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

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

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

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

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That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled, fuckboy Jihad, kill infidels, Allahu Akbar, BOOM from Mike and El.”

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Best Albums Of 2013: Part 1

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gravity (188) Animated Gif on Giphy

It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…

2013 was the year of the failed blockbuster.  From television to Hollywood, 2013 was filled with capital E Events, from epic finales to world ending movies.  And the music industry was no different.  Every week seemed to bring a new album hyped up by extravagant promotional tactics.  Justin Timberlake started it off by teasing his new album with a video and then became unavoidable through his commercial sponsors, but it only got more absurd.  Daft Punk played a 15 second video at Coachella, Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs, Katy Perry drove a truck on a cross country road trip, Arcade Fire donned giant heads in a fake band, and Lady Gaga spent $25 million of Interscope’s money creating an immersive party/performance art piece for her album’s launch.  This opulence spread to Hip Hop as well.  Kanye used guerilla fighters to display his face on buildings around the world.  Jay-Z scored an unprecedented deal with Samsung that sold a million copies before the album even dropped. Drake dropped off remixes and loosies that kept the internet buzzing and the radio spinning at 4 in the morning.  Even Eminem joined in on the high stakes, low reward fun by dropping a sequel to his classic Marshall Mathers LP and appearing on everything from Call Of Duty commercials to ESPN.  But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  This year felt like major label rap’s reaction to the excellence of last year, with a new generation of internet bred rappers collectively raising the bar for radio rap.  J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Pusha T, Drake, and all of the young major label signees released albums that tried to copy the grandeur and scope of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and even if they failed it still produced some of the better rap we’ve heard on the radio in a long time.  Things like “concept albums” and “lyricism” and “artistic talent” are being hailed as something good again.  Rap has taken over as the critically lauded genre.  Pitchfork ranked Drake and Kanye as their top 2 songs of the year.  Spin put Kanye and Chance as one and two on their best albums of the year and even ranked ATL dystopian strip club producer Mike Will Made It as their artist of the year.  So even though 2013 sometimes felt like a down year and maybe even a death knell for the “big albums,” there are more great things are on the way.  And there were still some dope albums.  Without further ado, the #hungryhippopotamus best albums of the year!

P.S.: There are maybe a couple non rap albums on this list and I feel silly about it.  I can’t judge how good they are because I can’t even pretend to say I listened to everything rock/edm/indie/R&B etc etc…, but I would also feel silly leaving them out because they were some of my favorites of the year.  So take them with a grain of salt.  Except the rap, that’s completely factual and true.

15: Young Thug – 1017 Thug

Brick Squad could have been one of the top crews this year.  Gucci Mane had positioned himself as a godfather of the New ATL movement and released a staggering number of projects that all ranged from ok to really good, Waka Flocka Flame put out his most exciting music in years, and a slew of new members helped secure the Squad’s new identity.  Unfortunately it all self-combusted as Flocka bailed and Gucci had a very public meltdown where he called out every rapper in the game on twitter.  But the brightest spot in all this was Young Thug, who’s 1017 Thug tape was one of the benchmarks for the new Atlanta production and the best thing Brick Squad did all year.  The beats just sparkle all over, with production from new ATL stalwarts such as Dun Deal, TM88, 808 Mafia, and C4.  Synths twinkle over skittering Hi-Hats, creating joyous hooks that needle into your brain and stay there.  But it doesn’t upstage Thugga himself, one of the most interesting rappers around right now.  Sounding like a cross between Lil Wayne and Future, Young Thug yelps, chirps, and raps unhinged throughout the whole tape. Riding unconventional flows, the beauty of the tape is how he’s able to make seemingly jarring noises into catchy strong songs.  Whether it’s through repetition on “2 Cups Stuffed,” or outright operatic singing on “Condo Music,” Young Thug finds his way around square pegs and forces them into round holes seamlessly.  Atlanta’s new digital drone may have found it’s way to radio this year, but 1017 Thug is proof that it sounds best paired with the ATL rapper who can outweird it.

