Candy Rappers and Cocaine Pinatas

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Freddie Gibbs is always fighting an uphill battle. The Gary, Indiana native was stuck in the label purgatory of Interscope for years until he got dropped five years ago. When he compiled the discarded sessions into two fantastic mixtapes, it was clear why. Hardcore gangsta rap wasn’t popular last decade, and there was no market for intense technical rapping over trunk rattling murder music. But boy could he rap, and the ensuing buzz from the mixtapes landed him on the covers of XXL and LA Weekly and grabbed him a new deal. But right when he was on the precipice of stardom, nothing happened. Back at square one, Gibbs found a kindred soul in Atlanta trap star Young Jeezy, who’s drug dealing stomp had also been phased out by the major labels, and signed to his CTE Imprint. With a higher profile and some inspiration from his new home in Los Angeles, Freddie released his best work to dateBaby Face Killa. Fusing his midwestern style with west coast flows, BFK found an uncompromising commercial pocket for Gibbs’s music and contained the most radio ready songs of his career. But Jeezy didn’t promote it well, Gibbs felt that he was being mistreated, and the two had an acrimonious falling out last year. After his last album fell short of expectations, it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become another absurd talent that gets lost in the cracks. But his new album Pinata, a collaboration with legendary Stones Throw underground L.A. producer Madlib, has silenced any debate on Gibbs’ talent and stature. In a year where Los Angeles has repositioned itself at the top of the hip hop totem pole, Gibbs has put together an album that stands apart from the pack and crafted one of the seminal projects of the young decade.

The knock on Freddie Gibbs is usually that he’s just technique with no personality, that it can get tedious listening to him bludgeon beats over and over. But that severely underrates how good Freddie is at rapping. There are probably only two or three people breathing who can compete in the same skill level as Gibbs (and yes one of them is Kendrick) and Pinata is a tour de force of MCing. Madlib’s beats are not easy to rap over; the beat will change on a whim if there is even a beat at all. Freddie had to be on point the entire time or else the project just wouldn’t work and he succeeds admirably. The unconventional production forces him to be creative with his flows. He can ride the tempo on “Shitsville” like a mechanical bull and he can loosen his grip on “Broken,” letting the ends of his words trail off. Most of the time he makes it look so easy you don’t even notice the complexity, falling into nonexistent rhythms on “Harold’s.” Check out first single “Thuggin,” where after a movie snippet opens the track, Gibb’s cuts through some swirling guitar licks as the beat slowly starts to form. Then his flow and the beat speed up at the same time and the song is off and running before you even realize it begun. This kind of stuff is hard to do. There are some A-list guest stars on this record; Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Wu-Tang legend Raekwon, and despite their great verses they all get washed by Freddie. In fact the last track on the album, the posse cut “Pinata,” seems solely to exist to point out how much better Freddie is than every other rapper on it. The only person who is on the same plane is Houston rap god Scarface, who delivers an absolutely devastating 16 bars of pure pathos on “Broken.”

Credit needs to be given here to Madlib as well. These beats are difficult to rap over, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. This is the leading contender for best produced album of the year. After his massive undertaking with the Madlib Medicine Show (where he released 12 albums in 2010!), the unseen producer has been off the radar for a while and Pinata has him roaring back with vengeance. He’s sculpted the album with a conceptual edge; songs are bookended by instrumental intros and outros, skits are given perfect mood music, movie samples act as perfect segues. The beats cover a staggering breadth of territory. There’s slashing funk on “Scarface” and soaring soul on “Shame.” “Uno” and “Bomb” open with carnivalesque opulence before retreating into beautifully stark menace. It would take a similar mystic to understand how Madlib chops up all his records, but he has a touch with the lost art of sampling that few of his peers can emulate. I’m still wrapping my mind around his vocal samples; he can place them front and center and create hooks on “High” or “Robes,” or he keeps them submerged, breaching the surface of the track ever so slightly on “Harold’s” and “Knicks.” In his incredible production discography, Madlib’s work here still shines as a highlight.    

