Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: Part 1

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Make like Birdman and fly into the past to view the best albums of 2013 and 2012 after this!

Much has been made out of the weakness of this year. None of our flagship superstars dropped any albums. The dearly departed A$AP Yams claimed that this was the worst year in hip hop history. Even I acknowledged that this year was a difficult one and that the normal album format for major labels doesn’t encompass what happened in 2014. We’re now a good fifteen years into the new century and we’re beginning to notice some trends; one of them being that the capitalistic enterprise of music (and all art) is starting to eat itself. We’ve got Grammy nominees being released on soundcloud for free! But nevertheless there were still great albums released this year and it is an injustice to focus on the negative without rewarding the positive! So here we go, the Hungry Hippopotamus best albums of the year!

But before we start, a few words. There is only ten albums on this years list. That’s not to discredit what would be #15-#11, but with all the turmoil this year they just didn’t seem as important. The music I loved this year took me to another place, and mainly sonically. I needed production that I could fall into, and that’s a trend on this list. For most of my life I’ve been obsessed the lyrical side of music; I suppose I’m maturing. With apologies to D’Angelo, Cozz, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Taylor McFerrin, Lana Del Rey, and Open Mike Eagle, we will begin.

10: DJ Quik – The Midnight Life

The 2014 Tim Duncan award for continued excellence as a veteran in the game goes to L.A’s own David Blake. DJ Quik is a legend here in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre may be the golden child taking his G-Funk and making it global, but Quik has and always will be the cult hero, L.A.’s own secret. He’s been producing and rapping for almost a quarter century now and his whole discography is pretty much unimpeachable. Now on his tenth studio album he sounds more vital than ever. There’s no overarching theme to The Midnight Life. It’s a collection of great songs that can play in the BBQ during summer. But it indirectly turns into a critique of modern pop rap, as if he’s challenging DJ Mustard and company to step up and make some more interesting tunes. Quik remains an underrated rapper, witty and spiteful, and he’s in fine form playing the curmudgeon. He eulogizes the death of gangsta rap and R&B on “Pet Semetary” and points out his relevance in “Puffin’ The Dragon.” But Quik is more than just a rapper; he’s a composer, a DJ. The Midnight Life is a tour of brilliant production, great guest spots, and anachronistic sounds. The album starts off with a skit where someone asks Quik what hip hop needs and he responds with “a banjo,” ands sure enough the first song features the dopest banjo riff in hip hop history. Then there’s the dance funkgasm of “Back That Shit Up,” the train rumblings of “Trapped On The Track,” the James Blake impression on “Shine” and the beautiful instrumental “Bacon’s Groove” which features Rob “Fonksta” Bacon just noodling guitar out of his mind. Quik has this incredible ability to make unorthodox sounds seem timeless, as if they were always meant to be there. It’s clear this invigorates his guests as well. Old and new west coast artists meet on The Midnight Life. Frequent Quik collaborator Suga Free slices through “Broken Down” like a warm knife, and Mack 10 of famed L.A. group Westside Connection just bulldozes the Troutman-on-steroids of “The Conduct.” Former Dre protégé Bishop Lamont is rescued on “Trapped On The Tracks” and Dom Kennedy continues his life as an American hero on “Life Jacket” (He starts off his verse with “Tryin to burn something, buy a lot of books these days, tryin to learn something”). In a year where Los Angeles became rap’s top city again, The Midnight Life is a reminder that it always has and always will be.

9: Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

In the millennial hype circuit, it’s hard for anybody to debut with a good chance. The only hope is to come out of the ether with no expectations and blow everybody way. There isn’t a much higher pressure than being the first A&R signing of the premier talent label in the game. So when Isaiah Rashad dropped his first project on Top Dawg Entertainment, there seemed to be no way that he could live up to the impeccable standards of the label of Kendrick and Black Hippy. More than living up to those standards, looking back you can make a case for Cilvia Demo being the best thing TDE did all year. Coming from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Isaiah does for southern music what Black Hippy did for L.A. He bleeds his influences and idols into a lo-fi jazzy intimate portrait of his life, adding layers to the original music that inspired him. His heroes are held up as role models for his own life, his music a safety net to fall into. But these clichés are saved by his own nuanced perspectives on his relationships. His familial ties come straight from Arthur Miller, as the specter of his deadbeat dad casts a shadow over everything in his life, from his relationship with his own son to his own childhood depression. Songs like “Heavenly Father” and “Hereditary” are some of the more moving ballads we heard in hip hop this year. No that this was an entirely somber affair. He spazzes out on tracks like “Webbie Flow” and “Modest” and drops knowledge and pays homage on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Brad Jordan.” Isaiah carries the entire project himself, none of his fellow TDE stars join in until the last song. But what’s most chilling about the tape was Isaiah’s foresight, where on first single “Ronnie Drake” he raps into his sons eyes “I hope they don’t kill you cuz you black today, they only feel you when you pass away.” Cilvia Demo is the best debut in a year filled with them and Isaiah Rashad wins the 2014 Rookie Of The Year for being able to toss aside the pressures and make an archetypal coming of age album while keeping his personality and sound intact. Hopefully he can stay the course on TDE.