     

14: Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers Two

Don Trip and Starlito, two rappers from from Tennessee, were hard working solo artists who made a lot of noise when they teamed up to make one of the best albums of 2011 with Step Brothers.  Inspired by the Will Ferrell film, the two rappers displayed absurd amounts of chemistry as both of them tried to one up the other with each song.  It was the closest thing there was to vintage Lil Wayne when Weezy was busy making songs for soccer moms.  A lot of good it did them.  Two years later, Trip and ‘Lito are still stuck in record label hell with just a devoted fan base to show for their efforts.  So instead of the free spirited fun that powered the original, Step Brothers Two is a combination of vivid emotional clarity and complex lyricism. Don Trip and Starlito prove once again that they’re one of the best duos around, with Trip’s high pitched wheeze matching perfectly with Lito’s sleep deprived drawl.  Starlito raps in run on sentences where he just keeps layering his points upon points, while Don Trip raps as if he’s about to detonate at any second, punctuating all of his lines with perfect end notes.  And they sound best when working together, whether it’s on the Shakespearean betrayal of “Caesar & Brutus” or a story of gun violence on “Leash On Life.”  Starlito and Don Trip have the type of chemistry that ranks with the best of them and simply can’t be taught.  Here’s hoping they find another Will Ferrell movie to inspire them.

 

13: Curren$y – New Jet City

The cliche that Curren$y is the hardest working stoner is getting old.  After years of running the mixtape circuit, his major label debut The Stoned Immaculate didn’t elevate him into the upper echelon last year like he hoped.  Taking a left turn, Curren$y spent most of 2013 putting on for his team Jet Life, securing a distribution deal with BitTorrent and releasing group tapes and collaborative EP’s.  But that still left New Jet City, the only solo project that Curren$y dropped all year.  It plays like an inversion of his major label album, a big budget project gone to the dirty south.  The beats range among the most varied Curren$y’s ever tried, from the horn stabs of “New Jet City” to the EDM riff of “Coolie In The Cut” to the interstellar boom bap of “Clear.”  Curren$y remains a deceptively strong rapper who’s usually relies on his effortless flows but New Jet City ends up standing above the rest of his work because of his hooks.  Without even trying, Spitta Andretti accomplished what he was trying to do with The Stoned Immaculate; create a radio friendly album.  Credit that to his self awareness and knowing exactly how far he can push his style without losing his quality.  High profile rap stars like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, and French Montana sound equally comfortable rapping with him as older legends like Styles P, Jadakiss, or Juvenile.  And for a laid back rapper, Curren$y has evolved his style into one of the most unpredictable flows in the game.  He can slow it down to a syllabic crawl on “Bitch Get Up” or he can body a double time flow on “Mary.”  But he’s at his best when he combines his relaxed charm with his “put it on a t-shirt” lyrics like he does on “Choosin.”  As long as Curren$y stays fly, his music won’t be coming down anytime soon.

 

12: Haim – Days Are Gone

These three sisters from LA are about the farthest thing there is from Hip Hop so it speaks volumes that they’ve already collaborated with Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Childish Gambino.  So far this decade guitar groups have been practically irrelevant.  Most of the big rock bands have copied electronica producers and dealt mostly in textures and mood rather than riffs and power chords.  Arcade Fire teamed up with indie-electronic producer extraordinaire James Murphy to create a stadium dance record.  Vampire Weekend retreated into their textbooks and spent 45 minutes lightly treading over soft melodies.  My Bloody Valentine returned triumphant to an indie landscape completely influenced by their shoegaze dronings.  Haim blasted through all the fog with their pitch perfect pop rock debut Days Are Gone.  They are a reincarnation of Fleetwood Mac, with every song on the album a possible hit if it was 1977.  But the album isn’t just a nostalgia trip.  It’s remarkable in its ability to channel the Laurel Canyon influences of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks and put a modern edge to it.  See the Prince-esque gasps of “Falling,” or the Jack White dirty guitar wobble of “My Song 5.”  The harmonies, the riffs, the hooks, Haim makes all these old-fashioned songwriting tropes fresh again.  It’s like you’re hearing rock and roll for the first time.

 