Even if it were just great rapping over these marvelous beats, Pinata would be an exceptional record. Maybe it’s the challenging production or maybe it’s the life experience, but Gibb’s is a much more confident rapper on this record. His “last real gangsta alive” persona has never sounded this engaging, and this album is filled with weary reflection, strong subtle storytelling, and revitalized gangsta rap tropes. Without ever pandering and evangelizing, Pinata portrays both sides of the coin, often within the same song. Freddie boasts about his sexual escapades on “Shame” but also details his heartbreak on “Deeper.” “Shitsville” simultaneously boasts about how gangsta he is while deconstructing the gangsta myth in the process. Drug dealing isn’t glamorized as much as it’s preserved. Moral turmoil resides in the asides, not on the soapbox. Gibbs is able to flip a clever conceit on two tracks back to back. “Lakers” is the best song about L.A. made in a minute, because Gibbs’ understands the allure of the city and its place in hip hop and American history. He gets the dichotomy of the city, the spotlight and the shadows, the gritty and the glamour. For him, L.A represents a certain type of redemption from where he grew up. He raps about “repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about,” and the new meaning that’s been brought to the Dodgers hat since Magic bought the team. On the flip side is “Knicks,” a stoic ode to the consistent onslaught of violence in his life and the enduring ineptitude of New York basketball as he documents how little has changed in his life. “Pippen on the assist, I’m watching Jordan drop a double nickel on the Knicks. That was ’95, couple of us ain’t live til ’96, gangbanging, ‘caine slanging had us caught up in a twist” he starts the song. And then life repeats itself in the next verse. “Chilling with a bitch, watching LeBron put up 56 on the Knicks in 2005, police killed my nigga in 2006, only thing he losing is his pension ain’t that bout a bitch.” This type of storytelling goes far beyond just structural technique.

Freddie Gibbs may not have made a leap here, but he’s certainly made his best album. He’s been a top five rapper for the last six years now, but with Madlib’s impressive production serving as his canvas, his grown man raps are given new perspective. The best comparison is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music where a similar out of nowhere production choice and streamlined guest list allowed the rapper to create his biggest album. Pinata is incredible. Every song is a gem, every beat is fire. 2014 has already been an outstanding year for hip hop and a large part of it is Los Angeles having a moment. The city has cast off its ghosts and harnessed them into commercial and critical weapons, whether it’s TDE’s coded language or DJ Mustard’s streamlined bounce. But Freddie Gibbs has gone left of center by pairing with Madlib and explored an underappreciated sect of L.A. rap that is no less central to the city’s legacy. And he made a masterpiece in the process. I can’t imagine much else topping this album for best of the year.

Oxymoronic Expectations

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I’ve made no secret of my TDE fandom. I write about them more than any other group and constantly profess my admiration for the quality and impact of their work. In the last five years, Top Dawg Entertainment has gone from being a regional curiosity to an independent critical darling to a full fledged major player in the rap game. They have played everything to perfection, building off of each success and positioning themselves for the inevitable industry takeover. After using Kendrick’s coronation to expand their empire, 2014 finds them in full on attack mode. Thus Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q’s first major label album, represents the most important moment for the young label. It’s a chance to prove that Kendrick’s commercial success was more than just a fluke, that the label is more than just a one trick pony. And if you don’t know, now you know: TDE runs deep. Oxymoron debuted as the label’s first album to hit number one on the charts. But even with it’s commercial impact secure, is Oxymoron up to the task of stepping out of the gigantic shadow of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Will Q be able to make the same cultural waves that K. Dot did?