Read the original review here

8: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

 It takes guts to stare at something as deep as something as death and not come away sounding corny. But Flying Lotus is not afraid of big ideas. His previous albums have tackled the city he’s from, the inner workings of the mind, and nothing less than the universe itself. But You’re Dead! is the most impressive of these works because Flying Lotus doesn’t deal with abstraction here. This is death in all its horror; the pain of a lost loved one, the grotesquerie of the afterlife, the relief of passing. It takes a gentle touch to be able to balance all these emotions, especially instrumentally. You’re Dead! flies through at a breakneck speed, with the usual experimentalist quality of his past work underwritten by some of the strongest musicianship he’s ever had. Anchored by compatriot bassist Thundercat and the rest of his Brainfeeder crew, Flying Lotus got a dream team of collaborators to fill out his acid jazz dreams. Legends Herbie Hancock and Ennio Morricone drop by while Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg cement FlyLo’s status as the reigning west coast wizard. But this is still a singular work of art from the man himself. Even though he was dealing with live musicians, Flying Lotus said he treated them as samples, piecing their work into a larger tapestry. And it shows; the Kendrick assisted Dylan Thomas styled piece de resistance of “Never Catch Me” slots right in front Snoops macabre humor in “Dead Man Walking.” Everything is placed in just the right spot for the journey. The opening orchestration of “Theme,” the elegant guitar lick of “Turkey Dog Coma,” and the stunning crescendo of “Ascension” which transforms You’re Dead! into a cathartic release and if it doesn’t bring you to tears then you forgot how to listen to a whole album. To face something like death with such earnestness, without pretention, irony, or sarcasm, to handle loss and tragedy in such an open way, this is what art and hip hop is all about. Here’s hoping Flying Lotus can bring some of his mojo to the rest of the rap scene.

7: Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

 

Nicki Minaj may have had an all star year that solidified her status as the queen of rap, but she’s certainly not alone anymore. Azealia Banks swept the rug from under her when she dropped her debut album with no warning. Looking back it’s an absolute triumph, but there was a possibility that Broke With Expensive Taste was never going to see the light of day. After breaking through with the explosive “212” four years ago, Azealia spent the ensuing years sabotaging her career through petulant internet feuds, label disputes, and an overall bad attitude. But the talent was always there, as her mixtapes and EP’s proved, and after Interscope decided they didn’t want anything to do with Azealia, they still let her keep this album so she could release it on an independent label. It’s their loss. Broke With Expensive Taste is an essential album of the zeitgeist, an explosion of ideas that carry across multiple genres. The punk rock of “Yung Rapunxel,” the vogue pop of “Soda” and “Chasing Time,” the surf rock of “Nude Beach A Go Go,” the jazzy boom bap of “Desperado” or the Latin euphoria of “Gimme A Chance,” it’s a perfect textbook for hip hop’s globalization. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Azealia, who proves her talent with every bar. She switches between dense internal rhymes to diva soaked singing even better than her pop counterparts Nicki and Drake, and she’s great at both. Even the least essential of her songs here can be saved by her brash wit and slippery flow. A couplet off opener “Idle Delilah,” “He said the puss deeper than the deep blue sea, indeed the puss deeper than the three Fugees.” A love letter to the diversity of New York, it’s the best and most vibrant work the mecca of hip hop has put out all decade. With beats that travel the world but a verbal style rooted in the streets of Harlem, Broke With Expensive Taste is a brilliant, messy, kaleidoscope of sounds. Nicki may have wanted to lay out a blueprint for female rappers with her album The Pinkprint, but Azealia’s beat her to the punch. Brash, arrogant, introspective, and intimate, this is an album that proves there’s no barriers for not just female rappers but all of hip hop. And with her incisive comments on the state of the genre, hopefully she stays around for a while.

