Coming to the end of the year, my brother and I began talking about who should write what best-of-the-year-lists for certain mediums. We both agreed that he should make a top 10 list for music, but the more he talked about his process towards completing a list, it made me wonder how much different a list by me would look. It made me realize that while I had enveloped just as much music this year as he did, there were just too many different genres and styles that I listened to, that I began to feel that a top-ten music list from me would be a nigh impossible task for me. That said, there is most certainly a genre of music that we both agree is more my area of expertise. That area is hip-hop music, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I simply needed to do a top ten list for it this year, and immediately!
I have to say 2013 was a great year for hip-hop, and one that really re-sparked my interest in the genre. I often say hip-hop music was my gateway drug towards becoming the music nerd that I am today, and this year proved actually nostalgic for me in that regard. There was just such a platitude of great artists working at the top of their game this year, from ones that recalled rap’s golden age in the 90s (Ka, Action Bronson), to highly popular acts moving rap even further into the 21rst century (Drake, Kanye West, Danny Brown), as well as some new alternative acts that seem to have already found their own unique niche that lays calmly in between these two points (Chance the Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt). I left off some albums that I deemed too “experimental” to carry the misnomer of hip-hop (with all due respect to the excellent albums Death Grips and The Weeknd put out this year), but I did include releases that artists were referring to as mix tapes this year (As holy shit, we saw some great “mixtapes in 2013!). So sit back, relax, and strap on your seat belts (courtesy of Dr. Dre I suppose), as this young journalist takes you down his top recommendations for 2013 rap music.
10. Le1f – Fly Zone/Tree House
I know it’s kind of cheating to put two mix-tapes on this list, but I feel that Fly Zone and Tree House both reflect such engaging-yet-conflicting sides of the New York beat-maker/rapper. Fly Zone is clearly the more upbeat of the two, with Le1f demonstrating that his unique talent for rapping over electronic beats could become a club sensation, while Tree House is smoother and sexier, and shows he could be Marvin Gaye if he wanted to. Like Action Bronson, I feel that Le1f is just warming up with this steady stream of mix-tape releases before giving us his first studio release sometime next year, but both of these records give us all something to be really excited for.
9. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
It took years to get here, and arrived after the whole hot topic of “Free Earl”, so it was a bit of a dismay when listeners of the 19-year old rapper’s major label debut record began calling the album “merely good”. Still, Earl Sweatshirt (easily the best rapper in the LA-based hip-hop collective Odd Future) made a very strong record here, and showed that his subject matter had evolved beyond the already-tired horror-core raps that had made his brand name popular among America’s impressionable youth. A little too abstract at times, as Earl’s rap persona is still a tough nut to crack, but a brilliantly rapped record with some of the most playful use of production you’ll see all year (check out the song Molasses to see what I mean).
8. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
I have to admit that at first I was a little upset with Drake’s third LP. I thought Take Care was a brilliant album that trumped his freshman release in every regard, and I found that Nothing Was the Same was a bit of a return to the style that was on Thank Me Later. Thing is, this album does indeed use the raw honesty that the rapper conveyed on Take Care, just in a flavor that’s closer to hip-hop, rather than the R+B stylings that saturated his last release. It’s overall a very moving listening experience, and Drake may very well go down as the Prince of our generation (at least until Andre 3000 finally starts putting out albums again!).
7. Pusha T – My Name is My Name
Clipse was one of the best hip-hop duos of the 2000s, and for Pusha T’s solo record he proves that he can hold his own without his brother Malice backing him up. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that he has Kanye West executive producing the record, but aside from the high-end production and polish, Pusha T shows he has the wit, charisma and energy to be his own voice, and not just another protege of Yeezy’s. Also, I just have to say that Kendrick Lamaar gives possibly the best guest spot of the year on Nosestalgia, and I already can’t wait to hear his next album!
