Published Dec 18, 2012Assuming you already picked up our 2012 year-end issue, you already know our number one album here, not that Kendrick Lamar's poignant debut taking the cake should surprise you. But the talent this year in hip-hop ran deep otherwise— dig in below.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Hip-Hop:
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
With Control System, T.D.E. "deep thinker" Ab-Soul either serves up a half-baked casserole of YouTube conspiracy, or an original epistle to counterculture lovers around the world. Either way, it makes us hungry: for knowledge, for music, for magic mushrooms. Soul walks us through his nightmare before Christmas on "Soulo Ho3" — a lyrical exhibit over what fellow Californian Evidence might call "subdued slap music." Singles "Terrorist Threats," featuring Danny Brown, and "Sopa," featuring Schoolboy Q, zoom inward into Soul's cerebrum — with TinkeredByAli's adlibs popping from all dimensions. Visually speaking, records like "Pineal Gland," with its concept "borrowed" in the hippest sense of the word from contemporary French cinema, won over many a first-time listener. Then there's the production — first-rate work from mostly in-house Digi+Phonics. Former Sore Losers producer King Blue chips in with a poppy sample of the Merv Griffin theme song for "Mixed Emotions." Control System is the complete package, no matter what you think about Soul's motivations. Whether he believes in what he preaches or if he's just doing it to serve a malnourished mythology is a question best left for freshman philosophy. What matters here is a combination of entertainment, commitment and lyricism.
The recent news that Das Racist broke up is a blow to many hip-hop fans, but one softened by the fact that Heems put out two stellar mixtapes in 2012. The stand-out was Nehru Jackets, a lengthy ode to nothing in particular on which Himanshu Suri proves he is a rapper quite outside the "bills, bitches, bling" Venn diagram that is modern rap. Where Childish Gambino (who is featured on the album) annoys some rap aficionados for coming on too strong as a "nerdy" rejection of the rap stereotype, Heems embodies that rejection with effortless and overpowering nonchalance. The man literally raps about Karl Marx, rugby and the Jason Bourne movies, the latter of which for an entire song, and plays it off as natural. Not all the album's themes are outside of the genre norm. In "NYC Cops" he expresses his hatred of the city's police, citing noteworthy examples of brutality as he spits. He also pays tribute to the ladies with "Womyn," a track not unlike the Beastie Boys' "Girls," but with only a little more lyrical extravagance and maturity ("I know women, they like to go swimming"). With 25 songs, Heems had a lot of time to miss on Nehru Jackets. But, like his native Queens, the record is a melting pot of styles and influences and track after track elicits confused smiles and head bobs while simultaneously offering a new window into the same off-kilter mind behind "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell."
14. Big K.R.I.T.
Live From the Underground
In an era where rap artists borrow slang from other regions and buy beats from producers located three time zones away, Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T.'s major-label debut has been slow-cooking in nothing but Southern influence for a quarter century — and then it slops up its own gravy for good measure. There are the obvious country nods such as the collaborations (care of Devin the Dude, Bun B and 8Ball & MJG) and references to candy paint and cornbread, but K.R.I.T.'s exploration of the world in which his grandma raised him digs deeper than that. Vocally, he winks at DJ DMD's "25 Lighters" on gents'-club standout "Money on the Floor," smoothly flips Miami bass double-time flows on "I Got This" and "Yeah Dats Me," and flexes Scarface-calibre storytelling on "If I Fall" and "Praying Man" — a slavery epic featuring blues icon B.B. King. Most impressive of all, Live from the Underground is produced exclusively by K.R.I.T. himself, a 25-year-old who takes a risk by arranging live instruments and singing many of his own hooks. "I couldn't go crazy with the samples. That's an extreme difference [from my mixtapes]," K.R.I.T. told Exclaim! in June of this year. "I had to create records that sound like samples but aren't." The result is full-sounding record, best played loud and on cruise control, that gives both your brain and your subwoofers a little something extra to deal with.
