Taking Us All Downtown: Macklemore’s Hip Hop History Lesson

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It’s not going well if Macklemore starts to feel like a best case scenario. That’s how it looked when 2015 started. After Macklemore swept the country as an independent rap sensation, the rising backlash against his cultural presence came to an eruption after he won the Best Rap Album Grammy over rap titans Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West (even I had something to say). Right after the Grammys he went into hiding; no more music, no more videos, no more performances. In his stead there was now a Post-Mackled world. There was Iggy Azalea, G-Eazy, and other white rappers that were pushed on us after Macklemore proved successful at being, as Kris Ex says in Macklemore’s return Complex cover, “the first rapper to dominate the commercial sphere by speaking from a purely white gaze.” At least Macklemore had something to say, seemed concerned by his white privilege and his distant relationship with rap’s core fanbase. But his comeback’s queasy attempt to pay homage to hip hop’s golden era proves he’s just as clueless as the rest of the record industry and that he hasn’t learned anything from his Grammy debacle.

At first he seemed harmless enough. His first comeback song landed with a thud. “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song)” carries all the same detritus that dragged his previous work. Sappy overwrought production courtesy of equal partner Ryan Lewis, banal cliched lyrics from Macklemore, and a feature from Ed Sheeran to symbolize the vanilla coating on Macklemore’s flavor. After a tepid response, it looked like maybe Macklemania was over. But “Growing Up” was only testing the waters; Macklemore had his big radio single waiting in the wings. “Downtown” hits all the marks of his previous massive singles: big soaring chorus, expensive goofy video, an innocuous inclusivity aimed at liberal America.

“Downtown” comes with some important distinctions that separate it from his previous massive singles “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” The silly concept of the video (a moped gang fight a la West Side Story) acts as a tribute to the old school park jams of Hip Hop’s birth. There’s the sparse breakbeat that’s the backbone of the song, the crew posturing in the video, the song title that recalls the downtown/uptown divide of New York in Hip Hop’s early years, but most notably there are the three features from OG legends: Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel. “Downtown” is a clear attempt by Macklemore to prove his Hip Hop bonafides. Even the most cynical critiques can’t take away the fact that three of the most important, most underappreciated legends in the game are on a pop song in 2015. Maybe the song really was made with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Downtown” is exactly the type of cultural carpetbagging that those old school rappers were afraid of in the first place.

If this is Macklemore’s response to the racial critiques of his victory lap, then it’s also indicative of why he received those critiques in the first place. His absurdist moped gangland fantasy infantilizes the genre that it uses as inspiration. Instead of reveling in the complexities that made Hip Hop special or acknowledging the unjust conditions that caused black kids in New York to create this new music, he takes only the fun parts and incorporates it into his white world. His split between serious “important” songs and fun “party” songs isn’t Hip Hop; the mixture of the two is the dynamic heart of the whole genre.

Even though he’s using hip hop’s glory days for self serving purposes, the action of putting those legends on the song would speak louder than anything. But if anything Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel are left in the dust on “Downtown,” reduced to nameless black men that form Macklemore’s posse in the background. Their moments in the song are all rapped together in a generic old school style, with no distinction between them. Even the video, while it throws their names on a marquee, makes no attempt to identify these legends that Macklemore is using for his own street cred, and rest assured his fanbase watching the video doesn’t know either. References are embedded within hip hop, with rappers shouting out influences or paying respect to history through more subtle ways. Macklemore’s failure to do that is a damning silence.

“Downtown” specializes in the smug, self-serving condescension that Macklemore has perfected. Once again, his attempt to join in the culture actually further serves to divide it further. His response to the cultural and racial appropriation critiques that have been leveled at him is basically “I know more about hip hop more than anyone else does.” Even more sinisterly, he’s claiming that he knows more about REAL hip hop than anybody else. For all of his grandstanding about white privilege, Macklemore still doesn’t know the one rule about being a white ally: cede the mic and let other voices be heard. Now, Melle Mel and others have called out current rap stars like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar for not being true to the culture, as if their ambitious musical work pushing for civil rights and black pride is less important to Hip Hop than Macklemore’s moped. Rap music has always been about innovation and the future. It makes sense that the harbinger of the white takeover of the genre would also be the one to musically commercialize its past.