11: Childish Gambino – Because The Internet

Donald Glover is the renaissance man of the 21st century.  He’s a stand up comic who became internet-famous for his sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy.  He won an Emmy as a writer for 30 Rock and plays a main character on the cult TV show Community.  And he’s the rapper inspired by the Wu-Tang Name Generator, Childish Gambino.  Gambino’s writing bears the wit of someone who wrote for Tina Fey but that’s a gift and a curse.  Sometimes he has laugh out loud “I can’t believe he thought of that” bars and then sometimes it feels like a bad sketch on SNL.  When he avoids cornball jokes to delve into serious territory, he merely reiterates the trailblazing of Kanye and Drake, hoping to stir up racial norms but just ends up being unimaginative.  In some ways, Because The Internet succeeds because Gambino has found better source material.  Opener “The Crawl” sounds like a burnt out Ab-Soul and “Urn” openly apes for Frank Ocean’s lingering soul.  But the biggest influence here is Kendrick, who’s cinematic vision is being emulated here quite literally.  Not only are their sketches in the middle of songs, but the tracklisting is numbered like a play and there is an accompanying screenplay.  Ambition doesn’t equal success however, and the second half of the tape falls apart under the weight of the concept.  Punctuated by strong sections of rapping, the latter half is simply a mess, with sloppy transitions, no hooks, and no focus whatsoever.  Maybe it works better when paired with the script.  Because The Internet arrives on this list because the first half is one of the strongest collections of songs this year with Childish Gambino finally using all his talent to full advantage.  He’s improved tremendously as a rapper, pairing his best punchline bars with a double time flow on “Sweatpants” or playing around with his voice on “Worldstar.”  His beats have gotten way better as well, using sunny wah wah guitars at the end of “The Worst Guys” or inviting space funk bassist Thundercat to rumble over “Shadows.”  Childish Gambino uses the album not necessarily as a large concept album about the internet (although he might, I haven’t read the screenplay), but as a way to show how people relate to their surroundings with all the constant stimulation.  And it allows a glorious look inside his head on “Telegraph,” where you hear Gambino start listening to a song on the radio and then starts singing along, until it actually turns into his song.  The album may be a bit of a mess, but there are more than enough good parts to make up for it.    

http://vimeo.com/80831476

(can’t play it here because it’s private, but that’s the link to “The Worst Guys” music video.  You should watch it, Chance The Rapper smokes a doobie on a surfboard. The password is 12.10.13SIXTY)

10: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

It’s like Ghostface Killah said.  All you need for great rap is just fly rhymes over dope beats.  And that’s exactly what Run The Jewels was.  After an incredible 2012 which found Killer Mike releasing the best political album in recent memory and El-P emerging as a godfather to the new New York underground and updating his signature dystopian production style, Run The Jewels sees the duo teaming up for an old school beat em up record.  Without the constraints of serious topics, Killer Mike and El-P just show off their chemistry and mic skills to fantastic results.  The real hero of the tape is Mike, who is quietly asserting himself as an All-Rap first team candidate.  He rifles down the competition on “Sea Legs,” goes on a drug addled romantic tryst on “No Come Down” and just rips apart the beat on some Arnold Schwarzenegger steez in “Job Well Done.”  El-P does a great job as sidekick here and the chemistry between the two is fantastic.  But his real addition for the tape is the head knocking beats.  He abandons his sci-fi apocalyptic fervor to create an old-school boom bap canvas that put Eminem and his Rick Rubin beats to shame.  Every beat sounds like it was made out metal, which underlines the two MC’s threats perfectly as they chew their way through it.  El-P even brings old school legend DJ Q-Bert to scratch on “Get It.”  This is the type of old school rap album that everyone was clamoring for in 2013.  Here’s hoping the sequel (coming out in 2014) will be just as good.

 

9: Juicy J – Stay Trippy

For Juicy J, “stay trippy” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a life motto.  It’s how a 38 year old rapper who’s prime was behind him ended up becoming king of the ratchets and a radio staple.  He rewrote the rap book on second acts.  Noticing the influence of his old group Three 6 Mafia on a whole generation of young fans, Juicy J jumped into the internet head first and linked up with aspiring young producers like Lex Luger and Mike Will Made It who looked up to him as a hero.  Signing with Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang (easily the most successful pairing of old rapper with young rapper) and scoring a huge hit with “Bands A Make Her Dance,” Juicy had a coalition of fans that other artists would envy.  Stay Trippy finds him balancing summer radio jams, dark Memphis murder raps, and ethereal stoner trance without losing any of his core identity.  It was the party album of the summer.  There are no awkward radio grabs and no forced collaborations.  Every song is a showcase for a master at work.  He makes his features come into his world, not the other way around, as he creates the hooks himself for “Bands” and “Bounce It.”  “Wax” sounds like heaven opened its doors for a devil to come through while “Gun Plus A Mask” is a horror movie on record.  And even though Juicy stays in his own lane he still manages to surprise, like when he combines a posthumous Pimp C verse with a Weekend sample on “Smokin Rollin”, or creates a love song with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on “The Woods” (which is seriously the best thing JT has done all year. How is this not a single??).  Stay Trippy plays out like Juicy J is in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” a professional partier who’s hedonism is hard work.  By the time it ends with “If I Ain’t,” his words become anthems; “If it ain’t kush it won’t touch my lighter, I only smoke that shit that get me higher.  If it ain’t drank it ain’t in my cup, it gotta be that purple and yellow; I’m turning up.”  Stay trippy indeed.

