My top records has a lot of usual suspects you’ve heard me hosanna about before, but hell, they keep putting out consistently good music. I think the underground just keeps getting bigger, stronger and more diverse…and also more recognized: a grip of these picks also made big-time lists. Part of that is ‘nobody doesn’t like Danny Brown,’ and 'everybody was feeling thatRun The Jewels shit,' but Ka is getting some serious love too. Anyways let’s get into this shit.
The Night’s Gambit is a fully realized epic novel pared down and pared down and whittled down once again until each line can stand alone, like the letters are cut into steel by steel, then polished smooth with his sandpaper muttering. He’s taken GZA’s line-twisting, syllable-by-syllable build and compressed it even further.
There are two undercurrent themes on Night’s Gambit—the slum Bible, the ill Tarot: the spiritual search for meaning and the discipline that comes with it; and chess. While chess has been the 6th, 7th element of hip-hop since the Wu era, for Ka it becomes not only another mode of self-mastery, and the countering view of us as pawns in the game, but also a call of resistance—that the knight can champion, move sideways and attack. There's other thematics—about luck, about chance, about destiny, and the search for grace.
No doubt the world Ka gives us is bleak, unrelenting—there is only the city, the man, and the struggle. There’s little bravado or humor. It’s Escape From New York Reloaded and Ghost Dog Returns. But if this is a Brownsville The Grey where Ka is solo punching the wolves with broken glass, well, it’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting a little frosty myself. But the hope comes from how we rise up against it; the record closes with the celebration of the art in “Off The Record”—as Chuck D said, hard times get me down I pump the hard rhymer. The music is where the salvation lies.
The beats once again are ghosts of fat beats for the man who plies his trade outside the ghost of Fat Beats: stripped down to base metals, barely loops but so finely chosen, only a hint of drums, like it’s been unraveling slowly off that same damn ‘Lo sweater from ’93, til infinity.
The world ground on him and he grinds back. The record is not simply good, it’s necessary. All praise is due; deserved.
Billy Woods :: Dour Candy
Armand Hammer :: Half Measures
Armand Hammer :: Race Music
Cult Favorite brought down some Rap Game Blood Meridian shit, Elucid croaking out prophecy somewhere between Charles Manson and Stokely Carmichael, live from a combo command center and shooting gallery basement where A.M. cooks beats from formaldehyde, dirty pigeon wings and infrared light.
Over some dirty Blockhead beats, “bout it like Victor Bout,” Woods chewed on some dour candy to give us a Rap Game Manhattan Transfer, compressing geopolitical, sports, hip-hop and old school street references into a collection of portraits and vignettes on some No Exit From Brooklyn tip.
Together as Armand Hammer, they gave us “black steel in the hour of layoffs,” chewing bitterness and spitting nails. You got apostasy in my Clockers! No, you got Clockers in my apostasy! When woods says “go hard like Old Testament God / You burning bush? They livin’ large” and Elucid spits “catch him breaking fast where the angels laugh,” among other drops, the records catch the true spirit—the Yahweh who shits on Job to settle a bet with the Devil, kills the firstborn then lays down the law. That's the world we living in. Woods be “pimping where the water ain’t fit for drinking,” and Elucid is “dead man’s Bally’s I’m sporting,” and us? We learning.
Using minimalistic but lush off-kilter beats that kinda fall into the shoegaze/illbient/witchtit whatever the fuck they call that shit now, Milo wears his heart and his brain on his sleeve, giving us a look into his life and worldview so far beyond anything we’ve heard before. There’s been a lotta rappers lately making blogs swoon that I thought were just riffing or biting on DOOM, Kool Keith or Odd Future, whereas everything about Milo’s style is fresh and unique.
Playing PhD-Nice to Open Mike Eagle’s KRS-LOL, sort of, (OK not really, judges also would have accepted ‘Kool Moe PhDee to Hellfyre Club’s Persnickety Three’) there’s a syllabus level of references and name-checking ranging from Kierkegaard to Mamet to Mobb Deep, an intense love of wordplay, humor and quotables. The meandering, conversational tone creates an intimacy but also hides the level of work that’s gone in—not a throwaway line in sight.
But what is it that Milo is doing, exactly? Is he really even rapping? Is this more like poetry slam than what we’d define as hip-hop—what with the laidback-on-the-futon flow, the lack of beats or steadily staying on them? Is this taking nerd rap/art rap/emo rap into Moleskine rap? Is this Rap Game Whole Foods Wasabi Peas?
No, I think it isn’t. It’s far too sincere for that, ironic without being cynical, funny without just riffing, and smart without being pedantic. All I know is, for me, the Fried Rice Nietzsche raised the bar to another level. I heard a bunch of records this year which were decent, standard meat & potatoes joints about guns/drugs/lyrical ability/high-end footwear and just thought, ‘well, it’s pretty good, but ever since Milo it’s just not that interesting.’ Keep your eye on this kid, he’s gonna go all the way.
Run The Jewels :: Run The Jewels You know what, I held a bias against this for a long while because I have this alternate-reality grudge where the El-P of a few years ago doesn’t go and hang around with indie-rock guys but gets all arty like he almost did when he did High Water, and does the best film soundtracks ever, and collabos with Philip Glass or some shit. But then I got that “Get It” beat stuck in my head for three days and decided actually this album kicks, because boop boop, BOOP boop, boop boop, BOOP boop, boop boop, BOOP boop, for three days, OK, it’s all good.
3:33 :: Bicameral Brain Coming hard off the back of last year’s In The Middle of Infinity, Brain is more diffuse and ambient and less with the back-breaking drums, but no doubt a sonic journey through your nether neurons.
Bil Basmala :: Brother From Another Planet The homie née Autolect had a prolific-ass year again, building a solid label/platform on FKA Co. and dropping this head-knocking audio journey laced up with samples from the seminal Sayles flick.
DJ Moneyshot :: Solid Steel & The Hour of Chaos Moneyshot deconstructs Nation of Millions on its 25th anniversary, then reconstructs it with samples, sample sources and interview snippets.
Music and martial arts. They are parallel art forms. Unlike sculpture or painting, music and martial arts happen in real time. When you hear a rapper perform or see a master demonstrate, the proof is in that moment. A lifetime of extensive, hard training may culminate in the recitation to which you bear witness. Rap style has an even more internal connection to martial arts than most music. It involves strenuous breath control, and of all techniques, it is the most difficult.