Jonestown 3: The Dream is Over
If this is Derek Christoff's swan song under his current perpetually underappreciated nom du plume, at least it's a career-best parting gift that ranks among the most accomplished Canadian hip-hop albums ever made. Classifying Jonestown 3 by nationality isn't meant as limiting praise; rather, it speaks to Christoff's incredible chops as a natural storyteller who colourfully incorporates attitudes and geographical references at least as lyrically indicative of the average Canuck experience as any of our country's famous folk troubadours. I don't mean that his nimble wordplay is particularly nationalistic, but one never gets the impression that Christoff's rhymes come from anywhere other than the heart. When he's not skilfully lamenting his place (or lack thereof) in the rap game, D-Sisive rhythmically lays bare raw and honest tales of love, rejection, pain and addiction with humble confidence devoid of the self-conscious posturing that informs so many performers in the genre, especially south of our frosty border. D-Sisive's constant beat-making companion, Muneshine, has also reached a new creative high with his eclectic production on this outing. The talented producer's diverse instrumentation and sampling affords the pop culture referencing MC more opportunity than ever to stretch his vocal range. He's sung his own hooks before, but never has Derek from Northcliff sounded this comfortable delivering catchy melodies that imbue many of these tracks with a spirited sense of musical transcendence. Whatever form their musical partnership takes going forward, hopefully this prolific, creative team will finally get the recognition and attention their efforts deserve.
Scott A. Gray
12. Brother Ali
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color
Brother Ali is a hip-hop anomaly for several reasons. Certainly, there aren't many legally blind, albino, Muslim rappers around, but his distinction is greater than physical attributes or spiritual affiliation. It's in his words, his motivation for doing what he does. Supported by consistent, soulful beats from Jake One, who capably filled the shoes of Ali's long-time producer Ant, the Minneapolis wordsmith recorded Mourning in America upon return from his first visit to Mecca, in the shadow of the Occupy and Arab Spring protests. On the cover, Ali is seen kneeling on the American flag, praying. This is not a mocking gesture. It shows that all the intense socio-political commentary on the album comes from a place of honest belief, that faith is a path to salvation, that love is more powerful than hate. This is an increasingly radical stance in the face of the narcissistic nihilism and greed that most everyone on the rap charts glorify. Yet, despite coming from a seemingly quaint place of social positivity, there is just as much power in his conviction as anyone else, ever. Ali carries as much weight in his rants on the failing economy as the failings of his neglectful ex-wife and his father's suicide, yet never comes off as self-righteous. The opening "Letter To My Countrymen" is the album's mission statement. It's all in Dr. Cornel West's rant that Ali wants to be a man of integrity that leaves the world a better place than how he found it, and he backs up those words with the rest of the album. Mourning in America is an album for those who still proudly give a fuck.
11. JJ Doom
Keys to the Kuffs
It's not very compassionate to take pleasure in the misfortune of others, but when the brilliant Key to the Kuffs is the result, it's impossible not to be thankful that MF Doom was trapped in the UK due to visa issues in 2010. The trickster MC whose career has so far functioned as an ever-mutating myth effortlessly shifts into yet another new guise with producer Jneiro Jarel providing a diverse array of cinematic soundscapes for Doom's masterful flow to run wild over. Much of the production drips with frustration and paranoia — the insistent serpentine throb of "Banished" being a prime example — but there is still plenty of the playful undercurrent one would expect from a rapper famous for blowing minds with crafty couplets about cartoons and food. Though Key to the Kuffs is a relatively serious-minded affair with moments of surprising tenderness, Doom hasn't let exile sober his sense of humour. His clever wordplay is packed with as many witticisms as insights, but even when he gets sucked into goofy tangents, it's with the stunning aplomb of a restless virtuoso cutting loose and revelling in the pure possibility of his craft. High profile guest appearances by British musical royalty, Damon Albarn and Beth Gibbons, are used as subtle hints of local colour rather than the gimmicky thematic signposts they could have been — much like Doom's multiple references to cockney slang. He's a visitor still — no signs of being assimilated by the tea and crumpet Borg — and not one who sounds content to settle down. While we're confident in the future fruits of his freedom, Doom's temporary discomfort is our gain.
