It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…
2013 was the year of the failed blockbuster. From television to Hollywood, 2013 was filled with capital E Events, from epic finales to world ending movies. And the music industry was no different. Every week seemed to bring a new album hyped up by extravagant promotional tactics. Justin Timberlake started it off by teasing his new album with a video and then became unavoidable through his commercial sponsors, but it only got more absurd. Daft Punk played a 15 second video at Coachella, Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs, Katy Perry drove a truck on a cross country road trip, Arcade Fire donned giant heads in a fake band, and Lady Gaga spent $25 million of Interscope’s money creating an immersive party/performance art piece for her album’s launch. This opulence spread to Hip Hop as well. Kanye used guerilla fighters to display his face on buildings around the world. Jay-Z scored an unprecedented deal with Samsung that sold a million copies before the album even dropped. Drake dropped off remixes and loosies that kept the internet buzzing and the radio spinning at 4 in the morning. Even Eminem joined in on the high stakes, low reward fun by dropping a sequel to his classic Marshall Mathers LP and appearing on everything from Call Of Duty commercials to ESPN. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This year felt like major label rap’s reaction to the excellence of last year, with a new generation of internet bred rappers collectively raising the bar for radio rap. J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Pusha T, Drake, and all of the young major label signees released albums that tried to copy the grandeur and scope of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and even if they failed it still produced some of the better rap we’ve heard on the radio in a long time. Things like “concept albums” and “lyricism” and “artistic talent” are being hailed as something good again. Rap has taken over as the critically lauded genre. Pitchfork ranked Drake and Kanye as their top 2 songs of the year. Spin put Kanye and Chance as one and two on their best albums of the year and even ranked ATL dystopian strip club producer Mike Will Made It as their artist of the year. So even though 2013 sometimes felt like a down year and maybe even a death knell for the “big albums,” there are more great things are on the way. And there were still some dope albums. Without further ado, the #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year!
P.S.: There are maybe a couple non rap albums on this list and I feel silly about it. I can’t judge how good they are because I can’t even pretend to say I listened to everything rock/edm/indie/R&B etc etc…, but I would also feel silly leaving them out because they were some of my favorites of the year. So take them with a grain of salt. Except the rap, that’s completely factual and true.
15: Young Thug – 1017 Thug
Brick Squad could have been one of the top crews this year. Gucci Mane had positioned himself as a godfather of the New ATL movement and released a staggering number of projects that all ranged from ok to really good, Waka Flocka Flame put out his most exciting music in years, and a slew of new members helped secure the Squad’s new identity. Unfortunately it all self-combusted as Flocka bailed and Gucci had a very public meltdown where he called out every rapper in the game on twitter. But the brightest spot in all this was Young Thug, who’s 1017 Thug tape was one of the benchmarks for the new Atlanta production and the best thing Brick Squad did all year. The beats just sparkle all over, with production from new ATL stalwarts such as Dun Deal, TM88, 808 Mafia, and C4. Synths twinkle over skittering Hi-Hats, creating joyous hooks that needle into your brain and stay there. But it doesn’t upstage Thugga himself, one of the most interesting rappers around right now. Sounding like a cross between Lil Wayne and Future, Young Thug yelps, chirps, and raps unhinged throughout the whole tape. Riding unconventional flows, the beauty of the tape is how he’s able to make seemingly jarring noises into catchy strong songs. Whether it’s through repetition on “2 Cups Stuffed,” or outright operatic singing on “Condo Music,” Young Thug finds his way around square pegs and forces them into round holes seamlessly. Atlanta’s new digital drone may have found it’s way to radio this year, but 1017 Thug is proof that it sounds best paired with the ATL rapper who can outweird it.
14: Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers Two
Don Trip and Starlito, two rappers from from Tennessee, were hard working solo artists who made a lot of noise when they teamed up to make one of the best albums of 2011 with Step Brothers. Inspired by the Will Ferrell film, the two rappers displayed absurd amounts of chemistry as both of them tried to one up the other with each song. It was the closest thing there was to vintage Lil Wayne when Weezy was busy making songs for soccer moms. A lot of good it did them. Two years later, Trip and ‘Lito are still stuck in record label hell with just a devoted fan base to show for their efforts. So instead of the free spirited fun that powered the original, Step Brothers Two is a combination of vivid emotional clarity and complex lyricism. Don Trip and Starlito prove once again that they’re one of the best duos around, with Trip’s high pitched wheeze matching perfectly with Lito’s sleep deprived drawl. Starlito raps in run on sentences where he just keeps layering his points upon points, while Don Trip raps as if he’s about to detonate at any second, punctuating all of his lines with perfect end notes. And they sound best when working together, whether it’s on the Shakespearean betrayal of “Caesar & Brutus” or a story of gun violence on “Leash On Life.” Starlito and Don Trip have the type of chemistry that ranks with the best of them and simply can’t be taught. Here’s hoping they find another Will Ferrell movie to inspire them.
