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That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”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.

Orange Is The New Rap: Breaking Through Hip Hop’s Glass Ceiling

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The age of difficult men is over. Four years into the new decade and it’s starting to gain an identity. With the rise of the internet comes the thousands of new voices breaking up any kind of monotonous worldview, and America is slowly (very slowly) seeing the unraveling of a phallic-centered pop culture. The signs are all over. After a decade of being forced to play by the rules of the patriarchy, women are breaking through and asserting their artistic force, whether it’s on TV with Shonda Rhimes “TGIT” and Jill Solloway’s Transparent, film though the incredible box office successes of “Gone Girl,” “Lucy,” and “Maleficent,” or pop music’s total domination via Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey. Hip hop, once (wrongly) criticized as being one of the most misogynistic streams of mainstream media, is leading the revolutionary charge. From all across the country, more women than ever are making great rap music, and helping push the genre further into the 21st century.

Who else would be leading the charge than the woman who helped start it all. Nicki Minaj is the biggest female rap star the genre’s ever seen and her success at the beginning of the decade broke the gates open for the flood of new artists we’re seeing now. Nicki’s always been talented, but her tendency to skew more pop hasn’t made her a central figure within hip hop’s universe. Earlier this year I wrote about her reputation as the rap game Charizard and voiced concern that her latest songs, while seeming to be the hardcore rap that everyone wanted, were actually diminishing the creativity that made her so fixating in the first place. Boy was I wrong. Nicki has been an MVP candidate all year, rolling out her new album The Pinkprint with an incredible string of promotional singles and guest verses showcasing her world class talent and revolutionary fervor. She’s displaying a virtuosity that very few rappers can match, destroying street rap, stadium pop, and sultry R&B in equal measure. But her coronation as the queen of rap came not through the standard industry gatekeepers but from the Queen herself. Landing on Beyonce’s remix to the feminist anthem of the century was not only an artistic high point but a political statement.

To really understand the delicate political and cultural alchemy Nicki is accomplishing this year is to look at her own solo work. Each of her singles for The Pinkprint has completely flipped typical rap narratives on their head. “Anaconda,” one of the most divisive and popular songs of the year, is the loudest of her statements. Her ode to her powerful booty caused a lot of controversy over the graphic sexual nature of the video, but look for more than ten seconds and the radical commentary is self-evident. Sampling the ultimate ode to big butts, Nicki flips the script and reclaims her own sexuality, in turn objectifying each of the poor saps she encounters in the song. In an era where black female bodies are seemingly used as props and jokes for Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Nicki plants a flag for her own identity in a time of rampant cultural appropriation. The music video separates her sexual flamboyancy from any kind of male gaze, taking place in an all female Amazon jungle. And if there was still any doubt of the political underpinnings here, she leaves the audience with some clues. Check out the smoothie scene, where after successfully making the banana a phallic representative, she cuts it up in maniacal rage. Or more importantly, at the very end, when she invites the biggest rap star on the planet to be her sexual object, giving Drake the bluest balls he’ll ever experience.

It might be strange for America to see a female pop star be so forthright about her sexuality (even though Madonna and Lady Gaga get labeled as eccentric), but for rap she fits right in. Hip hop is used to rappers calling themselves pretty, bragging about their sexual prowess, and talking about how fly they are. Even 2Pac knew that taking off his shirt was a good look. Nicki is just switching the dynamic and giving no quarter to anybody. And don’t forget how good “Anaconda” is. What’s remarkable is the level of detail packed into the song. The boys she’s taking advantage of, Troy and Michael, are given much more detail than any of the fictional love interests in, say, a J. Cole or Drake song. “Anaconda” dismisses her critics, hyper masculine hip hop stereotypes, and the peanut gallery in one fell swoop. Everyone complaining about the click-bait single art ended up reduced to the chorus: “Oh my god, look at her butt.”

Nicki Minaj has surrounded herself with a whirlwind of controversy. Every new song, magazine shoot, and quote is put under the microscope, seeing whether she’s living up to her unwanted role of feminist icon. Hopefully The Pinkprint will live up its name and Nicki is bearing the slings and arrows of a world who’s refusing to acknowledge her artistry, because there is a flood of great young female rappers who don’t have any time for clever political tactics. There are way too many to talk about in one article, but these are some of my favorites. Chicago has a huge flood of great rappers and a large percentage of them are female (with great names! Sasha Go Hard! Katie Got Bandz!). But the one with the most promise is Tink, who blends rap with R&B with great instinct and has the most potential to be a crossover success like Nicki. Her mixtape from earlier this year, Winter’s Diary 2, was an intimate affair, skewing more R&B and dealing with emotional breakups and gender relations. But her upcoming album should get you salivating, as she’s put in work with fellow Chicago sex savant Jeremih, Timbaland, DJ Dahi, and even rock group Sleigh Bells.

The biggest breakout star of this year might be Detroit rapper Dej Loaf. By adding a melodic sensibility to Chicago’s blunt drill music, “Try Me” was a genuine street hit. Her new tape Sell Sole is one of the best of the year, mixing her unique sound (shaped by producer DDS, who handles most of the project) with some fine lyricism. More than any other female rapper, Dej seems beholden to no artistic norms, gender or racial, and instead paves out a clear identity for herself. She threatens enemies and entices lovers with the same nondescript tone. Sell Sole oozes sensuality, which is a hard line to strike in a genre that’s fixated on promiscuity.

But the biggest challenger to Nicki’s crown is also the most unexpected. When Azealia Banks first arrived three years ago, she was hyped as the first artist in the new world that Nicki had opened up. But she’s spent the following years in label purgatory, burning bridges and self-sabotaging her career. But the Harlem ice princess has finally been given the rights to her debut and Broke With Expensive Taste is a schizophrenic tour de force, bending genre and breaking boundaries. Even if The Pinkprint can’t live up to the hype, there’s still been one groundbreaking female rap album that can be held up as a torchbearer.

All of these artists are pointing towards a future where women are no longer relegated to the margins of hip hop. They don’t have to fit in to the boxes of “hook singer” or “that one girl in the crew” or “hyper lyrical lesbian” or “horny sex kitten who has her lyrics ghost written by a famous rapper.” They can be simply themselves, just like any rapper can. But it’s a long road ahead. One needs only to look at the youtube comments to see how quickly these rappers are based on their looks rather than their talent, or how quickly they are dismissed because they don’t fit into pre-existing paradigms. I talked to a rap friend about Nicki and the first thing he said was “Man, I hate Nicki Minaj. Her ass isn’t even real!” as if that’s the first thing he judges in other rappers as well (spoiler: he doesn’t). Hip hop’s new decade has been marked by the widening of the inclusive circle. More people make and relate to music from all backgrounds than ever before. There’s no reason it should stop growing at the gender line. Girls deserve better than Iggy Azalea.

Now can someone please get Queen Latifah on a remix!

The Best Songs Of 2013

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The best (AKA my favorite) songs of the year.  I put the top 30 here and I still feel like I’m leaving too many out.  So apologies to Get Lucky, every Black Hippy song that didn’t make it, and Ugly But She Fine which should probably be number one on my list anyways.  Check here for the best albums.  On to the next one!

30: Pusha T ft. Kevin Gates – “Trust You”

Found on Pusha T’s promo mixtape Wrath Of Caine, this song was good enough to be pushed up to the album.  Pusha T finds time away from his drug dealing to spit some romantic lines but the star here is Gates, who steals the show thanks to his heart wrenching chorus.  Every time he says “just might trust you with my drugs, might trust you with my money,” I tear up.  Drug dealer love songs are a sorely underrated genre.

 

29: Schoolboy Q – “Man Of The Year”

In a way, 2013 got off easy because my most anticipated album of the year ended up getting pushed to February 2014.  Despite Kendrick’s absurd success, Q’s Oxymoron couldn’t find a release date all year.  Instead, we got a couple of songs he trickled out from the album.  Most people would put “Collard Greens,” Schoolboy Q’s big single with Kendrick, but I prefer this one.  It has Q doing what he did most of the year, tossing off cockeyed boasts and sneering adlibs, playing more with mood than content.  But when you spit lines like “every dog needs a cat to meow” over Nez & Rio’s airy beat, you get a perfectly LA breezy anthem.  Shake it for the m-m-man of the year.