“Downtown” did not do nearly as well as his older songs. It topped out at #6 on the Hip Hop/R&B chart and failed to crack the top ten on the Hot 100 (peaking at #12). Maybe it’s a sign that Macklemore fatigue really has set in, or maybe it’s that his fanbase does not care about these 50 year old rappers he put on the track. But just because he doesn’t explain who they are doesn’t mean they have to stay in anonymity.

Kool Moe Dee, one third of the Treacherous Three before a successful solo career, is most known for inventing battle rap as we know it. In his live battle with party rapper Busy Bee Starski in 1981, he focused his rhymes not on rocking the crowd but on shaming his opponent. A whole new aspect of rapping was born.

Grandmaster Caz was a member of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the most popular live rap acts in the early days. His greatest accomplishment isn’t even credited to him. His manager Big Bank Hank stole Caz’s rhymes for his verse on the first hip hop song to break nationally, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.

Melle Mel probably held the crown for best rapper alive before the Def Jam era. The lead MC for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel was the voice behind one of the greatest and most important rap songs ever made. “The Message” is a six minute tour de force rapped entirely by Melle Mel, starting political rap and pushing the genre into more conscious territory. Plus it bangs.

All of this material is more satisfying than “Downtown.” Hopefully they won’t be replaced by it.

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Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG

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I swear this will be done before 2015 ends.

Catch up on the list here.

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

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

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

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

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

Read the original review here.

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums Of 2014: Part 1

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Make like Birdman and fly into the past to view the best albums of 2013 and 2012 after this!

Much has been made out of the weakness of this year. None of our flagship superstars dropped any albums. The dearly departed A$AP Yams claimed that this was the worst year in hip hop history. Even I acknowledged that this year was a difficult one and that the normal album format for major labels doesn’t encompass what happened in 2014. We’re now a good fifteen years into the new century and we’re beginning to notice some trends; one of them being that the capitalistic enterprise of music (and all art) is starting to eat itself. We’ve got Grammy nominees being released on soundcloud for free! But nevertheless there were still great albums released this year and it is an injustice to focus on the negative without rewarding the positive! So here we go, the Hungry Hippopotamus best albums of the year!

But before we start, a few words. There is only ten albums on this years list. That’s not to discredit what would be #15-#11, but with all the turmoil this year they just didn’t seem as important. The music I loved this year took me to another place, and mainly sonically. I needed production that I could fall into, and that’s a trend on this list. For most of my life I’ve been obsessed the lyrical side of music; I suppose I’m maturing. With apologies to D’Angelo, Cozz, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Taylor McFerrin, Lana Del Rey, and Open Mike Eagle, we will begin.

10: DJ Quik – The Midnight Life

The 2014 Tim Duncan award for continued excellence as a veteran in the game goes to L.A’s own David Blake. DJ Quik is a legend here in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre may be the golden child taking his G-Funk and making it global, but Quik has and always will be the cult hero, L.A.’s own secret. He’s been producing and rapping for almost a quarter century now and his whole discography is pretty much unimpeachable. Now on his tenth studio album he sounds more vital than ever. There’s no overarching theme to The Midnight Life. It’s a collection of great songs that can play in the BBQ during summer. But it indirectly turns into a critique of modern pop rap, as if he’s challenging DJ Mustard and company to step up and make some more interesting tunes. Quik remains an underrated rapper, witty and spiteful, and he’s in fine form playing the curmudgeon. He eulogizes the death of gangsta rap and R&B on “Pet Semetary” and points out his relevance in “Puffin’ The Dragon.” But Quik is more than just a rapper; he’s a composer, a DJ. The Midnight Life is a tour of brilliant production, great guest spots, and anachronistic sounds. The album starts off with a skit where someone asks Quik what hip hop needs and he responds with “a banjo,” ands sure enough the first song features the dopest banjo riff in hip hop history. Then there’s the dance funkgasm of “Back That Shit Up,” the train rumblings of “Trapped On The Track,” the James Blake impression on “Shine” and the beautiful instrumental “Bacon’s Groove” which features Rob “Fonksta” Bacon just noodling guitar out of his mind. Quik has this incredible ability to make unorthodox sounds seem timeless, as if they were always meant to be there. It’s clear this invigorates his guests as well. Old and new west coast artists meet on The Midnight Life. Frequent Quik collaborator Suga Free slices through “Broken Down” like a warm knife, and Mack 10 of famed L.A. group Westside Connection just bulldozes the Troutman-on-steroids of “The Conduct.” Former Dre protégé Bishop Lamont is rescued on “Trapped On The Tracks” and Dom Kennedy continues his life as an American hero on “Life Jacket” (He starts off his verse with “Tryin to burn something, buy a lot of books these days, tryin to learn something”). In a year where Los Angeles became rap’s top city again, The Midnight Life is a reminder that it always has and always will be.

