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decade :: the mmx

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El Anatsui, 'Man's Cloth,' 2002

(So over the decade on my annual reports I’ve written 35 pages of ranting and ravings, and I’ma repurpose some of that here, because I already said a lot of the shit I got to say.)

Hip hop changed and grew a lot this decade, and if anything streaming did two things: it released artists from needing to have that R&B crossover single or superstar guest feature, allowing them to do whatever the fuck they wanted.  It also meant people are discovering, tasting and liking omnivorally, just vibing with what they vibe to.  No more gatekeepers.  No more tastemakers.  No more label saying you can’t call your song ‘Camouflage Unicorns’ or ‘Salisbury Steak Sweater.’  So rap could get broader, more nuanced, more artful, more mature—and there was enough for every appetite.

Maybe we're in a short sweet spot where Spotify isn't quite yet choked at the gate by corporations making sure you hear their heavy investments. Algorithm 'curated' playlists and robot-made ambient chillout will soon enough bring us full circle to spoon-fed tastes--that is, back to radio days.

To paraphrase Harry Allen’s ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’ video concept, I am not interested in work that fulfills rap’s FUNCTION (move the dancefloor, sell records, fill stadiums, for strippers to twerk to, for the kids, the same old vanilla trap gangsta tales).  I am interested in how it progresses as a FORM: which asks what hip-hop is, what it can do—musically, culturally, politically, personally, artistically.

The shit I like is the multi-layered, the don't-know-what-he-said book, the Genius-annotators-don't-have-the-PhDs-to-handle-these-lyrics-son. To quote a Busdriver tweet: some of the best American writing is locked in these dense rap songs that no one likes.

10 Best of the Decade

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billy woods

The first thing woods drops on his 2004 debut Camouflage is him reading from James Baldwin’s "Letter from a Region in My Mind:" One would never defeat one's circumstances by working and saving one's pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account.

In other words, shorty can't eat no book, what I told Ta-Nehesi Coates.

You know woods is my favorite working rapper, in my all-time top 10--I been TELLING you since 2008.  More than that, he's my favorite living writer: more than anything else, woods is a writer, and a great one.  He has a smart, sardonic, bitter and funny voice, and uses rap's power of capturing small moments of life in sharp, tight sketches.  A lotta times I wonder: this is a dude who isn't in it for the money or the ego trip, why isn't he just publishing novels or poetry collections? Because, again: shorty can't eat no book, what I told Ta-Nehesi Coates?  Maybe he'd be too constrained by a formal narrative, or the loss of his actual acid voice would rob the words, but tell me you wouldn't want a Library of Amerikkka edition of his complete lyrics.  That hasbeen Richard Price wishes he could write this fucking well:

Life is just two quarters in the machine

But, either you got it or don't that's the thing

I was still hitting the buttons, "Game Over" on the screen

Dollar movie theater, dingy foyer, little kid, not a penny to my name

Fucking with the joystick, pretending I was really playing

Pretending I was really playing

Pretending I was really playing

 

But that’s an easy one.  What motherfucker today was writing like this 15 years ago, let alone today:

Back in front the bodega, I’ll wager

With weed in sock, 31 Flavors, and a broke pager

Still broke many a hater

Rather laugh now and laugh later

He who last laughs probably had a razor

Got the shaft of life’s elevators like them boys out Decatur

Good fences make good neighbors

Ask ‘em on the West Bank—that extra clip can be a lifesaver

Woods is not a technical rapper—there’s no complex rhyme schemes, no punchlines.  He’s a storyteller, sometimes in whole narratives and sometimes in brilliant portraits and vignettes on some No Exit From Brooklyn tip.  His shit takes multiple re-listens to catch the jokes, unpack the footnotes.  He’ll pack in references to Things Fall Apart, Andy Capp, Sanford & Son, Wu-Tang, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy all in the same damn song.  In another, Jenny Holzer, Killah Priest and Rumsfeld quotes. Every joint is full of fragments, namechecks, history lessons, cynicism and wisdom.

One of woods’ favorite writers, Dambudzo Marechera, called his writing a kind of "literary shock treatment."  His work was a process of "discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance".  That’s the kind of dour candy woods likes to chew on.

