The Ratchet Kingdom Of California

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Summer is an exciting time for hip hop.  Just like the movies, summer is the time for blockbusters and commercial juggernauts to arise from their slumber.  Hip hop was born on a hot summer days in block parties, and the best summer jams are those that channel that spirit.  It’s meant to be played outside, at BBQs, blasting out of cars, canvassing whole areas in its ubiquity.  But a beautiful part of the genre is how intensely its tied to the seasons.  Music from the summer sounds distinctly different from the more introspective, somber winter albums.  My favorite example about the difference between the two is a RZA tidbit.  During the great Wu-Tang run in the mid 90’s, RZA said that he produced Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx with the summer in mind and GZA’s Liquid Swordz for winter.  Even the album hint hints at the seasonal vibe.  For a more modern example, think of the difference between the two mega albums of 2011: Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne and Drake’s Take Care.  One was world conquering, the other timid and insular.

  

The other exciting part about summer is the competitive edge.  Summer is where the major labels flex their muscle and the stars compare commercial value.  This year, J. Cole moved his release date to the same day as Kanye to see who can get more sales.  When Rick Ross took over the game, he used his MMG imprint to have a major release every month of summer so he would be on radio constantly.  Summer is where Jay-Z ascended to the throne, destroying Mobb Deep on the Summer Jam screen and threatening to do the same with Nas.  This summer looks like it’s going to be an exciting one and we’ve only just started.  But right now my favorite storyline is the revival of Cali and the ratchet sound.  The summer is California’s birthright, in L.A. it’s summer the whole year.  There’s no better place for sunny party music.  Enter DJ Mustard, twerking, and a reborn west coast.

You probably know L.A. producer DJ Mustard from mega hits “Rack City” and “I’m Different.”  His beats are marked by the infectious “mustard on da beat HO,” and he’s slowly becoming the sound of the summer.  His productions all have a type of restraint that infuses them with energy; he’s learned to do more with less.  They sometimes seem stupid simple, just a series of piano notes, but goddamn they’re catchy.  He’s a master at layering his beats without overshadowing the essential part.  You can’t not dance to it.  One would expect such similar sounds to have a short shelf life, but Mustard has proven to have remarkable staying power.  His beats are so spacious that rappers can weave in and out of the notes.  Creative rappers (see: 2 Chainz) can turn the beat inside out.  It can turn up or ride out.  Like Lex Luger and Clams Casino before him, Mustard has such a distinct style that it’s spawned many imitators but none that match him.  Young Jeezy reached out and scored his first relevant hit in ages (and made the west coast homage explicit when he put Kendrick on the remix).  But DJ Mustard’s beats sound most at home in California with west coast rappers acting totally ratchet and shooting shit.

 

DJ Mustard’s new mixtape Ketchup is proof of this new sounds durability and one of the best releases of the year.  It rounds out his sound, adding new areas of focus and showcasing a cadre of unknown L.A. talent.  But most importantly, it bangs.  It’s good for all occasions.  Driving to get some boba, put on Ketchup.  Seeing a girl, put on Ketchup.  Need to start a party, put on Ketchup.  Every song has the ability to be a hit single if it was cleaned up for the radio.  But it’s not, it’s ratchet and it’s beautiful.  It’s four on the floor music.  Your shoulders will move, your head will nod, and you will make bad decisions that are actually good decisions because you’re young and you get to do these things.

 

Ketchup has surprising range.   Mustard is able to find coherency out of a staple sound  and a revolving cast of artists who understand that sound and what it should be used for.  YG is the Snoop to Mustard’s Dre, and pops up all over the tape.  Other friends drop by.  Joe Moses, Ty Dolla $ign, Tee Flii, all have cameos, along with some heavy hitters E-40, Dom Kennedy, and Nipsey Hussle.  Being able to find continuity with this many names is no easy task, and Mustard excels at providing an album length statement rather than a hodgepodge of singles.  He flips the script at times.  Cocc Pistol Cree completely inverts the dick swinging fun that all the guys are having on her “Ladykilla,” and the beat of 2Pac’s “Ambitions Az A Ridah” is flipped on “Straight Ryder” for singer Candice to display some girl power.  In other places, Mustard’s spread provides just as good a foundation for R&B as it does for twerking anthems.