9: Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

In the millennial hype circuit, it’s hard for anybody to debut with a good chance. The only hope is to come out of the ether with no expectations and blow everybody way. There isn’t a much higher pressure than being the first A&R signing of the premier talent label in the game. So when Isaiah Rashad dropped his first project on Top Dawg Entertainment, there seemed to be no way that he could live up to the impeccable standards of the label of Kendrick and Black Hippy. More than living up to those standards, looking back you can make a case for Cilvia Demo being the best thing TDE did all year. Coming from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Isaiah does for southern music what Black Hippy did for L.A. He bleeds his influences and idols into a lo-fi jazzy intimate portrait of his life, adding layers to the original music that inspired him. His heroes are held up as role models for his own life, his music a safety net to fall into. But these clichés are saved by his own nuanced perspectives on his relationships. His familial ties come straight from Arthur Miller, as the specter of his deadbeat dad casts a shadow over everything in his life, from his relationship with his own son to his own childhood depression. Songs like “Heavenly Father” and “Hereditary” are some of the more moving ballads we heard in hip hop this year. No that this was an entirely somber affair. He spazzes out on tracks like “Webbie Flow” and “Modest” and drops knowledge and pays homage on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Brad Jordan.” Isaiah carries the entire project himself, none of his fellow TDE stars join in until the last song. But what’s most chilling about the tape was Isaiah’s foresight, where on first single “Ronnie Drake” he raps into his sons eyes “I hope they don’t kill you cuz you black today, they only feel you when you pass away.” Cilvia Demo is the best debut in a year filled with them and Isaiah Rashad wins the 2014 Rookie Of The Year for being able to toss aside the pressures and make an archetypal coming of age album while keeping his personality and sound intact. Hopefully he can stay the course on TDE.

Read the original review here

8: Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

 It takes guts to stare at something as deep as something as death and not come away sounding corny. But Flying Lotus is not afraid of big ideas. His previous albums have tackled the city he’s from, the inner workings of the mind, and nothing less than the universe itself. But You’re Dead! is the most impressive of these works because Flying Lotus doesn’t deal with abstraction here. This is death in all its horror; the pain of a lost loved one, the grotesquerie of the afterlife, the relief of passing. It takes a gentle touch to be able to balance all these emotions, especially instrumentally. You’re Dead! flies through at a breakneck speed, with the usual experimentalist quality of his past work underwritten by some of the strongest musicianship he’s ever had. Anchored by compatriot bassist Thundercat and the rest of his Brainfeeder crew, Flying Lotus got a dream team of collaborators to fill out his acid jazz dreams. Legends Herbie Hancock and Ennio Morricone drop by while Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg cement FlyLo’s status as the reigning west coast wizard. But this is still a singular work of art from the man himself. Even though he was dealing with live musicians, Flying Lotus said he treated them as samples, piecing their work into a larger tapestry. And it shows; the Kendrick assisted Dylan Thomas styled piece de resistance of “Never Catch Me” slots right in front Snoops macabre humor in “Dead Man Walking.” Everything is placed in just the right spot for the journey. The opening orchestration of “Theme,” the elegant guitar lick of “Turkey Dog Coma,” and the stunning crescendo of “Ascension” which transforms You’re Dead! into a cathartic release and if it doesn’t bring you to tears then you forgot how to listen to a whole album. To face something like death with such earnestness, without pretention, irony, or sarcasm, to handle loss and tragedy in such an open way, this is what art and hip hop is all about. Here’s hoping Flying Lotus can bring some of his mojo to the rest of the rap scene.

