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.

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

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 Kentucky Basketball

Steph Curry with the shot…

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

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

Young Thug

 

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

Drake

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

Vince Staples

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

DJ Mustard

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

Flying Lotus

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

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

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!

What In The World Happened To Kendrick Lamar??

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I apologize for my extended absence from HungryHippopotamus. But it doesn’t mean I wasn’t working! Feel free to look at goodkidhippocity.tumblr.com for a compilation of my freelance work over this time

What is going on? This time last year, Kendrick Lamar was the odds on favorite to be the new king of rap. After his major label debut made him a Grammy nominee and a pop star, K. Dot doubled down and called out all his peers on the infamous “Control” verse. He had positioned himself as the rare rapper who could hold down the charts and the streets organically. This year he was supposed to drop his sophomore album and battle it out with Drake for the crown. But it’s close to New Years, and all we have to show is a controversial lead single, a few pop grabs, and a general decline from TDE. What happened?

When Kendrick finally dropped his feverishly anticipated lead single i, it wasn’t the triumphant return he had hoped. Fueled by an obvious Isley Brothers sample, it alternates between corny and catchy with Kendrick shouting out self affirmations of “I love myself.” i was bemoaned for being an industry sellout, a capitulation to the people that voted for Macklemore. It was also praised for being a radical statement of self love for young black men in a year where they were being gunned down all around the country. The truth is a little of both. Major label rappers need pop crossovers to sustain their success and if you have to make that pop grab there are worse sources than old school soul. It is a catchy song and after a couple of listens I was grooving to it (plus my mom loved it right away so there’s that). But that doesn’t excuse its saccharine tone; plenty of rappers made radio hits that sound much less poppy than this. This feels like it’s meant to be slotted in between Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande and sure enough I’ve heard it played much more often on Hot 97 than on the hip hop station Power 106. For an artist who cultivated such a deep fan base for his work, he made his return single for everyone else, and that’s what feels weird.

I don’t mind though, because it’s some of the best Kendrick of 2014. The song is carefully considered; every verse uses a different flow, the production is constantly changing, and there’s a dope Thundercat bass breakdown at the end. All we’ve had this year from Kendrick are uninspired guest verses. After spending all of last year demolishing every guest spot he was on, lately it’s just been a series of awkward pop verses. It displays a frightening lack of brand awareness. And the worst part is that none of them are doing well! He was even on the lead single for the hottest producer in the game with Lil Wayne and Future and it bricked. This spiral reached its nadir last week with the new Jay Rock song “Pay For It.”

The problem with most of Kendrick’s verses this year is that they’ve all been hollow. Technically precise with nothing much to say. It’s as if he’s just going through the motions. But “Pay For It,” a new song for TDE labelmate Jay Rock and a big commercial opportunity, is a new low. Already bearing a kitschy chorus, Kendrick rambles about being king, throws in some obtuse biblical allusions, and calls it day. It may be his first garbage verse. There’s nothing even remotely impressive about it. It’s one thing to throw half-assed verses for random pop singers, it’s another to deliver the same effort to your rapping comrade.

 

Kendrick is trapped by the prison that “Control” has built. Ever since that verse, his features have been marked by a constipated anger. His voice has been contorted into a throaty yell that seems to aim for the Linkin Park crowd. His lyrical rebellion that was so exciting on “Control” has waned into petulant tantrums. But there’s still hope. Perhaps all of these phoned in verses are the result of saving all of the good stuff for his album, which might be released before the end of the year. He’s scheduled for an appearance on Saturday Night Live next week and he’ll probably debut a new song, maybe this “King Kunta” we’ve been hearing about. And he’s still put in great work this year with Flying Lotus, appearing on “Never Catch Me” which is one of the best songs of the year (and one of the best videos, please please PLEASE watch it above). Kendrick Lamar has already proved his talent so he doesn’t need to appease anybody, but this is not how you follow up a title year. The expectations for his album are higher than ever. Hopefully he can live up to them.