Ketchup is in the top 5 so far for this year.  DJ Mustard is leading the way for the MVP (Most Valuable Producer) award.  It stays in car rotation and on every song I marvel how he’s able to create such innate melody with minimal effort.  Take “Stupid Dumb.”  It might be my favorite beat on the tape, and two nobodies, Bounce and Dorrough, actually body the beat (In Colorado but I’m drinking Arizona…green tea…with A BAD BITCH)!  And it all starts with this little piano line that had me hooked from the first second.  It didn’t even need the snares to kick in.

This is the sound of the West Coast now.  Most of the radio is imitating what Mustard is doing and the best of them are putting their own spin on it, like the HBK Gang in the Bay Area or Problem down in L.A.  These sparse synths punctuated by claps is becoming the norm and I couldn’t be happier.  Originally I was gonna include a whole write up of the rest of the scene but that would take too long, so instead I’ll leave you with the top 5 records of the year in this style.  They’re all free, so links are given.  Do yourself a favor and start your summer off right with these.

Hippo out.

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Best Albums of 2012 (Part 2)

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This post brought to you by the greatest block I’ve ever seen.  Let’s continue on to the top 5 albums of 2012!

5: Roc Marciano – Reloaded

Roc Marciano is a grown man and he raps like one.  His style beckons back to an era where style also meant substance, when New York ran the game and drug dealers memorized the dictionary to step up their skills. Reloaded, Roc’s long awaited follow up to his solo debut, delivers like an eighty pound baby.  What he does with the pen is stupendous.  A modern philosopher, designing fly rhymes like architecture.  Wearing blue and orange high top Ewings, chains hanging from his neck like scarves, checking the presidential watch (he calls it Barack), Roc quietly killed everyone in the game last year.  He’s so good at rapping it’s astonishing.  He raps about typical gangsta rap conceits, but he does it with such specificity it turns into poetry.  He’s climaxing on satin, his girl like Ginger in Casino.  The gun is rust brown, it’s an oldie but a goodie.  Roc Marciano exists in the same New York tradition as Action Bronson, where the power of the music lies in the bar for bar content, the metaphors and the punchlines.  But Roc plays the Raekwon to Bam Bam’s Ghostface, using ruthless efficiency rather than absurdist fantasy.  Where Action lays into his punchlines as big knockouts, Roc peppers his verse with jabs, stacking assonance on assonance, rhyme on rhyme, so you’ve been shot 16 times before you can even draw a weapon.  Every single bar is brilliant, every line is t-shirt worthy.  But Roc is more than just a NY technician.  Reloaded creates an atmosphere so consuming that the idea of it existing in 2012 is simply not possible.  Roc is the best 2 way player in the game and produces the bulk of the album, and the beats are a thing of beauty.  They complement the rhymes perfectly; stark, dark, and brilliant.  Reloaded is great because it doesn’t just rehash a retro style of hip hop, it takes old concepts and digs even deeper to create something new.  It’s pimp shit, daddy what you know about it?