 

8: Kanye West – Yeezus

Has there even been an album like Yeezus before?  Has a monolithic pop star at the peak of his career ever released an album this divisive?  No wonder it drew the respect of the late Lou Reed. It’s easy to forget about the music of Yeezus when so much of Kanye’s press was about other factors.  The guerilla album rollout.  His “no art” album art.  His press run of rants on Jools Holland, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sway In The Morning.  His too fake to be real relationship with Kim Kardashian.  His immense national tour.  His confederate flag appropriating tour merchandise.  All of that leaves Yeezus in a tough position.  It is easy for it to be merely a symbol for Kanye West, the divisive cultural figure.  But even without all of that, the music would speak for itself.  The production hits like a sledgehammer, Daft Punk produced house music edged down with Rick Rubin’s boom bap.  The minimalistic setting lets every sound have meaning: the glitchy synths of “On Sight,” the drum roll of “Black Skinhead,” Chief Keef’s distorted mumble on “Hold My Liquor,” the horn blasts of “Blood On The Leaves.”  And above it all is Kanye, who snarls about civil rights and croons about sexual wrongs in the same breath before coming to the best ending the year had after Breaking Bad.  Egotists like Kanye rarely make something as focused as Yeezus, so give credit to Mr. West that his genius is able to be reeled in.  And just in case there was doubt that Kanye isn’t the most eminent taste maker this world has seen since Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and Jesus Christ and Fabio, note how even this abrasive single-less album has found it’s way into the heart of pop culture.  Whether it’s “Black Skinhead” playing on commercials, James Franco and Seth Rogen parodying his music videos, or his silhouette hanging from a poplar tree the same night as Miley twerked for the nation, Kanye has proved he’s the epicenter of pop culture even when he’s trying to push everyone away.  Yeezus isn’t the best album of the year but it might be the most important.

Do Dope, Fuck Hope, Run Jewels

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I’m not going to say that rap has entered another golden age because that would be short-sighted, but the era of the internet looks as if it has finally reached up to its potential.  New talented artists crawl out of the blogs every week, barriers dividing regions have crumbled, and artistic and creative energies are flowing everywhere.  This can have negative effects.  Local rap scenes are dying out to national trends, and the ease with which verses can be spent has led to diluted songs and shallow partnerships.  But Run The Jewels, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, shows how great this post-modern era of hip hop can be.  Two veterans from two very different rap traditions thriving off of a symbiotic relationship that simply would not exist just five years ago.  Killer Mike is an heir to the Dungeon Family, debuting on Outkast’s Stankonia and blazing through a unique career that has blended trap rap with political fury, drug dealing with gospel.  El-P might as well be from another planet, being a member of legendary underground New York label Rawkus Records and then founding Def Jux.  As a producer, he captured post 9/11 New York better than any musician on the planet.  It’s dense and apocalyptic, seething with paranoia, dread, and pain.  Both artists are anti-heroes in their own regions, throwing middle fingers up at anything and anyone.  And now they’ve teamed up to steal all your jewelry.

