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The #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year! Check here to see albums 15-8. On to the next one!
7: 2 Chainz – B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time
2 Chainz is a beautiful black unicorn. He’s the Salvador Dali of rap, melting time and painting surreal universes with every pun. 2 Chainz is one of the few rappers breathing who can make any track he appears on interesting. Yet somehow without a major hit, his second album B.O.A.T.S. II flew under the radar. Whereas his solo debut Based On A T.R.U. Story was an uneven album lifted up to commercial success by his guest stars and some great singles, B.O.A.T.S. II forgoes the pomp and circumstance and stays true to its title: Me Time. 2 Chainz retreated into himself and allowed himself to create an album as weird as he is. The production is grandiose and goofy at the same time, just like Tity 2 Necklace himself. Pharrell creates silky lounge rap on “Feds Watching,” Mike Will Made It careens off the pop wagon with “Fork,” Diplo stutters vocals onto “Netflix” and Mannie Fresh brings back strip club slaps to “Used 2.” “Mainstream Ratchet” sounds as if Mozart combined talents with Timbaland. You won’t find better beats on any major label album this year. 2 Chainz remains as charismatic as ever, holding down the ostentatious beats with sex jokes and professional craftsmanship. He may be goofy but he’s no buffoon; notice how he uses assonance to make his jokes stick and how he volleys from one bar to another through a play on words. He’s a master at delivery as well, choosing to wither his words away on “Live and Learn” or yelp out hashtag phrases on “Where U Been.” And the album isn’t just jokes. There is dread lurking under the surface as if all the luxury he brags about could fall away at any moment. “Fork” opens the album with a nightmare of waking up back in the trap, “Feds Watching” drips with paranoia, “U Da Realest” eulogizes for the dead. 2 Chainz even gets personal on “So We Can Live” with stories of crooked cops and junkie uncles. B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time shows that 2 Chainz is much more than just a novelty act and one of the best major label rappers the game has. Plus it came with the greatest cookbook of the 21st century, #mealtime, which deserves its own article as well.
6: Ka – The Night’s Gambit
Is this the underdog story of the year? A softspoken fireman from Brooklyn writes and produces the entirety of his album, sells the record himself, directs all the videos for the project, and it’s the best New York hip hop album of the year. Like fellow New Yorkers Roc Marciano and Action Bronson, Ka’s boom bap style harkens back to the big apples golden age. But he lacks Bam Bam’s charisma or Roc’s wit and as those two took off last year with marquee projects, Ka’s Grief Pedigree seemed leagues behind. But The Night’s Gambit sees him taking a major leap with his style and putting out a better album than his contemporaries. Bear with me for a meaningless analogy: If these new New York rappers fit as the new Wu-Tang, and Action Bronson is like a modern day Ghostface Killah and Roc Marciano is the new Raekwon, then Ka would easily be the new GZA. This one actually makes the most sense. Both rappers give their rhymes eloquence through their simplicity and have deliveries that manage to be menacing and mystical at the same time. They both love the metaphor of chess for life (The Night’s Gambit is interspersed with skits about chess strategy) and they both love playing true MC rhyming games (see GZA’s “Labels” or this albums “Off The Record”). But the real growth on this album is Ka as a producer. He pushes the classic boom bap sound so far from its comfort zone that it can barely be described as a rap beat. He takes one sound or one loop and pushes it as far as it can go, creating a sparse environment more terrifying than anything on Yeezus. The swirling guitar on “Jungle” make one of the best beats of the year. The Roc Marciano featuring “Soap Box” takes one (I’m not sure) organ riff and loops it back and forwards so it’s constantly bubbling up without spilling over. “Peace Ahki” might be the centerpiece of the tape with an absolutely haunting score; light drums treading in the background, a low piano note hit every so often, a clock ticks off as Ka chants his most ruthless bars. “My heart is never the question, I write hard phonetic aggression. My art is parked in the medicine section; stay sharp, each word carved, it’s lettered perfection.” The Night’s Gambit is an insular record, a meditation about survival by someone who has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. It’s music by a man who made it simply because he wanted to create it. If you don’t dig him you’re just scratching the surface.