It’s important to note that Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar are wildly different artists. What makes Black Hippy such a great group is that all of the MC’s are very distinct, but Q and K. Dot are on the opposite poles. Kendrick is fluid like water, his flow filling every crack in the beat. Every verse, every bridge, ever hook is methodical and perfectly placed. He’s a technician first and foremost. But Quincy is fire. He raps with a chaotic, scorched earth flow, decimating the beat and reshaping it into his image. There’s an improvisational quality to his rhymes, bars that seem to come from him from the ether straight onto the track. Q is one of the best rappers right now, but he specializes in flow and energy rather than the lyricism that Kendrick has helped make popular last year. He’s the Charlie Parker to Kendrick’s Miles Davis, his verses are furious drug induced supernova’s over Kendrick’s perfectly calm and collected rapping clinics. But it was Kendrick’s level headed brilliance that was needed for the unbelievable critical and commercials success of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. A concept album tailored for critical adoration and grammy nominations, Kendrick warped major label demands into his vision, not the other way around. Each single felt like part of the album without losing any radio play, with Drake a supporting character, Lady Gaga a disembodied robot voice, and Mary J. Blige a bonus feature. With every single young talented rapper of the last decade instantly promoted as a “savior” or the genre and faced with the task of creating the perfect major label album, it is hard to underestimate how impressive it is that Kendrick actually did it.

The biggest fault of Oxymoron is that Schoolboy Q tried to create a Kendrick record. It aims for the major label grandeur without hitting the sublime cinematic vision of his cohort’s debut. There’s no concept tying it all together. The sequencing is shoddy and the singles have no relationship to some of the album cuts. But Q’s best qualities aren’t well suited for the formal structure of that kind of album. Habits & Contradictions thrived because of it’s madcap pace, with Quincy ricocheting from hook to bridge to verse to ad-lib with no warning, creating a musical tapestry that rivals anything Kendrick has done. Some of that improvisation is lost in the major label transition. This is partially due to the tone, Oxymoron is much slower and darker than it’s predecessor, but it’s also due to the more standard arrangement of the songs. This doesn’t mean that Oxymoron is bad though; it’s a fantastic album that’s loaded front to back. It’s not the “GKMC 2: From Tha Streetz” that a lot of critics were hoping for and it’s clear that Schoolboy Q had no interest in creating something like that to begin with (more than likely that’ll be Jay Rock’s next project and it will blow our minds). Instead, Oxymoron is a snarling slice of glimmering darkness, a disconcerting trip into Q’s gangsta past.

The obvious highlights of the album are where Q succeeds in reaching his ambitious peaks. “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” are both epic songs; two part suites that refract the tape’s main themes. “Hoover Street” starts with Q lobbing off nightmares over Thundercat’s bass licks before the beat changes and he details his introduction into the Crips. With frightening clarity, Schoolboy brings to life the roaches in his cereal, his backwards hoodie with the eyes cut out, his uncle trading him whiskey for clean piss, and his grandma spoiling him with video games and new clothes. But when he recounts his first meeting with the Crips, the story takes on an incredible meta-quality. “Rat-Tone my nigga’s brother showed me my first K, I was amazed, me and Floyd was in the back, he called us over like ‘hey, YAWK YAWK YAWK YAWK!’ We was like ‘Damn nigga…’ the way he said cuz turned us to a fan nigga.” That story is interchangeable with the way many of Q’s fan’s heard of his music, how the ad libs and the slang are appealing. In illuminating his own past, he sheds light on rap’s transcendent connection to drug and street life. It’s a brilliant piece of story telling from a rapper who doesn’t usually dabble in that area. “Prescription/Oxymoron” showcases the same skill set, this time focuses on his own addiction to both selling and consuming Oxycontin pills. These are the artistic, ambitious, focused songs that everyone wanted out of Oxymoron and they are just as good and maybe better than anything that Kendrick or any other peer has done.

The album runs real dark. This is LA Gangsta rap reincarnated, filled with pimps and hos, addicts and dealers, gunshots and gangbangers. It’s almost jarring to hear an actual gangsta rap album in 2014 considering how it has been commercial cyanide for nearly a decade. But just because there’s no radical reinvention here does not mean it isn’t successful. TDE created a new language using the vernacular of their youth (doo doo! yawk yawk! bluh bluh!) and where Kendrick used it as a thematic diving board for GKMC, Schoolboy Q uses it aesthetically. Gun shots that have become inside jokes are restored with their original menace, so completely that it almost loses the fun. But Quincy pulls it off, snarling throughout the album, slowing down his hedonistic flow while sharpening his bars. He reminds you he’s eating now because he used to be starving. He reminds you that being groovy means being a crip from Hoover and black hippy takes on a whole new meaning.

