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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the original review here

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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.

Candy Rappers and Cocaine Pinatas

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Freddie Gibbs is always fighting an uphill battle. The Gary, Indiana native was stuck in the label purgatory of Interscope for years until he got dropped five years ago. When he compiled the discarded sessions into two fantastic mixtapes, it was clear why. Hardcore gangsta rap wasn’t popular last decade, and there was no market for intense technical rapping over trunk rattling murder music. But boy could he rap, and the ensuing buzz from the mixtapes landed him on the covers of XXL and LA Weekly and grabbed him a new deal. But right when he was on the precipice of stardom, nothing happened. Back at square one, Gibbs found a kindred soul in Atlanta trap star Young Jeezy, who’s drug dealing stomp had also been phased out by the major labels, and signed to his CTE Imprint. With a higher profile and some inspiration from his new home in Los Angeles, Freddie released his best work to dateBaby Face Killa. Fusing his midwestern style with west coast flows, BFK found an uncompromising commercial pocket for Gibbs’s music and contained the most radio ready songs of his career. But Jeezy didn’t promote it well, Gibbs felt that he was being mistreated, and the two had an acrimonious falling out last year. After his last album fell short of expectations, it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become another absurd talent that gets lost in the cracks. But his new album Pinata, a collaboration with legendary Stones Throw underground L.A. producer Madlib, has silenced any debate on Gibbs’ talent and stature. In a year where Los Angeles has repositioned itself at the top of the hip hop totem pole, Gibbs has put together an album that stands apart from the pack and crafted one of the seminal projects of the young decade.

The knock on Freddie Gibbs is usually that he’s just technique with no personality, that it can get tedious listening to him bludgeon beats over and over. But that severely underrates how good Freddie is at rapping. There are probably only two or three people breathing who can compete in the same skill level as Gibbs (and yes one of them is Kendrick) and Pinata is a tour de force of MCing. Madlib’s beats are not easy to rap over; the beat will change on a whim if there is even a beat at all. Freddie had to be on point the entire time or else the project just wouldn’t work and he succeeds admirably. The unconventional production forces him to be creative with his flows. He can ride the tempo on “Shitsville” like a mechanical bull and he can loosen his grip on “Broken,” letting the ends of his words trail off. Most of the time he makes it look so easy you don’t even notice the complexity, falling into nonexistent rhythms on “Harold’s.” Check out first single “Thuggin,” where after a movie snippet opens the track, Gibb’s cuts through some swirling guitar licks as the beat slowly starts to form. Then his flow and the beat speed up at the same time and the song is off and running before you even realize it begun. This kind of stuff is hard to do. There are some A-list guest stars on this record; Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Wu-Tang legend Raekwon, and despite their great verses they all get washed by Freddie. In fact the last track on the album, the posse cut “Pinata,” seems solely to exist to point out how much better Freddie is than every other rapper on it. The only person who is on the same plane is Houston rap god Scarface, who delivers an absolutely devastating 16 bars of pure pathos on “Broken.”

Credit needs to be given here to Madlib as well. These beats are difficult to rap over, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. This is the leading contender for best produced album of the year. After his massive undertaking with the Madlib Medicine Show (where he released 12 albums in 2010!), the unseen producer has been off the radar for a while and Pinata has him roaring back with vengeance. He’s sculpted the album with a conceptual edge; songs are bookended by instrumental intros and outros, skits are given perfect mood music, movie samples act as perfect segues. The beats cover a staggering breadth of territory. There’s slashing funk on “Scarface” and soaring soul on “Shame.” “Uno” and “Bomb” open with carnivalesque opulence before retreating into beautifully stark menace. It would take a similar mystic to understand how Madlib chops up all his records, but he has a touch with the lost art of sampling that few of his peers can emulate. I’m still wrapping my mind around his vocal samples; he can place them front and center and create hooks on “High” or “Robes,” or he keeps them submerged, breaching the surface of the track ever so slightly on “Harold’s” and “Knicks.” In his incredible production discography, Madlib’s work here still shines as a highlight.    