Scott A. Gray
10. Azealia Banks
In a year fraught with internet celebrities attempting to break out into the larger consciousness, Azealia Banks was the rare case of an artist able to overcome the buzz generated by her initial burst of online fame. Granted, the four-track 1991 EP looked light on the surface, but its brevity belied the staggering strength of each of its songs. "212," her late 2011 foul-mouthed ode to her native Manhattan, positioned Banks as the heir apparent to Lil' Kim, its sexually explicit lyrics teeming with attitude. But paired with tracks like "Liquorice," or the street-wise haute-couture loving character of the title track, it was clear there was more at work here than just another boastful female MC. Despite a half-dozen producers and songwriters taking credit, the record is a surprisingly cohesive effort. Her machine gun, reference-laden rhymes were perfectly matched to the bouncing beats and '90s dance flourishes strung throughout, suggesting that Banks' assertion that she's no longer interested in being "a rapper" might not be as detrimental to her career as it seems. Time will tell; her full-length debut, Broke With Expensive Taste, is currently slated for release early in the new year. Regardless, with 1991, Banks proved she's far more than the street-wise Nicki Minaj many dismissed her as.
Life Is Good
With his ex-wife Kelis's wedding dress draped across his knees on the album cover, it's initially hard to see the title of Nas's 11th album as anything but ironic. But the photo hints at Nas's willingness to embrace and confront his personal flaws. First up, he tackles his ambiguous relationship to his debut Illmatic. It's arguably the most influential hip-hop recording of the last 20 years, but for Nas, it has often represented his own personal gift-and-curse millstone. "Loco-Motive" positively revels in sly allusions to that album's legacy, setting the tone for Nas's refreshingly honest approach on Life Is Good. Nas embraces his veteran status, pays touching and genuine tribute to friends such as Amy Winehouse and Heavy D, and directly addresses his shortcomings as a husband and a father. It also doesn't hurt that Nas's usually suspect beat selection tendencies were obviously subjected to more rigorous quality assurance this time around and that his flow, lyricism and narratives are palpably invigorating, recalling his best work. Hip-hop MCs don't always age gracefully, but Nas manages to remain vital by embracing his present as well as his past, warts and all.
Del F. Cowie
8. Schoolboy Q
Habits & Contradictions
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
For those following what has turned out to be a truly vintage year for hip-hop, it has been impossible to not marvel at the meteoric rise of Top Dawg Entertainment and its clown prince, Schoolboy Q. Like that other behemoth of hip-hop alliances, the Wu-Tang Clan, once sagely said, "We form like Voltron" — and that's exactly what T.D.E. do. If Kendrick Lamar is the heart and Ab-Soul the brain, then Schoolboy is the backbone. Solid, dependable and you better believe the crew would crumble without him. Starting off his year strong with his sophomore independent LP release, Habits & Contradictions, on T.D.E., Q consolidated his buzz with a string of high-powered guest spots from the likes of 50 Cent, Domo Genesis, Curren$y and Action Bronson as well as a coveted support slot on A$AP Rocky's immense 40-date LongLiveA$AP tour. Now signed to a crew deal with Interscope and Aftermath records, we can rest safe in the knowledge that our listening schedules will be monopolized by T.D.E for the foreseeable future. At the forefront of a resurgent West coast that has risen itself up on a whole new esoteric outlook on the hip-hop scene, Schoolboy is set to have another smashing year in 2013, with his major label debut slated to drop in the first quarter and a rumoured Black Hippy tour in the works. If you aren't down with the set by now, where have you been?
7. The Roots
The Roots represent the appreciated-yet-overlooked wing of the hip-hop pantheon. I doubt that the Philly-based band minds in the least. With concept album undun — their 13th studio album — the Roots quietly turned out a front-to-back project that strives for a multi-faceted experience that begs repeated listens. In tracking the fictional life of one Redford Stevens, undun backtracks through the life of the stereotypical urban thug to reveal the moral complexities and ambiguities that lie within. Tight arrangements, the usual high lyrical standard courtesy of Black Thought, and then undun throws in some free jazz composition to mess with minds some more. Concept projects live and die off the strength of their narrative premise; undun not only flourishes, it sets a new aural template for future hip-hop albums. That is, if heads were listening.