This collaboration is a couple years deep now.  El-P produced Killer Mike’s magnum opus R.A.P. Music from last year and the two have rapped together on that album’s “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” and El-P’s “Tougher Colder Killer” from his very good album from last year Cancer 4 Cure.  With Run The Jewels, the eponymous (FREE!!!) album from the duo, the MC connection is furthered.  Run The Jewels is a great record in a way that’s markedly different from their previous offerings; it’s laid back and fun.  Stripped of the heavy political content of their solo works, the only theme driving this album is old school sensibilities.  The beats are more bare (but no less hard hitting) than El-P’s normal work and the rapping is all shit-talk. finding success in how these two rappers play off and one up the other.  When Jay-Z and Kanye teamed up for Watch The Throne, one of the highlights of the album was how they actually sounded like a duo and made the tape cohesive, and that was a partnership that was decades in the making!  El-P and Killer Mike have been working together for maybe a little under two years and they’ve found a chemistry that takes a lifetime to master.  They trade off short verses, know when to let the other take the reins, finish each others sentences, and simply love working together .  Their respect for each other is palpable throughout the record.  On “Banana Clipper,” Mike states “producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year.  I said El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck outta here!”  And El-P in numerous interviews and tweets has said that he considers Killer Mike to be the greatest rapper alive.  Now that’s a bit overboard but Mike goes it a little more credence on this record because he just goes OFF.  He’s always been a great rapper, but let loose on just old school subjects like braggadocio and shit-talk, it’s incredible to see him work.  “I feel my sanity slippin and I think I like the freedom, cannibal, animal, rappers I eat em! Even in Dubai I smoke like it’s legal, bitch so exotic she rode on a zebra”.  The same goes for El-P, who isn’t as impressive as Killer Mike but still does a great job, focusing his off kilter, sky-is-coming-down speed raps into hard hitting threats.  Run The Jewels is a brief thrill ride at just over a half hour, and leaves you wanting to put it on again as soon as it stops.

 

While Run The Jewels was a laid back exercise for the two veterans, there was nothing relaxed about their live shows.  For two sold out back to back shows at San Francisco, Killer Mike and El-P transformed a packed house into church.  The set went like this: Kool A.D. (1/2 of Das Racist) opened, and then Despot, El-P’s little sidekick friend, went next (and did a great job!  Apparently he has an album coming out all produced by Ratatat and it sounded great.  On my hannukah wish list).  Then Killer Mike and El-P each did a solo set before performing together.  They both know how to put on a show and the solo sets served to highlight their differences.  Killer Mike is a huge dude, and watching him hulk and huff through his catalog was astonishing.  He barks like an unhinged dog, seizing the moments when the beat drops to capture the entire crowd by himself.  I could have watched the whole show acapella.  In fact, he performed “Reagan” acapalla, rapping slow with the audience repeating his line.  It was the greatest history class I’ve ever been a part of him and it was hard not to get chills when he had the whole audience foaming at the mouth, screaming “FUCK RONALD REAGAN.”  Mike doesn’t shy away from these tricky areas.  He reminded everyone about Oscar Grant, a sensitive issue only about a week after the George Zimmerman verdict, before launching into “Burn.”  Mike has that ability to remind everyone of the cathartic power that rap specifically has.  When he sat down and preached in the form of “God In The Building,” it was soul-baring.  I don’t know of many rappers or artists who can do that.

El-P looks a little goofy compared to Mike. but still put on a great show.  His backing band, a keyboardist and a guitarist, transformed his swirling dystopian soundscapes into rock anthems and I swore a mosh pit was going to break out.  As cerebral as underground rap can feel, there’s a real size to El-P’s music, capable of handling synth noodlings and guitar solos.  After his set was finished and he came back with Killer Mike, wearing large gold chains, I was amazed at how they were both still standing, dancing to the beat, high-fiving on cue, and giving it their all.   But like Mike said, “I was thinking about taking it easy tonight, because the show last night went really late and I’m tired.  And then my grandma’s voice popped in my head and said….Boy are you crazy!?!?”  If only every performer had Killer Mike’s grandma.

Best Albums of 2012 (Part 1)

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So before I go into the whole business of letting everyone know what’s going on in hip hop, I feel the need to recap 2012.  It was a phenomenal year, filled with incredible music, and raised the bar for the whole rap game.  Other than the fact that I’ve been thinking about this list obsessively for the past six months, I’m posting this list because its helpful to know the benchmarks that everything right now is influenced and judging itself by.  Also, they’re all banging albums and if you’re a fan of the genre then all of them should be on your ipod or spotify playlists.  After each write up, the music videos from the album are presented in the order they’re released.  I find it helpful so you can see how the artist is choosing to visually represent the work they made.  There might be a lot or a little.  So if you wanna hear the album without putting in the effort to getting it, there you go!  Without further ado, here is part 1.