28: Disclosure ft. Sam Smith – “Latch (DJ Premier Remix)

Disclosure, a British EDM duo, released a fantastic dance album this year in Settle.  It was tight, fast, and hot; every track triggered some kind of movement.  But when legendary producer DJ Premier got his hands on their single “Latch” it turned into something else entirely.  Stripped of it’s propulsive bassline, “Latch” becomes cool and sexy, anchored by a smooth piano riff and Sam Smith’s tremendous voice.  We’ve seen so many EDM producers come into hip hop and change up the game, it’s awesome to see an OG do the same to EDM.  This might be the most relevant thing the Boom Bap master has done in years.

27: Starlito & Don Trip – “Caesar & Brutus”

Gangsta rap as Shakespearean tragedy.  Lito and Trip play their roles perfectly as two friends and partners who are turned against each other because of a girl.  The execution is perfect as they switch off verses narrating their side of the story, both reaching the tragic conclusion that murder is the only way out.  With the story of the hustler becoming so played out, it is songs like this that keep the genre fresh.

26: Vic Mensa – “Hollywood LA”

What does California look like to someone who doesn’t live here?  Does it seem like a paradise?  For Vic Mensa, a 19 year old kid living in the brutal city of Chicago, Hollywood is the place of legend with streets of gold and good cannabis. “Hollywood LA” is a peon for artistic freedom, for independent success, for unrestrained love.  Vic was 16 with a mixtape, now he’s 19 with a mixtape, and he’s trying to be 21 with a million dollars, living in sunny LA. With the track co-produced with TDE’s TaeBeast, this is Vic’s best musical statement, combining his rappity rap flows with a sticky sing song hook that sound perfectly at home here in Southern California.

 

25: Lil Wayne ft. Chance The Rapper – “You Song”

It’s been really hard watching Lil Wayne fall apart these last few years.  So when the fifth installment of his legendary Dedication mixtape series was pushed back a week to make room for the most exciting young rapper working today, it was enough to make anyone excited.  This is essentially a Chance song, who delivers a great first verse and a beautiful conceit of a chorus (“This is not a love song, this is a you song…I just happen to love you), but what makes it great is Weezy rapping like he never forgot how, reminding all the young ADHD addled MC’s who pioneered the zany stream of consciousness style so prevalent today.  There are the usual dumb jokes, but when Wayne rhymes “she says I love you, I stutter I-I love you too,” it sounds like he actually is pushing himself again.  Here’s hoping there’s more moments like this happen for Lil Tunechi in 2014.

24: A$AP Ferg – “Hood Pope”

After A$AP Rocky, Fergenstein was supposed to be up next for New York’s A$AP Mob.  Trap Lord felt like a bit of a disappointment this year, as he exchanged his eccentric goofy singing rap for a hard nosed knuckle head rap.  But “Hood Pope” splits the difference, placing his knack for melody in the middle of the warzone that is Trap Lord.  This type of conscious rap didn’t need to be made, but when Fergie hits the notes of prayer, rap, and song so accurately, it’s hard to argue with it.  I’d much rather see him as a hood pope than a trap lord.

 

23: Thundercat – “Oh Shiet It’s X”

Bassist Thundercat, long a secret weapon for Flying Lotus on his L.A. label Brainfeeder, released a funk-jazz odyssey in Apocalypse this year.  The album is all exploratory (groovy) psychedelia, but “Oh Shiet It’s X” is a perfect slice of dance pop, combining funk, disco, and current pop all at the same time.  Pinned down by Thundercat’s swampy bassline and kept afloat with his startling falsetto, it’s impossible to not dance to this.  Imagine “Get Lucky” on Ecstasy and you’re almost there.

22: Danny Brown – “Smokin & Drinkin”

There’s no reason to choose this song from Old over any of the others, it just happens to be my favorite.  It’s a bullet train of adrenaline that captures the excess of smoking and drinking perfectly.  A-Trak’s beat might be the best on the album, perfectly paced and sequenced.  Danny sounds like a madman here, rapping for dear life, so you don’t notice when he says “gotta get away, get away, I think I need to pray.  Please Allah Allah I need your help again, took too many pills and I think I hear my heart beating.”  A great sample of what makes this album so special.

21: Tree – “Most Successful”

Considering how old the art of sampling is, it’s amazing when someone can use it to create something special that doesn’t revolve around a gimmick (hey look it’s a classic rock sample that’s hilarious).  Rapper/producer Tree is one of the few around that can do astounding things with samples and his mixtape Sunday School II was one of the best produced tapes around this year.  On this highlight, Tree delivers sermons on the expectations around him  from family and friends, and from the first line “I’m probably not the grandchild that my grandma raised, but I’m something like the son my momma had in mind” you’re hooked in.  And if you’re not rooting for him when he’s shouting out all his friends who made it out the projects using non-rap means, I’m not sure you have a heart.

20: 2 Chainz – “Mainstream Ratchet”

Gregorian monks are chanting in a monastery.  EDM wobbles blast through the air.  A bluesy siren wails over a phantom organ.  If you’re going to make a beat for Tauheed Epps, you better go hard or go home because he’s going to say things like “my crib so big a dinosaur could run through that shit” and that deserves Olympian workout music.  Please sit back and listen to 2 Chainz redefine what ratchet means, because if you’re not having sex with a supermodel with your J’s on then you’re probably not that ratchet.  Also things to note; shorties are on his dickaa, which spelled backwards is acid.  He’s the D-boy with a degree, so he’s on top like a toupee and unfortunately you’re on the side like a toothache.  Sorry about that.  Try wearing some chainz next time and then come back to us.

 

19: A$AP Rocky – “Phoenix”

Now this one just made sense on paper.  A$AP Rocky paired with DJ Dangermouse.  Most of Rocky’s major label bid LongLiveA$AP was marred by bad choices and lousy collaborations (see: Skrillex), but Dangermouse was spot on.  His indie soul hybrids are an early precursor to the type of cloud rap that A$AP Rocky cut his teeth on, and “Phoenix” has plenty of ambient space for Lord Flacko to float through.  The psuedo-philosophical lyrics can get a little awkward but the track seems to succeed because of the strange earnestness rather than in spite of it.  And Rocky never sounded smoother all year.  Hopefully on his next project Flacko will find more songs like this and less painful radio grabs.

 

18: Janelle Monae ft. Miguel – “Primetime”

The R&B duet is a tricky thing.  It’s hard for two divas to share the same space without making it sound like a competition.  Chemistry is a hard thing to manage in any genre, whether it’s R&B or rap.  But Miguel and Monae make a perfect team here.  Off of Janelle Monae’s epic The Electric Lady, “Primetime” features the two singers balancing each other out.  Janelle’s fantastic technique juxtaposed with Miguel’s sensual croon.  It gives Janelle an sultry edge that’s missing in a lot of her music.  Miguel is just the smoothest guy around right now; when he starts off with “bang bang, I’m calling your name” I practically swoon.  I can’t help it, the voice is just too good!  Credit goes to the video for keeping up with the sci fi theme of the album as well.

17: Isaiah Rashad ft. SZA – “Ronnie Drake”

Top Dawg Entertainment has been the strongest label by far over the new decade.  Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock have all put out incredible projects using the unique and refreshing strategy of quality control.  These guys don’t flood the market with mixtapes and singles; they wait until they have a perfect product and then release it to huge acclaim.  When TDE announced that they’ve signed a new rapper earlier this year, someone who’s not only not from L.A. but from Chattanooga, Tennessee, there was a lot of pressure from the get go.  Isaiah Rashad has a lot to live up to as the Top Dawg rookie, but it looks like he has what it takes.  “Ronnie Drake” proves both the brilliance of TDE and Rashad.  With Isaiah, the label found a new rapper who is on the same “I’m not a killer but don’t push me” steez that Kendrick has but with a completely different sonic style than any of the Black Hippy members.  The beat is a twinkling sepia-toned affair courtesy of The Antydote, fitting in with the Digi-Phonics signature sound but occupying a different space.  And Isaiah just raps his ass off here: “Hope they don’t kill you cause you black today, they only feel you when you pass away.  The eulogy be so moving, we live the scenes of those movies…”  He has this southern drawl that still finds time for a nuanced flow.  Aided by fellow TDE newbie SZA on the chorus, it looks like the label will be set for the future.  Can’t wait for his Cilvia Demo EP to drop.