Ryan B. Patrick
6. Roc Marciano
It shouldn't come as any surprise that Roc Marciano made our "Best Of 2012" list with his latest slab of heat, Reloaded. Fresh on the heels of his criminally slept-on and critically acclaimed 2010 self-produced project Marcberg, the Long Island MC and producer is back with a snapshot of the New York hustle seen through the eyes of a certified thug poet. Where Marcberg provided a cold, stark and bleak street narrative over minimalist throwback production, Reloaded builds on that model, but this time around, Marciano has more swagger in his step and stretches out quite comfortably over a vast array of slicker, funkier beats crafted largely by himself and with some help from the likes of Alchemist and Q-Tip. With his distinctly snarky flow (you can almost see the smirk on his face), Roc spits knowledge, boasts and threats over a buffet of freshness that immerses the listener in the aural equivalent of a gritty crime flick. On the shimmering album opener, "Tek To A Mack," Marciano immediately makes his intentions clear: "I'm back for the crown, baby/ In the 'Avi that's brown like gravy/ Style's wavy, lazy eye Tracy McGrady/ Deliver like an 80-pound baby." Marciano continues his gangster lean on cuts like the vintage mellowness of "Deeper," which paints a picture of Roc and his team politicking and plotting in a smoke-filled back room with the hammers and stacks of cash laid out on the rickety card table before them. Plug your headphones in, spark your vice of choice and let the rap-game Marty McFly take you "Back to the Future."
5. Joey Bada$$
I'm not the first to compare Joey Bada$$ to Illmatic-era Nas, but nobody's accusing him of biting; wouldn't any rapper kill to earn that comparison? The similarities are, after all, pretty striking. Both are New York rappers (though Joey's from Brooklyn, not Queens); both have flows as easy-going as the jazz-flavoured beats they rhyme over, with lyrics that emphasize the issues of age, race, and class that (still) affect young people growing up in hard economic times. Both use inflection, rather than volume, to get their point across, and both rap with an intelligence and articulateness beyond their years. The difference? Nas was 21 when Illmatic dropped; Joey's still 17. He's got four years to perfect his craft in time for an official debut, not like he needs the practice: his flow on tracks like "FromdaTomb" and "Snakes" is dexterous and dynamic, slipping in, around, and over production by DOOM, Dilla, Statik Selektah, and, most notably, Chuck Strangers, part of Joey's rap collective the Progressive Era. Strangers' production, all jazzy percussion and seventh chords, are the perfect complement to Joey's ponderous rhymes. The ball's in his court, but if Joey Bada$$ can build on what he's achieved with 1999, the world is his.
4. Action Bronson
Queens rapper Action Bronson is an unlikely candidate for the saviour of New York rap. An Albanian bear of a former cook, Bronson is a man consumed by weed, violence, food and women. Bronson's genius lies in how he explores these obsessions with impeccable, hilarious detail — a hook-up's nether regions are compared to bucatini razor clams. Bronson will treat adversaries like sharks and put the hammer on their head. On "Thug Love Story 2012" Bronson describes a teenage love affair from hook-ups in broom closets, to being assaulted with dirty diapers by his now ex-wife. "Hookers At The Point" is a detailed portrait of the world's oldest trade, with three verses delivered from the perspectives of of hooker, pimp and john. Blue Chips was cut in a week with dusty samples gleaned from YouTube. The rough mix suits Bronson's vivid brainstorms to a tee; he flubs his bars three times on "9-24-11" but he keeps going. Bronson then paints the picture of a crack fiend getting serviced in an alley by a dressed bride and follows with "Naturally I'm jealous, because I'm lonely." His hood action hero persona is shot through with these glimpses of vulnerability, all the more powerful for their scarcity. Bronson was initially criticized for sounding like the Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah; Blue Chips is the sound of a great writer finding his own voice.
