Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #1 – Freddie Gibbs

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We’re finally here! Look back at the nine previous albums now!

In Sprite’s new hip hop focused ad campaign, our resident rap ruler Drake says something a bit disorienting: “Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore. There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” The age of the rap-singer is upon us. As rap has gotten intertwined with pop, it’s as if the only way to get noticed is to immerse yourself to radio or stand out completely. So far 2015 has been the year of the rapper who doesn’t want to rap; they want to be a rockstar, or a jazz icon, or a fashionista, or a conductor. The most popular rapper on the planet doesn’t even write his own raps! Maybe Drake’s right and rapping isn’t impressive anymore. That’s the only explanation for the unfair, lukewarm reception that has greeted Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterpiece Pinata. There’s nothing fancy, or even innovative, about this record. There’s just the best beats of the year from one of the greatest producers of all time and the best rhymes of the year from someone on the short list for best MC breathing. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

This isn’t an obvious match. Freddie Gibbs, an L.A. transplant from Gary, Indiana, a rap cyborg who was kicked off Interscope for not toning down his technically driven murder music, teaming up with the Beat Konducta himself, the patron saint of the L.A. underground. Pinata (originally the much better named “Cocaine Pinata”) is not a beautiful act of chemistry. This is rap as athletic activity, with Madlib lobbing out absurdly difficult beats for Gibbs to knock out of the park. But what could have been a genre exercise turned into a masterpiece and a career benchmark for both parties. Freddie Gibbs got a chance to flex over the best production he’s ever had, forcing him to be more creative with his songwriting. Madlib, after years of churning out instrumental projects, came out of the wilderness to find one of the best rappers he’s had a chance to collaborate with. They both provided what the other needed.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are both incredible at what they do. The sheer technical prowess is so evident on the record — the way Madlib cuts his samples into jagged soundscapes, and the way Gibbs finds a way to flow over them — that Pinata could be the best album of the year on that merit alone. What exceeds expectations is how they find greatness in simplicity. All the song titles are one word and yet perfectly named, summarizing the efficient style of the album. For all the (unwarranted) critiques that Freddie Gibbs can be boring because of the homogeneity of his lyrics, Pinata finds him as a master songwriter. He tells stories with the best of them, whether about lost love on “Deeper” or adolescent memories on “Knick.” There’s the gleeful hedonism on “High” and the paranoid noir of “Bomb.” He drops off the best diss track of the decade with “Real,” a scathing, explicit attack on former mentor and rap icon Young Jeezy. There’s the delirious, playful “Robes” immediately followed by the poignant, world wearied hush of “Broken.” Pinata is a study of contrasts, with Gibbs spanning a field of ideas and emotions without it ever feeling too disparate. He has Madlib to thank for that, who plays John Williams to his Steven Spielberg. Much respect to DJ Mustard, Flying Lotus, El-P and the rest of the great producers this year, but Madlib takes home the crown for best production front to back on an album this year. These are beats you can drown in, blunted jazz so luxurious that you’ll want to wear it.

Like most great art, what started out as a creative exercise has become so much more. Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, this album would have been deemed iconic, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received that attention. It sounds like it comes from another funkier age. There are a lot of talented guest rappers on the album, but the only ones that manage to hold their own with Gibbs are the two hall of fame hip hop legends, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan and Southern rap godfather Scarface, who sound as good as they ever have over Madlib’s sculpted loops.

Rap is changing at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up with it. Drake’s right. You can’t just rap anymore to break out from the crowd, but when you rap this well, over beats this great, perhaps anonymity is what you need. To hear a genre done well at such an elemental level, there isn’t a greater thrill as a music fan. Call me impressed.

Read the original review here

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG

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I swear this will be done before 2015 ends.

Catch up on the list here.