Even if it were just great rapping over these marvelous beats, Pinata would be an exceptional record. Maybe it’s the challenging production or maybe it’s the life experience, but Gibb’s is a much more confident rapper on this record. His “last real gangsta alive” persona has never sounded this engaging, and this album is filled with weary reflection, strong subtle storytelling, and revitalized gangsta rap tropes. Without ever pandering and evangelizing, Pinata portrays both sides of the coin, often within the same song. Freddie boasts about his sexual escapades on “Shame” but also details his heartbreak on “Deeper.” “Shitsville” simultaneously boasts about how gangsta he is while deconstructing the gangsta myth in the process. Drug dealing isn’t glamorized as much as it’s preserved. Moral turmoil resides in the asides, not on the soapbox. Gibbs is able to flip a clever conceit on two tracks back to back. “Lakers” is the best song about L.A. made in a minute, because Gibbs’ understands the allure of the city and its place in hip hop and American history. He gets the dichotomy of the city, the spotlight and the shadows, the gritty and the glamour. For him, L.A represents a certain type of redemption from where he grew up. He raps about “repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about,” and the new meaning that’s been brought to the Dodgers hat since Magic bought the team. On the flip side is “Knicks,” a stoic ode to the consistent onslaught of violence in his life and the enduring ineptitude of New York basketball as he documents how little has changed in his life. “Pippen on the assist, I’m watching Jordan drop a double nickel on the Knicks. That was ’95, couple of us ain’t live til ’96, gangbanging, ‘caine slanging had us caught up in a twist” he starts the song. And then life repeats itself in the next verse. “Chilling with a bitch, watching LeBron put up 56 on the Knicks in 2005, police killed my nigga in 2006, only thing he losing is his pension ain’t that bout a bitch.” This type of storytelling goes far beyond just structural technique.

Freddie Gibbs may not have made a leap here, but he’s certainly made his best album. He’s been a top five rapper for the last six years now, but with Madlib’s impressive production serving as his canvas, his grown man raps are given new perspective. The best comparison is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music where a similar out of nowhere production choice and streamlined guest list allowed the rapper to create his biggest album. Pinata is incredible. Every song is a gem, every beat is fire. 2014 has already been an outstanding year for hip hop and a large part of it is Los Angeles having a moment. The city has cast off its ghosts and harnessed them into commercial and critical weapons, whether it’s TDE’s coded language or DJ Mustard’s streamlined bounce. But Freddie Gibbs has gone left of center by pairing with Madlib and explored an underappreciated sect of L.A. rap that is no less central to the city’s legacy. And he made a masterpiece in the process. I can’t imagine much else topping this album for best of the year.

Reruns At The Drive In: Curren$y’s gritty reboot

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How does one measure consistency when it comes to greatness? It’s a question that comes into play in sports, music, even politics. Do you judge someone’s body of work by the highest peak they reach or the sum of their career? Curren$y has put together one of the greatest discographies of the new decade. The New Orleans native shadowed under the great Southern rap empires of No Limit and Cash Money and has combined their work ethic with 21st century internet distribution to create one of the strongest independent grinds in hip hop today. Through the dozens of projects that Curren$y has released in the past years, there hasn’t been a single bad one. He’s combined quality with quantity. But there also hasn’t been a truly great record, one that fans can point out to non Jet Lifers as the definitive Spitta Andretti project. And his new mixtape The Drive In Theater, while another fine entry in his career, isn’t going to win anyone over.

Some might think that this is a silly thing to argue about Curren$y’s music. From the get go he’s been a weed rapper who rarely spits about anything outside his zoned out sphere of influence. Rhymes about women and weed, planes and cars. JETS: Just Enjoy This Shit. But while that is true, it discounts the stylistic variety of his work. His flow may be what put him on the radar, but it’s his taste that has kept him interesting for so long. Very few have the ability to put together a cohesive record like Spitta. When he explores a new sound, he makes a whole project instead of just one song. Just last year, he made the dirty south thump of New Jet City (one of the best albums of the year) and rapped with Wiz Khalifa over African Jazz on the Live In Concert EP. The Drive In Theater has a beautiful cohesiveness to it as well. From the jazzy production to the movie skits to the album concept, this is a retro tinged affair. Thelonious Martin produced the bulk of the album and he said that 90’s legend Pete Rock was the main inspiration behind his work here. Thelonious is a frequent Curren$y collaborator and has scored a lot of retro sounding songs for several other rappers as well, and his work here isn’t bad. It’s just very familiar. The jazzy horn loops and open space on display here is Curren$y’s bread and butter, the type of beats that he rapped over on his breakthrough Pilot Talk albums four years ago. But when you release music as much as Curren$y does, you can’t afford to retread old terrain.