13: Curren$y – New Jet City
The cliche that Curren$y is the hardest working stoner is getting old. After years of running the mixtape circuit, his major label debut The Stoned Immaculate didn’t elevate him into the upper echelon last year like he hoped. Taking a left turn, Curren$y spent most of 2013 putting on for his team Jet Life, securing a distribution deal with BitTorrent and releasing group tapes and collaborative EP’s. But that still left New Jet City, the only solo project that Curren$y dropped all year. It plays like an inversion of his major label album, a big budget project gone to the dirty south. The beats range among the most varied Curren$y’s ever tried, from the horn stabs of “New Jet City” to the EDM riff of “Coolie In The Cut” to the interstellar boom bap of “Clear.” Curren$y remains a deceptively strong rapper who’s usually relies on his effortless flows but New Jet City ends up standing above the rest of his work because of his hooks. Without even trying, Spitta Andretti accomplished what he was trying to do with The Stoned Immaculate; create a radio friendly album. Credit that to his self awareness and knowing exactly how far he can push his style without losing his quality. High profile rap stars like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, and French Montana sound equally comfortable rapping with him as older legends like Styles P, Jadakiss, or Juvenile. And for a laid back rapper, Curren$y has evolved his style into one of the most unpredictable flows in the game. He can slow it down to a syllabic crawl on “Bitch Get Up” or he can body a double time flow on “Mary.” But he’s at his best when he combines his relaxed charm with his “put it on a t-shirt” lyrics like he does on “Choosin.” As long as Curren$y stays fly, his music won’t be coming down anytime soon.
12: Haim – Days Are Gone
These three sisters from LA are about the farthest thing there is from Hip Hop so it speaks volumes that they’ve already collaborated with Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Childish Gambino. So far this decade guitar groups have been practically irrelevant. Most of the big rock bands have copied electronica producers and dealt mostly in textures and mood rather than riffs and power chords. Arcade Fire teamed up with indie-electronic producer extraordinaire James Murphy to create a stadium dance record. Vampire Weekend retreated into their textbooks and spent 45 minutes lightly treading over soft melodies. My Bloody Valentine returned triumphant to an indie landscape completely influenced by their shoegaze dronings. Haim blasted through all the fog with their pitch perfect pop rock debut Days Are Gone. They are a reincarnation of Fleetwood Mac, with every song on the album a possible hit if it was 1977. But the album isn’t just a nostalgia trip. It’s remarkable in its ability to channel the Laurel Canyon influences of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks and put a modern edge to it. See the Prince-esque gasps of “Falling,” or the Jack White dirty guitar wobble of “My Song 5.” The harmonies, the riffs, the hooks, Haim makes all these old-fashioned songwriting tropes fresh again. It’s like you’re hearing rock and roll for the first time.
11: Childish Gambino – Because The Internet
Donald Glover is the renaissance man of the 21st century. He’s a stand up comic who became internet-famous for his sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy. He won an Emmy as a writer for 30 Rock and plays a main character on the cult TV show Community. And he’s the rapper inspired by the Wu-Tang Name Generator, Childish Gambino. Gambino’s writing bears the wit of someone who wrote for Tina Fey but that’s a gift and a curse. Sometimes he has laugh out loud “I can’t believe he thought of that” bars and then sometimes it feels like a bad sketch on SNL. When he avoids cornball jokes to delve into serious territory, he merely reiterates the trailblazing of Kanye and Drake, hoping to stir up racial norms but just ends up being unimaginative. In some ways, Because The Internet succeeds because Gambino has found better source material. Opener “The Crawl” sounds like a burnt out Ab-Soul and “Urn” openly apes for Frank Ocean’s lingering soul. But the biggest influence here is Kendrick, who’s cinematic vision is being emulated here quite literally. Not only are their sketches in the middle of songs, but the tracklisting is numbered like a play and there is an accompanying screenplay. Ambition doesn’t equal success however, and the second half of the tape falls apart under the weight of the concept. Punctuated by strong sections of rapping, the latter half is simply a mess, with sloppy transitions, no hooks, and no focus whatsoever. Maybe it works better when paired with the script. Because The Internet arrives on this list because the first half is one of the strongest collections of songs this year with Childish Gambino finally using all his talent to full advantage. He’s improved tremendously as a rapper, pairing his best punchline bars with a double time flow on “Sweatpants” or playing around with his voice on “Worldstar.” His beats have gotten way better as well, using sunny wah wah guitars at the end of “The Worst Guys” or inviting space funk bassist Thundercat to rumble over “Shadows.” Childish Gambino uses the album not necessarily as a large concept album about the internet (although he might, I haven’t read the screenplay), but as a way to show how people relate to their surroundings with all the constant stimulation. And it allows a glorious look inside his head on “Telegraph,” where you hear Gambino start listening to a song on the radio and then starts singing along, until it actually turns into his song. The album may be a bit of a mess, but there are more than enough good parts to make up for it.