He brings down Rap Game Blood Meridian, Rap Game Manhattan Transfer, it’s late night news broadcasts on dead city radio.  He writes with the eye of Joseph Conrad—observing his adopted land, the weaknesses and violence of colonial adventures.  He goes hard like Old Testament God, pimping where the water ain’t fit for drinking. The Metrocard machine asks you one question: what do you want to do?  Do you want to add value?  Or add time?  You can't have both.

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. woods wagers five cigarettes says the revolution won't change shit.

It’s cool he finally got props in Time fucking Magazine’s Albums of 2019 list, but you know damn well he’s also on the list of Rappers Most Likely To Be Sanctioned By Drone Strike.

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Ka

As far as classic albums of the decade that will last for all time, it’s Grief Pedigree, Marcberg, and everything else.  Grief is up there with Illmatic and Cold Vein of timeless, definitive rap bildungsromans.  He reduces rap to its most natural elements: stripped down loops, couplets of street pain at their barest, all delivered with economy and exacting precision—entire epics, compressed.  It’s elevating rap to a level of concrete abstraction--no logos, no skits, no gun sounds, no swagger, bare bones of stories--that he paints with pointed syllables.  Blood, blood, blood with the pen flow.  His beats are ghosts of fat beats for the man who plied his trade outside the ghost of Fat Beats, unravelled off that same damn ‘Lo sweater from ’93 to infinity.

Scorcese called the overhead shots in Taxi Driver 'sacramental perspective.'  Ka does those, moving down from on high with virtuouso tracking shots through subways into elevators crazy wet with piss.  I need more prayer to stay out the crosshair. He slices down to the bone until the words glisten with lapidary brilliance. He’s taken rap’s entire history of street tales and boiled it down to a rust-dark sea that fits in a 40 oz. bottle.

The level of artistry though!  Pedigree was a Dubliners--a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories about a young man, 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.  But then—four albums that play with concepts and themes without losing their grounding in chainlink and streetlight.

The Night’s Gambit took on chess--the 6th element of hip-hop since the Wu era, but for Ka it becomes not only another mode of self-mastery, and the 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.

Dr Yen Lo is the record I return to most, as Preservation brings a richer beat palette.  Using The Manchurian Candidate as a jumping off point, it’s a fever dream, a delirium.  Ka alludes to indoctrination, brainwashing, cultural hypnosis, programmed violence, and state-sponsored terror, but it's a motif but not a concept.  When you're raised around rage and vengeance / you can change, but in your veins remains major remnants.

Honor Killed The Samurai carried on his sword-sharp writing, an a deeper take than we usually get on hattori hanzos: Ka knows that Zen includes the tea ceremony, sword fighting and calligraphy--the art and meditation practice of writing just one letter, just one thought, after long and careful clearing of the mind, with one chance only to get it right.  It's street-level frescoes carved on grains of rice.

Finally, Orpheus vs The Sirens with Animoss.  Calling himself Orpheus isn't hubris: the name comes from the roots of slave, rebel, darkness, orphan.  Like Roc Marci, Ka knows street rap is the crafting of epics, of legends--honor and betrayal, heroes and monsters, journeys and battles.  So homie went Homeric, reached back to the Greek myths to infuse the struggles, and makes a whole album of contrast, metaphor, allusion and comparison.  That golden fleece was North Face.  That cyclops, a crooked cop.  That weight on your shoulders?  We're all Atlas out here son.  He's the poet, prophet and musician who went to hell and made it back. Jinxed to be the man deciphers life riddle or get killed by the Sphinx.

The Greeks had two words for time: kronos, for quantitative time--hours, days, years--and kairos, meaning the right time.  The right moment to convey the right message, with symmetry and balance--the moment to release the arrow so it'll hit the target.  That's what Ka does.  He knows that just because strippers know all the words to your song, it's just money on the clock.  He writes for the ages.

Ghost Dog didn't die at the end of The Way of the Samurai.  He lives in a Brownsville basement, waking at 3am from PTSD nightmares and digging in the crates for the dustiest loops.  Another way: Illmatic never got released, Nas lost an arm, and spent 20 years refining and compressing his craft for a wintertime debut.