5: Kevin Gates – Stranger Than Fiction
This spot could have been taken by The Luca Brasi Story, the mixtape that launched Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates onto the national radar. In many places it has, and deservedly so. The Luca Brasi Story is a tremendous tape, overflowing with Gate’s talent, cascading with emotion. It was enough to immediately warrant him as a rapper worth following. But Stranger Than Fiction, his retail release buoyed by the success of his mixtape, is a stronger record. Partly because it’s more focused and concise, but mainly because it finds Gates experimenting with his style and succeeding on every level. He already proved that he was a talented gangsta rapper who was willing to engage in the emotional impact that lifestyle has, already providing an interesting perspective on the sad robot trend of Future and company. But Stranger Than Fiction has Gates crafting expert hooks, showing a vocal range better than ANY rapper working today, and proving that he belongs in the elite class of storytellers. No other rapper is crafting such poignant stories right now. Just on album opener “4 Legs And A Biscuit,” he runs off a series of details so vivid he could give each of them their own song. “Bullet hole in my lip as I’m inching back to the car, bitch I’m with pitching a fit yelling ‘Kevin, get back in the car!’ No hospital visits I’m on the run trying to get it.” And that’s just in the first eight lines. On “Tiger” he describes the betrayal of one of his best friends and before the betrayal of all his musical accomplices. But focusing on his narrative prowess almost misses the point of how great all these songs sound. He’s a master at creating mood through his voice. Check out his hopeless croak on “MYB,” his country accent on “Careful” (done in the persona of Redneck Rick), and his pained scream on “Smiling Faces.” And he still finds time to create club smashes with Juicy J on “Thinking With My Dick” and radio singles with “Strokin” and the remix to his regional hit “Satellites.” Stranger Than Fiction is a concise tape loaded with quality from the very first second to the closing hiss and there’s still the sense Kevin Gates was just fooling around with this one. Easy runner up for Rookie Of The Year.
4: Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Expectations are hard to manage nowadays. News is instantaneous and the public is demanding. If there is a young talent somewhere, he’ll be discovered and put on a pedestal. So when Odd Future, the last rap group probably ever that will command such mystery, was harboring a 16 year old rap phenom who was instantly marketed as a prodigy and then sent away to Samoa right when the group became stars, the hype flooded the shores of the internet. Earl Sweatshirt’s return was awaited upon like the first and the fifteenth, a young raw talent exiled away to eventually come back and free his people. An underground rap Moses. When Earl finally came back on his wolf with no name, expectations seemed to trump his studio debut Doris. That seems ridiculous considering Earl never seemed to want to make a “classic” LP like Good Kid, so why would everyone expect him to? Earl’s good at one thing; rapping. And holy moly does he rap well. Doris has the best pure rapping out of any tape released this year. He strings internal rhymes together indefinitely, shorting out brain fuses of anyone who tries to keep up. He’s a stoned Good Will Hunting, seeing rhymes on a chalkboard and ending up a savant. I’ve already explained how great Earl is at rapping, and his improvement to MF Doom wunderkin from a shock value teenager represents one of the few cases where the work has matched the hype. But rapping alone does not make for a great album and Earl draped himself with a soundscape that matched his heavy lidded worldview. Doris is a great Los Angeles rap album. The beats are cavernous concrete arenas with smog filtering through the empty space. Helmed mainly by Earl himself, the production resembles the cruising soundtrack of L.A. cult epic Drive, or the gritty psychedelia of Alchemists laboratory in Santa Monica. When Earl doesn’t man the boards, he finds the perfect collaborators; Pharrell fusing his sugary pop with his Neptunes thwomp on “Burgandy”, Alchemist imitating an earthquake on “Uncle Al,” and RZA finding some vintage soul for “Molasses.” Earl sarcastically claims “Breaking news: death is less important than when the Lakers lose” and that his “ride is dirty as the sky that you praying too.” The influence of Los Angeles, and Fairfax in particular, on Odd Future has been an underappreciated part of their rise and it’s clearly a factor for Earl here. Doris is the underbelly of Hollywood, getting blazed on the freeways at night. It lives in the shadows of a city that tries so hard to shine. It may be a low stakes album but that makes it no less excellent. And he’s still going to get better at rapping, which is just a jaw dropping idea.
