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

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the original review here

Hungry Hippopotamus Best Albums of 2014: #2 – YG

Standard

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.

The Ratchet Kingdom Of California

Standard

Summer is an exciting time for hip hop.  Just like the movies, summer is the time for blockbusters and commercial juggernauts to arise from their slumber.  Hip hop was born on a hot summer days in block parties, and the best summer jams are those that channel that spirit.  It’s meant to be played outside, at BBQs, blasting out of cars, canvassing whole areas in its ubiquity.  But a beautiful part of the genre is how intensely its tied to the seasons.  Music from the summer sounds distinctly different from the more introspective, somber winter albums.  My favorite example about the difference between the two is a RZA tidbit.  During the great Wu-Tang run in the mid 90’s, RZA said that he produced Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx with the summer in mind and GZA’s Liquid Swordz for winter.  Even the album hint hints at the seasonal vibe.  For a more modern example, think of the difference between the two mega albums of 2011: Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne and Drake’s Take Care.  One was world conquering, the other timid and insular.

  

The other exciting part about summer is the competitive edge.  Summer is where the major labels flex their muscle and the stars compare commercial value.  This year, J. Cole moved his release date to the same day as Kanye to see who can get more sales.  When Rick Ross took over the game, he used his MMG imprint to have a major release every month of summer so he would be on radio constantly.  Summer is where Jay-Z ascended to the throne, destroying Mobb Deep on the Summer Jam screen and threatening to do the same with Nas.  This summer looks like it’s going to be an exciting one and we’ve only just started.  But right now my favorite storyline is the revival of Cali and the ratchet sound.  The summer is California’s birthright, in L.A. it’s summer the whole year.  There’s no better place for sunny party music.  Enter DJ Mustard, twerking, and a reborn west coast.

You probably know L.A. producer DJ Mustard from mega hits “Rack City” and “I’m Different.”  His beats are marked by the infectious “mustard on da beat HO,” and he’s slowly becoming the sound of the summer.  His productions all have a type of restraint that infuses them with energy; he’s learned to do more with less.  They sometimes seem stupid simple, just a series of piano notes, but goddamn they’re catchy.  He’s a master at layering his beats without overshadowing the essential part.  You can’t not dance to it.  One would expect such similar sounds to have a short shelf life, but Mustard has proven to have remarkable staying power.  His beats are so spacious that rappers can weave in and out of the notes.  Creative rappers (see: 2 Chainz) can turn the beat inside out.  It can turn up or ride out.  Like Lex Luger and Clams Casino before him, Mustard has such a distinct style that it’s spawned many imitators but none that match him.  Young Jeezy reached out and scored his first relevant hit in ages (and made the west coast homage explicit when he put Kendrick on the remix).  But DJ Mustard’s beats sound most at home in California with west coast rappers acting totally ratchet and shooting shit.

 

DJ Mustard’s new mixtape Ketchup is proof of this new sounds durability and one of the best releases of the year.  It rounds out his sound, adding new areas of focus and showcasing a cadre of unknown L.A. talent.  But most importantly, it bangs.  It’s good for all occasions.  Driving to get some boba, put on Ketchup.  Seeing a girl, put on Ketchup.  Need to start a party, put on Ketchup.  Every song has the ability to be a hit single if it was cleaned up for the radio.  But it’s not, it’s ratchet and it’s beautiful.  It’s four on the floor music.  Your shoulders will move, your head will nod, and you will make bad decisions that are actually good decisions because you’re young and you get to do these things.

 

Ketchup has surprising range.   Mustard is able to find coherency out of a staple sound  and a revolving cast of artists who understand that sound and what it should be used for.  YG is the Snoop to Mustard’s Dre, and pops up all over the tape.  Other friends drop by.  Joe Moses, Ty Dolla $ign, Tee Flii, all have cameos, along with some heavy hitters E-40, Dom Kennedy, and Nipsey Hussle.  Being able to find continuity with this many names is no easy task, and Mustard excels at providing an album length statement rather than a hodgepodge of singles.  He flips the script at times.  Cocc Pistol Cree completely inverts the dick swinging fun that all the guys are having on her “Ladykilla,” and the beat of 2Pac’s “Ambitions Az A Ridah” is flipped on “Straight Ryder” for singer Candice to display some girl power.  In other places, Mustard’s spread provides just as good a foundation for R&B as it does for twerking anthems.

Ketchup is in the top 5 so far for this year.  DJ Mustard is leading the way for the MVP (Most Valuable Producer) award.  It stays in car rotation and on every song I marvel how he’s able to create such innate melody with minimal effort.  Take “Stupid Dumb.”  It might be my favorite beat on the tape, and two nobodies, Bounce and Dorrough, actually body the beat (In Colorado but I’m drinking Arizona…green tea…with A BAD BITCH)!  And it all starts with this little piano line that had me hooked from the first second.  It didn’t even need the snares to kick in.

This is the sound of the West Coast now.  Most of the radio is imitating what Mustard is doing and the best of them are putting their own spin on it, like the HBK Gang in the Bay Area or Problem down in L.A.  These sparse synths punctuated by claps is becoming the norm and I couldn’t be happier.  Originally I was gonna include a whole write up of the rest of the scene but that would take too long, so instead I’ll leave you with the top 5 records of the year in this style.  They’re all free, so links are given.  Do yourself a favor and start your summer off right with these.

Hippo out.