Read the original review here.

 

6: Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Oxymoron isn’t what we thought or wanted it to be. The sequencing is so terrible that a common consumer doesn’t know where the deluxe tracks begin or end. Lead singles “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” were made after the album to give it pop appeal and don’t mesh with the rest of the work. The major label mishandling has been symbolic of the tragic fall of TDE, the indie label that doesn’t seem to know how to handle the big time. But now we’re in an ironic situation that the most anticipated album of 2014 has transformed to the most underrated. Oxymoron is, at its heart, an uncompromising slice of L.A. gang life. Kendrick may be digestible for the masses, but Q’s work is Greek tragedy; watching the one’s who do the worst live the best, being forced into habits that slowly destroy you, or “living to die-oxymoron.” This is what gangsta rap’s been about for decades now and Q peels back his life for a first person demonstration. There’s no tidy cinematic structure but his personal story is all there, splattered over the record like a Jackson Pollack painting. “Hoover Street” flashes back to Q’s childhood, being shown his first gun and watching his uncle steal for drug money. “Los Awesome” is the manic gangsta party before drifting into the soft sounds of addiction that foreshadow “His & Her Fiend.” “Prescription/Oxymoron” is a vivid depiction of his cycle between drug dealing, abuse, and addiction. “Blind Threats” is his moment of doubt in the gardens of Gethsemane while “Break The Bank” is his moment of resolve, knowing he’s doing it for his daughter and his music. “Hell Of A Night” is the hedonistic party that never finds the relief he craves. This is usually the part where I say all of this is held together by Schoolboy Q, but Oxymoron is messy and abrasive. The same goes for the beats, a master selection of unorthodox sounds that still find a groove thanks to a who’s who of L.A. producers (TDE’s own Digi-Phonics crew, Alchemist, Tyler the Creator, DJ Dahi) and all-star draft picks that know how to make the bad sound good (Mike Will Made It, Pharrell, Clams Casino). And Quincy can still rap his ass off. He’s traded his youthful hunger for a weathered snarl and scope-like vision. He can easily mow down a sparse beat as he can build up a breathtaking story.Oxymoron is a slower, deeper, darker album than its predecessor Habits & Contradictions. To look at the tiny flaws is to miss the triumph of the whole. The fact that it was released at all should be celebrated as a miracle.

Read the original review here.

 

That’s it for part one! Yes I am aware that four of the five albums were from L.A., but that’s because it’s the best city in the world making the best music in the world. Check back soon for the top five albums of the year and see if we can travel around the country!

There Ain’t No Award For That: The 2014 All-Star Team

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 Kentucky Basketball

Steph Curry with the shot…

Welcome to the 2014 Hungry Hippopotamus end of year extravaganza! Because the only proper way to welcome the new year is to take stock of the 12 months that just passed, the next few articles on this site are going to rank the best hip hop of the year. Unfortunately this year was terrible, though not necessarily in the musical sense. Even without the usual superstars dropping hugely anticipated albums, new artists crept out the woodwork and filled the void and gave the country a fresh look at the new generation of rap. 2014 was marked by tragedy, personal and political, and the music that I found most helpful were the ones that either took me away or placed me right in the thick of it. Two years after Killer Mike made political rap cool again, America placed itself in a situation where hip hop couldn’t help but be political, whether it wanted to or not. Even the most hedonistic party tracks couldn’t help but carry the weight of countless black lives that were taken too soon.

The year has made these best of lists seem irrelevant. Who cares who made the best album or song when all of this is happening? I still made them (call it a compulsion) and they’ll be up soon. But more than recent years, 2014 seemed dominated by people who couldn’t be measured by the normal metrics of success. So I’m proud to present the Hungry Hippopotamus 2014 All Star Team. These five artists were huge this year without their accomplishments being easily measured by one album or one song. They were everywhere and somehow represented something more than just themselves. And they’re all dope.