7: Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

 

Nicki Minaj may have had an all star year that solidified her status as the queen of rap, but she’s certainly not alone anymore. Azealia Banks swept the rug from under her when she dropped her debut album with no warning. Looking back it’s an absolute triumph, but there was a possibility that Broke With Expensive Taste was never going to see the light of day. After breaking through with the explosive “212” four years ago, Azealia spent the ensuing years sabotaging her career through petulant internet feuds, label disputes, and an overall bad attitude. But the talent was always there, as her mixtapes and EP’s proved, and after Interscope decided they didn’t want anything to do with Azealia, they still let her keep this album so she could release it on an independent label. It’s their loss. Broke With Expensive Taste is an essential album of the zeitgeist, an explosion of ideas that carry across multiple genres. The punk rock of “Yung Rapunxel,” the vogue pop of “Soda” and “Chasing Time,” the surf rock of “Nude Beach A Go Go,” the jazzy boom bap of “Desperado” or the Latin euphoria of “Gimme A Chance,” it’s a perfect textbook for hip hop’s globalization. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Azealia, who proves her talent with every bar. She switches between dense internal rhymes to diva soaked singing even better than her pop counterparts Nicki and Drake, and she’s great at both. Even the least essential of her songs here can be saved by her brash wit and slippery flow. A couplet off opener “Idle Delilah,” “He said the puss deeper than the deep blue sea, indeed the puss deeper than the three Fugees.” A love letter to the diversity of New York, it’s the best and most vibrant work the mecca of hip hop has put out all decade. With beats that travel the world but a verbal style rooted in the streets of Harlem, Broke With Expensive Taste is a brilliant, messy, kaleidoscope of sounds. Nicki may have wanted to lay out a blueprint for female rappers with her album The Pinkprint, but Azealia’s beat her to the punch. Brash, arrogant, introspective, and intimate, this is an album that proves there’s no barriers for not just female rappers but all of hip hop. And with her incisive comments on the state of the genre, hopefully she stays around for a while.

Read the original review here.

 

6: Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Oxymoron isn’t what we thought or wanted it to be. The sequencing is so terrible that a common consumer doesn’t know where the deluxe tracks begin or end. Lead singles “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” were made after the album to give it pop appeal and don’t mesh with the rest of the work. The major label mishandling has been symbolic of the tragic fall of TDE, the indie label that doesn’t seem to know how to handle the big time. But now we’re in an ironic situation that the most anticipated album of 2014 has transformed to the most underrated. Oxymoron is, at its heart, an uncompromising slice of L.A. gang life. Kendrick may be digestible for the masses, but Q’s work is Greek tragedy; watching the one’s who do the worst live the best, being forced into habits that slowly destroy you, or “living to die-oxymoron.” This is what gangsta rap’s been about for decades now and Q peels back his life for a first person demonstration. There’s no tidy cinematic structure but his personal story is all there, splattered over the record like a Jackson Pollack painting. “Hoover Street” flashes back to Q’s childhood, being shown his first gun and watching his uncle steal for drug money. “Los Awesome” is the manic gangsta party before drifting into the soft sounds of addiction that foreshadow “His & Her Fiend.” “Prescription/Oxymoron” is a vivid depiction of his cycle between drug dealing, abuse, and addiction. “Blind Threats” is his moment of doubt in the gardens of Gethsemane while “Break The Bank” is his moment of resolve, knowing he’s doing it for his daughter and his music. “Hell Of A Night” is the hedonistic party that never finds the relief he craves. This is usually the part where I say all of this is held together by Schoolboy Q, but Oxymoron is messy and abrasive. The same goes for the beats, a master selection of unorthodox sounds that still find a groove thanks to a who’s who of L.A. producers (TDE’s own Digi-Phonics crew, Alchemist, Tyler the Creator, DJ Dahi) and all-star draft picks that know how to make the bad sound good (Mike Will Made It, Pharrell, Clams Casino). And Quincy can still rap his ass off. He’s traded his youthful hunger for a weathered snarl and scope-like vision. He can easily mow down a sparse beat as he can build up a breathtaking story.Oxymoron is a slower, deeper, darker album than its predecessor Habits & Contradictions. To look at the tiny flaws is to miss the triumph of the whole. The fact that it was released at all should be celebrated as a miracle.

Read the original review here.

 

That’s it for part one! Yes I am aware that four of the five albums were from L.A., but that’s because it’s the best city in the world making the best music in the world. Check back soon for the top five albums of the year and see if we can travel around the country!

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!

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.

Oxymoronic Expectations

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I’ve made no secret of my TDE fandom. I write about them more than any other group and constantly profess my admiration for the quality and impact of their work. In the last five years, Top Dawg Entertainment has gone from being a regional curiosity to an independent critical darling to a full fledged major player in the rap game. They have played everything to perfection, building off of each success and positioning themselves for the inevitable industry takeover. After using Kendrick’s coronation to expand their empire, 2014 finds them in full on attack mode. Thus Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q’s first major label album, represents the most important moment for the young label. It’s a chance to prove that Kendrick’s commercial success was more than just a fluke, that the label is more than just a one trick pony. And if you don’t know, now you know: TDE runs deep. Oxymoron debuted as the label’s first album to hit number one on the charts. But even with it’s commercial impact secure, is Oxymoron up to the task of stepping out of the gigantic shadow of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Will Q be able to make the same cultural waves that K. Dot did?