Ain’t Nuthin But A Gangsta Party: YG and DJ Mustard’s Krazy Life

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We’re in the middle of a gangsta rap renaissance (gansterenaissance? gangstanaissance?) To be fair, it never really went away. But after 2Pac died and Death Row fell from grace, Los Angeles hip hop has been plagued by ghosts and zombies. As Atlanta’s Trap music morphed into an extraterrestrial warble and Chicago’s Drill music siezed the title of scariest music in America, L.A struggled to find a sound for the city. But life has been found in an old genre, and young MC’s are giving gangsta rap a new form. Already this year, Schoolboy Q crip walked a mile on Hoover Street and Freddie Gibbs thugged his way to the American Dream. But as great as those records were, they lack a crucial aspect of classic gangsta rap’s success; you can’t dance to them. Luckily, ratchet connoisseur YG and hitmaking “it” producer DJ Mustard have crafted a gangsta rap opus that has made L.A. the center of rap influence and commercial dominance for the first time since the mid 90’s. My Krazy Life, YG’s debut album for Def Jam, is the strongest representation of the city of angels since a certain good kid found himself lost in a mad city.

DJ Mustard, the mastermind behind the ratchet minimalism that has been popular for the last few years, has achieved near ubiquity over the last few months. Built off of L.A.’s jerk music, his sound pays influence to Atlanta’s snap music and the Bay Area’s hyphy scene as well as classic G-Funk to create the first unifying sound for L.A. since the early 90’s. After scoring a couple national hits and securing his place as L.A.’s top producer with his smash mixtape Ketchup, Mustard has become the “IT” producer of 2014, with several songs rotating through the radio and garnering enough attention for even Kanye West to come down from his mountain to collaborate. But the simplistic nature of his production always leaves one wondering how long he can ride his ratchet formula. My Krazy Life leaves no doubt about DJ Mustard’s capabilities as a producer and is the fullest realization of his aesthetic to date. His goal for the album was to make every song a single and he didn’t fail. Every track bangs but also shows the diversity in his sound. “Left, Right” finds eastern woodwinds over thundering bass claps, “Do It To Ya” emphasizes a warm piano riff, and “Who Do You Love?” crawls at an ominous pace. Some of the best beats don’t even come from DJ Mustard but play perfectly into the sound of the album. Newbie Mikely Adams and ATLien Metro Boomin’ both come through with throwback sounds to classic West Coast rap. The production on this tape is a revelation; it bumps front to back for the kids while containing musical easter eggs for their parents. I can’t wait until my kid is playing it at his Bar Mitzvah.

For all of DJ Mustard’s great production, there was one thing that was holding him back from being the next Dr. Dre. He didn’t have a Snoop Dogg. Ketchup had a very serviceable group of MC’s but none of them had any breakout star quality like Snoop had. YG had been languishing in label purgatory since his one hit wonder “Toot It And Boot It” and had been releasing street mixtapes with DJ Mustard. Riding Mustard’s recent success, he signed to Young Jeezy’s CTE label and released the smash lead single “My Nigga.” Buoyed by the song’s success, My Krazy Life is finally out and it turns out that a real talent had been lying dormant. Years of practice have led to a natural chemistry between DJ Mustard and YG and he sounds great over the minimalist bouncy beats. He knows exactly how to use his voice for each occasion, when to pile it on and when to lay off. He can slide into rhythmic hooks or he can fracture his flow, constantly probing the beat for different pockets. There are a lot great rappers on this album. Drake, Young Jeezy, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, none of them really outshine the main star here. That would have been unthinkable just days before the album dropped.

There’s a real conceptual heft to My Krazy Life. The album opens with YG’s mom yelling at him that he’s going to end up in prison like his father. His story unfolds; he’s a member of the Bloods, he loves his friends and would do anything for his family, cheats on his girlfriend and is hurt when she does the same. He gets by through small home robberies and is betrayed by one of his homies, who takes all the profits and leaves him to take the fall. The album ends with YG apologizing to his mom for everything he’s put her through. The story is nowhere near as complex as its clear role model Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but it’s also much easier to follow. It showcases YG as a resonant character, and lets him thrive on the detail oriented rapping that carries this album as much as DJ Mustard’s beats. On “Meet The Flockers,” YG breaks down the art of robbery. “First, you find a house and scope it out, find a Chinese neighborhood ‘cuz they don’t believe in bank accounts.” “Really Be (Smoking & Drinking)” could very easily slide into cliche but is awoken by YG’s vivid writing (and a K. Dot verse). “I woke up this morning, I had a boner, I went to bed with no bitch, nigga I was a loner.” My Krazy Life is filled with these types of details. It’s a breezy album that still rewards repeat listens.