If you were to ask the world who ran the L.A. rap game, they would all say Kendrick Lamar. As the protege of Dr. Dre, the bearer of the torch passed down from Snoop and Game, the good kid from the mad city who remembered the lessons from MC Eiht, Kendrick deserves the key to the city. But K.Dot is too universal now, he’s hanging out with Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons and Ellen Degeneres. He doesn’t inspire the same hometown rapture that Chance The Rapper does for Chicago or Drake does for Toronto. Kendrick knows this because his sister told him: YG is the prince of the city. Take a drive down the 110 and it’s obvious that the Young Gangsta is L.A.’s favorite. After years of building up grassroots support, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, My Krazy Life, is a classic Angeleno album and the best major label effort since Kendrick’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.

 YG once said that “it’s easy to make a classic album” and judging from My Krazy Life he must have the secret. Rappers have been trying to figure out how to make great albums on major labels for the last fifteen years, yet YG makes it look so effortless that you have to wonder why everyone else has been failing. His debut hits all of the major label cliches but they’re not just boxes he’s checking off, they’re integral parts of a cohesive body of work. My Krazy Life has the strongest identity of any album in 2014. He’s done what no other rapper since Kendrick has been able to do; take a personal story with real stakes and transpose that over the canvas of a major label album. Guest stars show up in the perfect spots, sex jams are given context, and a narrative is built through the tape. Starting with the opening lines of YG’s mom warning him to not end up in jail like his dad, he takes us through a gangbanging odyssey, soundtracking the parties, petty crime, heartbreak, and the inevitable consequences.

My Krazy Life avoids cliche thanks to YG’s strong writing. He might be the most underrated MC in the game right now. He’s an incredibly descriptive rapper, charging his verses with an immediacy that doesn’t exist with his ratchet peers. “Meet The Flockers” puts the listener right in the middle of a home invasion. “I Just Wanna Party” and “Who Do You Love” toe the line of dangerous exuberance; party tracks with an undercurrent of menace. There are a lot of fantastic rappers on this record. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Schoolboy Q, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Jeezy; not a single one upstage YG. He not only holds his own, he is the star of each song.

YG isn’t the only star though. This record owes just as much to DJ Mustard, who provides the same consistency musically as YG does lyrically. Mustard was one of the all stars of 2014 as his sound shaped not only the music of L.A. but all of mainstream hip hop as well. With all of his hits on the radio, My Krazy Life was an opportunity to flex his muscle and show his sound is capable of holding up a classic. And the tape is loaded with gems. There’s the aggressiveness of “BPT,” the R&B throwback of “Do It To Ya,” and the eastern flavored euphoria of “Left, Right.” There are sonic easter eggs hidden throughout the album, making you think you’re listening to a classic West Coast album without actually making an inferior copy of one. That’s why My Krazy Life is so spectacular: it was able to update a classic formula that people had left for dead. If you grew up in California, it’s impossible not to like this album.

My Krazy Life, above all else, is a showcase of the best producer/MC partnership in the game. YG and DJ Mustard know each other. DJ Mustard provides the canvas to make a hit, and YG’s elastic flows find all the nuances in his beats to make them stand apart. Like the other partnerships on this list, they bring the best out in each other. There were rumors that they were in a fight and now YG’s new single isn’t produced by Mustard, and Mustard’s new mixtape doesn’t have YG on it. If they have to go their separate ways, they will both be fine. But at least for one album they were able to make a West Coast masterpiece.

Read the original review here.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: #3 – Run The Jewels

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Almost at the finish line. Check out the previous albums in these  three  posts.

“Run The Jewels is the answer to the question of what’s popping!” So states El-P, one half of the most charming and unlikely success stories of the decade. Two hall of fame solo artists, Dungeon Family B-lister Killer Mike and New York underground stalwart El-P, link together and create the best music of their careers, uniting young and old, north and south, and black and white in the process. I’ve told this story before because they’ve been on these lists before: their first team up, Killer Mike’s (El-P produced) R.A.P. Music was one of the best albums of 2012 and their original Run The Jewels landed on the 2013 list. But those last two albums seem like experiments compared to this. Whereas R.A.P. Music was an aesthetic partnership that marveled at the difference of sounds and styles being combined and the RTJ debut was a low stakes shit-talk record, Run The Jewels 2 finds the partnership fully complete. Their chemistry is organic, their personalities complement each other, and they’ve brought the fire that made them so special as solo artists and made some new and inspiring.