I feel like I’m coming off too harsh here because I like The Drive In Theater. It has earned a place in my car rotation and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Spitta has gotten better at rapping with every project and this tape is no exception. He’s never sounded sharper than he does here and lets you know it from the intro: “come at me and be upstaged, I’ve heard better raps read off page from my cousin, he in the fourth grade, so I don’t know how some of these suckers be getting paid.” He spits scenes with such clarity that it makes you wonder what the effects of marijuana on memory really are.  He has his enemies facetime with the fishes on “Godfather 4,” reminisces on trading jokes with millionaires during a wine tasting on “Vintage Vineyard,” and heats up some leftover hibachi steak and fried rice to go with his wake and bake session on “Hi Top Whites.” And like all Curren$y tapes, this one has it’s share of great guest verses. Action Bronson raps more classic Bronson raps on “Godfather 4” and Freddie Gibbs proves once again that he’s untouchable on the mic on “Grew Up In This.” Curren$y continues to prove that he’s the rap game Marc Gasol, an underrated cornerstone who makes everyone around him better. He’s made a cottage industry out of making older rap stars sound brand new and the project here is B-Real of Cypress Hill. “E.T.” showcases the incredible chemistry of the two MC’s, with B-Real’s agitated squeaking a perfect complement to Spitta’s laid back drawl. But Curren$y is more than a team player now, outshining his guests on several of the tracks.

My dissatisfaction with The Drive In Theater has less to do with what it is than what it isn’t. Before it felt that every Curren$y project was building to the next on but there’s no signs of progress here. Where are the hooks of New Jet City, the gloss of The Stoned Immaculate, the psychedelic dissonance of Covert Coup? As well as having a song named Godfather 4, the tape has excerpts from The Godfather movies at the end of tracks. While The Drive In Theater doesn’t come close to approaching the heights of Coppola’s masterpieces, there’s a thematic connection between Curren$y’s growth and Michael Corleone’s transformation. Both men tried to play the game the industry approved way but failed. Curren$y’s string of free releases were all leading to his studio debut of The Stoned Immaculate in 2012, but it bricked on the charts. Even a lead single featuring 2 Chainz didn’t help. Since then, Curren$y has been more reserved (by his standards) in his musical offerings, instead focusing on putting his label Jet Life on the map in unconventional ways. The Drive In Theater was released as a free mixtape but it was also packaged into a torrent bundle thanks to a specific deal between Jet Life and BitTorrent. Fans could download (for free) the album in both Mp3 quality and higher quality, get high resolution liner notes, and even get a video of Curren$y cruising around and pictures of his handwritten lyrics. This is a great idea in theory but it’s not so effective. The things he’s offering are fun fan items, but they don’t translate digitally. And with every new Jet Life release, it goes to show that label members Young Roddy, Trademark Da Skydiver, and Cornerboy P just aren’t compelling solo artists.

The frustration of all this is on the tape. Where before Spitta would revel in all of his cash, now he has a money migraine. When he chants “I could take 10 G’s and make 20 more 10 G’s with that” on “10 G’s,” it’s more of a fierce challenge than a humble brag. The larger in life drug kingpin persona has been exchanged with a calmer, ruthless figure that’s practically tragic. Less Scarface and more Michael Corleone. On “Hi Top Whites” he pines “I wish I could have stayed more but that ain’t what a nigga get paid for, that’s how it is, wish that I could say more.” The Drive In Theater is a good tape, but it points to a future where Jet Life may be running out of fuel. And while there’s no moral problem in failing to be legitimate like there is for the young Godfather, it would be a shame if Curren$y changed from expanding his empire to merely sustaining it.

 

Best Albums of 2012 (Part 2)

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This post brought to you by the greatest block I’ve ever seen.  Let’s continue on to the top 5 albums of 2012!

