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!