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!

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.

Nail Me To The Cross And I’m Just Hangin’: Isaiah Rashad’s TDE Debut

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Can we fall in love while Southernplayalistic banging through the night? It’s the question posed on “West Savannah,” a song located right in the middle of Isaiah Rashad’s debut album Cilvia Demo. Rashad isn’t afraid to wear his southern influences on his sleeve, from the aforementioned Outkast reference to shout outs to Scarface, Master P, Juvenile and many more. It’s the type of hero worship that could undermine any record, but Isaiah snaps it into focus when he answers his own question: “At least we fell in love with something greater than debating suicide.”

2014 is set to be the year of Top Dawg Entertainment. After spending last year basking in the glow of Kendrick’s critical and commercial success and inserting the good kid into the mainstream, the Los Angeles label is primed to bring the rest of the crew there too. Schoolboy Q is dropping his long awaited Oxymoron later this month, Ab-Soul has been rumored to be working on his (possibly titled) “Black Lip Pastor” and of course there’s Kendrick, who shakes the earth with every new verse.  Bur first off there’s Isaiah Rashad, the newest member of TDE. Perhaps that pressure is why his project is titled as a demo, to let everyone know he’s not at the same level as Black Hippy. He’s just marveling at the momentous year this will be for the label. But Cilvia Demo more than proves that he’s ready to play with these guys; it’s another engaging chapter in the book of music history that TDE is rapidly rewriting.

This has been a hard record to write about because it defies conventions. It’s an ambitious coming of age album yet incredibly insular. Simultaneously universal and singular. Isaiah delves deep into cliches, shouting out old legends and claiming the game needs saving, but manages to revive some life to them. Cilvia Demo touches on some deep complex issues; how the plight of young black men is tied to the perception of hip hop, specifically the southern hip hop that he fell in love with and is now being paraded around for laughs, and the drug addiction that seems to be only solution for the depression that ensues. Isaiah manage to glide over these major issues, turning them into allusions rather than news headlines, and uses them to strengthen his story: How can I be a great father when I never had an example?

The shadow of Isaiah’s father is the only thing that’s blunt about the record. He’s brought up on the album opener “Hereditary,” where after telling his girl she’s wasting her time on him he drops “my daddy taught me how to drink my pain away, my daddy taught me how to use somebody. My daddy taught me how to smoke my load and go, my daddy taught me you don’t need nobody.” He goes on to explain in “Banana.” “My daddy left me with no details, came back with a bitch and a stepson, I guess he forgot that he left something.” But Isaiah doesn’t dwell on these events, rather he weaves them into his blue collar story. Much of this tape is reality rap at its finest as he raps about how music will be his way out of flipping burgers and selling retail and how he’s “done grown up for his child sake.” That’s really the crux of the album, the transition between growing up and being grown.  He’s trying to bed this girl but is distracted when he sees her kid looking at him the same way he used to when his dad came back home.  He lashes out at his baby momma on “Tranquility” and then is immediately worried about what his son will think.

This leads back to Cilvia Demo‘s preoccupation with southern icons. “R.I.P. Kevin Miller,” titled after Master P’s late brother, is half sermon half lament.  It’s a motivational speech about priorities and how the rappers of his youth are being misinterpreted.  He chants “I need diamond teeth living like it’s 1998, back when Percy was the king, back when Juvie was the great, bitch this doobie is the bait, Patton taught me how to pimp, like one day you’re here then gone, that’s why Chad was downing shrimp.”  He connects the balling of his idols to the work ethic that got them there, screaming at his peers to wake up and find some ambition. This type of rapping is usually uninteresting, a holier-than-thou “let’s go back to the good old days” moralizing, but Isaiah pulls it off because of the intensely personal touch he brings to his memories, whether it’s Outkast’s debut keeping him from committing suicide or transforming the rapper Scarface into a symbol of confidence and a wizened voice of responsibility on “Brad Jordan,” similar to what Outkast did with “Rosa Parks” way back when. It all comes together on “Heavenly Father,” a spiritual plea for some kind of guidance.  On the first verse Isaiah sings “Now everybody telling me a lie, Lordie give me something for my soul” before spitting “The story stole, they tell it till it’s wrong, they glorify the horror and the wealth.”  On the second verse he brings it back home in horrifying detail: “And they don’t know my issues as a child, because I was busy cutting on myself. And hanging on the playground wasn’t wrong until you got a rope up on your neck.” The song ends with Isaiah rapping at everyone else “These niggas really think I give a fuck about the shit they give a fuck about” before ending somberly “And I’m so misrepresented by these niggas who claim trill and their souls were never in it.”  Suddenly the trends that have been so popular the last few years get viciously rendered distasteful.