“I’M BOUT TO BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT” Killer Mike bellows on opening track “Jeopardy” and what follows is 11 songs of revolutionary wildfire, burning down corrupt police, capitalist pigs, misogynistic hypocrites, the military industrial complex, and whatever helpless fuck boys get in the way. Killer Mike says it best:

“Me and El-P got time to kill, got folks to kill on overkill. He hangin’ out the window, I hold the wheel, one black, one white, we shoot to kill
That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”

On their previous album, Killer Mike was the star of the show, contending for a spot on the All Rap team. He’s phenomenal here, tip toeing on the track like a ballerina, and then bludgeoning everything in his path. But this time El-P goes bar for bar with Mike, rapping better than I’ve ever heard him. He plays the sneer to Mike’s roar, tossing up such devastating insults that you have to pause the tape to fully internalize them (“You can all run backward through a field of dicks” or “I’d fall back if your casting calls are ending in semen”). His double time sneaks in and out of the beat, linking verses together and keeping pace with the gleeful mania of the record. Nothing is as fun as listening to the two of them tag team a song, trading bars back and forth.

What’s different about this record though is that it’s not just Mike and El. After signing to Mass Appeal, Run The Jewels expanded in scope and the guest artists up the ante. Zach De La Rocha (formerly of Rage Against The Machine) delivers an absolutely blistering verse on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” shouting out Miles Davis and Phillip K. Dick in the same breath and predicting mass factory closures. Beyonce collaborator BOOTS adds a drip of pathos on “Early.” But Gangsta Boo might just steal the show on “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” delivering a filthy, man-eating verse that flips the script on decades of rap sexual norms.

The production has grown as well. El-P’s work on the first RTJ stripped his dissonant industrial sound to the bare essentials, playing like a reworking of Rick Rubin’s rock rap. He’s built that sound into something new here, and there’s really nothing else right now that sounds like it. Listen to “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the way he incorporates Police Academy’s Michael Winslow vocal noises to create the schizophrenic atmosphere. Or the sledgehammer riffs on “Blockbuster Night Part 1” that could accompany a Mad Max chase scene. Or the chanting breakdowns in “All Due Respect.” Or the ghostly guitar that drifts in and out of “Crown.” El-Producto earns his moniker here, proving he can reinvent his sound fifteen years after his debut.

All of this would be enough to make Run The Jewel 2 a major album. What makes it so special, and so universal, is how it became the major hip hop response to the civil unrest in the country. Killer Mike became a pundit after this, appearing on CNN and Bill Maher, but his views are clear on the album. There’s the fury of the riots (“we killin them for freedom cuz they tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it, the lord’ll sort them”), the pain of injustice (“I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away right in front of my beautiful son”), and the guilt of survival (“Give me the fame and I promise to change, won’t be the same, won’t be the same type of man who puts cocaine in this lady’s hands”). No other rapper is delivering such nuanced commentary. El-P is right there with him, letting Mike speak his mind while stretching the issues into universal problems. Someone tell Macklemore that this is how you deal with social injustice without looking like some kind of white messiah. Run The Jewels takes the anti-fuckboy creed on their first album and utilizes it for something positive. It was the album America needed.

I saw Run The Jewels live a couple summers ago in San Francisco. It was a fantastic show. As fun as it was, the most powerful part was when Killer Mike dedicated a song to Oscar Grant, the kid who was murdered by BART police in Oakland. It was maybe the most powerful concert experience I’ve ever witnessed. A year later Run The Jewels had a concert in St. Louis right after officer Darren Wilson was acquitted for murdering Mike Brown. Once again Killer Mike took the stage and spoke for the grief and rage of the people. It was touching and it was moving and it was more grounded and emotional than anything else about it. It was a reminder of how important hip hop can be. And it’s proof that these two rappers earned every second of their latter day fortune.

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!