Gangsta rap is back in a major way. Maybe the country got sick of major rap stars only talking about how wealthy they are. Or maybe it’s just a natural reaction to internet bred middle class rappers. With all the great projects out, YG and DJ Mustard stand as the faces of new L.A. gangsta rap. They blended nostalgia and innovation and created their own style. They created an capital A Album that has great singles. They have the hits that Freddie Gibbs doesn’t want to make, and they put together a cohesive project that eluded Schoolboy Q. This is the sound of a young rapper realizing his full potential. All we have to do now is bick back and be bool.

Rap Game Academy Awards

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas Buyer’s Club – Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris

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

Gravity – Drake’s Nothing Was The Same

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

 

Her – Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet

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

Nebraska – Danny Brown’s Old

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

Philomena – Run The Jewels’ Run The Jewels

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

12 Years A Slave – Kanye West’s Yeezus

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

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

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

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

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Scarlett Johannson – Her

Lupita N’yongo – 12 Years A Slave

June Squibb – Nebraska

Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station

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

Best Supporting Actor

George Clooney – Gravity

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave

Will Forte – Nebraska

Nick Frost – The World’s End

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

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

Best Actress

Amy Adams – American Hustle

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Judi Dench – Philomena

Sarah Louise Dreyfuss – Enough Said

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

Best Actor

Leo Dicaprio – Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetal Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave

Oscar Isaacs – Inside Llewin Davis

Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

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

Best Director

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Spike Jonze – Her

Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

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

Best Picture

Blue Jasmine

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

12 Years A Slave

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

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

Macklemore’s Burden: A Few Thoughts On His Heist At The Grammys

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tv show gifsI know Taylor Swift, I know

The Grammys have never gotten it right.  Since the beginning, it’s missed the boat on every exciting musical trend.  Frank Sinatra won Album Of The Year during the summer of love, the soundtracks of Grease and Star Wars were nominated over signature punk albums in the late 70’s, and the golden age of hip hop was completely ignored.  The Grammy’s aren’t about rewarding the year’s best music, but about opening the doors of the industry and accepting the new flock into the fold.  So when talking about the history of terrible winners for Hip Hop album of the year, the forest is being missed for the trees.  The nominations are never even close to being correct.  Hell, this year most of the hip hop awards weren’t even televised!  Think about the lack of respect there.  The hip hop album of the year category was the only one where all the nominees had gone platinum, including best album; Macklemore, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Kanye, and Drake.  Yet they didn’t even televise it.  The biggest night in music is certainly not the most important, or at all significant.  It stings this year because hip hop has clearly become the most progressive and critically appreciated genre and found no love.  But the Grammy’s have always been off base and always will be.

Macklemore’s rise to success is problematic for a number of reasons that have been elaborated in several think pieces following his big wins at the Grammy’s.  There are great pieces in the New York Times and Spin Magazine worth reading.  It’s pretty gross seeing a white rapper instantly become a superstar because he’s a conscious voice in the genre, as if there aren’t decades of political, conscious, independent rap that have gone completely unnoticed by the masses.  It’s more nauseating knowing that he jump started his fame thanks to a novelty hit that racked up millions of views on youtube, which thanks to Billboard now counts in tallying up the Pop charts. Seeing “Thrift Shop” turn into a major hit was like watching Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or any other goofy youtube phenomenon turn into a hit song. The Heist is a very boring album. Ryan Lewis deserves most of the credit for it’s success, padding it with stadium filling, electro tinged beats that aim for self importance but land perfectly on the radio.  Macklemore is a decent enough rapper, but his double time flow he steps into constantly and his pauses in the middle of his bars put him in the same category as club rappers like Pitbull, Flo Rida, and (maybe) Ace Hood, not the conscious heroes he looks up to.    He’s managed to inherit all the lousy qualities from guys like Talib Kweli (who is opening on tour for him) like awkward stuffed sentences and eye rolling superiority, without any of the hyper lyricality.

