gave the country a fresh look at the new generation of rap. 2014 was marked by tragedy, personal and political, and the music that I found most helpful were the ones that either took me away or placed me right in the thick of it. Two years after Killer Mike made political rap cool again, America placed itself in a situation where hip hop couldn’t help but be political, whether it wanted to or not. Even the most hedonistic party tracks couldn’t help but carry the weight of countless black lives that were taken too soon.

The year has made these best of lists seem irrelevant. Who cares who made the best album or song when all of this is happening? I still made them (call it a compulsion) and they’ll be up soon. But more than recent years, 2014 seemed dominated by people who couldn’t be measured by the normal metrics of success. So I’m proud to present the Hungry Hippopotamus 2014 All Star Team. These five artists were huge this year without their accomplishments being easily measured by one album or one song. They were everywhere and somehow represented something more than just themselves. And they’re all dope.

Young Thug

 

2014 was the year rap got weird. Weirdos have always been cult heroes in hip hop and the internet only helped propel them further into public consciousness. But 2014 broke them wide open and nobody symbolized that like Thugga Thugga. An absolute enigma, Thug made all of hip hop his playground this year, becoming an inescapable presence on the radio while rewriting the rules of the genre. He doesn’t make sense. He defies gender norms, stylistic conventions, even verbal clarity. He is the most singular artist in rap today yet he works better in groups. Stuck in label drama for pretty much the entire year, Young Thug didn’t release an album. Instead we got two mixtapes: one with friend Bloody Jay, and one with burgeoning star Rich Homie Quan for Young Money head boss Birdman’s Rich Gang. We got a slew of unofficial mixtapes released by former label head Gucci Mane. And we got dozens and dozens of loosies, features, and leaks, each one a shimmering jewel. There’s no way to describe how Thug raps, you just have to experience it. It’s at once visceral and spiritual, immediate and ephemeral. He can unhinge himself and rap with such aggression and then in the very next line croon beautifully. He’s quite simply a prodigy. With no formal training and no interest in hip hop tradition or history, he has an innate sense of melody and songwriting. His hooks are heavenly, his rhymes are sharp, and his flows are not mere flows but rivers that course through the beat, which are all mesmerizing. It doesn’t matter what type of song it is, Thug simply transports it to another realm. He tore up Chicago drill, west coast slaps, Toronto mood music, and everything in between. He reached the rarified air that Wayne, Future, Drake, and 2 Chainz all reached at some point in the last few years: he was so good he gave away hits. Teaming up with producer London On Da Track, he gave smashes to T.I. (“About The Money”), Tyga (“Hookah”) and his boss Birdman (“Lifestyle,” which also turned into his breakout song). Beyond his incredible musical accomplishments this year, Thug symbolized the growing counter culture in hip hop and became the poster child for “this isn’t music” complaints by conservatives and white people. The top comment on YouTube for one of his biggest songs “if only the dumbfucks in this video got shot instead of Mike Brown.” Young Thug didn’t have to make political music; his entire existence is revolutionary.

Drake

Young Thug may be the MVP of 2014, but there is no denying who wears the crown. Successfully climbing onto the throne the year before, Drizzy spent this year securing his place and raising the bar. He put on a masterclass for how a superstar should act in the new millennium, dominating the conversation (and the competition) for the entire year with no album cycle. And it was all on his terms; songs given away for free on Soundcloud, artists discovered and signed on his OVO label, remixes tossed off to the masses. And no offense to Beyoncé but Drake was the one who could stop the world whenever he wanted to. What makes Drake so special isn’t just that he’s at the top of the game, it’s that he’s still getting better. The joke went that the OVO Soundcloud was one of the best albums of the year, but overlooked was that it’s some of the best work Drake has ever done. His verses were hit making. Lil Wayne had a #1 in “Believe Me” but it might as well have been Drake’s given his leadoff verse and chorus.  ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” was bubbling on the internet before Drake hopped on it, delivered a classic sing-rap song that stretched his own style, and made it a top 10 hit and Makonnen a star. Nicki Minaj’s “Only” could have been a tasteless grab but Drake dropped one of his most playful, limber verses in memory. That’s what struck me about Drizzy this year. My biggest complaint about Nothing Was The Same was the static nature of his rapping. But every song this year displayed a creativity and verbal agility that he’s never had before. Nowhere was this more evident than on his own solo work. He stunted on “We Made It (Remix),” celebrated on “Trophies,” brushed away enemies on “Draft Day” and wrecked the entire planet on the absolutely fire “0-100/The Catch Up.” The whole world is waiting for his fourth album Views From The 6 but I think Drake’s secret is that he’s at his best in between albums. It’s gonna be hard for any album to live up to this year.

