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.

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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.

Candy Rappers and Cocaine Pinatas

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Freddie Gibbs is always fighting an uphill battle. The Gary, Indiana native was stuck in the label purgatory of Interscope for years until he got dropped five years ago. When he compiled the discarded sessions into two fantastic mixtapes, it was clear why. Hardcore gangsta rap wasn’t popular last decade, and there was no market for intense technical rapping over trunk rattling murder music. But boy could he rap, and the ensuing buzz from the mixtapes landed him on the covers of XXL and LA Weekly and grabbed him a new deal. But right when he was on the precipice of stardom, nothing happened. Back at square one, Gibbs found a kindred soul in Atlanta trap star Young Jeezy, who’s drug dealing stomp had also been phased out by the major labels, and signed to his CTE Imprint. With a higher profile and some inspiration from his new home in Los Angeles, Freddie released his best work to dateBaby Face Killa. Fusing his midwestern style with west coast flows, BFK found an uncompromising commercial pocket for Gibbs’s music and contained the most radio ready songs of his career. But Jeezy didn’t promote it well, Gibbs felt that he was being mistreated, and the two had an acrimonious falling out last year. After his last album fell short of expectations, it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become another absurd talent that gets lost in the cracks. But his new album Pinata, a collaboration with legendary Stones Throw underground L.A. producer Madlib, has silenced any debate on Gibbs’ talent and stature. In a year where Los Angeles has repositioned itself at the top of the hip hop totem pole, Gibbs has put together an album that stands apart from the pack and crafted one of the seminal projects of the young decade.

The knock on Freddie Gibbs is usually that he’s just technique with no personality, that it can get tedious listening to him bludgeon beats over and over. But that severely underrates how good Freddie is at rapping. There are probably only two or three people breathing who can compete in the same skill level as Gibbs (and yes one of them is Kendrick) and Pinata is a tour de force of MCing. Madlib’s beats are not easy to rap over; the beat will change on a whim if there is even a beat at all. Freddie had to be on point the entire time or else the project just wouldn’t work and he succeeds admirably. The unconventional production forces him to be creative with his flows. He can ride the tempo on “Shitsville” like a mechanical bull and he can loosen his grip on “Broken,” letting the ends of his words trail off. Most of the time he makes it look so easy you don’t even notice the complexity, falling into nonexistent rhythms on “Harold’s.” Check out first single “Thuggin,” where after a movie snippet opens the track, Gibb’s cuts through some swirling guitar licks as the beat slowly starts to form. Then his flow and the beat speed up at the same time and the song is off and running before you even realize it begun. This kind of stuff is hard to do. There are some A-list guest stars on this record; Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Wu-Tang legend Raekwon, and despite their great verses they all get washed by Freddie. In fact the last track on the album, the posse cut “Pinata,” seems solely to exist to point out how much better Freddie is than every other rapper on it. The only person who is on the same plane is Houston rap god Scarface, who delivers an absolutely devastating 16 bars of pure pathos on “Broken.”

Credit needs to be given here to Madlib as well. These beats are difficult to rap over, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. This is the leading contender for best produced album of the year. After his massive undertaking with the Madlib Medicine Show (where he released 12 albums in 2010!), the unseen producer has been off the radar for a while and Pinata has him roaring back with vengeance. He’s sculpted the album with a conceptual edge; songs are bookended by instrumental intros and outros, skits are given perfect mood music, movie samples act as perfect segues. The beats cover a staggering breadth of territory. There’s slashing funk on “Scarface” and soaring soul on “Shame.” “Uno” and “Bomb” open with carnivalesque opulence before retreating into beautifully stark menace. It would take a similar mystic to understand how Madlib chops up all his records, but he has a touch with the lost art of sampling that few of his peers can emulate. I’m still wrapping my mind around his vocal samples; he can place them front and center and create hooks on “High” or “Robes,” or he keeps them submerged, breaching the surface of the track ever so slightly on “Harold’s” and “Knicks.” In his incredible production discography, Madlib’s work here still shines as a highlight.    

Even if it were just great rapping over these marvelous beats, Pinata would be an exceptional record. Maybe it’s the challenging production or maybe it’s the life experience, but Gibb’s is a much more confident rapper on this record. His “last real gangsta alive” persona has never sounded this engaging, and this album is filled with weary reflection, strong subtle storytelling, and revitalized gangsta rap tropes. Without ever pandering and evangelizing, Pinata portrays both sides of the coin, often within the same song. Freddie boasts about his sexual escapades on “Shame” but also details his heartbreak on “Deeper.” “Shitsville” simultaneously boasts about how gangsta he is while deconstructing the gangsta myth in the process. Drug dealing isn’t glamorized as much as it’s preserved. Moral turmoil resides in the asides, not on the soapbox. Gibbs is able to flip a clever conceit on two tracks back to back. “Lakers” is the best song about L.A. made in a minute, because Gibbs’ understands the allure of the city and its place in hip hop and American history. He gets the dichotomy of the city, the spotlight and the shadows, the gritty and the glamour. For him, L.A represents a certain type of redemption from where he grew up. He raps about “repairing that broken dream, that’s what L.A. about,” and the new meaning that’s been brought to the Dodgers hat since Magic bought the team. On the flip side is “Knicks,” a stoic ode to the consistent onslaught of violence in his life and the enduring ineptitude of New York basketball as he documents how little has changed in his life. “Pippen on the assist, I’m watching Jordan drop a double nickel on the Knicks. That was ’95, couple of us ain’t live til ’96, gangbanging, ‘caine slanging had us caught up in a twist” he starts the song. And then life repeats itself in the next verse. “Chilling with a bitch, watching LeBron put up 56 on the Knicks in 2005, police killed my nigga in 2006, only thing he losing is his pension ain’t that bout a bitch.” This type of storytelling goes far beyond just structural technique.

Freddie Gibbs may not have made a leap here, but he’s certainly made his best album. He’s been a top five rapper for the last six years now, but with Madlib’s impressive production serving as his canvas, his grown man raps are given new perspective. The best comparison is Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music where a similar out of nowhere production choice and streamlined guest list allowed the rapper to create his biggest album. Pinata is incredible. Every song is a gem, every beat is fire. 2014 has already been an outstanding year for hip hop and a large part of it is Los Angeles having a moment. The city has cast off its ghosts and harnessed them into commercial and critical weapons, whether it’s TDE’s coded language or DJ Mustard’s streamlined bounce. But Freddie Gibbs has gone left of center by pairing with Madlib and explored an underappreciated sect of L.A. rap that is no less central to the city’s legacy. And he made a masterpiece in the process. I can’t imagine much else topping this album for best of the year.