This is all heavy content and you can’t rap about this kind of stuff if you can’t back it up or make it listenable. Luckily, Isaiah is signed to the label where “your favorite rappers get replaced” and the tape bangs from front to back.  Isaiah is a very talented MC.  He can rap his ass off, like on “Soliloquy” where he just blacks out on the track for almost two minutes over dissonant jazz breaks. He can condense incredibly complex issues into a single couplet, like on “Ronnie Drake” where he says “Don’t call me a nigga, unless you call me my nigga” and “gotta look real and tough, gotta keep your hands in the cart, know they stealing stuff.” His southern voice has incredible versatility, as he can drop into a raspy croon on “Hereditary” and “West Savannah” as easily as a chest beating chant on “R.I.P. Kevin Miller” and “Modest.” TDE production crew Digi-Phonics don’t have any input in the record (except for the lovely “Menthol,” produced by Kendrick favorite Sounwave), and yet Cilvia Demo has the same loping jazz loops, the same warm airy feeling as the older 2011 TDE releases like Kendrick’s Section.80, Schoolboy’s Setbacks, and Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality.  The lightness of the production counterbalances the weight of Isaiah’s thoughts.  It’s why the record is sometimes hard to engage; it’s as if the whole album is an aside.  It’s something you can zone out to and have it wash over you or engage it with all of its layers.

Cilvia Demo shares a lot of common themes with Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and the rest of TDE. It deals with the golden age of hip hop not through appropriation but through inspiration, a way of writing the next chapter. It has that warm feeling of rapping about past heroes while knowing you’re becoming one yourself. Isaiah actually managed to pull it off. The new member of Top Dawg Entertainment was able to create an album that does for the south what Kendrick and the others did for the west. Black Hippy doesn’t show up on this record, just Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock on the very last song, a victory lap instead of a consolation prize. With his debut out of the way, Isaiah Rashad is going to have to create his own major label masterpiece like the rest of the crew but you get the sense that he’s not worried about that kind of pressure. As he says on the tape, “I’m blessed now, I’m only stressing bout the stress now.” Maybe some kid in Tennessee will find Cilvia Demo and fall in love with it and bump it through the night.

The Best Songs Of 2013

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

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

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

 

29: Schoolboy Q – “Man Of The Year”

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

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

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

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

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

26: Vic Mensa – “Hollywood LA”

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

 

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

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

24: A$AP Ferg – “Hood Pope”

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

 

23: Thundercat – “Oh Shiet It’s X”

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

22: Danny Brown – “Smokin & Drinkin”

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

21: Tree – “Most Successful”

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

20: 2 Chainz – “Mainstream Ratchet”

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

 

19: A$AP Rocky – “Phoenix”

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

 

18: Janelle Monae ft. Miguel – “Primetime”

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

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

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

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

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

15: Beyonce – “***Flawless”

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

  

12: Kanye West – “Bound 2”

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

11: Drake ft. Sampha – “Too Much”

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

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

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

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

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

8: Childish Gambino – “Pound Cake Freestyle”

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

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

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

6: Kevin Gates – 4:30 A.M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2: Chance The Rapper – “Acid Rain”

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

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

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

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

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

Drake vs. Kendrick: Battle Of The Millenials

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Exciting times everyone!  A new generation of rappers have finally grown up and supplanted the old guard as the keepers of the charts.  A new generation of fans have anointed them.  The XXL Freshmen have graduated, acclimated to the pace of the internet era, and can now stand without the cosigns of the elders.  And now we have a war for the new king.  Jay-Z has vacated his throne for his place at the auction, Eminem is too busy trying to fit as many words into a sentence as he can, and Lil Wayne got his talent stolen from the aliens from Space Jam.  Now we have two contenders for the throne, two rappers that represent different styles but are both worthy of the crown.  Kendrick Lamar and Drake are both outsiders to the game and made music that represent their unorthodox outlook.  Both are highly critical of, but still adore, the gangsta violent music they grew up with, just like Rap fans now.  Both have positioned themselves as the voice of a generation.  And now they’re in a pseudo-beef!  This might seem like an easy pick depending on what you feel.  Drake is the commercial juggernaut, Kendrick is the rapper’s rapper.  Drake writes hits, Kendrick writes bars.  The situation is more complicated than that.  Kendrick has been all over the radio lately and the days that people could say Drake can’t rap are long gone. Before we get into the debate, let’s recap how former allies have turned against each other.