16: Ace Hood ft. Future & Rick Ross – “Bugatti”

I was driving down to L.A. from the Bay Area and taking a nap in the passenger seat.  “Bugatti” came on the radio, entered my dream, and next thing I know I’m up screaming “I WOKE UP IN A NEW BUGATTI!!!!!!”  There wasn’t a greater anthem recorded all year.  This song belongs to Ace Hood technically, and he acquits himself adequately with his verses, but the power of this song belongs to Future and producer Mike Will Made It who stay making magic on hooks together.  The beat is an epitome of all the great things Mike Will Made It did this year, a dystopian squealing banger that follows the soft/loud dynamic that’s worked for everyone from Nirvana to Boston.  Future follows suit, crooning over the soft part (“I come looking for you with Haiiiiiiitiaaaaaanss”) before exploding with where he happened to wake up that morning.  Future was everywhere this year but I don’t think he ever topped this.  Even his ad-libs are perfect (TURNUP! SKRRRRRTTTT!).  New years resolution, get a bugatti bed.

15: Beyonce – “***Flawless”

Earlier this year, Beyonce dropped a loosie on her soundcloud called “Bow Down.”  Riding over a propulsive beat provided by mini superproducer Hit-Boy, Bey took a swaggering victory lap after her super bowl appearance. Reminding everyone that she was the queen, she commanded her subjects to bow before her and reminded all the beytheists that just because she took a breather in 2012 didn’t mean she was content to be happily married.  Then the track slowed down into a syrupy Houston chop and screw parade as she stunted on the whole universe and shouted out H-Town legend Willie D.  It was a sign of things to come before anyone even knew she was dropping an album.  The new confidence, the adventurous production, the experimental vocals, they’re all present here.  But many people, from hyper feminists to Rush Limbaugh, took umbrage at Beyonce’s “bow down bitches” line.  Rush thought she was telling her fans to bow down to their husbands (he wishes), and some of her fans took offense to Bey’s braggadocio.  As if all the sneering in the song was directed specifically at the hard working women who had to pay their way through school and raise families by themselves.  It was a little sad to see America react so virulently to a female pop star doing the exact same kind of swagger that male rap stars are lauded for.  It was even sadder to see feminism wrapped up into a dainty box that couldn’t even interact with hip hop.  So Beyonce responded in kind.  Reworking the song into “***Flawless,” the “Bow Down” part stayed the same before transitioning into a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about what feminism is.  It is a giant middle finger to everyone who doubted her and her motives.  Then she blasts the whole thing off with a swaggering, empowering second half, transferring the cockiness of Bow Down and sharing it with the rest of the world, which is one of the things that makes hip hop so special.  And its so dope that even guys want to be a part of it.

   

Beyonce does it again and her Queenship cannot be denied.  Sing it with me now: “I WOKE UP LIKE THISSS”

14: Kendrick Lamar ft. Jay-Z – “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)”

What a year for Kendrick Lamar.  I knew he was going to be big years ago but I didn’t know he was going to be this big.  World tours, magazine covers, grammy performances, Drake beefs; K.Dot is an honest to god superstar.  And he backed it all up with such an astounding string of guest verses that he could have taken every spot on this list.  But this is when he officially donned his crown as king of rap.  Before his tete-a-tete with Drake, before his BET cypher, before his lyrical attack on “Control,” there was this remix.  The moment where he got the greatest of all time to actually pick up the mic and try to rap like he was still hungry.  Kendrick knows this is his moment and seizes it.  “I’m looking to be the god MC, you see my hat and see thorns there.”  Jigga reminds us that his life is in the clouds, on a jet plane with Beyonce where his only trouble is making sure he doesn’t spill his drink.  The only time he touches down is to hang out in the White House and smoke weed with Hillary Clinton.  Then Kendrick comes around with the third verse to thoroughly wash Jay-Z and take aim at everybody who’s a pretender to the throne.  All hail King Kendrick.

13: Earl Sweatshirt ft. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies – “Hive”

When it comes to hip hop, rapping isn’t everything.  There can be a great rapper who never figures out how to become a great artist.  It’s a testament to Earl that he’s able to find a personality and atmosphere that pairs beautifully.  Which is to say that “Hive” isn’t just about that two verses that are probably the best Earl spit all year.  Note the beat, a menacing crawl that sounds like a natural growth of the underground stomp that Odd Future came up on.  Note the dead-eyed aim he takes at the city of angels, casually tossing off passive remarks about the Lakers and 2Pac in the same breath as the recession and pollution.  Note the sarcasm he starts off the song with, saying he’ll turn into a Black Power activist right after he becomes a millionaire doing this whole rap thing.  Please note the absurd imagery he hides within his rhyme schemes, rapping about rich nigga centipedes and becomes a bearded old seer on top of a mountain.  Take all of that into account, and then you can marvel at how he says things like “tentatively tend to turn” and “crack ceramic and slap a hand out of cash account” with no more effort than another rapper would say their adlibs.  The dude is hailed as a prodigy and he still might be underrated.  Maybe it’s because Vince Staples closes out the song with the most calmly threatening verse from a west coast rapper since Snoop came through Death Row.  Crazy to think these kids aren’t even legally allowed to drink yet.

  

12: Kanye West – “Bound 2”

Yeezus is one of the most grueling, exhausting, aggressive hip hop albums to come out in recent memory.  Anything after that onslaught of mechanical music is going to be a relief.  “Bound 2” is cathartic overload, an ode to his new life and a farewell to the old one.  It may be the last time Yeezy chops up a soul sample like that again.  But what’s more important is Kanye reminding everyone what a great rapper he can be when he’s really trying, with every bar filled with the snarling wit and emotional transparency he’s become known for.  The song acts as a romantic resolution with Kanye finally wanting to settle down after being so angry for the rest of the album.  It’s a love song, filled with both puppy love fights (“I’ll turn this plane around if yo ass keep complaining, how you gonna be mad on vacation?  Dutty whining round all these Jamaicaaaaaaaaaans”) and wide eyed promises (“But hey, ay, we made it to Thanksgiving, so hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas”).  This song is the beating heart underneath the mask of Yeezus, which makes it all the more important that it exists.

11: Drake ft. Sampha – “Too Much”

“Started From The Bottom” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” would probably be better Drake songs to put here.  They show his growth as an artist and they’re pretty much flawless singles.  But if there was any song that showed how far Drizzy has come in the last couple of years it’s “Too Much.”  “Done saying I’m done playing, last time was on the outro” he begins, giving you a point of reference before delving deep into his past.  What made Drake a superstar, beyond just his pop instincts, was his relatability, his ability to transfer his superstar life to the listener and still focus on his struggles.  Nothing Was The Same was unappealing because it took away that side of him and instead focused on boring dickswinging gestures.  But this song is one of the few on the album that took his new found aggressive rapping and put it in context of his personal matters.  He’s worried about his first concert, about if he’ll ever make it as an artist.  He’s scared that his family has grown too old and stopped really living and that his success isn’t enough to change that.  If Yeezus is the sound of lashing out, then “Too Much” is what happens when it ties up in knots inside you.  It’s not a throat shattering scream, it’s sweat falling from your forehead.  And Drake delivers it with such straightforwardness it’s still startling, even though it’s what he’s known for.  It’s fun to see Drake stomp around with boisterous tracks like “Started From The Bottom,” and lord knows I love that song, but they don’t mean as much without gems like these.  Here’s hoping he never loses them.

10: Ty Dolla $ign ft. Joe Moses – “Paranoid”

DJ Mustard might be the most important producer to come out of LA since Dr. Dre.  The west coast hasn’t been unified by a signature sound since the height of the Death Row days, and even though there’s been a flourish of talent coming out of the “New West” (See: TDE, Odd Future, etc etc), DJ Mustard is the first person to give the region a sonic identity.  Mustard’s style is so simplistic, minimalist piano keys and snare claps, that I keep wondering when it will get old.  Luckily for us it never happened in 2013 and I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.  DJ Mustard beats are great canvases for party rappers, but he has a special chemistry with singers and his crowning achievement was “Paranoid.”  It isn’t necessarily his best beat (although it’s up there), but Ty Dolla $ign is magic with Mustard, and he plays the ratchet Frank Sinatra part to perfection, whispering crude sweet nothings in your ear.  The themes present are timeless.  Ty$ sees two of his girls at the club and he thinks they know about each other.  It’s his own fault, he got lazy.  He got them the same panties and the same perfume.  The listener never really knows whether Ty$ is in trouble or if he’s just being paranoid.  Part of the mystique, I suppose.  Joe Moses, who I really wanted to hear more from this year, comes through with a phenomenal verse.  More than anyone else, he sounds perfect over DJ Mustards ringtone rejuvenations, and when he says “when I pull out the penis, she like ‘woah!'” it’s probably the greatest line of the year.  Radio versions of the song replaced Moses with B.o.B. in what was the worst decision of the year, so enjoy the ratchet beauty of the original.