4: Ab-Soul – Control System

It’s hard to describe Ab-Soul.  I mean, the last person who tried to scratch the surface broke a nail.  The last person who crossed the line got crucified.  On Control System, Soulo transformed from Black Hippy mascot and pothead jokester to mystical shaman.  This is Campbell archtype set to rap music.  The Black Lip Bastard becomes the Black Lip Pastor.  The album opens with a disclaimer: “This is an album about control, my control.  Control of what I say, control of what I do.”  As the record unfurls, Ab-Soul fights against other systems of control and evolves into his new persona.  The album takes aim at everything.  Gender relations, regional differences, rap deities, real deities, Obama, the police, congress, his own demons, and God itself.   What separates Ab-Soul from his Black Hippy cohorts is the scope of the album.  He doesn’t affiliate with gangstas, except to unify them all and take down the white house.  He makes the cliche chopped and screwed Pimp C tribute, but mashes it up with old Biggie and Jay-Z songs.  He has sex, but then he grapples against his lust demons.  This massive scope applies to the production as well.  Soulo goes from Dilla-esque soul jams on “Bohemian Grove” to soft ballads in “Empathy” to interstellar cyphers on “Pineal Gland.”  This was the last TDE album to be made independently, so it could very well be the last Top Dawg album produced entirely by the Digi-Phonics, TDE’s in house production crew, and they do a great job.  The striking feature of Control System though is the confidence that brims throughout every song.  Kendrick Lamar told everyone that Control System was the last aspect to their Hiii Power movement, that once it dropped then everyone would understand what they were doing.  While the ideas of Hiii Power still remain opaque, the album (the last TDE release before major label fame) feels like an arrival.  You can hear it within the rest of the group.  Jay Rock begins his quest for relevancy, labeling himself the silent assassin of the four headed dragon on the “Black Lip Bastard (Black Hippy Remix).”  Schoolboy Q is at his most unhinged on “SOPA,” snarling “have no fear, the savior of this gangsta rap is fucking here.”  And Kendrick Lamar, on one of his best verses in a year filled with them, shouts “racks on racks, I don’t rap on tracks without my A game, so please don’t ask me bout no pressure, bitch with the grip of my fingertip I can hold this whole coast together.”  Soul announces on the intro, “thought I was the underdog, turns out I’m the secret weapon.”  And as his own hero’s journey winds down, and he’s battled against life and death, he’s made sure he’s not a secret anymore.

 

#3: Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa

Gangsta Gibbs could very well have been the best rapper alive since 2009.  He emerged that year with two incredible mixtapes, backed with high profile production from the major labels who dropped him.  Hailing from Gary, Indiana, he carries the cadence of the Midwest with him, slipping in and out of double time bone-thugs flows with ease.  There’s probably no one on the planet who can match his technical virtuosity.  Famed writer Tom Breihan put it best when he compared Gibbs’ rapping to Van Halen’s guitar playing; shining examples of technique that can sound boring/similar to the untrained ear.  Freddie is far from boring and he’s certainly not rapping fast for the sake of fast rapping.  He’s the last embodiment of old style gangsta rap, where MC’s said what they wanted, lived what they talked about it, and weren’t afraid to back it up.  Since his departure from Interscope, he has dropped great project after great project, yet hasn’t been able to set himself up on the national arena.  But on BFK, Gibbs finally paired his incredible talent with strong radio instincts and made his best album to date (and it’s FREE! Get it right now).  Since moving to L.A., Freddie Gibbs has developed a relationship to both the rappers and personality of the region, and BFK shows him turning away from the more trap oriented beats of his old projects into more groove laced G-Funk territory.  He’s got a new bounce to his flow now, reminiscent of the best types of Cali gangsta rap, when it felt that Dre and Snoop could never rhyme out of the pocket.  Combine that with his doubletime raps and his Pac like voice, and you have a monster of a rapper who can destroy any beat he’s given, and turn it into a single.  The other thing that Gibbs has improved on is his guests.  Rather than annihilating everyone who jumped on the track with him, he’s either picked better rappers or found a way work with his features rather than against them.  Dom Kennedy and Problem forge the L.A. connection over appropriately sunny beats and Curren$y delivers one of his most dexterous verses.  Old and new are fused as Gibbs brings a veteran from the 90’s and an up and comer as Krayzie Bone and Spaceghost Purp are teamed for the foggy “Kush Cloud” and Jadakiss and Jay Rock boom bap their way on “Krazy.”  And through it all, Gangsta Gibbs stays rock solid, never conceding any of his values or talents for radio play or major label success.  He’s gonna get it anyways.