5: Roc Marciano – Reloaded

Roc Marciano is a grown man and he raps like one.  His style beckons back to an era where style also meant substance, when New York ran the game and drug dealers memorized the dictionary to step up their skills. Reloaded, Roc’s long awaited follow up to his solo debut, delivers like an eighty pound baby.  What he does with the pen is stupendous.  A modern philosopher, designing fly rhymes like architecture.  Wearing blue and orange high top Ewings, chains hanging from his neck like scarves, checking the presidential watch (he calls it Barack), Roc quietly killed everyone in the game last year.  He’s so good at rapping it’s astonishing.  He raps about typical gangsta rap conceits, but he does it with such specificity it turns into poetry.  He’s climaxing on satin, his girl like Ginger in Casino.  The gun is rust brown, it’s an oldie but a goodie.  Roc Marciano exists in the same New York tradition as Action Bronson, where the power of the music lies in the bar for bar content, the metaphors and the punchlines.  But Roc plays the Raekwon to Bam Bam’s Ghostface, using ruthless efficiency rather than absurdist fantasy.  Where Action lays into his punchlines as big knockouts, Roc peppers his verse with jabs, stacking assonance on assonance, rhyme on rhyme, so you’ve been shot 16 times before you can even draw a weapon.  Every single bar is brilliant, every line is t-shirt worthy.  But Roc is more than just a NY technician.  Reloaded creates an atmosphere so consuming that the idea of it existing in 2012 is simply not possible.  Roc is the best 2 way player in the game and produces the bulk of the album, and the beats are a thing of beauty.  They complement the rhymes perfectly; stark, dark, and brilliant.  Reloaded is great because it doesn’t just rehash a retro style of hip hop, it takes old concepts and digs even deeper to create something new.  It’s pimp shit, daddy what you know about it?

4: Ab-Soul – Control System

It’s hard to describe Ab-Soul.  I mean, the last person who tried to scratch the surface broke a nail.  The last person who crossed the line got crucified.  On Control System, Soulo transformed from Black Hippy mascot and pothead jokester to mystical shaman.  This is Campbell archtype set to rap music.  The Black Lip Bastard becomes the Black Lip Pastor.  The album opens with a disclaimer: “This is an album about control, my control.  Control of what I say, control of what I do.”  As the record unfurls, Ab-Soul fights against other systems of control and evolves into his new persona.  The album takes aim at everything.  Gender relations, regional differences, rap deities, real deities, Obama, the police, congress, his own demons, and God itself.   What separates Ab-Soul from his Black Hippy cohorts is the scope of the album.  He doesn’t affiliate with gangstas, except to unify them all and take down the white house.  He makes the cliche chopped and screwed Pimp C tribute, but mashes it up with old Biggie and Jay-Z songs.  He has sex, but then he grapples against his lust demons.  This massive scope applies to the production as well.  Soulo goes from Dilla-esque soul jams on “Bohemian Grove” to soft ballads in “Empathy” to interstellar cyphers on “Pineal Gland.”  This was the last TDE album to be made independently, so it could very well be the last Top Dawg album produced entirely by the Digi-Phonics, TDE’s in house production crew, and they do a great job.  The striking feature of Control System though is the confidence that brims throughout every song.  Kendrick Lamar told everyone that Control System was the last aspect to their Hiii Power movement, that once it dropped then everyone would understand what they were doing.  While the ideas of Hiii Power still remain opaque, the album (the last TDE release before major label fame) feels like an arrival.  You can hear it within the rest of the group.  Jay Rock begins his quest for relevancy, labeling himself the silent assassin of the four headed dragon on the “Black Lip Bastard (Black Hippy Remix).”  Schoolboy Q is at his most unhinged on “SOPA,” snarling “have no fear, the savior of this gangsta rap is fucking here.”  And Kendrick Lamar, on one of his best verses in a year filled with them, shouts “racks on racks, I don’t rap on tracks without my A game, so please don’t ask me bout no pressure, bitch with the grip of my fingertip I can hold this whole coast together.”  Soul announces on the intro, “thought I was the underdog, turns out I’m the secret weapon.”  And as his own hero’s journey winds down, and he’s battled against life and death, he’s made sure he’s not a secret anymore.

 