A high profile beef like this, where both artists are battling on the highest stage imaginable, was impossible just five months ago.  This summer, Big Sean released the song “Control” that featured Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica.  Kendrick, already in the middle of a career year, went Super Saiyan on the track and claimed himself the reincarnation of 2Pac and the king of New York, said he was in the same conversation as the all time greats, and most importantly called out all his peers, saying “I got love for you all but I’m trying to murder you niggas, trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas.”  And he NAMED NAMES, calling out J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, Drake, and more.  The internet blew up, rappers took turns trying to defend their honor, and my mom thought that Kendrick was being mean.

The thing is that Kendrick is already above most of the people he mentioned.  He’s more successful commercially and critically.  The only person worth firing shots at is Drake.  And Drake didn’t like this song at all.  He dismissed the track as a gimmick, expressed offense at Kendrick’s attitude and said that he doesn’t intend on working with Kendrick anytime soon.  Plus, there were some subtle shots towards K.Dot in “The Language,” with Drake saying “fuck any nigga that’s talkin that shit just to get a reaction,” mocking Kendrick’s commercial sales and new found fame.

Then Kendrick went for the throat.  At the BET Hip Hop Awards, during the TDE cypher, Kendrick dropped one of the best verses of his career starting with “I hate y’all, I’ll do anything to replace y’all” and rapped “and nothing been the same since they dropped Control and tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes, HA HA Jokes on you, High five, I’m bulletproof.”

The internet exploded again and demanded a Drake response which we are still waiting on.  This is exciting for a number of reasons, but it’s great to see the genre’s biggest stars battle it out in the limelight.  We haven’t seen an actual rap battle between commercially viable rappers since 50 Cent ended Ja Rule’s career.  If Drake is LeBron James then that makes Kendrick Kevin Durant, the extremely gifted athlete who is done being the nice guy and is also after the throne.  Choosing five not so obvious categories, we’ll see who would win in a battle.

EXPERIENCE:

This is a big one because you have to know what you’re getting yourself into when you get into a beef.  Drake is no stranger to people throwing shots at him.  In fact, he’s based his entire career upon being a lightning rod for criticism and mockery and it seems to only make him stronger.  His biggest beef came a couple years ago, when old school rapper/gap model Common threw shots at him on “Sweet” and called him soft.  Drake responded with a verse on Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin,” channeling vintage Jay-Z and proved himself a giant that could brush Common off his shoulder.  He starts off “It bothers me when the broads get to acting like the broads,” flips the script byu calling Common soft because he’s just after the attention, and subtly commented on sleeping with Serena Williams, who Common used to have a thing with.  It was a masterful verse which showed a dormant side of Drake, started off his epic 2012 run, and proved that he could rap with the best of them.  Kendrick hasn’t had that kind of moment simply because no one’s attacked him yet.  I mean, who would be dumb enough to do that.  The only similar beef experience was when ex Bad Boy artist Shyne called Good Kid, M.A.A.d City lousy, so Kendrick laughed it off on his victory lap loosie “The Jig Is Up.”  Drake’s proven himself worthy of handling the majors in a beef, so he gets the point here.

Drake 1 – Kendrick 0

INFLUENCE:

We can only go so long in this breakdown before pointing out an obvious fact.  Kendrick is the better rapper by a long shot.  There shouldn’t even be a competition between the two.  But this is still a close match because of the fingerprints Drake has left all over the game.  Kendrick’s influential in his own right; GKMC has spurred on other albums to deliver knockout albums and not just hit singles, and he has reignited the torch for lyricism in the genre.  But Kendrick wouldn’t even be in this position if it wasn’t for Drake.  Drizzy gave him the biggest looks of his career by putting him on his Club Paradise tour and then giving him a whole interlude on 2011’s Take Care.  Now his most popular songs have Drake all over them.  “Fuckin’ Problems” and “Poetic Justice” literally have a Drake verse on them, and lead single “Swimming Pools” is produced by T-Minus, who helped build Drake’s sound.  Even a volcanic artist like Kendrick has to fit into the framework that Drake created.