2: Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions

This came so close to being #1.  No album this year got more burn than Q’s.  Habits & Contradictions is supposed to represent a younger Quincy, when he was still gangbanging, young, and irresponsible.  The album teeters out of control constantly, fueled by the manic fire of adolescence.  It’s high’s are euphoric, it’s lows terrifying.  This is music to drunk drive too, music to play in your car after you sneak out of a one night stands apartment.  It epitomizes the bad habits that everyone is subsumed by and the contradictions about how you feel about them.  The fact that you keep doing these things even though its bad for you.  The album starts with a warning and a sigh.  “Ask god for forgiveness, shit I doubt he heard me at all.”  It’s followed by the most reckless, fun stretch of music of the year.  He’s got his daughter swagging like her muthafuckin daddy though.  He drinks Pikachu with A$AP Rocky and goes on a sex drive with Jhene Aiko.  There’s too much gangsta in his lungs for him to hit a joint.  And then the crash.  Voices swirling around, a taunting “nanana,” generous men giving away toe tags and head shots.  A brief history lesson on the Crips in L.A.  Extra pills, Extra pills.  A house full of money, a tub full of women, and his girl coming out the shower smelling like Garnier Fructis, but that’s all to distract from the nightmare of Figg St.  Drives to pussy more than church.  The A/C’s broke but the heater works.  His homie betrayed him and fucks his old bitches while Q beats off in prison.  All leading up to the magnificent “Blessed,” Q’s own “Keep Ya Head Up” where he tries to comfort his friend who lost his son.  It’s a rare moment of vulnerability.  “Now how the fuck I’m supposed to say this?  You see, my nigga just lost his son while I’m here huggin’ on my daughter, I grip her harder.  Kiss her on the head as I cry for a bit, thinkin’ of some bullshit to tell him like ‘it’ll be ok, you’ll be straight, it’ll be alright.'”  There’s no delusions here.  There’s no hiding from the pain, no cowering from the fear.  Not even some self absorbed explanation.  They are habits and they are contradictions.

At the center of the opus is Quincy himself, driving everything with an unparalleled energy.  Schoolboy Q is in many ways the opposite of Kendrick Lamar.  The yin to his yang.  Where Kendrick is like water, flowing over everything, trickling or rushing depending on the terrain, Q is like fire, burning everything in his path.  He can be a low ember or a raging blaze, but at any time he can switch it up.  His ability to be unpredictable is his greatest asset.  He has said his goal is to never have two bars be the same and it shows.  There are too many brilliant moments on the record to count.  The way his voice squeals on “There He Go.”   The call and response he does with himself on the third verse of “Oxy Music.”  The slip into the beautiful bridge in “My Hatin’ Joint.”  His use of onomatopoeia where he sounds like a gun or a car.  All the unexpected makes the sobering moments direct and downright scary.  He knows how to turn a phrase better than anyone in the game.  The blunts go back around like merry go.  Zombieland a bunch of dead men walking, living abortions they ought to raise the price of coffins.  Leave em in the street with his shoelaces missing and his socks up off his feet.  And the production matches Q step for step.  Lex Luger’s 70’s style sex jam of “Grooveline, Pt. 1,” Mike Will Made It’s airy flutes on “My Hatin’ Joint,” a Portishead sample to end “Raymond 1969,” it all keeps up with Q’s delirious pace.  The end of the record, with everything that’s happened you’d think there’d be some kind of conclusion.  But all Q can do is revert back, reminding everyone that “niggas already know Q got shit, niggas already know Q got swag,” and you know history is going to repeat itself.  But this album is one habit that shouldn’t be broken.

 

1: Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City

This was obvious.  There was really no other choice, no matter how much I liked the previous album on the list.  You know about this album.  The songs are on the radio constantly.  The name has appeared on every music magazine and critic list in the country.  Kendrick did it.  He took the Atlas-like burden of hoisting everyone’s need for a savior, everyone’s need to deliver on a good “debut” album.  He held the west coast’s fate in his hands.  And he succeeded.  He completely took over the industry on his own terms.  Some say the magnitude of this album isn’t just in how good it is, but how it was that good and sold well.  Really well.  Kendrick became a cottage industry in his own right.  His features are everywhere.  MTV named the hottest rapper in the game.  He’s headlining a world tour and taking Black Hippy with him.  His success is proof that a rapper can make it to Top 40 radio without dumbing down their music or getting a Big Sean feature.  It’s proof that hard work, a strong fan base, and good teammates can create a champion.  There’s no need to sell your soul to Jimmy Iovine.  So much has been said about this album, that it’s almost been beat to death.  Almost.