This album has some extraordinary rapping that takes a while to sink in because Q’s delivery is the first thing that pops out on you. Musical chaos abounds here, buzzing walls of sounds that Q carves into song. There’s a gritty beauty in the songwriting, jagged hooks that manage to stick with you. It’s reminiscent of a rap game Velvet Underground, creating a magnetic pull through some off putting sounds. Check out “Los Awesome,” a march of buzzing synths that Q not only manages to rap over, but actually creates a party track. Or “His And Her Friend,” all layered voices over clicks and whirrs before SZA adds in some jazzy singing. The production is pretty astonishing all over the album. Producing duo Nez & Rio showcase their chemistry with Schoolboy Q, creating menacing beds for Q to fall into on “Gangsta,” “Fuck LA,” and “Californication.” The star producers manage to fit the style as well. Tyler, The Creator laces “The Purge” with something absolutely sinister, with just a slow synth whine accompanying Q and Death Row legend Kurupt as they go so hard they might hurt themselves. Mike Will Made It forgoes the usual bombast of his radio jams as Q sounds downright evil on “What They Want.” The real highlight however is Alchemist. The L.A. producer is in the midst of one of the greatest runs in history, fusing Venice Beach psychedelia with New York boom bap and displaying almost perfect taste in collaborators. “Break The Bank” is a momentous achievement with Quincy summarizing all of Oxymoron into three breathtaking verses, switching up his flow every other bar. It’s the best song on the album and will probably be the best of the year.

This is all to say that Oxymoron is a dense piece of work, a kinetic, confrontational album that takes time to unravel. The hooks take time to connect and Schoolboy Q remains on the All-Rap first team this year, hiding incredible detail and clever wordplay in the cracks. The sound is much different than the warm, jazzy soundtracks that TDE is known for, but the original architects are all over the album. The Digi-Phonics have all done some great work in the past, but it’s Sounwave who has distinguished himself as the one to watch. Not only was he behind the most ambitious songs of the set, “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron,” but his touches are all over the album, adding dramatic string arrangements to “Gangsta” and “Blind Threats.” But these are all subtleties and not the first thing that springs out at you. What does is the dissonance between the dark themes and the light radio singles and the lack of focus on the journey. Quincy has spoke on the major label insistence on some radio singles while he wanted to make a purely gangsta album. He wrote “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” at the same time, and you can tell it wasn’t in the spirit of the rest of the album. But they’re not necessarily bad in of themselves, in fact they’re quite good songs. It’s fun to watch Q just do his thing over a good beat, and his effortlessness is much more suited to the radio than Kendrick is. And even among the awkward sequencing, there are great moments that show that Q can find the radio without any other meddling. “Man Of The Year” is a dark party track, with DJ Dahi’s beat building to an EDM drop that never comes. And “Studio” is a fantastic ladies jam, with Q singing and singing well, creating a song that Kendrick could never make.

Is this album better than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? I suppose not. GKMC was hailed as a classic instantly, and even though it wasn’t a number one album it still sold more than Oxymoron in it’s first week. Oxymoron matches the amount of raw talent but doesn’t have the ambition or construction that a classic needs. But it’s unfair to judge it strictly in the shadow of the most influential album of the young decade. Schoolboy Q has created a deep, impressive major label album that showcases his uniqueness as a solo artist, and allows the larger themes inflect his album rather than be the showcase. Oxymoron takes time to grow, and it has become my favorite album of the year and that was after listening to it for a while. Hopefully by the end of the year, music critics will realize Oxymoron for the great work it is. But it doesn’t matter, Top Dawg Entertainment has never played by the rules. They’ll keep winning. Q will keep knocking down the doors.

