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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.