It begins in a prayer and ends with a coronation.  It’s titled a short film, and Kendrick’s cinematic vision rendered an honest to god hip hopera, complete with fulfilling narrative, side characters, love interests, climaxes, and resolutions.  There are only 12 songs and not a single bar is out of place, a single chorus unimaginative.  To pull off an album with this much depth requires perfection.  The focus of the album is on Kendrick and his relationship to his surroundings.  How he relates to his friends, to his girls, to his family, and to Compton itself.  The album is packed with detail to make the stories real.  It’s 2004-2005.  Usher is tearing up the charts.  K.Dot and his friends bump Young Jeezy as they practice the persuasion of home invasion.  K.Dot is a young teen, alienated by his friends popping grown up candy for pain, talking tough when he’s with the homies, finding solace in a pack of black and milds and a beat CD.  The red and blues of the city surround him, whether it’s a cop car or a gang sign.  He visits a girl on different turf and gets jacked.  His friends decide to seek revenge and one of them dies.  In the aftermath, K.Dot realizes that he’s tired of running, dying of thirst, and turns his heart to what really matters.  Family.  God.  Reality.  And so emerges King Kendrick, rapping with Dr. Dre over triumphant Just Blaze production, announcing his arrival.

There are too many things to say about the album, but there are some things to stress.  One thing is that in emphasizing the albums importance and praising the concept, people don’t acknowledge how good the songs on the album are by themselves.  Kendrick links with Hit-Boy and Just Blaze and delivers straight up bangers with “Backseat Freestyle” and “Compton.”  He recreates a Drake-like atmosphere without any of the whine on the T-Minus helmed “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and gets a hit single.  The storytelling is so good on some songs that you forget he’s even rapping, and on the Pharrell produced “Good Kid” the rhyme schemes are so staggeringly impressive it takes multiple listens to even comprehend.  But the best moments are when Kendrick, armed with just his producers from his TDE squad, does what he’s done for the past three years now: show why he’s the best rapper alive.  “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is absolutely gorgeous, from the sung chorus to the harmony to the flow switch to the strings that come in at the end.  And Kendrick has the verse of the millennium at the end of “M.A.A.D. City,” his voice constantly changing, the tempo increasing, the beat rising, until declaring “Compton, U.S.A., made me an angel on angel dust” as G-Funk synths squeal in a generational confirmation.  It’s the best song of the year.

And that’s also what’s incredible about this album.  Kendrick Lamar, in his first major label appearance, takes aim at the most holy in rap music and destroys all false idolatry we’ve built around it while rejuvenating what made it special in the first place.  In a year where his label Top Dawg Ent. and all his Black Hippy made the West Coast relevant again, Kendrick completely rewrote the narrative.  He grappled with the hardest knots that hip hop has to offer and straight up untied them.  In the specificity of his own story, he created something that thousands of people can relate to.  Or as his mom says that the end of the album “I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes.  Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.”  His voice is heard in places way farther than Compton now.  All hail King Kendrick.

And that’s the list!  I know it’s late, but honestly every album here is much better than 99% of what’s been released this year, so if you haven’t checked these out than get on it.  Now on to newer things, and hopefully more albums of this caliber.  Hippo out.

Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)

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So before I go into the whole business of letting everyone know what’s going on in hip hop, I feel the need to recap 2012.  It was a phenomenal year, filled with incredible music, and raised the bar for the whole rap game.  Other than the fact that I’ve been thinking about this list obsessively for the past six months, I’m posting this list because its helpful to know the benchmarks that everything right now is influenced and judging itself by.  Also, they’re all banging albums and if you’re a fan of the genre then all of them should be on your ipod or spotify playlists.  After each write up, the music videos from the album are presented in the order they’re released.  I find it helpful so you can see how the artist is choosing to visually represent the work they made.  There might be a lot or a little.  So if you wanna hear the album without putting in the effort to getting it, there you go!  Without further ado, here is part 1.