9: Earl Sweatshirt ft. Frank Ocean – “Sunday”

What good is West Coast weather when you’re bipolar?  On the surface it doesn’t make any sense for a grown artist like Frank Ocean to be aligned with the young hooligans of Odd Future.  But Frank’s appeal, in his addition to his master songwriting skills and his absurdly angelic voice, is his clear-eyed poetic vision; his remarkable ability to layer his feelings or tear them down with one brilliant aside.  Odd Future also deals with layers, using their juvenile appearance to come to terms with betrayal and insecurities.  They’re kindred spirits in Los Angeles, unsure of their place in the diverse archipelago, wary of everyone with a fake smile.  When Frank and Earl first collaborated on “Super Rich Kids” off Frank’s magnificent Channel Orange, they focused their smirks at the sunny emptiness of people that look like they have everything.  Now on “Sunday” they turn and look at themselves and it’s just devastating.  Earl shows how grown up he’s become by speaking honestly with his girl, apologizing for his weed induced dismissive attitude while explaining he’s still not doing that badly and sometimes he can’t handle her own apathy.  It’s a stunning display of emotional sophistication but Frank Ocean steals the show here.  It’s not fair that he raps as well as he sings, but here he is killing his verse with the same plaintive conversational tone that marks his singing.  It’s the more mature version of Earl’s tragic love story. “To live and die in L.A.  I got my Fleetwood Mac, I could get high every day but I’d be sleepy, OCD, and paranoid.  So give me Bali Beach, no molly please, Palm, no marijuana, trees,” he raps before delving into his violent altercations due to his sexual orientation which may or may not include a sneak diss to Chris Brown.  What good is West Coast weather if you’re bi-polar? Over the slightly stained piano chords, both rappers try to figure that out.  It’s an underlying message for all of Earl’s Doris and much of the motivation for great Californian art.  How can paradise be so unhappy?  No wonder Cali weed is the best; sometimes you need the smoke to help block the sun.

8: Childish Gambino – “Pound Cake Freestyle”

It’s something about the beat.  The vocal sample drifting in and out, the “C.R.E.A.M.” scratches; it just feels regal.  No wonder Drake used it as his own coronation moment with Jay-Z.  And ever since Hov dropped the best bars about cake ever, everyone with a discography has taken a crack at this beat.  It seems best suited to older rappers who can muster up enough importance like The Lox and Raekwon.  But when Donald Glover hit up the radio show Sway In The Morning, he ended up dropping the best freestyle of the year, “Pound Cake” or not.  There are a bunch of jaw dropping moments here, but first off is that he actually seems to be freestyling. Nowadays a radio freestyle means recycling an old verse, released or unreleased, over a popular beat.  But Childish actually seems to be rapping off the top of his head here, breaking out into spoken asides, referencing specific moments in the original song, and building off his old lines like he’s figuring it out in real time.  But an actual freestyle isn’t enough to land this high on this list, so it helps that he’s dropping some bars here like “So nerdy but the flow wordy, brain-freezin with the flow slurpee, ice cold but you know I burn cash like I had herpes, not true but I’m that dirty.”  But it gets great after the little interlude where he starts rapping about things that just don’t get rapped about!  “Wrote some shit on Instagram I’m just being honest, tried to give your boy pills like he’s being violent.  Tried to give your boy pills just to keep him silent.  Keep telling people the truth you could be iconic.”  Childish Gambino’s whole career as a rapper has been reaching for the type of generation touchstone status that Kanye and Drake have, and here he may just have found it.  I’ve never heard a rapper say such honest things about prescription drugs, depression, and life in general.  And when he’s dropping cold lines like “But we don’t take pictures, when you’re rich you just see it again,” there’s not much else to say.  Beyond all of the great rapping in this freestyle though is the way he delivers it, using a demoralized flow as if to say “I’m not trying to impress you anymore.”  This was one of the moments of the year that totally knocked me backwards.

7: Shlohmo ft. Jeremih – “Bo Peep (Do U Right)”

One of the beautiful things about the internet is that connections can happen instantaneously.  The collaborations that happen today would be impossible just five or ten years ago.  In 2010, would you have expected Shlohmo and Jeremih to make great music together?  Shlohmo, one of the most intrepid producers in the burgeoning experimental Los Angeles beat scene, and Jeremih, a pretty generic R&B singer who had scored some hits with “Birthday Sex” and “Down On Me.”  But in the last couple of years, their spheres of influence drifted closer together.  Shlohmo started applying his syrupy zoned out atmosphere to hip hop remixes and Jeremih released a wonderful mixtape in 2012 that was clearly influenced by the new R&B stylings of Frank Ocean and Miguel.  When Shlohmo remixed a highlight from the tape, it was clear they had natural chemistry. “Bo Peep” is their first song working together and it’s just a monster.  There wasn’t a sexier thing released all year.  The beat is bump and grind slowed down to a crawl, leaving vacuous space for Jeremih’s falsetto to layer upon.  The key to the song is how Shlohmo is able to use Jeremih’s voice as another mood piece in his soundscape, trapping it between bass thumps or floating it above skittering hi-hats.  This is baby making music, pure and simple.  Now for these two to make a whole album together.

6: Kevin Gates – 4:30 A.M.

To be great at storytelling revolves more than just getting across the narrative through rhyme.  The story has to have some emotional impact, whether it’s tragic or comic.  The beauty is in the details, what the character smells, hears, and feels.  What’s remarkable about “4:30 AM” isn’t any kind of straightforward plot but rather how it overflows with nonlinear memories.  Stories spin off into older stories, memories get sidetracked by anecdotes.  And the pictures he paints are so vivid that the listener is right behind the camera with him.  He yells at someone for not having his back: “where were you when I was slumped over? Gums hurting from an old bullet, in front of the toilet hunched over, puking all of my insides, stab wounds from my old friend.”  Then he pulls you further down the rabbit hole : “well at the time we were close friends.  They said I killed him in cold blood.  We wrestled for the gun but the gun went off, he up’d the pistol, looked him dead in his eyes, I’ve been ready to die so nigga do it, Gates man I’ll really do it.”  Try not to get a shiver down your spine when you hear him literally accept death.  This is four dimensional gangsta rap.  There’s no effort here to explain the life of a drug dealer, merely a ride through the caverns of his memory.  It’s as dark and unforgiving as the block at 5 in the morning.  There’s only a handful of rappers that could craft a song so brutal and affecting.  Combine that with a superb exposition, as Gates slides as easily into a sing song flow as he does a teeth bared yell.  This is rap as Kurt Vonnegut, unstuck in time in order to escape the horror.

5: A$AP Rocky ft. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, & Big K.R.I.T. – “1 Train”

Not really hard to explain this one.  Rocky lined up six of the hottest internet rappers (well…maybe not Yelawolf) and put them on an old school ’90’s style cypher.  Maybe they didn’t want to get upstaged, or maybe Rocky is able to coax the best out of everyone, but every rapper here brings their A game.  With Hit-Boy’s retro cinematic strings draped over the proceedings, each young rapper just demolishes their verse.  Rocky makes like Chef Boyardee selling D in the courtyard.  K. Dot blazes everyone like DOO DOO and eats them up like MMM MMM.  Joey met with Jay-Z and is thinking about signing to the Roc but his homies on the block are still assigned to the rock.  Yelawolf is the coldest rapper since 2Pac was froze and thawed out for a spot at the Coachella show.  Danny reminds everyone that your girls vagina smells like a penguin and that his dick is so big it can stretch from Earth to Venus.  Bam Bam’s girl gallops on the beach in the morning like a Chilean horse.  Big K.R.I.T mocks other rappers who’d rather watch the world end than release another album and then hangs out with BB King.  It’s like Marley Marl said: “I don’t care who’s first or who’s last, but I know that y’all better rock this at the drop of a dime baby.”  It’s reassuring that there will always be constants in rap, and one of them is the undeniability of the posse cut.  Here are my power rankings for the song from best to worst.