Young Thug

 

2014 was the year rap got weird. Weirdos have always been cult heroes in hip hop and the internet only helped propel them further into public consciousness. But 2014 broke them wide open and nobody symbolized that like Thugga Thugga. An absolute enigma, Thug made all of hip hop his playground this year, becoming an inescapable presence on the radio while rewriting the rules of the genre. He doesn’t make sense. He defies gender norms, stylistic conventions, even verbal clarity. He is the most singular artist in rap today yet he works better in groups. Stuck in label drama for pretty much the entire year, Young Thug didn’t release an album. Instead we got two mixtapes: one with friend Bloody Jay, and one with burgeoning star Rich Homie Quan for Young Money head boss Birdman’s Rich Gang. We got a slew of unofficial mixtapes released by former label head Gucci Mane. And we got dozens and dozens of loosies, features, and leaks, each one a shimmering jewel. There’s no way to describe how Thug raps, you just have to experience it. It’s at once visceral and spiritual, immediate and ephemeral. He can unhinge himself and rap with such aggression and then in the very next line croon beautifully. He’s quite simply a prodigy. With no formal training and no interest in hip hop tradition or history, he has an innate sense of melody and songwriting. His hooks are heavenly, his rhymes are sharp, and his flows are not mere flows but rivers that course through the beat, which are all mesmerizing. It doesn’t matter what type of song it is, Thug simply transports it to another realm. He tore up Chicago drill, west coast slaps, Toronto mood music, and everything in between. He reached the rarified air that Wayne, Future, Drake, and 2 Chainz all reached at some point in the last few years: he was so good he gave away hits. Teaming up with producer London On Da Track, he gave smashes to T.I. (“About The Money”), Tyga (“Hookah”) and his boss Birdman (“Lifestyle,” which also turned into his breakout song). Beyond his incredible musical accomplishments this year, Thug symbolized the growing counter culture in hip hop and became the poster child for “this isn’t music” complaints by conservatives and white people. The top comment on YouTube for one of his biggest songs “if only the dumbfucks in this video got shot instead of Mike Brown.” Young Thug didn’t have to make political music; his entire existence is revolutionary.

Drake

Young Thug may be the MVP of 2014, but there is no denying who wears the crown. Successfully climbing onto the throne the year before, Drizzy spent this year securing his place and raising the bar. He put on a masterclass for how a superstar should act in the new millennium, dominating the conversation (and the competition) for the entire year with no album cycle. And it was all on his terms; songs given away for free on Soundcloud, artists discovered and signed on his OVO label, remixes tossed off to the masses. And no offense to Beyoncé but Drake was the one who could stop the world whenever he wanted to. What makes Drake so special isn’t just that he’s at the top of the game, it’s that he’s still getting better. The joke went that the OVO Soundcloud was one of the best albums of the year, but overlooked was that it’s some of the best work Drake has ever done. His verses were hit making. Lil Wayne had a #1 in “Believe Me” but it might as well have been Drake’s given his leadoff verse and chorus.  ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” was bubbling on the internet before Drake hopped on it, delivered a classic sing-rap song that stretched his own style, and made it a top 10 hit and Makonnen a star. Nicki Minaj’s “Only” could have been a tasteless grab but Drake dropped one of his most playful, limber verses in memory. That’s what struck me about Drizzy this year. My biggest complaint about Nothing Was The Same was the static nature of his rapping. But every song this year displayed a creativity and verbal agility that he’s never had before. Nowhere was this more evident than on his own solo work. He stunted on “We Made It (Remix),” celebrated on “Trophies,” brushed away enemies on “Draft Day” and wrecked the entire planet on the absolutely fire “0-100/The Catch Up.” The whole world is waiting for his fourth album Views From The 6 but I think Drake’s secret is that he’s at his best in between albums. It’s gonna be hard for any album to live up to this year.

Vince Staples

 The clear underdog of this team, Vince Staples had a quiet year in comparison to the rest of the artists on this squad. But the former Odd Future affiliate from Long Beach grew into his own in 2014, fulfilling his potential and becoming a leading figure in L.A.’s gangsta rap renaissance. Just like Young Thug and Drake, he didn’t release a project encapsulating his accomplishments this year. But the work he did should have the entire game buzzing about what’s in store now. Vince showed the promise of signing with Def Jam when he dropped his mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 at the beginning of the year. Produced mainly by No I.D., the tape was a move away from the stark simple beats he and peer Earl Sweatshirt cut their teeth on. It was a maturity in both sound and conscious and showed Vince grappling with personal issues like family, relationships, and the ever haunting spectre of gang violence in Los Angeles. His confidence and candid demeanor was influential to the people around him too. Paired with the young gangsta, OG rapper turned Gap model Common was able to release one of his best albums since the 90’s, featuring some standout verses from Vince himself. But that was table dressing for Vince’s Def Jam debut. Just an EP clocking in at 7 songs, Hell Can Wait was stuffed with political fire, social critique, and west coast gangsta aggression. Coming right after the Ferguson tragedy, songs like “Hands Up” represented a new political consciousness for the millennial generation. Nothing less than a 2014 remake of “Fuck Tha Police,” “Hands Up” was the most incisive flaying of police abuse we had this year. Surrounded with songs that captured the hardships of growing up within city war zones, Vince Staples proved that he wasn’t only one of the best young rappers around, he might be the most important. For linking the struggles of classic gangsta rappers with our socio-political situation now, and giving the modern gangsta renaissance a pointed backbone while his peers seemed to revel in the aesthetic qualities, Vince deserves a place on this squad.