(can’t play it here because it’s private, but that’s the link to “The Worst Guys” music video. You should watch it, Chance The Rapper smokes a doobie on a surfboard. The password is 12.10.13SIXTY)
10: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
It’s like Ghostface Killah said. All you need for great rap is just fly rhymes over dope beats. And that’s exactly what Run The Jewels was. After an incredible 2012 which found Killer Mike releasing the best political album in recent memory and El-P emerging as a godfather to the new New York underground and updating his signature dystopian production style, Run The Jewels sees the duo teaming up for an old school beat em up record. Without the constraints of serious topics, Killer Mike and El-P just show off their chemistry and mic skills to fantastic results. The real hero of the tape is Mike, who is quietly asserting himself as an All-Rap first team candidate. He rifles down the competition on “Sea Legs,” goes on a drug addled romantic tryst on “No Come Down” and just rips apart the beat on some Arnold Schwarzenegger steez in “Job Well Done.” El-P does a great job as sidekick here and the chemistry between the two is fantastic. But his real addition for the tape is the head knocking beats. He abandons his sci-fi apocalyptic fervor to create an old-school boom bap canvas that put Eminem and his Rick Rubin beats to shame. Every beat sounds like it was made out metal, which underlines the two MC’s threats perfectly as they chew their way through it. El-P even brings old school legend DJ Q-Bert to scratch on “Get It.” This is the type of old school rap album that everyone was clamoring for in 2013. Here’s hoping the sequel (coming out in 2014) will be just as good.
9: Juicy J – Stay Trippy
For Juicy J, “stay trippy” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a life motto. It’s how a 38 year old rapper who’s prime was behind him ended up becoming king of the ratchets and a radio staple. He rewrote the rap book on second acts. Noticing the influence of his old group Three 6 Mafia on a whole generation of young fans, Juicy J jumped into the internet head first and linked up with aspiring young producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It who looked up to him as a hero. Signing with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang (easily the most successful pairing of old rapper with young rapper) and scoring a huge hit with “Bands A Make Her Dance,” Juicy had a coalition of fans that other artists would envy. Stay Trippy finds him balancing summer radio jams, dark Memphis murder raps, and ethereal stoner trance without losing any of his core identity. It was the party album of the summer. There are no awkward radio grabs and no forced collaborations. Every song is a showcase for a master at work. He makes his features come into his world, not the other way around, as he creates the hooks himself for “Bands” and “Bounce It.” “Wax” sounds like heaven opened its doors for a devil to come through while “Gun Plus A Mask” is a horror movie on record. And even though Juicy stays in his own lane he still manages to surprise, like when he combines a posthumous Pimp C verse with a Weekend sample on “Smokin Rollin”, or creates a love song with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on “The Woods” (which is seriously the best thing JT has done all year. How is this not a single??). Stay Trippy plays out like Juicy J is in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” a professional partier who’s hedonism is hard work. By the time it ends with “If I Ain’t,” his words become anthems; “If it ain’t kush it won’t touch my lighter, I only smoke that shit that get me higher. If it ain’t drank it ain’t in my cup, it gotta be that purple and yellow; I’m turning up.” Stay trippy indeed.
8: Kanye West – Yeezus
Has there even been an album like Yeezus before? Has a monolithic pop star at the peak of his career ever released an album this divisive? No wonder it drew the respect of the late Lou Reed. It’s easy to forget about the music of Yeezus when so much of Kanye’s press was about other factors. The guerilla album rollout. His “no art” album art. His press run of rants on Jools Holland, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sway In The Morning. His too fake to be real relationship with Kim Kardashian. His immense national tour. His confederate flag appropriating tour merchandise. All of that leaves Yeezus in a tough position. It is easy for it to be merely a symbol for Kanye West, the divisive cultural figure. But even without all of that, the music would speak for itself. The production hits like a sledgehammer, Daft Punk produced house music edged down with Rick Rubin’s boom bap. The minimalistic setting lets every sound have meaning: the glitchy synths of “On Sight,” the drum roll of “Black Skinhead,” Chief Keef’s distorted mumble on “Hold My Liquor,” the horn blasts of “Blood On The Leaves.” And above it all is Kanye, who snarls about civil rights and croons about sexual wrongs in the same breath before coming to the best ending the year had after Breaking Bad. Egotists like Kanye rarely make something as focused as Yeezus, so give credit to Mr. West that his genius is able to be reeled in. And just in case there was doubt that Kanye isn’t the most eminent taste maker this world has seen since Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and Jesus Christ and Fabio, note how even this abrasive single-less album has found it’s way into the heart of pop culture. Whether it’s “Black Skinhead” playing on commercials, James Franco and Seth Rogen parodying his music videos, or his silhouette hanging from a poplar tree the same night as Miley twerked for the nation, Kanye has proved he’s the epicenter of pop culture even when he’s trying to push everyone away. Yeezus isn’t the best album of the year but it might be the most important.