Danny>Kendrick>K.R.I.T.>Joey>A$AP>Bronson>Yelawolf

4: Curren$y ft. Wiz Khalifa & Rick Ross – “Choosin” 

How did this song not become a hit?  For a rapper who’s Achilles heel has long been his inability to find catchy hooks and radio play, Curren$y finally crafted a perfect radio single.  Lex Luger’s beat is the perfect balance of playful and epic, opening with triumphant horns that segue into a keyboard line that doesn’t live your head once it enters.  The chorus is simple and timeless, boisterous and suave, dumb enough to chant out loud and smart enough to put on a T-shirt.  “Pull up in that SKRRRT and the bitches start choosin, pull off in that ERRRRRR and them haters gonna lose itttttttt.”  Be careful of listening to this in the car as you will involuntarily swerve your vehicle when you hear this.  The guests are big major label rappers who manage to deliver verses on point without detracting from Spitta or the main concept of the song because they all gel so well.  Curren$y is so cool that even in his everyday ride he’s still stunting, and then drives the point home by crossing the language barrier with a chick from Belize using the universal language of Ferrari.  Wiz, who drops his best verse maybe ever, pulls up pushing buttons blowing OG like it’s nothing.  Ricky Rozay, in true classical extravagance, thinks he’s going straight to heaven so his crib is built like a church.  It’s an absolute travesty that this wasn’t even pushed as a radio single (there wasn’t even a music video!).  Someone needs to hire me as their manager.  Rap game Tommy Lasorda.

3: Black Hippy – “BET Cypher”/”U.O.E.N.O. (Black Hippy Freestyle)”

With all the focus on their solo careers, it’s safe to say there won’t be a Black Hippy album.  All the rappers have said as much.  Maybe in a few years when they’ve all become established.  So I didn’t choose between these two songs, the only instances this year when the TDE crew came together and rapped as a group again.  Neither of them are real songs.  Both are cyphers, with each rapper spitting a verse over a famous beat (the legendary “Shook Ones” beat for the BET Cypher and Childish Major’s candidate for beat of the year with “U.O.E.N.O”).  It doesn’t have the chemistry that older tracks like “Zip That Chop That” and “Say Wassup” have.  But when you have four rappers that are so in tune with each other, who sound like they should rap together, who are that mind bogglingly good, it just sounds devastating when they’re all put together.  Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar.  They’ve always been more than just a crew.  Even though they’ll pursue solo careers, their work complements one another.  Their voices, their identities even, give the others context. “U.O.E.N.O” was a warning shot, the remix of a hot song in the summer to remind everyone how good they were as they were touring the globe.  Kendrick brags how he fucked up the rap game, Q flips Rick Ross’s rape controversy on it’s head, Solo took the game by storm just so he could x men out (get it?), and Jay Rock sold frosted flakes like Kelloggs.  But the BET awards was the sermon on the mount, the announcement of greatness.  With Kendrick in the middle of a feud with the hottest rapper around, Schoolboy’s album in the middle of promotion, with the label signing new members, all of TDE came on national television to rip apart the hardest beat in hip hop history.  If they were just messing around on “U.O.E.N.O.” they were out for blood here.  With help from newbie Isaiah Rashad, all Black Hippies aim for the very top of the hip hop dynasty and secure their place there.  Rock shouts “can I live” while Soul isn’t even out of breath in his race with Jay-Z.  And even though they are all brilliant, this is definitively Kendrick’s moment.  He neatly ties a bow around the lyricism narrative he started with his “Control” verse, throwing shots at Drake, sticking his middle finger up at everyone else, and rapping better than anyone on the planet.  But I can’t do it justice, just listen to it yourself and watch the faces of the rest of the crew as they react to hearing it for the first time.  That’s more praise than I could give him.

 

2: Chance The Rapper – “Acid Rain”

“Kicked off my shoes, tripped acid in the rain.  Used my jacket as a cape and my umbrella as a cane.”  It’s a pretty juvenile thought, doing drugs until you feel like a superhero.  Remember when you were young and you thought you could do anything?  Not just dancing in the rain and playing pretend, but being in high school and thinking the whole world was yours for the taking.  And then slowly life settles in and the possibilities start melting away, loved ones are lost and life seems a bit too normal.  Start taking all this medicine hoping we don’t get sick. “Acid Rain” is remembrance and rebirth, a lyrical baptism.  It’s a yearning for the past coupled with the bitter knowledge that that innocence is lost forever.  Over Jake One’s beautiful backdrop, Chance makes his story universal through his specificity.  He pines for the days when he ate diagonal grilled cheese sandwiches and when Michael Jackson was still a hero.  He misses performing at open mic events, when he was just a kids trying this whole thing out.  But he can’t go back.  When he returns to his high school he sees his best friend gunned down in front of him. “My big homie die young, I just turned older than him.  I seen it happen, I see it happen, I see it always.  He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways.  I trip to make the fall shorter.”  Drug use makes a lot more sense.  Chance writes in pure poetry reminiscent of Dylan or Springsteen. “Cigarette stained smile all covered in sin” could easily be found in any of their classic songs.  Rain doesn’t happen in L.A., but for Chicago it’s a godsend.  It’s a blanket over all the violence.  Chance spews frustration at how America processes the tragedy (“funerals for little girls?  Is that appealing to you, from a cubicle desktop what a beautiful view”) and at himself for being able to make it out (“could’ve threw him an alley-oop, helped him do good in school”).  Going through that while trying to figure yourself out, sometimes it’s too hard.  It’s easier to let the world slip away. “I am a new man” he sings at the end, “I am sanctified.  I am holy, I have been baptized. I have been born again, I am the white light.”  Then he slowly ends with a plea. “Rain…rain, don’t go away.”  Man that acid burns when it clean you.

1: Pusha T ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Nosetalgia”

Nobody has much time for rappers trying to keep it real.  Too often it’s a cover up; an excuse for empty posturing, for crotchety complaining, and boring muffled beats.  So putting Pusha T and Kendrick isn’t because they’re claiming to bring real rap is back, that two major label rappers can release the best song of the year and have it be nothing but bar after bar.  It’s here because they actually do it.  True to Pusha T’s form, “Nosetalgia” is ostensibly about crack cocaine, how Push sold it and how K. Dot watched his family fall apart from it.  It’s a no brainer on paper, but what elevates this song to pantheon levels is how both rappers transcend the subject matter with the master of their craft.  Kendrick put out a litany of astounding guest verses this year and this might be his best one.  He’s unparalleled when it comes to combining form and content.  He paints vivid pictures of his mothers Christmas party and how crack is made and sold and at the same time plays the type of word games lesser emcees would devote a whole song too. “When I was TEN, back when 9 ounces had got you TEN, and 9 times out of TEN niggas don’t pay atTENtion and when there’s TENsion in the air, 9’s come with exTENsions.”  Phew.  But what puts this song over the edge is that it’s the only time that Kendrick didn’t completely wash the other MC.  In fact, Pusha T might have actually bested him.  Push drops his best verse since his days in Clipse, ignoring Kendrick’s wordplay in exchange for extended metaphors.  This is a different type of mastery. “20 plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson, I started off as a baby faced monster, no wonder there’s diaper rash on my conscious, my teething ring was numb by the nonsense.”  Even putting aside the upsetting comparison of his youth and coke, he fills out every space of that metaphor, carrying the idea to its utmost potential.  And that’s just the first lines.  He goes on to rhyme Dr. Zhivago with Ivan Drago (complete with the “if he dies he dies” quote) and snarls “we don’t drink away the pain, when a nigga dies we add a link to the chain and scribe a nigga’s name on your flesh” in what are the hardest bars of the year.  Combine that with Nottz’ beat, which uses Stax guitar stabs like Zeus uses lightning bolts, and you have yourself the best song of the year.