Vince Staples

 The clear underdog of this team, Vince Staples had a quiet year in comparison to the rest of the artists on this squad. But the former Odd Future affiliate from Long Beach grew into his own in 2014, fulfilling his potential and becoming a leading figure in L.A.’s gangsta rap renaissance. Just like Young Thug and Drake, he didn’t release a project encapsulating his accomplishments this year. But the work he did should have the entire game buzzing about what’s in store now. Vince showed the promise of signing with Def Jam when he dropped his mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 at the beginning of the year. Produced mainly by No I.D., the tape was a move away from the stark simple beats he and peer Earl Sweatshirt cut their teeth on. It was a maturity in both sound and conscious and showed Vince grappling with personal issues like family, relationships, and the ever haunting spectre of gang violence in Los Angeles. His confidence and candid demeanor was influential to the people around him too. Paired with the young gangsta, OG rapper turned Gap model Common was able to release one of his best albums since the 90’s, featuring some standout verses from Vince himself. But that was table dressing for Vince’s Def Jam debut. Just an EP clocking in at 7 songs, Hell Can Wait was stuffed with political fire, social critique, and west coast gangsta aggression. Coming right after the Ferguson tragedy, songs like “Hands Up” represented a new political consciousness for the millennial generation. Nothing less than a 2014 remake of “Fuck Tha Police,” “Hands Up” was the most incisive flaying of police abuse we had this year. Surrounded with songs that captured the hardships of growing up within city war zones, Vince Staples proved that he wasn’t only one of the best young rappers around, he might be the most important. For linking the struggles of classic gangsta rappers with our socio-political situation now, and giving the modern gangsta renaissance a pointed backbone while his peers seemed to revel in the aesthetic qualities, Vince deserves a place on this squad.

DJ Mustard

Dijon MacFarlane might be the biggest thing to happen to Los Angeles since Dr. Dre started producing. I have written about DJ Mustard several times but it bears repeating just how much he dominated the game in 2014. If you lived in L.A., you probably heard “MUSTAHD ON DA BEAT HO” at least a couple hundred times. During the peak of summer, I would play a game where I turned on the radio and counted how many DJ Mustard produced songs would play in a row. It was never less than 3. This was the year that Mustard’s L.A. slap went national, infecting anybody in hearing range. He gave hits to local rappers in his Pushaz Ink crew and he gave them to voyeuristic aging stars looking for some relevancy. This decade has seen it’s share of superproducers controlling the sonic conversation. Lex Luger and Clams Casino had everyone imitating them. Mike Will Made It just won Spin’s artist of the year in 2013 by jumping from weirdo ATL rap to pop smashes with Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. But DJ Mustard didn’t just make hits; he controlled the whole fabric of the radio. Everyone needed a piece of him this year. Even some of the biggest songs of the year were copying him (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Chris Brown’s “Loyal”). Plus his sound was so specific to Los Angeles that it put the city on the head of the Hip Hop totem pole. Despite the simplicity of the sound, Mustard displayed a wide range. As well as tossing off hit after hit, he showed he could craft a cohesive vision with his team up with YG, My Krazy Life. As 2015 rolled around it was clear that people might be getting a little tired of the sound, but I don’t expect DJ Mustard to slow down. He’s better than people think.