#3: Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa

Gangsta Gibbs could very well have been the best rapper alive since 2009.  He emerged that year with two incredible mixtapes, backed with high profile production from the major labels who dropped him.  Hailing from Gary, Indiana, he carries the cadence of the Midwest with him, slipping in and out of double time bone-thugs flows with ease.  There’s probably no one on the planet who can match his technical virtuosity.  Famed writer Tom Breihan put it best when he compared Gibbs’ rapping to Van Halen’s guitar playing; shining examples of technique that can sound boring/similar to the untrained ear.  Freddie is far from boring and he’s certainly not rapping fast for the sake of fast rapping.  He’s the last embodiment of old style gangsta rap, where MC’s said what they wanted, lived what they talked about it, and weren’t afraid to back it up.  Since his departure from Interscope, he has dropped great project after great project, yet hasn’t been able to set himself up on the national arena.  But on BFK, Gibbs finally paired his incredible talent with strong radio instincts and made his best album to date (and it’s FREE! Get it right now).  Since moving to L.A., Freddie Gibbs has developed a relationship to both the rappers and personality of the region, and BFK shows him turning away from the more trap oriented beats of his old projects into more groove laced G-Funk territory.  He’s got a new bounce to his flow now, reminiscent of the best types of Cali gangsta rap, when it felt that Dre and Snoop could never rhyme out of the pocket.  Combine that with his doubletime raps and his Pac like voice, and you have a monster of a rapper who can destroy any beat he’s given, and turn it into a single.  The other thing that Gibbs has improved on is his guests.  Rather than annihilating everyone who jumped on the track with him, he’s either picked better rappers or found a way work with his features rather than against them.  Dom Kennedy and Problem forge the L.A. connection over appropriately sunny beats and Curren$y delivers one of his most dexterous verses.  Old and new are fused as Gibbs brings a veteran from the 90’s and an up and comer as Krayzie Bone and Spaceghost Purp are teamed for the foggy “Kush Cloud” and Jadakiss and Jay Rock boom bap their way on “Krazy.”  And through it all, Gangsta Gibbs stays rock solid, never conceding any of his values or talents for radio play or major label success.  He’s gonna get it anyways.

2: Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions

This came so close to being #1.  No album this year got more burn than Q’s.  Habits & Contradictions is supposed to represent a younger Quincy, when he was still gangbanging, young, and irresponsible.  The album teeters out of control constantly, fueled by the manic fire of adolescence.  It’s high’s are euphoric, it’s lows terrifying.  This is music to drunk drive too, music to play in your car after you sneak out of a one night stands apartment.  It epitomizes the bad habits that everyone is subsumed by and the contradictions about how you feel about them.  The fact that you keep doing these things even though its bad for you.  The album starts with a warning and a sigh.  “Ask god for forgiveness, shit I doubt he heard me at all.”  It’s followed by the most reckless, fun stretch of music of the year.  He’s got his daughter swagging like her muthafuckin daddy though.  He drinks Pikachu with A$AP Rocky and goes on a sex drive with Jhene Aiko.  There’s too much gangsta in his lungs for him to hit a joint.  And then the crash.  Voices swirling around, a taunting “nanana,” generous men giving away toe tags and head shots.  A brief history lesson on the Crips in L.A.  Extra pills, Extra pills.  A house full of money, a tub full of women, and his girl coming out the shower smelling like Garnier Fructis, but that’s all to distract from the nightmare of Figg St.  Drives to pussy more than church.  The A/C’s broke but the heater works.  His homie betrayed him and fucks his old bitches while Q beats off in prison.  All leading up to the magnificent “Blessed,” Q’s own “Keep Ya Head Up” where he tries to comfort his friend who lost his son.  It’s a rare moment of vulnerability.  “Now how the fuck I’m supposed to say this?  You see, my nigga just lost his son while I’m here huggin’ on my daughter, I grip her harder.  Kiss her on the head as I cry for a bit, thinkin’ of some bullshit to tell him like ‘it’ll be ok, you’ll be straight, it’ll be alright.'”  There’s no delusions here.  There’s no hiding from the pain, no cowering from the fear.  Not even some self absorbed explanation.  They are habits and they are contradictions.

At the center of the opus is Quincy himself, driving everything with an unparalleled energy.  Schoolboy Q is in many ways the opposite of Kendrick Lamar.  The yin to his yang.  Where Kendrick is like water, flowing over everything, trickling or rushing depending on the terrain, Q is like fire, burning everything in his path.  He can be a low ember or a raging blaze, but at any time he can switch it up.  His ability to be unpredictable is his greatest asset.  He has said his goal is to never have two bars be the same and it shows.  There are too many brilliant moments on the record to count.  The way his voice squeals on “There He Go.”   The call and response he does with himself on the third verse of “Oxy Music.”  The slip into the beautiful bridge in “My Hatin’ Joint.”  His use of onomatopoeia where he sounds like a gun or a car.  All the unexpected makes the sobering moments direct and downright scary.  He knows how to turn a phrase better than anyone in the game.  The blunts go back around like merry go.  Zombieland a bunch of dead men walking, living abortions they ought to raise the price of coffins.  Leave em in the street with his shoelaces missing and his socks up off his feet.  And the production matches Q step for step.  Lex Luger’s 70’s style sex jam of “Grooveline, Pt. 1,” Mike Will Made It’s airy flutes on “My Hatin’ Joint,” a Portishead sample to end “Raymond 1969,” it all keeps up with Q’s delirious pace.  The end of the record, with everything that’s happened you’d think there’d be some kind of conclusion.  But all Q can do is revert back, reminding everyone that “niggas already know Q got shit, niggas already know Q got swag,” and you know history is going to repeat itself.  But this album is one habit that shouldn’t be broken.

