State of the Union
Felt to me like 2012 was the year rappers got love for being real--not just being real, but being themselves, with a bigger variety of those selves than ever. Danny Brown and his fucked-up hair. Bronson and his combination cookbook/rhyme book. Even Kitty Pryde with her redhead-from-Florida-who-works-at-Claire's-Accessories-and-raps-about-boys. Why'd everybody turn on Rap Genius all of a sudden? They turned out to be fronting. And assholes. I heard people talk about 'folklore rap' and 'grown man rap'. I didn't hear anyone talk about Drake or Kreayshawn's contributions to the culture. Hip-hop's always been about 'real recognize real,' but not only has it never had before such a multiplicity of individual voices, that coda's usually had the footnote that '(except it's better if you pretend to be a murderous drug dealer with a ridiculously lavish lifestyle.)'
Once you get off the 2Chainz/ratchet/gangsta/smoke-too-much-weed-to-do-more-than-string-random-words-together axis, you could have a real omnivorous musical diet. It's kinda like a Tumblr effect, where kids post a Method Man track and then an Urkel .gif and then a Frida Kahlo painting. No one's paying attention to region, or style, or whatever--you listen to what you like, and cats can make what they like--since radio play and sales are over, just do what you want. Hip-hop's on shuffle. All I heard out there was what a great year it was for hip hop--true, true.
Album of the Year
Ka :: Grief Pedigree Most end-of-year lists by people who actually know shit about hip-hop are gonna lead with this one or the Kendrick Lamar. Me, I think I'm the wrong coast or the wrong age or something to be really feeling GKMC.
Grief Pedigree is nothing if not heartfelt. Every line, and Ka's scratchy, low voice, shows weariness, wisdom, struggle. This album didn't come easy--Ka's been working on his own for years, trying to find his place in hip-hop. Pedigreealone took two years, he says: "one year writing, one year digging." It's self-produced, simple but strong beats built around perfect and unique loops and drums low in the mix. The lyrics are long strings of rhymes, endless quotables. The whole product shows the stamp of true handmade craft. It's 'grown man rap' as if the Mobb Deep of Infamous had disappeared and come back from the streets 20 years later. If Jay-Z is Avon Barksdale and every new gangsta on the scene is Marlo, Grief Pedigree is Bodie music.
There's been a lot of fair comparisons to Illmatic--both are short, tight, cohesive, packed with detail and imagery, and give us one man's view on the life out there, a kind of projects bildungsroman. Both reward you with repeated listens, both are classics, both are poetry backed up by peerless beats.
So can I get fuckin' pretentious for a minute? Pedigree is maybe more likeDubliners--a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories about a young man, as written when he was older, and can look back not only with a sense of loss and regret, but also a pervasive sense of mortality.
The ancient Egyptians postulated that every man has seven souls. The spirit, the vital essence, was called Ka, breathed into us at the moment of birth as the soul that makes us alive. After death, Ka was the only reliable guide of through the Land of the Dead. In hieroglyphs the Ka was represented as a second image of the Pharoah, the unseen double. But unlike other souls the Ka was sustained with food and drink, even after death. Even a soul gotta eat.
This is not just album of the year. This is the one to beat for the decade. It's good to see Ka coming in from the cold--literally, because when this dropped he was out selling CDs in front of what used to be Fat Beats and running back and forth to the post office to mail out orders. Ka is "Born King NY" indeed: No paper raps just lead rhymes / Niggas spit they shit...I bled mines / Food for thought, meals essential, shrine your mind / Build your temple…
Woods is that dude sitting on his stoop in a tank-top and Army surplus pants, sipping alternately from a Clamato and a Heineken for his hangover, reading the paper and getting pissed off about it. Spits with intelligence and aggravation, his records are like the OST for "An HBO Original Movie: Inside The Mind of the DC Sniper." Political rap has mostly been about rousing sloganeering, not usually turning its cynicism on the struggle itself. In 1989 P.E. told us to Fight The Power. On an earlier record a couple years ago, woods wagers "five cigarettes says the revolution won't change shit."
HWAM once again shows woods as one of today's most intelligent, dense and complex MCs, bending bars and packing his lyrics with fragments, namechecks, references, history lessons, cynicism and wisdom. Necessary post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-modern, post-postal music. Music for the struggle that isn't over, but no easy answers and no escapism. Because there are no easy answers and there is no escape. It's not easy listening, but these aren't easy times.
3 & 4 Public Enemy :: Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp & The Evil Empire of Everything Look peoples, P.E. I will always ride for, it's personal. Hip-hop for me started with that guitar loop at the start of "You're Gonna Get Yours." I'm the guy who thinks Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age is actually the Bomb Squad sound taken as far as it can go, and P.E. putting out a record 10 years before most people could appreciate it. But I'll admit after the stripped-down direction of 1999's There's A Poison Goin' On', the four LPs that followed had some good songs but were kinda...weaker.
Chuck & co. have been promising to release two LPs in the same year almost every release since Apocalypse '91 I think, but this time they actually did it--and in a year where I consider an album with half of its tracklist worth keeping good, this isn't filled out, stretched or padded. It's 24 tracks of pretty solid Public Enemy.
I'll admit that lyrically, there's not the same brilliance of P.E.'s past, but musically these two records have P.E. really pushing their chops and, for the first time, showing a new range by trying on styles from across Black music's history--Motown, reggae, old school hip-hop, and revisiting the punk/rap style of their old Anthrax collabo, this time with Tom Morello and Henry Rollins. It's the sound of a tight musical machine, honed by endless touring, flexing its muscles and putting on a new variation on the show.