10: E-40 – The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil

There were so many great albums released this year that this spot was probably the hardest to pick.  It could have gone to either of Curren$y’s projects, or any of the free EP’s he released last year.  It could have gone Alchemist’s Russian Roulette, his concept album made entirely of russian jazz samples and the best rappers in the game.  It could have gone to Flying Lotus’ alter ego Captain Murphy for his creepy awesome cult mixtape.  It could even have gone to Chief Keef’s mind numbing debut album (look I just made an honorable mentions list within the list).  But I’ll give it to E-40 for a variety of reasons.  First off, 40 water is the most criminally underrated music artist of all time with a lengthy quality catalog that is only paralleled by dinosaur acts like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.  Second, I’m from the bay area and he’s pretty much a god here and responsible for only the best of Bar Mitzvah memories.   Third, and most importantly, this album is great from start to finish.  About 3 years ago, E-40 has gone on one of the most prolific streaks of music making I’ve ever seen.  Since 2010, he’s released 9 albums!!  The sound is all similar, with production headed by Yay Area legend Rick Rock and 40’s own son Droop-E.  It’s stripped down and knocks hard and doesn’t give any credence to what was popular on the charts.  But on The Block Brochure, the rest of the world has finally caught up.  This triple album traces the influence that 40 and the bay has on the current ratchet sound of California, with the bulk of the songs falling right in line with current favorites DJ Mustard and company.  As for the ambassador himself, he remains one of the greatest rappers of all time, spitting circles around everyone else in the game.  Over the gamut of the album, he shifts from storytelling to party anthems to nostalgic odes to weed tributes.  He invites west coast legends, rising stars, and of course all of his bay area friends, but not once gets overshadowed.  But the highest praise I could give is that this album doesn’t fall under the curse of the double album.  Usually with any double (let alone triple) album, its an overindulgence, and the record would have been way better if they trimmed the fat and made it a regular album.  But with The Block Brochure, 40 maintains a level of quality across 54 songs that most rappers couldn’t maintain for an EP.  Salute!

9: Nas – Life Is Good

Nasir Jones is a legend and a permanent fixture on rap rushmore.  You know that.  But his catalog doesn’t always express that.  In the last half of the decade, Nas had some growing pains.  He had trouble adjusting into the elder statesman role his age demands.  The knock on Nas has never been his rapping skill; when he’s on point there’s about three people in history who can compete with him.  The problem has been his choice in beats and his overblown concepts.  Frankly, he was trying too hard.  Trying too hard for radio play, trying too hard for critical acclaim.  But with Life Is Good, Nas took a page out of E-40’s book and just rapped.  Lining up with two producers, Salaam Remi, a frequent Nas collaborator and the only one who’s been able to get him any kind of hits, and No I.D., a chicago legend who has become the de facto “old school” savior, Nasir made a great album by rapping about what he knows about.  This is ostensibly his breakup album, detailing his divorce with R&B singer Kelis and the complicated emotions that follow.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a coming of age album, as Nas reflects on his past, his marriage, his daughter, and how far he’s come.  His eye for detail never falters.  He’s exhausted from sleeping with women half his age who enjoy taking third leg from a legend.  He’s riding the subway, his mouth burning from hot pizza, looking like the black Jack Dempsey smoking blunts wrapped tight like dreads.  He’s watching his daughter instagram a box of condoms and wondering if he’s not the strictest parent.  And throughout all the pain of the divorce, he’s mature enough to realize that life is still good.  That’s way more of an adult realization than any forced metaphor on race.   The main prize of the album though is that the production is FINALLY good enough for a rapper of his skills.  He raps over gritty 90’s beats, lush orchestral arrangements, and the hottest reggae sample this side of “Mercy.”  The album would be higher on the list, but unfortunately the album falters in the middle with too much of a reliance on boring R&B choruses.  Either way, if this album doesn’t satiate your Nas lust, then nothing will and you should stay trapped in the 90’s.

8: Future – Pluto

I don’t even know if I’m allowed to put this on the list.  I mean, the guy hardly even raps.  He warbles, he croons, he croaks, he sings, and he yells, but rapping isn’t that high on his agenda.  Nothing could have prepared me for this album.  Future first appeared on the radar when he did the hook for YC’s “Racks.”  Then he managed to score his own hit, “Tony Montana,” which ended up big enough to grab Drake for the remix, and then some mixtapes followed.  But he always seemed like a weirder T-Pain, not an creative auteur that would change the way radio sounds.  But here is Pluto, and its better than anyone could have predicted.  Future comes from the Dungeon Family, the legendary ATL crew that houses Outkast and Goodie Mob, and he earns the connection.  He completely embraces autotune, using it to enhance emotion rather than mute it, and pushes the rap/singing hybrid into newfound territory.  Everything he says explodes with passion, whether he’s moving cocaine or serenading the girl of his dreams.  This is Rocky theme music for androids, lovemaking music for robots.  But the catch is the humanity, the beating heart, that’s pumping throughout the whole record.  At it’s best, the love songs are so vivid and honest that they bring a whole new level of beauty to the confines of the genre.  At it’s other best, it has R. Kelly singing about fishnets and parachutes.  Don’t mistake this for a soft love record either, every single song sounds like a number one hit, and Future has the best ear for hooks this side of Drake.  Pluto bumps in the clubs and in the bedroom…AT THE SAME DAMN TIME!