It’s important to note that Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar are wildly different artists. What makes Black Hippy such a great group is that all of the MC’s are very distinct, but Q and K. Dot are on the opposite poles. Kendrick is fluid like water, his flow filling every crack in the beat. Every verse, every bridge, ever hook is methodical and perfectly placed. He’s a technician first and foremost. But Quincy is fire. He raps with a chaotic, scorched earth flow, decimating the beat and reshaping it into his image. There’s an improvisational quality to his rhymes, bars that seem to come from him from the ether straight onto the track. Q is one of the best rappers right now, but he specializes in flow and energy rather than the lyricism that Kendrick has helped make popular last year. He’s the Charlie Parker to Kendrick’s Miles Davis, his verses are furious drug induced supernova’s over Kendrick’s perfectly calm and collected rapping clinics. But it was Kendrick’s level headed brilliance that was needed for the unbelievable critical and commercials success of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. A concept album tailored for critical adoration and grammy nominations, Kendrick warped major label demands into his vision, not the other way around. Each single felt like part of the album without losing any radio play, with Drake a supporting character, Lady Gaga a disembodied robot voice, and Mary J. Blige a bonus feature. With every single young talented rapper of the last decade instantly promoted as a “savior” or the genre and faced with the task of creating the perfect major label album, it is hard to underestimate how impressive it is that Kendrick actually did it.

The biggest fault of Oxymoron is that Schoolboy Q tried to create a Kendrick record. It aims for the major label grandeur without hitting the sublime cinematic vision of his cohort’s debut. There’s no concept tying it all together. The sequencing is shoddy and the singles have no relationship to some of the album cuts. But Q’s best qualities aren’t well suited for the formal structure of that kind of album. Habits & Contradictions thrived because of it’s madcap pace, with Quincy ricocheting from hook to bridge to verse to ad-lib with no warning, creating a musical tapestry that rivals anything Kendrick has done. Some of that improvisation is lost in the major label transition. This is partially due to the tone, Oxymoron is much slower and darker than it’s predecessor, but it’s also due to the more standard arrangement of the songs. This doesn’t mean that Oxymoron is bad though; it’s a fantastic album that’s loaded front to back. It’s not the “GKMC 2: From Tha Streetz” that a lot of critics were hoping for and it’s clear that Schoolboy Q had no interest in creating something like that to begin with (more than likely that’ll be Jay Rock’s next project and it will blow our minds). Instead, Oxymoron is a snarling slice of glimmering darkness, a disconcerting trip into Q’s gangsta past.

The obvious highlights of the album are where Q succeeds in reaching his ambitious peaks. “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” are both epic songs; two part suites that refract the tape’s main themes. “Hoover Street” starts with Q lobbing off nightmares over Thundercat’s bass licks before the beat changes and he details his introduction into the Crips. With frightening clarity, Schoolboy brings to life the roaches in his cereal, his backwards hoodie with the eyes cut out, his uncle trading him whiskey for clean piss, and his grandma spoiling him with video games and new clothes. But when he recounts his first meeting with the Crips, the story takes on an incredible meta-quality. “Rat-Tone my nigga’s brother showed me my first K, I was amazed, me and Floyd was in the back, he called us over like ‘hey, YAWK YAWK YAWK YAWK!’ We was like ‘Damn nigga…’ the way he said cuz turned us to a fan nigga.” That story is interchangeable with the way many of Q’s fan’s heard of his music, how the ad libs and the slang are appealing. In illuminating his own past, he sheds light on rap’s transcendent connection to drug and street life. It’s a brilliant piece of story telling from a rapper who doesn’t usually dabble in that area. “Prescription/Oxymoron” showcases the same skill set, this time focuses on his own addiction to both selling and consuming Oxycontin pills. These are the artistic, ambitious, focused songs that everyone wanted out of Oxymoron and they are just as good and maybe better than anything that Kendrick or any other peer has done.