Cancer 4 Cure
Rapper-producer El Producto has been ahead of the curve since he debuted as one third of Company Flow in 1993, creating ground-breaking new music that borrows from sci-fi and hip-hop sources to describe a bleak Brooklyn over dark, Bomb Squad-inspired beats built upon lo-fi sounds. Two decades later and little has changed, but much has been refined. Cancer For Cure remains dark and dense, both musically and lyrically. His stories, steeped in metaphors and symbolism, are delivered with his recognizable off-beat flow, but this time around he speeds it up for "The Full Retard," drops Dirty South-style double-time raps on "Stay Down" and adopts a more conversational tone on "The Jig Is Up." The production is also a whole lot funkier — up-tempo songs like "The Full Retard" and "Drones Over BKLYN" will be well-suited for dance clubs of the future — and more musical, too. No simple loops here. Instead, El-P provides plenty of movement within the instrumentals, offering change-ups, sections that build, and even solos like the organ at the end of "Sign Here." It certainly doesn't hurt to have the additional assistance of friends Paul Banks (of Interpol) and Nick Diamonds (of Islands) singing your hooks, and appearances by currently-hot rappers Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, Danny Brown, Killer Mike and Despot. These guests should also attract the attention of new listeners, who will encounter an album that maintains accessibility even as it meets the demanding expectations of long-time El-P fans.
2. Killer Mike & El-P
"Heavy" isn't a word that gets used to describe rap records very often, but there's no other way to describe R.A.P. Music. It's loud and intense and occasionally a little frightening, with Killer Mike's rage-filled vocals and El-P's noisy, dense production combining to make an album that you can feel in the pit of your stomach. From the raw bombast of "Big Beast" to the creeping slow burn of "Reagan," there's very little on this album that doesn't go out of its way to kick your ass. In so many ways, this is the record Killer Mike was meant to make. The production pushes Mike's hard delivery to a new level of aggression. Beats that occasionally verge on industrial provide a perfect backdrop for lyrics that are frequently political and sometimes verge on the paranoid. R.A.P. Music isn't a fun listen; it's hard and gnarly and angry. It's also brilliant.
1. Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
(Top Dawg Entertainment)
A swing-for-the-fences mentality pervades Kendrick Lamar's opus, which jumps Dukes of Hazzard-style in for the drive-by to Classicburg and fires on all barrels, from beat selection to the narrative arc to the familiar yet fresh setting of Compton. Sonically, structurally and lyrically, Good Kid is seasoned with pinches of vintage OutKast (Can you not picture Andre letting loose a line like "I can feel your energy from two planets away"?), in-his-prime Ice Cube (his body's living the grind but his mind sees the bigger picture), and, most obviously, the best work of Compton god and executive producer Dr. Dre (the well-placed skits, the attention to sequencing, the multiple artists chipping in to deliver a single sound). Hell, dude even gives rap a fresh way to pronounce "bitch." (Bish is the new bee-yotch.) The MC Eiht cameo on "M.A.A.D. City" may be calculated, but it's perfect, not to mention to actual rapping on display. K-Dot flips various voices and splatters new patterns a la Eminem, pinpoints detail the way Ghostface would, and paints paranoia like Scarface. This might seem like a "duh" observation, but what makes Lamar's coming-of-age tour de force the best rap album of 2012 is its very albumness, an increasing rarity in a download-by-the-song world. Tuck that fast-forward finger back in your pocket; it's almost a sin to listen to this work in pieces. Good Kid clocks in at nearly 70 minutes, and still needs a second disc to handle the Mary J. Blige collabo and the collection's most obvious single. "The Recipe," a g-funked ode to the West's three indulgent W's — women, weed, weather — and a banger of imported strain. It's the exact song we wanted to hear as the leadoff Detox single or a Snoop Dogg CD that is too late to get made, but here it's regulated to bonus-disc status because it doesn't fit with the narrative and is a few months old. Yep, even Kendrick's castoffs out-drag most modern rappers' best pulls. Halle Berry or hallelujah? How about a scoop of each?