Flying Lotus

If DJ Mustard was the nerve center for L.A.’s hip hop scene, then Flying Lotus was it’s spiritual guide. Contrary to my rules, Steven Ellison had an album that summed up his year. You’re Dead! was one of the most exciting, transcendent, and powerful works that dropped this year. Confronting death in an extremely personal way, at the same time the rest of the country was confronting national tragedy, You’re Dead! symbolized 2014 in a way no rapper could.. But there will be more on that later. Flying Lotus is on this list because of what You’re Dead! meant for his career. After spending years as being one of the most exciting experimental producers in L.A., combining jazz, electronica, and hip hop in a way only someone from here could, Flying Lotus cemented his status as one of the premier figures in L.A. hip hop. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Herbie Hancock (!!) all show up on this record. Whereas before FlyLo was an outsider, now he’s a coveted artist, working with both the underground and the mainstream, bridging gaps and showing the fulfillment of the potential of L.A.’s beat scene from years ago. That doesn’t even mention his own label, Brainfeeder, which has dropped some of the best electronic music this year. Since right hand man Thundercat has become hip hop’s secret weapon, playing bass for rappers like Wiz Khalifa and Childish Gambino and becoming part of Kendrick’s coveted jam band, Brainfeeder has launched an all out assault on the outside world. Electronic artists Teebs, MatthewDavid, and Mono/Poly all dropped engaging records while hip hop acts Azizi Gibson and The Underachievers proved that they could get just as weird with rap. But the crown jewel of Flying Lotus’s kingdom might be Taylor McFerrin, who’s Early Riser was a beautiful meditation on jazz and hip hop and easily one of the most unappreciated albums of the year. Flying Lotus was a star already and You’re Dead! helped cement that. But he makes the list for rising in stature in the game and becoming a flagship label head and tastemaker for the strange wondrous sounds of Los Angeles.

And that’s the squad! Alternate spots go to Nicki Minaj and Killer Mike. They both had major works that cemented their years which kept them off the list, but the music they made and statements they made through their music changed public discourse and their own standing in the community. Check back here for more 2014 wrap up!

Orange Is The New Rap: Breaking Through Hip Hop’s Glass Ceiling

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The age of difficult men is over. Four years into the new decade and it’s starting to gain an identity. With the rise of the internet comes the thousands of new voices breaking up any kind of monotonous worldview, and America is slowly (very slowly) seeing the unraveling of a phallic-centered pop culture. The signs are all over. After a decade of being forced to play by the rules of the patriarchy, women are breaking through and asserting their artistic force, whether it’s on TV with Shonda Rhimes “TGIT” and Jill Solloway’s Transparent, film though the incredible box office successes of “Gone Girl,” “Lucy,” and “Maleficent,” or pop music’s total domination via Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey. Hip hop, once (wrongly) criticized as being one of the most misogynistic streams of mainstream media, is leading the revolutionary charge. From all across the country, more women than ever are making great rap music, and helping push the genre further into the 21st century.

Who else would be leading the charge than the woman who helped start it all. Nicki Minaj is the biggest female rap star the genre’s ever seen and her success at the beginning of the decade broke the gates open for the flood of new artists we’re seeing now. Nicki’s always been talented, but her tendency to skew more pop hasn’t made her a central figure within hip hop’s universe. Earlier this year I wrote about her reputation as the rap game Charizard and voiced concern that her latest songs, while seeming to be the hardcore rap that everyone wanted, were actually diminishing the creativity that made her so fixating in the first place. Boy was I wrong. Nicki has been an MVP candidate all year, rolling out her new album The Pinkprint with an incredible string of promotional singles and guest verses showcasing her world class talent and revolutionary fervor. She’s displaying a virtuosity that very few rappers can match, destroying street rap, stadium pop, and sultry R&B in equal measure. But her coronation as the queen of rap came not through the standard industry gatekeepers but from the Queen herself. Landing on Beyonce’s remix to the feminist anthem of the century was not only an artistic high point but a political statement.

To really understand the delicate political and cultural alchemy Nicki is accomplishing this year is to look at her own solo work. Each of her singles for The Pinkprint has completely flipped typical rap narratives on their head. “Anaconda,” one of the most divisive and popular songs of the year, is the loudest of her statements. Her ode to her powerful booty caused a lot of controversy over the graphic sexual nature of the video, but look for more than ten seconds and the radical commentary is self-evident. Sampling the ultimate ode to big butts, Nicki flips the script and reclaims her own sexuality, in turn objectifying each of the poor saps she encounters in the song. In an era where black female bodies are seemingly used as props and jokes for Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Nicki plants a flag for her own identity in a time of rampant cultural appropriation. The music video separates her sexual flamboyancy from any kind of male gaze, taking place in an all female Amazon jungle. And if there was still any doubt of the political underpinnings here, she leaves the audience with some clues. Check out the smoothie scene, where after successfully making the banana a phallic representative, she cuts it up in maniacal rage. Or more importantly, at the very end, when she invites the biggest rap star on the planet to be her sexual object, giving Drake the bluest balls he’ll ever experience.