10: E-40 – The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil

There were so many great albums released this year that this spot was probably the hardest to pick.  It could have gone to either of Curren$y’s projects, or any of the free EP’s he released last year.  It could have gone Alchemist’s Russian Roulette, his concept album made entirely of russian jazz samples and the best rappers in the game.  It could have gone to Flying Lotus’ alter ego Captain Murphy for his creepy awesome cult mixtape.  It could even have gone to Chief Keef’s mind numbing debut album (look I just made an honorable mentions list within the list).  But I’ll give it to E-40 for a variety of reasons.  First off, 40 water is the most criminally underrated music artist of all time with a lengthy quality catalog that is only paralleled by dinosaur acts like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.  Second, I’m from the bay area and he’s pretty much a god here and responsible for only the best of Bar Mitzvah memories.   Third, and most importantly, this album is great from start to finish.  About 3 years ago, E-40 has gone on one of the most prolific streaks of music making I’ve ever seen.  Since 2010, he’s released 9 albums!!  The sound is all similar, with production headed by Yay Area legend Rick Rock and 40’s own son Droop-E.  It’s stripped down and knocks hard and doesn’t give any credence to what was popular on the charts.  But on The Block Brochure, the rest of the world has finally caught up.  This triple album traces the influence that 40 and the bay has on the current ratchet sound of California, with the bulk of the songs falling right in line with current favorites DJ Mustard and company.  As for the ambassador himself, he remains one of the greatest rappers of all time, spitting circles around everyone else in the game.  Over the gamut of the album, he shifts from storytelling to party anthems to nostalgic odes to weed tributes.  He invites west coast legends, rising stars, and of course all of his bay area friends, but not once gets overshadowed.  But the highest praise I could give is that this album doesn’t fall under the curse of the double album.  Usually with any double (let alone triple) album, its an overindulgence, and the record would have been way better if they trimmed the fat and made it a regular album.  But with The Block Brochure, 40 maintains a level of quality across 54 songs that most rappers couldn’t maintain for an EP.  Salute!

9: Nas – Life Is Good

Nasir Jones is a legend and a permanent fixture on rap rushmore.  You know that.  But his catalog doesn’t always express that.  In the last half of the decade, Nas had some growing pains.  He had trouble adjusting into the elder statesman role his age demands.  The knock on Nas has never been his rapping skill; when he’s on point there’s about three people in history who can compete with him.  The problem has been his choice in beats and his overblown concepts.  Frankly, he was trying too hard.  Trying too hard for radio play, trying too hard for critical acclaim.  But with Life Is Good, Nas took a page out of E-40’s book and just rapped.  Lining up with two producers, Salaam Remi, a frequent Nas collaborator and the only one who’s been able to get him any kind of hits, and No I.D., a chicago legend who has become the de facto “old school” savior, Nasir made a great album by rapping about what he knows about.  This is ostensibly his breakup album, detailing his divorce with R&B singer Kelis and the complicated emotions that follow.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a coming of age album, as Nas reflects on his past, his marriage, his daughter, and how far he’s come.  His eye for detail never falters.  He’s exhausted from sleeping with women half his age who enjoy taking third leg from a legend.  He’s riding the subway, his mouth burning from hot pizza, looking like the black Jack Dempsey smoking blunts wrapped tight like dreads.  He’s watching his daughter instagram a box of condoms and wondering if he’s not the strictest parent.  And throughout all the pain of the divorce, he’s mature enough to realize that life is still good.  That’s way more of an adult realization than any forced metaphor on race.   The main prize of the album though is that the production is FINALLY good enough for a rapper of his skills.  He raps over gritty 90’s beats, lush orchestral arrangements, and the hottest reggae sample this side of “Mercy.”  The album would be higher on the list, but unfortunately the album falters in the middle with too much of a reliance on boring R&B choruses.  Either way, if this album doesn’t satiate your Nas lust, then nothing will and you should stay trapped in the 90’s.

8: Future – Pluto

I don’t even know if I’m allowed to put this on the list.  I mean, the guy hardly even raps.  He warbles, he croons, he croaks, he sings, and he yells, but rapping isn’t that high on his agenda.  Nothing could have prepared me for this album.  Future first appeared on the radar when he did the hook for YC’s “Racks.”  Then he managed to score his own hit, “Tony Montana,” which ended up big enough to grab Drake for the remix, and then some mixtapes followed.  But he always seemed like a weirder T-Pain, not an creative auteur that would change the way radio sounds.  But here is Pluto, and its better than anyone could have predicted.  Future comes from the Dungeon Family, the legendary ATL crew that houses Outkast and Goodie Mob, and he earns the connection.  He completely embraces autotune, using it to enhance emotion rather than mute it, and pushes the rap/singing hybrid into newfound territory.  Everything he says explodes with passion, whether he’s moving cocaine or serenading the girl of his dreams.  This is Rocky theme music for androids, lovemaking music for robots.  But the catch is the humanity, the beating heart, that’s pumping throughout the whole record.  At it’s best, the love songs are so vivid and honest that they bring a whole new level of beauty to the confines of the genre.  At it’s other best, it has R. Kelly singing about fishnets and parachutes.  Don’t mistake this for a soft love record either, every single song sounds like a number one hit, and Future has the best ear for hooks this side of Drake.  Pluto bumps in the clubs and in the bedroom…AT THE SAME DAMN TIME!