I think there a couple things that most of the critics are missing about the Macklemania and why he’s so popular.  First is his voice.  It sounds absurdly white, much more so than other white rappers like Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Evidence, Alchemist, or anyone else.  Most of these rappers take some kind of vocal tone or presentation to avoid sounding so white, but here Macklemore is sounding like a cold ass honky.  For suburbanites, the white voice is easier to understand.  There’s a familiar nasal quality, and it’s one of the reasons Eminem became so popular.  People think he can rap better because they can easily understand all the things he is saying, even in the double time flow.  Combine that with Macklemore’s penchant for using very deep singers (Ray Dalton on “Can’t Hold Us,” Wanz on “Thrift Shop,” the fantastic Allen Stone on “Neon Cathedral”) for his choruses to create the faux-soul vibe tinging the whole project and it’s an instant hit.  But that’s an aesthetic choice that isn’t necessarily problematic.  The real issue (that I see) isn’t his conscious platitudes, but what problems he chooses to confront.  And they’re all very middle class social issues: materialism, artistic integrity, same sex marriage.  It’s horrifying to see America hold him up as a champion of social justice because “finally someone in Hip Hop is acknowledging these things” when no one cares about the problems rap regularly talks about, like inner city violence, drug abuse, poverty etc etc.  The Heist throws hip hop under a bus. He mocks it on “Wing$,” where he confesses that he loves Nike’s too but man they’re just shoes and why are young kids killing themselves over them.  He burns it on “Same Love” where he actually says “if I was gay, Hip Hop would hate me.” Oversimplifying issues in rap music in order to make your case is stuff that unaware 1% congressman do, not Grammy winners within the whole genre.  The song that sums up everything that’s wrong with The Heist and Macklemore in general is “A Wake.”  The song laments all the tragedy in the world, and then something interesting happens in the second verse.  He worries about his position to speak on all these problems.  “Don’t wanna be that white dude million man marching, fighting for a freedom that my people stole.”  In a noble attempt to grapple with being a white rapper, he ends up sounding sanctimonious and turning his own white privilege into a victimized position.  Maybe he really doesn’t understand how condescending it sounds when he says “I’m not more or less conscious than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, popping. These interviews are obnoxious, saying that ‘it’s poetry, you’re so well spoken’, stop it,” just like he doesn’t understand how texting Kendrick he should have won for best Rap album (but not artist or album of the year) is pandering as well.  His impressive humble brag does a great job of reinforcing the distinction between the two styles while looking like he’s being supportive.  And it’s cultural carpetbagging at its finest when he jacks the chopped and screwed style on the very next song “Gold”, which of course is intrinsically paired with the type of rap music that he subtly dismissed.

Guys this is literally the rap version of the White Man’s Burden, where Macklemore can’t stand idly by at all the injustice in the world that he just has to do something despite his own awkward social position, and I’m a little shocked that none of the crazy liberal people at the colleges he’s appealing too haven’t picked up on this yet. Yes, misogyny and homophobia in hip hop is an issue, but it’s not nearly as simple as Macklemore would have you believe and in 2014 there are an incredible amount of ways that hip hop has for dealing with it. Great rappers take problems within the genre and use them to illuminate the systemic issues within the country at large, not pin the larger issues on the genre.  And as far as we still need to go when it comes to gay rights, it’s not ok for Macklemore to say “hip hop hates gays” when fellow nominees Jay-Z and Kendrick have come out in support for same sex marriage, Drake has challenged the entire hip hop definition of masculinity, and Kanye wears a dress.  Not to mention the incredibly vibrant scene of queer and female rappers creating interesting progressive music. I don’t want to take away from everyone who’s had a meaningful experience with “Same Love,” and it is awesome to see a pro gay rights anthem make the rounds, but it’s painful to see it come at the expense of the genre he’s using to make the statement. And when there are so many great rappers out there, challenging the norms of the genre, this kind of undercooked fodder winning awards is unacceptable.