It might be strange for America to see a female pop star be so forthright about her sexuality (even though Madonna and Lady Gaga get labeled as eccentric), but for rap she fits right in. Hip hop is used to rappers calling themselves pretty, bragging about their sexual prowess, and talking about how fly they are. Even 2Pac knew that taking off his shirt was a good look. Nicki is just switching the dynamic and giving no quarter to anybody. And don’t forget how good “Anaconda” is. What’s remarkable is the level of detail packed into the song. The boys she’s taking advantage of, Troy and Michael, are given much more detail than any of the fictional love interests in, say, a J. Cole or Drake song. “Anaconda” dismisses her critics, hyper masculine hip hop stereotypes, and the peanut gallery in one fell swoop. Everyone complaining about the click-bait single art ended up reduced to the chorus: “Oh my god, look at her butt.”

Nicki Minaj has surrounded herself with a whirlwind of controversy. Every new song, magazine shoot, and quote is put under the microscope, seeing whether she’s living up to her unwanted role of feminist icon. Hopefully The Pinkprint will live up its name and Nicki is bearing the slings and arrows of a world who’s refusing to acknowledge her artistry, because there is a flood of great young female rappers who don’t have any time for clever political tactics. There are way too many to talk about in one article, but these are some of my favorites. Chicago has a huge flood of great rappers and a large percentage of them are female (with great names! Sasha Go Hard! Katie Got Bandz!). But the one with the most promise is Tink, who blends rap with R&B with great instinct and has the most potential to be a crossover success like Nicki. Her mixtape from earlier this year, Winter’s Diary 2, was an intimate affair, skewing more R&B and dealing with emotional breakups and gender relations. But her upcoming album should get you salivating, as she’s put in work with fellow Chicago sex savant Jeremih, Timbaland, DJ Dahi, and even rock group Sleigh Bells.

The biggest breakout star of this year might be Detroit rapper Dej Loaf. By adding a melodic sensibility to Chicago’s blunt drill music, “Try Me” was a genuine street hit. Her new tape Sell Sole is one of the best of the year, mixing her unique sound (shaped by producer DDS, who handles most of the project) with some fine lyricism. More than any other female rapper, Dej seems beholden to no artistic norms, gender or racial, and instead paves out a clear identity for herself. She threatens enemies and entices lovers with the same nondescript tone. Sell Sole oozes sensuality, which is a hard line to strike in a genre that’s fixated on promiscuity.

But the biggest challenger to Nicki’s crown is also the most unexpected. When Azealia Banks first arrived three years ago, she was hyped as the first artist in the new world that Nicki had opened up. But she’s spent the following years in label purgatory, burning bridges and self-sabotaging her career. But the Harlem ice princess has finally been given the rights to her debut and Broke With Expensive Taste is a schizophrenic tour de force, bending genre and breaking boundaries. Even if The Pinkprint can’t live up to the hype, there’s still been one groundbreaking female rap album that can be held up as a torchbearer.

All of these artists are pointing towards a future where women are no longer relegated to the margins of hip hop. They don’t have to fit in to the boxes of “hook singer” or “that one girl in the crew” or “hyper lyrical lesbian” or “horny sex kitten who has her lyrics ghost written by a famous rapper.” They can be simply themselves, just like any rapper can. But it’s a long road ahead. One needs only to look at the youtube comments to see how quickly these rappers are based on their looks rather than their talent, or how quickly they are dismissed because they don’t fit into pre-existing paradigms. I talked to a rap friend about Nicki and the first thing he said was “Man, I hate Nicki Minaj. Her ass isn’t even real!” as if that’s the first thing he judges in other rappers as well (spoiler: he doesn’t). Hip hop’s new decade has been marked by the widening of the inclusive circle. More people make and relate to music from all backgrounds than ever before. There’s no reason it should stop growing at the gender line. Girls deserve better than Iggy Azalea.

Now can someone please get Queen Latifah on a remix!