  

7: Action Bronson – Blue Chips

Bronsolino is one of the most intriguing figures in hip hop right now.  A fat, white, Jewish albanian from Queens who raps about food and sounds like Ghostface.  Blue Chips is where he cemented his persona and raised his pen game to become one of the best new rappers in the game.  No one tops Bam Bam on the punchlines and the references.  His rhymes are more sick than Magic Johnson’s dick. He’s twisting joints like a contortionist.  His lungs are filled with the purple from the jungle.  He’ll blam blam any piggie trying to put his fam in the can.  Every line is rewind worthy.  Try to catch all the food references.  In just the first song, he talks about chicken breasts, lamb, hibiscus, and tacos.  But he’s always been a great rapper.  What makes Blue Chips so special is his chemistry with the producer Party Supplies.  One of Bronson’s best qualities has been his collaborations; every project he makes is entirely produced by one person.  He has worked with esteemed beatmakers like Statik Selektah and Alchemist, but Party Supplies brings the best out of him.  You can hear the songs being made.  You can hear Action stumble his words and take it back and try again.  You can hear Party Supplies turn up the sound on his mac.  And it gives the record this breezy, joyous quality that defines what a mixtape should be (and it’s a real mixtape which means its free, which means you should download it right now).  They’re 5 minute beats, one take raps.  The tape has a pleasing cohesion, all the beats sounds like they’re from 50’s tin pan alley tunes.  Bam Bam knows exactly what to do with each beat, and the highlights on the tape is when he drops his funny act for vivid narratives that correspond with the schmaltzy production.  “Thug Love Story 2012” and “9-24-11” transform dean martin-esque corny ballads into stunning storytelling that’s downright beautiful.  The moments are fleeting, but they hit the hardest.  Blue Chips balances the humor with the serious, the ugly with the beautiful, all while maintaining its effortless quality.

6: Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

It’s hard to say what the best part about this album is.  Is it the fact that Killer Mike made political rap relevant for the first time since Dave Chappelle used Dead Prez as his theme music?  Or is it that the cross-regional collaboration between the ATLien and NYC producer El-P opened the floodgates for all types of musical partnerships?  Maybe it’s that Adult Swim funded the whole thing, meaning that thoughtful, incredible hip hop can happen without the means of a major label?  Or possibly that Killer Mike says “I’m glad Reagans dead” and that’s the greatest sentence that has ever been recorded.  R.A.P. Music stands for Rebellious African Peoples’ Music, and Mike’s magnum opus is a throwback to the days of Public Enemy and Ice Cube when every record felt like a direct attack at the American government.  The fact that he’s done it when Obama is president is even more impressive.  But making political rap isn’t an accomplishment in itself.  Making political rap without being condescending or pandering to your listener, that doesn’t bore you and actually feels relevant is incredible.  From crystal clean presentations outlining Reagan’s corruption to shootouts with crooked cops, Killer Mike makes politics matter again, which is refreshing in an era where every other rapper is saying don’t vote and buttheads like Lupe Fiasco make butthead comments only to raise their publicity.  And that all doesn’t even touch on how good Mike’s rapping is or the stunning production.  He raps with elegance of a black elephant, dexterous and powerful, able to trample any of El-P’s turbulent beats.  He rides out a doubletime flow on “Go!,” flaunts his storytelling on “Jojo’s Chilling,” pays his family tribute on “Willie Burke Sherwood,” and creates a downright anthem on the title track.  “Reagan” might be the greatest music video of all time.  El-P, known for his industrial apocalyptic production, meets Mike halfway here, creating beats that are distinctly his but still have a southern thump.  “Southern Fried” is even his attempt at a dirty south beat and its wonderful.  R.A.P. Music is incredible, or as Killer Mike would say “what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”

 

Any other year any of these albums could have been #1.  Think how good the rest of the albums are.  And click on the follow me link at the bottom in order to get a notice whenever I post something new!