Crack and drug dealing have become embedded into hip hop’s DNA.  It’s not even just reporting anymore; the metaphor of rapper as hustler, rap as product, is emblematic of the genre’s nature.  The addictive qualities of the music and the success that comes with it.  The double sided coin of making it big.  Pusha T and Kendrick have both spent their careers dealing with this quality and it’s incredible to see them come together to add another chamber into the already overwhelming mystique.  Pusha T says “nigga this is timeless, simply cuz it’s honest.  Pure as the fumes that be fucking up my sinus” and Kendrick reminds his dad “every verse is a brick, your son’s dope nigga…now reap what you sow nigga.”  Rap as the hustle.  “Nosetalgia” is a great example of how hip hop created a framework for this kind of conversation about the effects of crack and overall drug use in America, that simply wasn’t happening at any other level.  And it bangs, so there’s that too.

And that’s the list.  I’m patting myself on the back for only allowing Kendrick on three of the spots here because he easily could have taken like 50.  Stay tuned for next year, and let me know what I missed out on in the comments!

Best Albums Of 2013: Part 2

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Hold on…almost there….

The #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year!  Check here to see albums 15-8.  On to the next one!

7: 2 Chainz – B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time

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2 Chainz is a beautiful black unicorn.  He’s the Salvador Dali of rap, melting time and painting surreal universes with every pun.  2 Chainz is one of the few rappers breathing who can make any track he appears on interesting. Yet somehow without a major hit, his second album B.O.A.T.S. II flew under the radar.  Whereas his solo debut Based On A T.R.U. Story was an uneven album lifted up to commercial success by his guest stars and some great singles, B.O.A.T.S. II forgoes the pomp and circumstance and stays true to its title: Me Time.  2 Chainz retreated into himself and allowed himself to create an album as weird as he is.  The production is grandiose and goofy at the same time, just like Tity 2 Necklace himself.  Pharrell creates silky lounge rap on “Feds Watching,” Mike Will Made It careens off the pop wagon with “Fork,” Diplo stutters vocals onto “Netflix” and Mannie Fresh brings back strip club slaps to “Used 2.”  “Mainstream Ratchet” sounds as if Mozart combined talents with Timbaland.  You won’t find better beats on any major label album this year.  2 Chainz remains as charismatic as ever, holding down the ostentatious beats with sex jokes and professional craftsmanship.  He may be goofy but he’s no buffoon; notice how he uses assonance to make his jokes stick and how he volleys from one bar to another through a play on words.  He’s a master at delivery as well, choosing to wither his words away on “Live and Learn” or yelp out hashtag phrases on “Where U Been.”  And the album isn’t just jokes.  There is dread lurking under the surface as if all the luxury he brags about could fall away at any moment.  “Fork” opens the album with a nightmare of waking up back in the trap, “Feds Watching” drips with paranoia, “U Da Realest” eulogizes for the dead.  2 Chainz even gets personal on “So We Can Live” with stories of crooked cops and junkie uncles.  B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time shows that 2 Chainz is much more than just a novelty act and one of the best major label rappers the game has.  Plus it came with the greatest cookbook of the 21st century, #mealtime, which deserves its own article as well.

6: Ka – The Night’s Gambit

Is this the underdog story of the year? A softspoken fireman from Brooklyn writes and produces the entirety of his album, sells the record himself, directs all the videos for the project, and it’s the best New York hip hop album of the year.  Like fellow New Yorkers Roc Marciano and Action Bronson, Ka’s boom bap style harkens back to the big apples golden age.  But he lacks Bam Bam’s charisma or Roc’s wit and as those two took off last year with marquee projects, Ka’s Grief Pedigree seemed leagues behind.  But The Night’s Gambit sees him taking a major leap with his style and putting out a better album than his contemporaries.  Bear with me for a meaningless analogy: If these new New York rappers fit as the new Wu-Tang, and Action Bronson is like a modern day Ghostface Killah and Roc Marciano is the new Raekwon, then Ka would easily be the new GZA.  This one actually makes the most sense.   Both rappers give their rhymes eloquence through their simplicity and have deliveries that manage to be menacing and mystical at the same time.  They both love the metaphor of chess for life (The Night’s Gambit is interspersed with skits about chess strategy) and they both love playing true MC rhyming games (see GZA’s “Labels” or this albums “Off The Record”).  But the real growth on this album is Ka as a producer.  He pushes the classic boom bap sound so far from its comfort zone that it can barely be described as a rap beat.  He takes one sound or one loop and pushes it as far as it can go, creating a sparse environment more terrifying than anything on Yeezus.  The swirling guitar on “Jungle” make one of the best beats of the year.  The Roc Marciano featuring “Soap Box” takes one (I’m not sure) organ riff and loops it back and forwards so it’s constantly bubbling up without spilling over.  “Peace Ahki” might be the centerpiece of the tape with an absolutely haunting score; light drums treading in the background, a low piano note hit every so often, a clock ticks off as Ka chants his most ruthless bars.  “My heart is never the question, I write hard phonetic aggression.  My art is parked in the medicine section; stay sharp, each word carved, it’s lettered perfection.”  The Night’s Gambit is an insular record, a meditation about survival by someone who has nothing to lose and nothing to gain.  It’s music by a man who made it simply because he wanted to create it.  If you don’t dig him you’re just scratching the surface.

  

5: Kevin Gates – Stranger Than Fiction

This spot could have been taken by The Luca Brasi Story, the mixtape that launched Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates onto the national radar.  In many places it has, and deservedly so.  The Luca Brasi Story is a tremendous tape, overflowing with Gate’s talent, cascading with emotion.  It was enough to immediately warrant him as a rapper worth following.  But Stranger Than Fiction, his retail release buoyed by the success of his mixtape, is a stronger record.  Partly because it’s more focused and concise, but mainly because it finds Gates experimenting with his style and succeeding on every level.  He already proved that he was a talented gangsta rapper who was willing to engage in the emotional impact that lifestyle has, already providing an interesting perspective on the sad robot trend of Future and company.  But Stranger Than Fiction has Gates crafting expert hooks, showing a vocal range better than ANY rapper working today, and proving that he belongs in the elite class of storytellers.  No other rapper is crafting such poignant stories right now.  Just on album opener “4 Legs And A Biscuit,” he runs off a series of details so vivid he could give each of them their own song.  “Bullet hole in my lip as I’m inching back to the car, bitch I’m with pitching a fit yelling ‘Kevin, get back in the car!’  No hospital visits I’m on the run trying to get it.”  And that’s just in the first eight lines.  On “Tiger” he describes the betrayal of one of his best friends and before the betrayal of all his musical accomplices.  But focusing on his narrative prowess almost misses the point of how great all these songs sound.  He’s a master at creating mood through his voice.  Check out his hopeless croak on “MYB,” his country accent on “Careful” (done in the persona of Redneck Rick), and his pained scream on “Smiling Faces.”  And he still finds time to create club smashes with Juicy J on “Thinking With My Dick” and radio singles with “Strokin” and the remix to his regional hit “Satellites.”  Stranger Than Fiction is a concise tape loaded with quality from the very first second to the closing hiss and there’s still the sense Kevin Gates was just fooling around with this one.  Easy runner up for Rookie Of The Year.

 

4: Earl Sweatshirt – Doris

Expectations are hard to manage nowadays.  News is instantaneous and the public is demanding.  If there is a young talent somewhere, he’ll be discovered and put on a pedestal.  So when Odd Future, the last rap group probably ever that will command such mystery, was harboring a 16 year old rap phenom who was instantly marketed as a prodigy and then sent away to Samoa right when the group became stars, the hype flooded the shores of the internet. Earl Sweatshirt’s return was awaited upon like the first and the fifteenth, a young raw talent exiled away to eventually come back and free his people.  An underground rap Moses.  When Earl finally came back on his wolf with no name, expectations seemed to trump his studio debut Doris.  That seems ridiculous considering Earl never seemed to want to make a “classic” LP like Good Kid, so why would everyone expect him to?  Earl’s good at one thing; rapping.  And holy moly does he rap well.  Doris has the best pure rapping out of any tape released this year.  He strings internal rhymes together indefinitely, shorting out brain fuses of anyone who tries to keep up.  He’s a stoned Good Will Hunting, seeing rhymes on a chalkboard and ending up a savant.  I’ve already explained how great Earl is at rapping, and his improvement to MF Doom wunderkin from a shock value teenager represents one of the few cases where the work has matched the hype.  But rapping alone does not make for a great album and Earl draped himself with a soundscape that matched his heavy lidded worldview.  Doris is a great Los Angeles rap album.  The beats are cavernous concrete arenas with smog filtering through the empty space.  Helmed mainly by Earl himself, the production resembles the cruising soundtrack of L.A. cult epic Drive, or the gritty psychedelia of Alchemists laboratory in Santa Monica.  When Earl doesn’t man the boards, he finds the perfect collaborators; Pharrell fusing his sugary pop with his Neptunes thwomp on “Burgandy”, Alchemist imitating an earthquake on “Uncle Al,” and RZA finding some vintage soul for “Molasses.”  Earl sarcastically claims “Breaking news: death is less important than when the Lakers lose” and that his “ride is dirty as the sky that you praying too.”  The influence of Los Angeles, and Fairfax in particular, on Odd Future has been an underappreciated part of their rise and it’s clearly a factor for Earl here.  Doris is the underbelly of Hollywood, getting blazed on the freeways at night.  It lives in the shadows of a city that tries so hard to shine.  It may be a low stakes album but that makes it no less excellent.  And he’s still going to get better at rapping, which is just a jaw dropping idea.