6. Ghostface Killah – 12 Reasons to Die
After two decades of being the Wu-Tang Clan’s most eclectic and evolving emcee, one has to ask if there’s anything more the 43-year old veteran can do…clearly a lot! Enlisting American composer Adrian Younge (who supplied the soundtrack for the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite), Ghosftace has given us a giallo-film-inspired concept album about a crime lord who is killed in a gang war, and then resurrected to lay bloody waste to his enemies. Spitting violent imagery and pulp narratives at a rate and quality that would make Tarantino proud (would it be asking too much for him to direct a film adaptation?), and featuring guest appearances by most of the other Wu-Tang Clan, as far as I’m concerned, this is the best thing to invoke the group’s spirit to come out of 36 Chambers 20th anniversary year. I’ve been calling Ghostface my favorite emcee for years now, and 12 Reasons to Die is proof enough to me that he’s going to remain so
5. Ka – The Night’s Gambit
If it wasn’t the most under-appreciated rap album of the year, then it’s only because not enough people listened to the damn thing! Ka, a Wu-Tang affiliate who some of you might have heard rap a solo track on the GZA album Pro-Tools, is that rare breed of rapper that uses his middle-age as a benefactor. At 41, Ka’s mindset seems to still be inherent to the 90s, with his talk of thug life, street poverty, and that era when New York was known as the Concrete Jungle, all while using eerie beats that recall early Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang. Yet he approaches these well-worn topics with a sense of maturity and wisdom, that lets you feel like you are really hearing the words of a wise street prophet, who has managed to survive the chaos of urban decay. Whether talking about spiritual re-awakening after violence, or rapping a street narrative that also happens to be a hip-hop history lesson (the track Off the Record incorporates the names of classic hip-hop records in the lyrics, similar to how the GZA referenced record companies on his famous track Labels), The Night’s Gambit is serious, no bull-shit, hardcore rap, and it’s up there with Savages’ Silence Yourself as one of the most awe-inspiring throwback albums of the year.
4. Chance the Rapper – Acip Rap
He’s barely out of his teens, raps while on drugs, often rhymes using the most nonsensical sentences, and he sounds like Ol’ Dirty Bastard as a pimply faced teenager with asthma…I love him already. The Chicago emcee is certainly unique, but it’s also surprising how heartfelt and thought provoking his songs can be. On songs like Acid Rap and Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro), the rapper brings up all his woes concerning death, addiction and loss of innocence, all while coming off as a cute-and-cuddly teddy bear who happens to be a chain smoker. I’m hoping that in the future Chance realizes that Acid Rap is just too good to be called a mix tape, and will indeed be seen as his proper debut (I felt something similar happened with Danny Brown’s XXX). Regardless, Acid Rap is my pick for best debut record from a rapper this year, and possibly the genre’s most unique new voice since Danny Brown.
3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
El-P and Killer Mike both released great albums last year (which El-P both produced), so obviously the only question remaining was this: what if they made one together? Well, fans got their answer through Run the Jewels, a project that both rappers said was intended to merely be a fun little exercise for them, but it ended up being one of the best and most succinct hip-hop releases of the year. Over the album’s ten tracks, Killer Mike and El-P mostly restrain from being overtly political or meaningful, and instead just talk shit and try and have a good time. It’s a half-hour of witty verses, El-P’s futuristic beats, and an attitude that’s as tough-as-it-is-intelligent, and must be the most consistent and compact rap record this year. It sounds like a Method Man and Redman album from the year 2054, which sounds all the more awesome the more I think about it.
2. Kanye West – Yeezus
Technically it should be number 1 on this list, but something kept me from putting it there. No, it’s not that it’s too obvious, it’s more that I’m not exactly sure how well the album will age down the line. Right now, however, Yeezus is a brilliant release from hip-hop’s most discussed personality, and one that acts as sort of an inevitable destination point for him. While certainly a bizarre album, both lyrically and production wise, Yeezus is very much a culmination of all of Kanye’s past albums and his always evident obsessions, from his infatuation with his egotism, to his possibly clinical sex drive. At forty minutes also, the album is lean and filler-less, and even seems to fit the format of some of the synth-groups that Kanye appears to be imitating (i.e. Suicide, Throbbing Gristle). It’s still unclear whether Yeezus will go down as the rappers crowning achievement (might be hard to do, cause shit, that guy’s put out some really fucking good albums), but it’s likely that it will go down as his most Lynchian work. Like Eraserhad, I’m not entirely sure what it is or what the artist behind it is trying to say, but I am sure that it’s fantastic!
1. Danny Brown – Old
Is Danny Brown the single most crazy, endearing, vulgar, eclectic, distinct and original emcee in the game right now? That’s certainly a helluva claim (especially as a lot of those adjectives seem to contradict each other), but after listening to Danny’s latest release it’s hard to think of another. Over Old’s 19 tracks, the rapper touches on a plethora of different music styles that range from gangsta rap, to house, to alternative pop, while never breaking his singular character. What’s more, he’s a rapper that always has something to say, such as when he’ll spit party rhymes that are as ugly as they are lively, and then speak on darker issues such as his struggles with depression and addiction. Hell, as much as I love Danny Brown’s on-stage persona as a drug and sex fiend, I’m hoping he only continues to show more of his softer side on later records. A masterpiece of an album from a performer completely in control of his image and artistry