Drake 2 – Kendrick 0

TEAM:

This was a much harder category until the BET Cypher, when Black Hippy and new signee Isaiah Rashad created one of the greatest musical moments of the last 500 years.  Go watch that video again.  Kendrick steals the show but all of them come to play.  They’re hungry.  Black Hippy is the best crew by a mile and right now stand with the greatest hip hop groups of all time in terms of quality and consistency.  But the best part is how they work together and sound like an actual team, rather than just four rappers on the same track.  Drake has two crews to work with, his own OVO and Young Money.  It was a good move for Drake to distance himself from Young Money so he could grow into his own label, but OVO doesn’t have any firepower behind it other than Drake.  Young Money has talent but it’s a commercial maze, filled with successful sub par rappers and a leader who thinks that signing Paris Hilton is more important than putting out a new Mystikal tape.  There is one giant wildcard though.  If Drake decided to get Nicki Minaj, that could be doom for Kendrick.  She’s crazy and can shit on your whole life.  Kendrick isn’t nearly volatile enough to handle Nicki.  Maybe Q could but it would be very close.  Unfortunately, Drake’s not that cool with Nicki anymore as he admitted on his album, so I doubt they’d be able to bring the chemistry that Black Hippy could muster.  But be warned: Nicki Minaj is the X factor and the game changer.

 

Drake 2 – Kendrick 1

LEGACY:

Let’s not be too mean here.  Being the main man of Toronto is kind of cool.  Drake is actually pushing his whole Toronto thing, being proud of his Canadian heritage and actually making Toronto part of the Hip Hop landscape.  He’s not only helping the image but also creating a sound, so in 2013 Toronto Hip Hop is actually a thing.  That’s impressive.  That all might be enough to beat out the average rapper claiming the west coast.  But Kendrick is no average rapper.  He already is the king of LA.  He was anointed in 2011 by Snoop Dogg and The Game, signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label and made him relevant again.  He brought the whole coast back.  Nothing’s topping that unless someone was able to do that with New York (which will never happen, that city is too fractured).  Plus Kendrick is channeling 2Pac, saying that he came to him in a dream which inspired him to make 2011’s Section.80.  And he’s got the bona fides of all the old school rappers saying he’s bringing rap back.  Even if Drake does try to pull some Houston Cash Money connect, that’s not messing with Dr. Dre.

   

Drake 2 – Kendrick 2

JAY-Z FEATURE:

This is probably the most important category.  To become the new king you have to have to grab the old kings crown, either through diplomacy (having it handed to you formally) or mutiny (like when Lil Wayne bodied all of Jay-Z’s beats).  The only problem is that both Kendrick and Drake got Jay-Z “passing the torch” features.  On Kendrick’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” Jigga is about as close to vintage form as he’ll ever get, rhyming about how he runs through the White House in a mink coat and sits next to HIllary Clinton smelling like dank.  It’s one last hurrah for the old GOAT before Kendrick goes off and cements his place in history, taunting other rappers who emulate their idols while proving that he deserves to be in the same conversation as them at the same time.  Meanwhile, on Drake’s “Pound Cake” off Nothing Was The Same, Jay-Z says cake 17 times.  If that’s not what you want from Jay-Z right now, then I don’t know what to tell you.  In a way, Drake and Kendrick both got from Jigga what they wanted.  Kendrick got Jay-Z the rapper, and Drake got Jay-Z the icon.  And they both work.  We have to call this a tie.


Drake 3 – Kendrick 3

 And it’s a tie!  Who knows how this beef will play out or if it will even happen as Drake has yet to release a response to K.Dot’s violent comments.  But if it does, we’ll give the battle to Kendrick because he’s a better artist and rapper in every single way.  Either way, both artists are doing great right now.  Drake has started his tour, with Future and Miguel opening for him, and has positioned himself as the biggest rapper this side of Kanye.  Kendrick is actually touring with Kanye and is continuing to have a monster year, demolishing features from drug rap with Pusha T to goofy country songs with Eminem.  He is the best.  Enjoy the following videos and try to see either of them on tour if you can.