 

1: Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City

This was obvious.  There was really no other choice, no matter how much I liked the previous album on the list.  You know about this album.  The songs are on the radio constantly.  The name has appeared on every music magazine and critic list in the country.  Kendrick did it.  He took the Atlas-like burden of hoisting everyone’s need for a savior, everyone’s need to deliver on a good “debut” album.  He held the west coast’s fate in his hands.  And he succeeded.  He completely took over the industry on his own terms.  Some say the magnitude of this album isn’t just in how good it is, but how it was that good and sold well.  Really well.  Kendrick became a cottage industry in his own right.  His features are everywhere.  MTV named the hottest rapper in the game.  He’s headlining a world tour and taking Black Hippy with him.  His success is proof that a rapper can make it to Top 40 radio without dumbing down their music or getting a Big Sean feature.  It’s proof that hard work, a strong fan base, and good teammates can create a champion.  There’s no need to sell your soul to Jimmy Iovine.  So much has been said about this album, that it’s almost been beat to death.  Almost.

It begins in a prayer and ends with a coronation.  It’s titled a short film, and Kendrick’s cinematic vision rendered an honest to god hip hopera, complete with fulfilling narrative, side characters, love interests, climaxes, and resolutions.  There are only 12 songs and not a single bar is out of place, a single chorus unimaginative.  To pull off an album with this much depth requires perfection.  The focus of the album is on Kendrick and his relationship to his surroundings.  How he relates to his friends, to his girls, to his family, and to Compton itself.  The album is packed with detail to make the stories real.  It’s 2004-2005.  Usher is tearing up the charts.  K.Dot and his friends bump Young Jeezy as they practice the persuasion of home invasion.  K.Dot is a young teen, alienated by his friends popping grown up candy for pain, talking tough when he’s with the homies, finding solace in a pack of black and milds and a beat CD.  The red and blues of the city surround him, whether it’s a cop car or a gang sign.  He visits a girl on different turf and gets jacked.  His friends decide to seek revenge and one of them dies.  In the aftermath, K.Dot realizes that he’s tired of running, dying of thirst, and turns his heart to what really matters.  Family.  God.  Reality.  And so emerges King Kendrick, rapping with Dr. Dre over triumphant Just Blaze production, announcing his arrival.

There are too many things to say about the album, but there are some things to stress.  One thing is that in emphasizing the albums importance and praising the concept, people don’t acknowledge how good the songs on the album are by themselves.  Kendrick links with Hit-Boy and Just Blaze and delivers straight up bangers with “Backseat Freestyle” and “Compton.”  He recreates a Drake-like atmosphere without any of the whine on the T-Minus helmed “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and gets a hit single.  The storytelling is so good on some songs that you forget he’s even rapping, and on the Pharrell produced “Good Kid” the rhyme schemes are so staggeringly impressive it takes multiple listens to even comprehend.  But the best moments are when Kendrick, armed with just his producers from his TDE squad, does what he’s done for the past three years now: show why he’s the best rapper alive.  “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is absolutely gorgeous, from the sung chorus to the harmony to the flow switch to the strings that come in at the end.  And Kendrick has the verse of the millennium at the end of “M.A.A.D. City,” his voice constantly changing, the tempo increasing, the beat rising, until declaring “Compton, U.S.A., made me an angel on angel dust” as G-Funk synths squeal in a generational confirmation.  It’s the best song of the year.

And that’s also what’s incredible about this album.  Kendrick Lamar, in his first major label appearance, takes aim at the most holy in rap music and destroys all false idolatry we’ve built around it while rejuvenating what made it special in the first place.  In a year where his label Top Dawg Ent. and all his Black Hippy made the West Coast relevant again, Kendrick completely rewrote the narrative.  He grappled with the hardest knots that hip hop has to offer and straight up untied them.  In the specificity of his own story, he created something that thousands of people can relate to.  Or as his mom says that the end of the album “I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes.  Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.”  His voice is heard in places way farther than Compton now.  All hail King Kendrick.

And that’s the list!  I know it’s late, but honestly every album here is much better than 99% of what’s been released this year, so if you haven’t checked these out than get on it.  Now on to newer things, and hopefully more albums of this caliber.  Hippo out.