  

7: Action Bronson – Blue Chips

Bronsolino is one of the most intriguing figures in hip hop right now.  A fat, white, Jewish albanian from Queens who raps about food and sounds like Ghostface.  Blue Chips is where he cemented his persona and raised his pen game to become one of the best new rappers in the game.  No one tops Bam Bam on the punchlines and the references.  His rhymes are more sick than Magic Johnson’s dick. He’s twisting joints like a contortionist.  His lungs are filled with the purple from the jungle.  He’ll blam blam any piggie trying to put his fam in the can.  Every line is rewind worthy.  Try to catch all the food references.  In just the first song, he talks about chicken breasts, lamb, hibiscus, and tacos.  But he’s always been a great rapper.  What makes Blue Chips so special is his chemistry with the producer Party Supplies.  One of Bronson’s best qualities has been his collaborations; every project he makes is entirely produced by one person.  He has worked with esteemed beatmakers like Statik Selektah and Alchemist, but Party Supplies brings the best out of him.  You can hear the songs being made.  You can hear Action stumble his words and take it back and try again.  You can hear Party Supplies turn up the sound on his mac.  And it gives the record this breezy, joyous quality that defines what a mixtape should be (and it’s a real mixtape which means its free, which means you should download it right now).  They’re 5 minute beats, one take raps.  The tape has a pleasing cohesion, all the beats sounds like they’re from 50’s tin pan alley tunes.  Bam Bam knows exactly what to do with each beat, and the highlights on the tape is when he drops his funny act for vivid narratives that correspond with the schmaltzy production.  “Thug Love Story 2012” and “9-24-11” transform dean martin-esque corny ballads into stunning storytelling that’s downright beautiful.  The moments are fleeting, but they hit the hardest.  Blue Chips balances the humor with the serious, the ugly with the beautiful, all while maintaining its effortless quality.

6: Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

It’s hard to say what the best part about this album is.  Is it the fact that Killer Mike made political rap relevant for the first time since Dave Chappelle used Dead Prez as his theme music?  Or is it that the cross-regional collaboration between the ATLien and NYC producer El-P opened the floodgates for all types of musical partnerships?  Maybe it’s that Adult Swim funded the whole thing, meaning that thoughtful, incredible hip hop can happen without the means of a major label?  Or possibly that Killer Mike says “I’m glad Reagans dead” and that’s the greatest sentence that has ever been recorded.  R.A.P. Music stands for Rebellious African Peoples’ Music, and Mike’s magnum opus is a throwback to the days of Public Enemy and Ice Cube when every record felt like a direct attack at the American government.  The fact that he’s done it when Obama is president is even more impressive.  But making political rap isn’t an accomplishment in itself.  Making political rap without being condescending or pandering to your listener, that doesn’t bore you and actually feels relevant is incredible.  From crystal clean presentations outlining Reagan’s corruption to shootouts with crooked cops, Killer Mike makes politics matter again, which is refreshing in an era where every other rapper is saying don’t vote and buttheads like Lupe Fiasco make butthead comments only to raise their publicity.  And that all doesn’t even touch on how good Mike’s rapping is or the stunning production.  He raps with elegance of a black elephant, dexterous and powerful, able to trample any of El-P’s turbulent beats.  He rides out a doubletime flow on “Go!,” flaunts his storytelling on “Jojo’s Chilling,” pays his family tribute on “Willie Burke Sherwood,” and creates a downright anthem on the title track.  “Reagan” might be the greatest music video of all time.  El-P, known for his industrial apocalyptic production, meets Mike halfway here, creating beats that are distinctly his but still have a southern thump.  “Southern Fried” is even his attempt at a dirty south beat and its wonderful.  R.A.P. Music is incredible, or as Killer Mike would say “what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”

 

Any other year any of these albums could have been #1.  Think how good the rest of the albums are.  And click on the follow me link at the bottom in order to get a notice whenever I post something new!