Rap Game Academy Awards

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We take a break from our regular scheduled programming to bring you something a bit more topical. With the Oscars about to happen and considering the platform I have here, I’m giving you the Hungry Hippopotamus Movie Awards! It’s been an absolutely incredible year for movies, better than it was for music, and every Academy Award is overflowing with worthy candidates. Hip hop rarely inserts itself into the Oscar discussion however. Eminem and Three 6 Mafia have won Best Original Song in the past and Pharrell is up for the award this year, but otherwise you don’t find much rap. To remedy that, I’m forcibly combining the two in my own idiosyncratic way. Here are the album counterparts for all the Oscar Nominees for best picture.

American Hustle – Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail

David O. Russell doesn’t even come close to having the career and stature as Jay-Z, but what they both have is some great friends. For American Hustle, Russell brought back Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper from Silver Linings Playbook, and Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper from The Fighter. Likewise, Jay-Z sat on a couch with Pharrell, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and Rick Rubin during the sessions for his platinum album. Both of these guys got some great performances and beats, but ultimately both American Hustle and Magna Carta Holy Grail got lost in the glamour. After it’s over, there’s the sense that nothing really happened and no amount of hairspray can cover that bald spot.

Captain Phillips – Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name

Captain Phillips was a film that could have gone terribly wrong: pirates capture America’s greatest treasure in Tom Hanks and the all powerful Navy saves the day. Luckily we were treated to a much more sensitive and thoughtful film than the trailer advertised. The pairing of Paul Greengrass’s shaky cam directing with Tom Hanks stoic charisma brought something new out in both actor and director.  Pusha T’s G.O.O.D. Music debut benefited greatly from Kanye’s minimalism. Pusha’s snarl sounds much better over Yeezus type bare bones than it did over the orchestral production of “Runaway.” Both Captain Phillips and My Name Is My Name were products that aimed for both critic lists and box office sales and perhaps suffered because of it. Pusha T made some clunky stereotypical major label songs and Greengrass got a little out of hand with the final action scene of the movie. But both were great when they stayed in their sparse lane, and Tom Hank’s brilliant selfless ending is as good an analogy to Pusha T’s list-topping collaboration with Kendrick at the end of the LP, where the good kid proved who is the captain now.

Dallas Buyer’s Club – Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris

Dallas Buyer’s Club was a pretty unremarkable movie that was made pretty darn good through Matthew McConaughey’s star making earth shaking performance. New director Jean-Marc Vallee sticks his lens directly behind McConaughey and proceeds to let him breath life into a pretty banal story. Likewise, Doris is a pretty reserved album. The beats are great but they aren’t extravagant. Rather they just serve as padding for the tour de force lyrical onslaught that is Earl’s tongue twisting syntax gymnastics. In this scenario, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, a young talented gangsta rapper who says that if this was ’92 he’d be in Death Row, plays the role of Jared Leto, who plays a drag queen. Well alright alright alriiiiiight.

Gravity – Drake’s Nothing Was The Same

Two huge blockbuster events that ended up being among the most critically lauded works in each field. They’re both astounding technical achievements, with Alfonso Cuaron redefining what CGI and 3D can do for the cinema and producer Noah “40” Shebib scraping the ocean floor of the depths of Drake’s signature sound. They both could have used a rewrite though. Ultimately, it just comes down to the fact that neither could live up to the incredible trailers they dropped on us.

 

Her – Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet

In an always traditionalist pool, Spike Jonze’s Her is the only film that touches on the fleeting moments of human connection in the digital age. It’s strange premise and dexterous execution uncertainly left a mark on anybody under the age of 35, and probably alienated some older people. Childish Gambino’s entire career has been captured online and Because The Internet is his attempt at navigating humanity and real relationships when everything is transparent. Again, it’s an album that older critics didn’t like but several people my age are infatuated with. The themes of Because The Internet aren’t close to the fully fledged experience of Her, but both Glover and Jonze are reinterpreting classic love stories in a specifically 2013 context.