5 El-P :: Cancer 4 Cure Originally I thought only half of this was brilliant, and I had about 17 paragraphs written in my head about how he's spending too much time hanging out with indie-rock dudes instead of sampling "Get Your Mother Off The Crack," and how I never listen to I'll Sleep because it sounds too fussy but I fucks heavily with the Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxes, but then I just listened to C4C again. It's actually fucking great, and my sole critique is: 50 Shades of Guantanamo erotic foreplay, what the fuck man, keep it to yourself, that shit creeps me out. Here are some words no one is allowed to use in writing about El-P any more: paranoid, robot, futuristic, Blade Runner, dystopia, post apocalyptic. Thank you for your cooperation.
6-20: Other Most Definitely Official Albums Mostly Not On Other People's Lists, But Don't Let That Stop You
- Agartha Audio & Taiyamo Denku :: Quadrofiendia This is just a good, solid banging record. Denku and a range of solid guest MCs hold their own over some of AA's best beats.
- The Alchemist :: Russian Roulette Ill producer-driven record which wisely saves Alc's best beats for a hand-picked artisanal lineup of MCs, in a year when he had more hands in everything than that limerick about the man from Mazingers with cocks for fingers.
- B. Dolan :: House of Bees Vol. 2 I don't really get why B. Dolan doesn't get more love in the underground, or even above it, since he's really a talented cat behind that beard...saw a lot of idiot white 'intelligent' MCs get love this year who universally failed to bring heat. This is your mans right here.
- Bigg Jus :: Machines That Make Civilization Fun I wish this record had gotten 10% of the press El-P's record did, seeing as they're both ex-CoFlow. I admit only the first half is good, but that half is peerless, incredible density and flow. (Paging Mr. Len...white courtesy telephone...the fuck you at man...)
- Collectible Humans :: String Theory So 'progressive rap' is a thing now, meaning the beats are ill, the rhymes are esoteric (not to be confused with Esoteric) and intelligent (not Wise Intelligent). Sometimes it works and sometimes I think, 'Damn, Aesop Rock has a lot to answer for.' This one most definitely works.
- DJ Format :: Statement of Intent This was another DJ-driven record of great beats, that brought among other great guest MCs Mr Lif and Edan back from...whatever the hell they've been doing...to rhyme over some good ol' fashioned funky beats. Some AH YEAH shit.
- June Marx :: Seven Trumpets Sound Like some kinda Killarmy version of Quantum Leap, June Marx is stuck in the sweet spot between the second Wu-wave like Sunz of Man and the surge of ancient gangsta astronauts isht like Killah Priest and Jedi Mind.
- Meyhem Lauren :: Mandatory Brunch Meetings Old fashioned NY face-slaps with dashes of gourmet callouts and some supremely strange metaphors. And a long closing shout-out to the Chinese Communist Party for absolutely no reason I can figure out.
- Open Mike Eagle :: 4NML HSPTL Mike is maybe the most intelligent MC out there today. By 'intelligent' I don't mean dropping numerological Clarence 13X stuff, or UFO theories, or political diatribes like we usually mean by 'intelligent hip-hop.' I mean the dude is smart as hell. 'Clever' and 'witty' are awful things to say about anyone but yeah. Only MC to break down the financial crisis and only MC to ever reference The New Yorker mascot (except that one time Kool Moe Dee did it by accident). There was a lot of talk about 'grown man rap' this year because of stuff like Nas rapping about his daughter...this is rap for grown men who really need to catch up on The Nation but then smoke weed and watch Hard Eight again on cable instead.
- PremRock :: Mark's Wild Years Rap's graveyard of failed concept records is about the same size as its actual graveyard. A hip-hop homage to Tom Waits, on the face of it, is gonna turn off hip-hop AND Tom Waits fans most likely...but you know what, this really works. Not in the 'interesting exercise' sense but in the 'interesting album' sense. Cop it. And I don't even really fuck with Tom Waits.
- Roc Marciano :: Reloaded Anyone who doesn't have this universally loved record on their year-end list is a motherfucking moron who should be banned from writing, or even making lists about, hip-hop ever again. No doubt the beats on Marcberg are better, but this is a great record. The two best reviews are over on Passion of the Weiss and Kid Mero's.
- Talib Kweli & Z-Trip :: Attack The Block Now I remember why I always check out any new Kweli project even though his output has been total ass for about ten years. He fucking brings it on this one for once. Z-Trip's still got it on the beats too.
Best Instrumental Shit
I didn't listen to a lot of instrumental shit this year, or maybe I did and I just don't remember because they sucked. But these really stood out.
- 3:33 :: In The Middle Of Infinity This was one of those, oh shit I gotta get their whole discography records. It's that dark, grimy ill shit I like. Peerlessly so.
- Kid Koala :: 12 Bit Blues In contrast to that bafflingly shitty DJ Yoda club record that also came out this year, Koala creates the world's first and incredibly dope turntablist LP out of blues records.
- Mononome :: The Secret Melody I think there may now be too much instrumental jazz-hop in the world. Shit needs like a carbon credits program or something. But this was a truly beautiful EP.
There were a lot of other records--a LOT of other records--I just can't say were 'albums of the year' because less than half the tracks were banging. It's just how it is. The Nas, the RZA OST, Killer Mike...I fuck with those, but they just didn't have enough overall great joints to be albums of the year. If you think I missed something, hit me off in the comments.