The Genesis

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Hello everyone and welcome to the first post of the greatest new hip hop blog on the internet, HUNGRY HIPPOPOTAMUS.  My name is Corey aka C-Bo aka the Hungry Hungry Hippo himself, and this site is a forum for me to vent all my thoughts and opinions about the state of the rap game.  I’ll post new music, old music, reviews, thinkpieces, and whatever I find interesting.  And there is a lot that’s interesting right now.  Hip hop is in a glorious place, with last year being the best year for the genre since its golden years in the 90’s.  The internet has allowed a lot of new types of rapper to emerge and connect with each other, and after some rough years in the beginning of “blog rap” era, a new generation of talent is blooming right before our eyes.  To be a fan of the genre now is like it must have been to be a fan of rock and roll in the 60’s.  Great albums, incredible debuts, and awesome tours every month!  There’s a lot happening, and if you blink you’ll miss it.

Going to college in L.A. and growing up in the Bay Area, my heart is firmly secured in the west coast.  N.W.A. and Dr. Dre was what pulled me into the genre, and while I love music from every region of the country, my favorite still lies in any hip hop that can capture the top down, sunny feeling of California.  But growing up listening to this music creates some complications for any white Jewish kid taking cues from The Chronic.  A while back I visited my friend in South Central L.A., the birthplace of gangsta rap.  Driving past street signs, I nerded out.  Crenshaw!  Inglewood!  These are the places from all my favorite songs, a world come to life in front of me that before I only heard about.  A week ago, I had a similar experience.  I was in Beverly Hills walking around, and I nerded out again.  Gucci! Prada! Givenchy!  It was a Kanye West song brought to life, stores and boutiques that, again, I had only heard about in the rap world.

I’m in the middle of those two worlds, as is most of the hip hop fanbase.  You can hear it in the music too.  It’s how you get a former child tv star to make a song called “Started From The Bottom” and have it be a huge hit AND a resonant theme, to people of all creeds and backgrounds.  What that doesn’t mean is that it is ok to voyeur around in these worlds and ignore the real pain and struggle that created the music.  I have no intention of treating South Central as a fantasy land and ignore the real problems that Ice Cube and Eazy-E talked about.  On the other side, it’s not ok to ball out to Kanye and Jay-Z’s wall street rhymes and toss aside all the critiques they’re making of the american system or racism or their own personal path to that success.  This kind of thinking ends up with rappers like Chief Keef overshadowing the actual youth violence in Chicago.  It’s something that I have to constantly be on my toes about.

What’s great about hip hop is that this duality is always present in the genre.  The dreams and the nightmares.  The drug kingpins dizzying rise and destructive fall.  The good kid in the mad city.  That’s always been there and that speaks to everyone.  It’s a human emotion and a human struggle, not specifically for a certain race or class.  What’s spectacular about rap now is that is speaking in a universal way that my generation can personally relate to.  The excess of fun and the pain of recession.  It’s surrounding us in pop culture, with different mediums portraying how my generation creates artificial happiness to dealing with it all.  MDMA, Molly, Ritalin, 1% extravagance.  You have Kendrick Lamar diagnosing the entire generation with ADHD saying they can’t be happy without drugs, and proclaims death to Molly at the end of his music videos.  You have Danny Brown, the Adderal Admiral, addicted to drugs but creating concept albums devoted to the feeling of the crash.  You have movies like Spring Breakers and The Great Gatsby, showing the failings of living in the party forever.  Every generation has its vices and its cultural stigma.  The hippies had their LSD and Vietnam, the Yuppies had cocaine and Reagonomics, and we have Molly and Skrillex.  And no cultural medium is getting the experience of what its like to be a young adult living RIGHT NOW like hip hop.  It’s fascinating, and its growing, and I’m going to write about it.  Stay tuned for hopefully more interesting things.