3: Beyoncé – Beyoncé 

YONCE DONE CHANGED THE GAME!  Sorry, let me try to reel in my utter infatuation with our greatest living pop star to try to speak reasonably about this album.  What kind of narrative should we place on Beyoncé? From a pop culture perspective, she practically saved the music industry.  With the whole world trying to outdo itself with their album promotions, creating vast extravagant sales tactics to make their album feel more real in a digital age, Beyoncé just dropped off her album in mid December with absolutely no warning and crushed everyone’s record sales.  From a social perspective, in a year where female pop stars degraded themselves (oh wait that’s every year) so much that Katy Perry was the voice of reason, Beyoncé crafted a feminist masterpiece that is empowering, radical, and lovable at the same time.  If you don’t think this stuff actually matters go look at the growth in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book sales after this album.  How about on an individual standpoint?  When’s the last time a pop star at the absolute peak of his or her game actually exceeded themselves?  After releasing her wonderful tour de force 4, an album that cemented her place away from the ephemeral pop paraphernalia of today and into the hall of R&B, becoming a mom and proceeding up to heaven on the Super Bowl stage, Bey had literally nothing left to prove.  So she decided to make the best album of her career.  But the narrative I’m most interested is the most dominant conversation since recorded music existed around a century ago, one that seemed almost extinct in todays digital age; the album vs. the single.  By releasing her album in bulk with a video tied to every song (a freaking VISUAL ALBUM!!) she changed the way people consume music today.  We were not only forced to hear her album from beginning to end, but we wanted to as well.  It is like a movie.  So it seems absurd to discuss the album without it’s accompanying videos, just like it would be silly to talk about The Who’s Tommy without the storyline, or The Beatle’s eponymous album without all the competing voices.  I’ve read some more cynical interpretations about this, that Bey is subverting the twitter feed and instant gratification culture of our generation so that people have to hear it all right now or they’ll miss out on an event.  And that’s true, but it wouldn’t have worked so well if the music wasn’t so devastatingly amazing. Every single song is a diamond.  It’s at once more artsy than Lady Gaga, more adventurous than Justin Timberlake, more charming than Jay-Z, and more audacious than Kanye.  She feels more like a 21st century Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye.  It’s the work of a pop star who ascended to the ranks of R&B nobility and then came back to pop music and blew up the system.  It’s completely in step with modern music, featuring Jay-Z, Drake, Frank Ocean, Pharrell and Timbaland, and yet somehow hovers completely above it.  Timely and timeless.  Please don’t make me relive all the moments because this’ll take forever.  The EDM&B beat marvel of “Haunted.”  Her southern fried rapping on “Drunk In Love.”  The perfect fusion of Pharell’s lighthearted retro pop and Timbaland’s sophisticated prog pop on “Blow” complete with an Aretha Franklin moment of sexual dominance.  The soaring anthem of “XO.”  Her big fluffy jacket on “No Angel.”  The cave dancing in “***Flawless.”  The time where she made the best rap song of the year in “Partition.”  And the heartbreaking finale where she once and for all proves her own artistic worth and how far she’s come.  Because earlier songs like “Halo” and “End Of Time” are masterpieces in themselves, but they have nothing on what she accomplishes with the last two songs here.  The restraint, the emotional resonance, the songwriting.  They’re not Diva songs.  They’re songs that are so intensely personal that she can barely get them out.  Beyoncé is the pop equivalent of the ’76 Bulls and Bey is Michael Jordan; grown up, smarter, and bulldozing anyone in her path.  Jay-Z no longer wears the pants in the family.  And I literally have no idea why this album isn’t number one on my list.

2: Danny Brown – Old

Old plays out like an old fashioned record, with each side used for separate purposes.  It makes sense that Danny Brown would be the one to pull it off.  He has so many personalities that he needs the different environments.  There’s the braids wearing, drug pushing, Detroit reppin Danny Brown and there’s the crazy haircut rocking, Europe traipsing, Ecstasy inducing Danny Brown.  That he can reconcile these two into a coherent persona is one of the major achievements of Old.  I wrote about Danny’s magnum opus earlier this year and it’s only gotten better with each listen.  Details continue to creep out of the horror stories he creates from his past and present, equal parts Guillermo Del Toro and Dr. Seuss.  Bullies jump him for his mom’s grocery money.  His mom got the money by giving haircuts on his porch.  Gremlins haunt the streets and dope fiends prowl for a customer.  He can’t let his daughter see how high he is.  A girl grinds on him while he grinds his teeth.  Still, it’s easy to get lost in the sonic ambition of the album.  Alt-rap producers like Paul White, Oh No, and A-Trak mix in with EDM heavyweights Rustie and Darq E. Freaker.  Danny has stated that the beats were the priority, if XXX was his OK Computer then Old is his Kid A, an album more concerned with sounds and textures rather than things to say.  It would be easy to say that the main achievement of this album are the beats and how Danny Brown bodied them. I would be hard pressed to find another rapper who could do that (Kendrick included-although that would so much fun to watch).  His guests certainly can’t, especially on the latter EDM half.  But that would ignore the fact that Old is the most self aware hip hop album at least since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.  It’s a send up of the traditional Biggie Smalls/Jay-Z up from nothing success story, a subversion of modern “gangsta” rap, a challenge to not just the aesthetic folds of the genre but its ideological totems.  It not only addresses the hip hop community but its audience as well.  He interpolates Outkast’s classic “Return Of The G,” a song that Andre 3000 used to attack everyone who questioned his eccentricity, on “The Return” to address his own fans who want Danny Brown the gangsta back.  And he brings along Freddie Gibbs, one of the last four remaining real gangstas left, to drive his rebuttal home.  He wonders if little kids know that 2 Chainz went to college on “Gremlins.”  He’s sick of rappers lying about their background on “Dope Song.”  And on “Dip” he transforms Jay and Kanye’s “don’t let me get in my zone” line into a drug riddled threat.  Old rewrites the tropes of hip hop itself.  Drugs aren’t fun, they’re relief.  The baroque opulence of mainstream rap transforms into a banal carnival of horror.  Hip hop already has it’s own critiquing mechanism built in and Old shows how the genre can manipulate itself.  But with all the modern debates about realness, authenticity, and drug use in hip hop, Old feels needed for the moment.  No one aimed as high and succeeded this year like the Adderal Admiral.

  

1: Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

“I’ve been riding around with a blunt on my lips, the sun in my eyes and my gun on my hip.  Paranoia on my mind so my mind’s on the fritz, and a lot of niggas dying so my nine’s with the shits.”

That hook has been rolling through my head all year.  It has everything.  The effortless cool, the clouded thought, the sensory detail, the subtle wordplay.  The way Chance sings it is perfect; just enough of a croon, languid control over every syllable so the words dance off the tongue.  And the emotional weight is immense, as the rest of the song “Paranoia” goes on to ask why Katie Couric isn’t reporting about all the murdered kids.  It asks the rest of the world to admit they’re scared because these kids are scared too.  And it prays to god for the seasons to stay the same for just a little longer.  And none of that changes anything, so there’s nothing else to do but drive around with your weed and your piece.  Mind on the fritz.