Nebraska – Danny Brown’s Old

The black and white Nebraska seems to be the literal opposite of Danny Brown’s colorful magnum opus. It’s a soft spoken film where Danny is more known for his kinetic squawk. But the works actually deal with the same thing in two very different ways. They tackle the fear of growing up and the desolation of looking back on your life and seeing a barren field. They speak on the generational divide and the acceptance (or full fledged flight) of who you’ve become. This is a lesson for people who can’t look beyond first appearances, be it the haircut on Bruce Dern or Danny Brown.  Plus, Danny’s self loathing would fit right at home in any Alexander Payne film.

Philomena – Run The Jewels’ Run The Jewels

Ok this one’s a stretch. Philomena isn’t the most hip hop movie even if Judi Dench is an OG. But regardless of the fact that Killer Mike is the rap game Dame Judi, both of these works are no frills, straight to the point pleasures. Both are duos working to get to the bottom of things, whether it’s where a catholic church sent a stolen baby or where all the fuckboys are hiding. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan display their own type of chemistry, which bristles a bit more than Killer Mike and El-P, but both are endearing opposites which work better together. And what’s great about both is the lack of extravagance surrounding each. Philomena doesn’t have any flashy performances or big melodramatic moments, it’s simply an engaging story told in an efficient way that harnesses the professionalism of it’s cast. Run The Jewels isn’t going for any kind of high minded concept either, they just want you to give them your jewelry with no delay.

12 Years A Slave – Kanye West’s Yeezus

I’m not the only person the make this connection. The similarities between Kanye West and director Steve McQueen have been documented before, in their collaboration at the MTV Video Music Awards or when McQueen interviewed ‘Ye for Interview Magazine. But beyond the political and thematic connections about black life in America and how the systemic oppression has infiltrated every facet of life, both Yeezus and 12 Years A Slave bear stylistic elements in common as well. They both use minimalism for maximum effect; the old “less is more” approach. West lets each sound hit the listener with full impact, whether it’s a glitchy synth barrage or lectures about the Correctional Corporation of America. There’s nowhere to hide on Yeezus. But that doesn’t come close to the soul destroying focus that McQueen demonstrates in his film, where he lets single shots linger for so long that you feel you’re suffocating. The restraint that both artists used in their work is uncannily effective for the heady, dramatic subjects their breaking down.

The Wolf Of Wall Street – Juicy J’s Stay Trippy

I already brought this comparison to light in the year end album wrap up. Both movie and album treat drugs and hedonism as a professional enterprise. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Leo mutter “trippy mayn” in the movie or hear Juicy sample McConaughey’s humming for his next song.

The Oscars aren’t perfect by any measure and the nominees for best picture aren’t necessarily the best movies. So here are the Hungry Hippopotamus nominees and winners for the major categories. Five nominees for every race (as it should be), with the winners in bold.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Scarlett Johannson – Her

Lupita N’yongo – 12 Years A Slave

June Squibb – Nebraska

Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station

June Squibb was a revelation in Nebraska, crafting hilarious scenes and serving as the moral backbone often at the same time. She stole the show every time she appeared and created a real character beyond the nagging wife she could have been. Scarlett Johannson also jumped a level in Her, doing more with her voice than she did with her whole body in movies like Don JonFruitvale Station was snubbed at every level by the Oscars this year, and you don’t get sensitive performances like Spencer’s without dipping into melodrama very often.

Best Supporting Actor

George Clooney – Gravity

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave

Will Forte – Nebraska

Nick Frost – The World’s End

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

I understand the hesitancy of giving Fassbender the award here. Having the one white guy in the movie winning the only acting award, right after Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained (IN ONE OF THE BIGGEST SNUBS IN HISTORY), isn’t a good look for the academy. So the award will go to Jared Leto, who delivered a touching, if not slightly kitchy, performance. But 12 Years A Slave would not have been nearly the gut wrenching experience it was if Fassbender had not gone 100% on an emotionally disturbing dive into the human psyche. Being able to fully encapsulate the oxymoron between ownership and affection, of love and hate, is what made 12 Years A Slave such a magnificent film. Fassbender’s slave owner is the perfect vessel for McQueen to explore the violent, psychological afflictions of slavery beyond just the tangible destruction.