The album runs real dark. This is LA Gangsta rap reincarnated, filled with pimps and hos, addicts and dealers, gunshots and gangbangers. It’s almost jarring to hear an actual gangsta rap album in 2014 considering how it has been commercial cyanide for nearly a decade. But just because there’s no radical reinvention here does not mean it isn’t successful. TDE created a new language using the vernacular of their youth (doo doo! yawk yawk! bluh bluh!) and where Kendrick used it as a thematic diving board for GKMC, Schoolboy Q uses it aesthetically. Gun shots that have become inside jokes are restored with their original menace, so completely that it almost loses the fun. But Quincy pulls it off, snarling throughout the album, slowing down his hedonistic flow while sharpening his bars. He reminds you he’s eating now because he used to be starving. He reminds you that being groovy means being a crip from Hoover and black hippy takes on a whole new meaning.

This album has some extraordinary rapping that takes a while to sink in because Q’s delivery is the first thing that pops out on you. Musical chaos abounds here, buzzing walls of sounds that Q carves into song. There’s a gritty beauty in the songwriting, jagged hooks that manage to stick with you. It’s reminiscent of a rap game Velvet Underground, creating a magnetic pull through some off putting sounds. Check out “Los Awesome,” a march of buzzing synths that Q not only manages to rap over, but actually creates a party track. Or “His And Her Friend,” all layered voices over clicks and whirrs before SZA adds in some jazzy singing. The production is pretty astonishing all over the album. Producing duo Nez & Rio showcase their chemistry with Schoolboy Q, creating menacing beds for Q to fall into on “Gangsta,” “Fuck LA,” and “Californication.” The star producers manage to fit the style as well. Tyler, The Creator laces “The Purge” with something absolutely sinister, with just a slow synth whine accompanying Q and Death Row legend Kurupt as they go so hard they might hurt themselves. Mike Will Made It forgoes the usual bombast of his radio jams as Q sounds downright evil on “What They Want.” The real highlight however is Alchemist. The L.A. producer is in the midst of one of the greatest runs in history, fusing Venice Beach psychedelia with New York boom bap and displaying almost perfect taste in collaborators. “Break The Bank” is a momentous achievement with Quincy summarizing all of Oxymoron into three breathtaking verses, switching up his flow every other bar. It’s the best song on the album and will probably be the best of the year.

This is all to say that Oxymoron is a dense piece of work, a kinetic, confrontational album that takes time to unravel. The hooks take time to connect and Schoolboy Q remains on the All-Rap first team this year, hiding incredible detail and clever wordplay in the cracks. The sound is much different than the warm, jazzy soundtracks that TDE is known for, but the original architects are all over the album. The Digi-Phonics have all done some great work in the past, but it’s Sounwave who has distinguished himself as the one to watch. Not only was he behind the most ambitious songs of the set, “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron,” but his touches are all over the album, adding dramatic string arrangements to “Gangsta” and “Blind Threats.” But these are all subtleties and not the first thing that springs out at you. What does is the dissonance between the dark themes and the light radio singles and the lack of focus on the journey. Quincy has spoke on the major label insistence on some radio singles while he wanted to make a purely gangsta album. He wrote “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” at the same time, and you can tell it wasn’t in the spirit of the rest of the album. But they’re not necessarily bad in of themselves, in fact they’re quite good songs. It’s fun to watch Q just do his thing over a good beat, and his effortlessness is much more suited to the radio than Kendrick is. And even among the awkward sequencing, there are great moments that show that Q can find the radio without any other meddling. “Man Of The Year” is a dark party track, with DJ Dahi’s beat building to an EDM drop that never comes. And “Studio” is a fantastic ladies jam, with Q singing and singing well, creating a song that Kendrick could never make.

Is this album better than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? I suppose not. GKMC was hailed as a classic instantly, and even though it wasn’t a number one album it still sold more than Oxymoron in it’s first week. Oxymoron matches the amount of raw talent but doesn’t have the ambition or construction that a classic needs. But it’s unfair to judge it strictly in the shadow of the most influential album of the young decade. Schoolboy Q has created a deep, impressive major label album that showcases his uniqueness as a solo artist, and allows the larger themes inflect his album rather than be the showcase. Oxymoron takes time to grow, and it has become my favorite album of the year and that was after listening to it for a while. Hopefully by the end of the year, music critics will realize Oxymoron for the great work it is. But it doesn’t matter, Top Dawg Entertainment has never played by the rules. They’ll keep winning. Q will keep knocking down the doors.