I’ve read some people say that they don’t understand why everyone likes Acid Rap when it’s so clearly for young people.  I feel sorry for them.  They’re right, Acid Rap is youth incarnate.  It is wide eyed exuberance, falling in love with the first girl you really get to know, getting high for the very first time, turning up like there’s no limit, living and loving life because you don’t know when it’ll all end. And for Chance, that uncertainty is everywhere.  Chicago has become the new gangsta murderland, a place for hip hop and its audience to place fantasies of gangsta toughness and realness, just like Compton and Brooklyn before it.  But for Chance it’s real.  To embrace all that pain with such an open heart and try to find the joy in life anyways, that takes ambition and talent and youth.  Acid Rap is rap game Calvin & Hobbes, able to stare straight at the worlds problems and complexities with childlike wonder and not let it get him down.  He’s Pixar, crafting gorgeous tales that create universality through its specificity.  If there are people that are too old to identify with that wonder again, that’s sad.  I hope it’s not inevitable.

Acid Rap is an incredibly fun and life affirming record.  Helmed by his Save Money crew, the production is phenomenal.  It bounces all over Chicago’s musical history, from gospel to soul to juke to Kanye.  It’s an immaculate collection; every song is great.  A lot of the record is shit talking in wonderfully unique ways.  He feels like Kobe on “Juice” even though everybody hates the Lakers.  He’s got that God Damn on “Pusha Man.”  He’s a chain smoking, name dropping, brain broken, mutha SHUT YO MOUTH.  His energy is infectious.  Action Bronson, Ab-Soul, and Childish Gambino, all rappers who broke onto the rap scene with more of a jokey personality than they have now, find their sense of humor again on this album.  But nostalgia rules over the tape.  He remembers Chuck E. Cheese tokens and orange Nickelodeon cassettes on a song about his cigarette addiction.  He still idealizes all his idols, whether it’s former drug dealer Nitty on “Pusha Man” or Frank Ocean on “Chain Smoker.”  Then there are his moments of such candid insight it makes you do a double take.  His hesitancy to follow Jesus’s twitter.  The poignancy of 21st century love story “Lost” and Noname Gypsy’s pitch perfect verse.  The poetic psalm of “Acid Rain.”  And then there’s the rapping.  He raps with the joy of a kid who just learned how to put words together and now is trying it every way possible.  He slingshots his rhymes on “Good Ass Intro,” coils them up on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and stretches them out on “Everything’s Good.”  He has the moniker Rapper for a reason.

I wonder if those critics are right though, if I’ll like Acid Rap as much in five or ten years.  It didn’t feel like an event like Kendrick’s album did, but it was something I instantly recognized as special and felt the need to share.  Chance’s free mixtape connects with a younger audience because he understands the fragility of youth and the somber feeling of growing older.  The nostalgia is instantly affecting, the desire to go back to those days.  So there’s paranoia on my mind, driving around, consuming the last little bit of freedom there is.  Burning out over fading away.  It’s the millennial zeitgeist of YOLO except more nuanced.  He’s able to take his personal anxiety and, like any great art, make it universal.  When he first announced Acid Rap, Chance said that he named it that because of his LSD use and his new musical direction, “but mainly because when I drop it, niggas is finna start tripping.”  Consider the water cooler spiked.

And that’s the list!  When I started writing this blog I wanted to capture what listening to hip hop right now, as the new generation, is like.  I hope this list does a good job.  Let me know what you think! Anything left out? Any personal favorites? Any dumb picks?  Let me know by commenting or hitting me up on twitter.  Looking back it was actually a pretty good year.  Hopefully 2014 will be even better.

Crowning A Queen: The Mrs. Carter Show

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Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a superstar in an era where that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore.  In the wild world of the internet, pop stars with longevity are unheard of.  You are as popular as your last single, as long as your last viral video.  Yet Beyonce comes from the pop boom of the 90’s and has managed to cement her legacy with early incredible singles, and then protect it with incredible media savvy.  Her only peer in this regard is Justin Timberlake, who also arose out of the boy band craze of the 90’s to turn into an adult superstar.  But where Justin seemed to rely on marketing gimmicks and production connections to sell his latest album, Beyonce only needs herself.  When she performed at the Superbowl last year, it was an event.  Facebook blew up.  You remember, you were there.  It was the first time it seemed like the halftime show was bigger than the game.  The power went out so the players didn’t have to follow her act.  That show marked her ascendance to the Queendom of Pop; I remember thinking afterwards that this must have been what it was like to see Michael Jackson in the 80’s.  Someone so huge, so universally beloved, yet with the talent and chops to back it up.  Her tour that she announced that same day as the Superbowl is the biggest most extravagant victory lap ever taken.  Bow down.

What pushed her into legend status was her album 4released two years ago and what she’s still touring under.  4 is an incredible achievement, an album in a landscape where there are nothing but singles.  When Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the rest of the girls on the charts were chasing that EDM money and trying to out-weird each other, Bey brought R&B back.  She focused more on songwriting than hooks, on emotion rather than catchphrases.  She connected herself to the lineage of soul singers she was brought up on and yet added enough quirk to pave the way for the PBR&B successes of guys like Frank Ocean and Miguel.  JT’s new The 40/40 Experience tried to have the same effect as 4, but his spaced-out prog-pop can’t match the restrained power that Beyonce put in her work. And the album captures what’s so special about Beyonce.  Sexy without being slutty.  Strong without being scary.  Happily married but still independent.  Stanky but so fresh and so clean.

Her tour captures all that and more.  I wasn’t prepared for the level of showmanship and spectacle that I witnessed.  There were three different parts to the show: singer-songwriter, pop star, rock star.  She was either singing by herself with minimal accompaniment, singing while dancing with all backup dancers and light show according her, or singing backed by a full (awesome) band, complete with horns and the girls whose guitar shot sparks at the Superbowl.  There were breathtaking moments.  After pulling off the lounge singer act of playing “1+1” on top of a piano, she flew across the stadium on a wire.  She walked through fire during “Naughty Girl” (which I probably enjoyed way more than any of the girls there).  But my favorite moments were with the band, who beefed up all her songs with stabs from the horn section, pushing her pop into stadium conquering music without sacrificing any of the joy of the original material.  “Freakum Dress” was transformed into a hard rock freakout and “I Care” was punctuated by psychedelic guitar solos.  Every great artist needs to have a great live show and great live shows require some tweaking to the material.  She pulled all her songs into places I had no idea could go.  She mashed up The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” with “If I Were A Boy,”  segwayed into the classic “Shout” on “Single Ladies,” channeled the funk breaks of James Brown on “Why Don’t You Love Me” and, my personal favorite, played “Diva” on top of the beat for G.O.O.D. Music’s “Clique” and turned the song into a chugging BANGER.  There aren’t many people who could pull that off.

Above all, Beyonce was an incredible performer who can command an audience of that size.  There’s not really anything I’ve seen that can match it.  Let’s be real about the demographics of the concert; it was about 70% girls, 30% gay guys, 9% boyfriends/fathers, and then me.  But seeing the concert, you get why she has such a rabid fanbase.  She’s absolutely charming as she passed the mic around the audience to sing “TO THE LEFT TO THE LEFT” or “BRING THE BEAT IN” on “Irreplaceable” and “Love On Top.”  She genuinely enjoys performing for her fans and there were plenty moments of back and forth repartee between her and the crowd.  And then she can switch into thug mode, strut around with a swagger that gangsta rappers wish they had, and stare down the crowd until the cheering has reached an appropriate level.  Seeing a concert where everyone there loves the artist and the music is one of the most satisfying things in the genre.  Whether it’s a stadium full of fans or a tiny pub with only diehards, being able to share that experience with someone who cares just as much as you is one of the reasons we invest so much into music in the first place.  When Beyonce opened up her last song of the night, a medley of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” which turned into “Halo,” the only comparison I have is watching Bruce Springsteen turn an entire arena into church as he mourned the loss of his band members.

She has a new album coming out and details are scarce.  She only played one of her new songs, “Grown Woman,” which she’s debuted in her commercials.  Her music seems to reflect the confidence and a (hopefully hip hop) swag that comes with a victory lap of this magnitude.  Either way, I’m excited.  It’s not often you get to watch a pop star in her prime.  The old queen is dead, long live the queen.