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.
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!