3: Beyoncé – Beyoncé
YONCE DONE CHANGED THE GAME! Sorry, let me try to reel in my utter infatuation with our greatest living pop star to try to speak reasonably about this album. What kind of narrative should we place on Beyoncé? From a pop culture perspective, she practically saved the music industry. With the whole world trying to outdo itself with their album promotions, creating vast extravagant sales tactics to make their album feel more real in a digital age, Beyoncé just dropped off her album in mid December with absolutely no warning and crushed everyone’s record sales. From a social perspective, in a year where female pop stars degraded themselves (oh wait that’s every year) so much that Katy Perry was the voice of reason, Beyoncé crafted a feminist masterpiece that is empowering, radical, and lovable at the same time. If you don’t think this stuff actually matters go look at the growth in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book sales after this album. How about on an individual standpoint? When’s the last time a pop star at the absolute peak of his or her game actually exceeded themselves? After releasing her wonderful tour de force 4, an album that cemented her place away from the ephemeral pop paraphernalia of today and into the hall of R&B, becoming a mom and proceeding up to heaven on the Super Bowl stage, Bey had literally nothing left to prove. So she decided to make the best album of her career. But the narrative I’m most interested is the most dominant conversation since recorded music existed around a century ago, one that seemed almost extinct in todays digital age; the album vs. the single. By releasing her album in bulk with a video tied to every song (a freaking VISUAL ALBUM!!) she changed the way people consume music today. We were not only forced to hear her album from beginning to end, but we wanted to as well. It is like a movie. So it seems absurd to discuss the album without it’s accompanying videos, just like it would be silly to talk about The Who’s Tommy without the storyline, or The Beatle’s eponymous album without all the competing voices. I’ve read some more cynical interpretations about this, that Bey is subverting the twitter feed and instant gratification culture of our generation so that people have to hear it all right now or they’ll miss out on an event. And that’s true, but it wouldn’t have worked so well if the music wasn’t so devastatingly amazing. Every single song is a diamond. It’s at once more artsy than Lady Gaga, more adventurous than Justin Timberlake, more charming than Jay-Z, and more audacious than Kanye. She feels more like a 21st century Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. It’s the work of a pop star who ascended to the ranks of R&B nobility and then came back to pop music and blew up the system. It’s completely in step with modern music, featuring Jay-Z, Drake, Frank Ocean, Pharrell and Timbaland, and yet somehow hovers completely above it. Timely and timeless. Please don’t make me relive all the moments because this’ll take forever. The EDM&B beat marvel of “Haunted.” Her southern fried rapping on “Drunk In Love.” The perfect fusion of Pharell’s lighthearted retro pop and Timbaland’s sophisticated prog pop on “Blow” complete with an Aretha Franklin moment of sexual dominance. The soaring anthem of “XO.” Her big fluffy jacket on “No Angel.” The cave dancing in “***Flawless.” The time where she made the best rap song of the year in “Partition.” And the heartbreaking finale where she once and for all proves her own artistic worth and how far she’s come. Because earlier songs like “Halo” and “End Of Time” are masterpieces in themselves, but they have nothing on what she accomplishes with the last two songs here. The restraint, the emotional resonance, the songwriting. They’re not Diva songs. They’re songs that are so intensely personal that she can barely get them out. Beyoncé is the pop equivalent of the ’76 Bulls and Bey is Michael Jordan; grown up, smarter, and bulldozing anyone in her path. Jay-Z no longer wears the pants in the family. And I literally have no idea why this album isn’t number one on my list.
2: Danny Brown – Old
Old plays out like an old fashioned record, with each side used for separate purposes. It makes sense that Danny Brown would be the one to pull it off. He has so many personalities that he needs the different environments. There’s the braids wearing, drug pushing, Detroit reppin Danny Brown and there’s the crazy haircut rocking, Europe traipsing, Ecstasy inducing Danny Brown. That he can reconcile these two into a coherent persona is one of the major achievements of Old. I wrote about Danny’s magnum opus earlier this year and it’s only gotten better with each listen. Details continue to creep out of the horror stories he creates from his past and present, equal parts Guillermo Del Toro and Dr. Seuss. Bullies jump him for his mom’s grocery money. His mom got the money by giving haircuts on his porch. Gremlins haunt the streets and dope fiends prowl for a customer. He can’t let his daughter see how high he is. A girl grinds on him while he grinds his teeth. Still, it’s easy to get lost in the sonic ambition of the album. Alt-rap producers like Paul White, Oh No, and A-Trak mix in with EDM heavyweights Rustie and Darq E. Freaker. Danny has stated that the beats were the priority, if XXX was his OK Computer then Old is his Kid A, an album more concerned with sounds and textures rather than things to say. It would be easy to say that the main achievement of this album are the beats and how Danny Brown bodied them. I would be hard pressed to find another rapper who could do that (Kendrick included-although that would so much fun to watch). His guests certainly can’t, especially on the latter EDM half. But that would ignore the fact that Old is the most self aware hip hop album at least since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. It’s a send up of the traditional Biggie Smalls/Jay-Z up from nothing success story, a subversion of modern “gangsta” rap, a challenge to not just the aesthetic folds of the genre but its ideological totems. It not only addresses the hip hop community but its audience as well. He interpolates Outkast’s classic “Return Of The G,” a song that Andre 3000 used to attack everyone who questioned his eccentricity, on “The Return” to address his own fans who want Danny Brown the gangsta back. And he brings along Freddie Gibbs, one of the last four remaining real gangstas left, to drive his rebuttal home. He wonders if little kids know that 2 Chainz went to college on “Gremlins.” He’s sick of rappers lying about their background on “Dope Song.” And on “Dip” he transforms Jay and Kanye’s “don’t let me get in my zone” line into a drug riddled threat. Old rewrites the tropes of hip hop itself. Drugs aren’t fun, they’re relief. The baroque opulence of mainstream rap transforms into a banal carnival of horror. Hip hop already has it’s own critiquing mechanism built in and Old shows how the genre can manipulate itself. But with all the modern debates about realness, authenticity, and drug use in hip hop, Old feels needed for the moment. No one aimed as high and succeeded this year like the Adderal Admiral.