DJ Mustard

Dijon MacFarlane might be the biggest thing to happen to Los Angeles since Dr. Dre started producing. I have written about DJ Mustard several times but it bears repeating just how much he dominated the game in 2014. If you lived in L.A., you probably heard “MUSTAHD ON DA BEAT HO” at least a couple hundred times. During the peak of summer, I would play a game where I turned on the radio and counted how many DJ Mustard produced songs would play in a row. It was never less than 3. This was the year that Mustard’s L.A. slap went national, infecting anybody in hearing range. He gave hits to local rappers in his Pushaz Ink crew and he gave them to voyeuristic aging stars looking for some relevancy. This decade has seen it’s share of superproducers controlling the sonic conversation. Lex Luger and Clams Casino had everyone imitating them. Mike Will Made It just won Spin’s artist of the year in 2013 by jumping from weirdo ATL rap to pop smashes with Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. But DJ Mustard didn’t just make hits; he controlled the whole fabric of the radio. Everyone needed a piece of him this year. Even some of the biggest songs of the year were copying him (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Chris Brown’s “Loyal”). Plus his sound was so specific to Los Angeles that it put the city on the head of the Hip Hop totem pole. Despite the simplicity of the sound, Mustard displayed a wide range. As well as tossing off hit after hit, he showed he could craft a cohesive vision with his team up with YG, My Krazy Life. As 2015 rolled around it was clear that people might be getting a little tired of the sound, but I don’t expect DJ Mustard to slow down. He’s better than people think.

Flying Lotus

If DJ Mustard was the nerve center for L.A.’s hip hop scene, then Flying Lotus was it’s spiritual guide. Contrary to my rules, Steven Ellison had an album that summed up his year. You’re Dead! was one of the most exciting, transcendent, and powerful works that dropped this year. Confronting death in an extremely personal way, at the same time the rest of the country was confronting national tragedy, You’re Dead! symbolized 2014 in a way no rapper could.. But there will be more on that later. Flying Lotus is on this list because of what You’re Dead! meant for his career. After spending years as being one of the most exciting experimental producers in L.A., combining jazz, electronica, and hip hop in a way only someone from here could, Flying Lotus cemented his status as one of the premier figures in L.A. hip hop. Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Herbie Hancock (!!) all show up on this record. Whereas before FlyLo was an outsider, now he’s a coveted artist, working with both the underground and the mainstream, bridging gaps and showing the fulfillment of the potential of L.A.’s beat scene from years ago. That doesn’t even mention his own label, Brainfeeder, which has dropped some of the best electronic music this year. Since right hand man Thundercat has become hip hop’s secret weapon, playing bass for rappers like Wiz Khalifa and Childish Gambino and becoming part of Kendrick’s coveted jam band, Brainfeeder has launched an all out assault on the outside world. Electronic artists Teebs, MatthewDavid, and Mono/Poly all dropped engaging records while hip hop acts Azizi Gibson and The Underachievers proved that they could get just as weird with rap. But the crown jewel of Flying Lotus’s kingdom might be Taylor McFerrin, who’s Early Riser was a beautiful meditation on jazz and hip hop and easily one of the most unappreciated albums of the year. Flying Lotus was a star already and You’re Dead! helped cement that. But he makes the list for rising in stature in the game and becoming a flagship label head and tastemaker for the strange wondrous sounds of Los Angeles.

And that’s the squad! Alternate spots go to Nicki Minaj and Killer Mike. They both had major works that cemented their years which kept them off the list, but the music they made and statements they made through their music changed public discourse and their own standing in the community. Check back here for more 2014 wrap up!