Best Actress

Amy Adams – American Hustle

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Judi Dench – Philomena

Sarah Louise Dreyfuss – Enough Said

There’s no contest here. Everyone else in this category did some great work, especially Amy Adams who was the highlight performance in a movie filled with highlight performances, but no one is taking Cate’s crown here. Her tour de force showing as a mentally confused New York blue blood crash landed in the Bay Area was breathtaking. Watching Blanchett lend the same regal tone that she uses for movie stars and British Queens to a delusional housewife was amazing, especially with Woody Allen’s neurotic script. The brilliance here was convincing the audience of both her entitlement and wretchedness, often in the same sentence. There wasn’t a better performance all year, man or woman.

Best Actor

Leo Dicaprio – Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetal Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave

Oscar Isaacs – Inside Llewin Davis

Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

It speaks to how good this year was for movies when you consider the great performances that were left off this list.  Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, any of them would have found a Hungry Hippo nomination in another year. But it doesn’t matter all that much because 2013 is the year of the McConaissance. Dallas Buyer’s Club was the denouement of McConaughey’s rise to the top of the acting chain, one anti-heroic Southern gentleman role at a time. The physical transformation, the rugged charisma, the emotional depth.  His performance here is remarkable because it combines two things that are usually disparate; a complete physical transformation for the role (a la Sean Penn in Milk or Daniel Day-Lewis in everything) and using the part to channel his own unique movie star charisma (a la Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Tom Hanks in nearly everything). McConaughey didn’t trade in his movie stardom for a serious role, he simply did both. Now that’s the entrance into an upper pantheon of acting.

Best Director

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Spike Jonze – Her

Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

All of these nominees are worthy and created deep worlds for their movies to inhabit. But it comes down to two directors who are also fighting it out for the best picture; Cuaron and McQueen. One is a technological marvel, going where film has never gone before in such detail. The other is a period piece, capturing the scope of such an intense problem like no film has ever tried. Both of the directors work is more subtle than you’d expect. These are both clearly the director’s movies and not an actors movie, but the strategies they use aren’t often called to attention. Gravity is such a thrill ride that the audience doesn’t notice the grace in which Cuaron’s camera moves around the scene. And the magnificence of McQueen’s work isn’t any kind of centrality but rather the fringes of the screen, what he lets you see rather than what he shows you. It’s almost a toss up between the two and it’s not fair to choose. But we have to. Both movies keep you on the edge of your seat, but towards the end of Gravity it gets to be overwhelming; oh no Sandra Bullock is caught in ANOTHER disaster. But 12 Years A Slave slowly amps up the brutality as to never let you turn away. Where the constant terror of Gravity drags on at the end, 12 Years A Slave delivers it’s most devastating blow, one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. So for that McQueen gets the prize.

Best Picture

Blue Jasmine

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

12 Years A Slave

I suppose that would mean that 12 Years A Slave should win Best Picture right? It certainly deserves to, and I’ll be rooting for it at the Oscars. But for some reason comedy has fallen by the wayside in recent decades, somehow not deserving of critical appreciation. And Woody Allen’s latest chapter in his global travelling films is a pitch perfect movie. Not only is it hilarious but it’s meaningful, dealing with the current recession with such sensitivity that no other film can match. It’s relationships are both heartening and crushing and every character is nuanced. Normally having the best performance of the year would qualify for a best picture nod (look at Dallas Buyer’s Club), but Cate Blanchett wasn’t enough to carry this flick through the guys club of the Oscars. The other films here are great, but none of them are perfect. Gravity’s technological thrills grow old towards the end and 12 Years A Slave, as incredible a film as that is, sometimes bites off a bit more than it can chew. But Blue Jasmine is a perfect movie, thoughtful, touching, and timeless. It was my favorite experience of the year.

And that’s that! I’m certainly no expert on film as I pretend to be in Hip Hop, so let me know what I got wrong or what films I missed!