1: Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
“I’ve been riding around with a blunt on my lips, the sun in my eyes and my gun on my hip. Paranoia on my mind so my mind’s on the fritz, and a lot of niggas dying so my nine’s with the shits.”
That hook has been rolling through my head all year. It has everything. The effortless cool, the clouded thought, the sensory detail, the subtle wordplay. The way Chance sings it is perfect; just enough of a croon, languid control over every syllable so the words dance off the tongue. And the emotional weight is immense, as the rest of the song “Paranoia” goes on to ask why Katie Couric isn’t reporting about all the murdered kids. It asks the rest of the world to admit they’re scared because these kids are scared too. And it prays to god for the seasons to stay the same for just a little longer. And none of that changes anything, so there’s nothing else to do but drive around with your weed and your piece. Mind on the fritz.
I’ve read some people say that they don’t understand why everyone likes Acid Rap when it’s so clearly for young people. I feel sorry for them. They’re right, Acid Rap is youth incarnate. It is wide eyed exuberance, falling in love with the first girl you really get to know, getting high for the very first time, turning up like there’s no limit, living and loving life because you don’t know when it’ll all end. And for Chance, that uncertainty is everywhere. Chicago has become the new gangsta murderland, a place for hip hop and its audience to place fantasies of gangsta toughness and realness, just like Compton and Brooklyn before it. But for Chance it’s real. To embrace all that pain with such an open heart and try to find the joy in life anyways, that takes ambition and talent and youth. Acid Rap is rap game Calvin & Hobbes, able to stare straight at the worlds problems and complexities with childlike wonder and not let it get him down. He’s Pixar, crafting gorgeous tales that create universality through its specificity. If there are people that are too old to identify with that wonder again, that’s sad. I hope it’s not inevitable.
Acid Rap is an incredibly fun and life affirming record. Helmed by his Save Money crew, the production is phenomenal. It bounces all over Chicago’s musical history, from gospel to soul to juke to Kanye. It’s an immaculate collection; every song is great. A lot of the record is shit talking in wonderfully unique ways. He feels like Kobe on “Juice” even though everybody hates the Lakers. He’s got that God Damn on “Pusha Man.” He’s a chain smoking, name dropping, brain broken, mutha SHUT YO MOUTH. His energy is infectious. Action Bronson, Ab-Soul, and Childish Gambino, all rappers who broke onto the rap scene with more of a jokey personality than they have now, find their sense of humor again on this album. But nostalgia rules over the tape. He remembers Chuck E. Cheese tokens and orange Nickelodeon cassettes on a song about his cigarette addiction. He still idealizes all his idols, whether it’s former drug dealer Nitty on “Pusha Man” or Frank Ocean on “Chain Smoker.” Then there are his moments of such candid insight it makes you do a double take. His hesitancy to follow Jesus’s twitter. The poignancy of 21st century love story “Lost” and Noname Gypsy’s pitch perfect verse. The poetic psalm of “Acid Rain.” And then there’s the rapping. He raps with the joy of a kid who just learned how to put words together and now is trying it every way possible. He slingshots his rhymes on “Good Ass Intro,” coils them up on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and stretches them out on “Everything’s Good.” He has the moniker Rapper for a reason.
I wonder if those critics are right though, if I’ll like Acid Rap as much in five or ten years. It didn’t feel like an event like Kendrick’s album did, but it was something I instantly recognized as special and felt the need to share. Chance’s free mixtape connects with a younger audience because he understands the fragility of youth and the somber feeling of growing older. The nostalgia is instantly affecting, the desire to go back to those days. So there’s paranoia on my mind, driving around, consuming the last little bit of freedom there is. Burning out over fading away. It’s the millennial zeitgeist of YOLO except more nuanced. He’s able to take his personal anxiety and, like any great art, make it universal. When he first announced Acid Rap, Chance said that he named it that because of his LSD use and his new musical direction, “but mainly because when I drop it, niggas is finna start tripping.” Consider the water cooler spiked.
And that’s the list! When I started writing this blog I wanted to capture what listening to hip hop right now, as the new generation, is like. I hope this list does a good job. Let me know what you think! Anything left out? Any personal favorites? Any dumb picks? Let me know by commenting or hitting me up on twitter. Looking back it was actually a pretty good year. Hopefully 2014 will be even better.