Of all the rituals performed at Egyptian funerals, the most important was the Opening of the Mouth.  Symbolically cutting open the corpse's mouth.  It enabled the dead to pass into the afterlife seeing, hearing and breathing, and able to eat to sustain the Ka--that part of the soul that distinguishes the living from the dead.  Ka is the essence breathed into us at the moment of birth, and the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead.  You here in the spirit? You only brung flesh / I keep it primal 'til it's final, who wanna come test?

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Roc Marciano

C’mon son.  It’s Marcberg.

*deep sigh* OK then. Let me break it down like this.

It’s not that Marcberg set the stage for the entire decade’s East Coast rap, it’s how he did that.  Musically, Marcberg is a cohesive set of perfect, ice-bright beats—like all the best albums, it’s one entire, unique sound.  Lyrically and musically, he took hip hop’s formative elements—funk, pimpin’, ballin’, fly shit, gangstaism, braggadocio, violence—and cut them paper-thin like the prison garlic scene in Goodfellas.  Then he built a body of work using these small, sharp shards, carving with that essence, so every line could be an end-to-end burner or carved on a tombstone (yours, not his).

It's Japanese calligraphy, each track a single character that says "Across 110th Street," painted with a musk-ox hair brush in blood (yours, not his) on Fendi mulberry paper while he's wearing a tangerine silk kimono and a bad bitch rubs his shoulders and makes him rare jasmine tea.  It's velvet draped on concrete. It's a hand-tooled Mexican leather holster for a gold-plated .45 with mother-of-pearl inlaid handles.  It's Marcberg Aurelius' Meditations on Pimpstaism.  It’s that time Raekwon starred in the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan—it’s g shit stylized, it’s reduced to its very ritual aspects. 

There's an intense simplicity, a harmony and focus that charges every joint—and the complete and total authority of his delivery.  Go back to 2004’s Strength & Honor—he’s rushing himself a bit, riding on mediocre beats, writing whole lines. It’s on Marcberg when he gets that superego and tiger claw, move-like-water flow. There's this thing he does where he switches up his rhyme scheme mid-verse, where he rolls syllables around like dice.  The chopped-up string of nearly unrelated bars, each cut finely. I'm in the Sahara with Arabs too arrogant for Donna Karan.

Comparisons with those he's influenced are pointless and spurious: you can't compare a goldfish to Moby Dick. He simply runs the fucking game, and we're living in the Marcazoic Era where every new MC is carbon-dated against his 2001-monolith shadow.

Marcberg is the stone-cold, all-time classic—there will never be another, that’s some Louvre shit. I probably liked Volumes I-IX of the loosies and guest shots a bit more than most of the followup albums--when he hops on someone else's beat, he picks a great one--but 2018’s KAOS with Muggs is a tie for second.  2019’s Marcielago is a perfection, a distillation, of a decade's work.  It's got his signature blend of smooth and ruthless, of threats and indulgence...it's got the funk and the thousand yard stare.  It's got brunch and cars and what his bitch is like today. 

Forget it, Jake. It’s Marcberg.

 

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Elucid

Curly Castro said Elucid’s music is like a séance.  This is true: he’s the gypsy and the ghost, the medium and the message, the Ouija and the Weegee.

Across the decade, Elucid created a sprawling Oort Cloud of cold rocks, breaking fast where the angels laugh: on his own, with Concrete Sound System (S&M washing machine porn) with A.M. Breakups as Cult Favorite (temple sermons somewhere between Manson and Stokely Carmichael), with Dumhi (no snakes allowed, with those Romare Bearden beats), with milo as Nostrum Grocers (a jazz cookout, free association masters in a cipher behind the cellar door), and with woods as the mighty, mighty Armand Hammer (where Statler & Waldorf meet Chomsky & Fanon).

There's cacophony, doom, prophecy, world-weariness, irony and resistance…but there’s also grace and peace here, shelter in the pervading menace of 2K Amerikkka.  Knowledge of all the Babylon A.D. tricks that RZA taught him in the vampire bar.  He's the cat who can sneak you past the checkpoints, but a hero ain't nothing but a chopped cheese.  Chuck D wrote his messages billboard-and-protest-sign ready; Elucid twists 'em up cryptic, slips them into fortune cookies made of sandpaper and dark syrup.  His own beats are cooked up from formaldehyde, dirty pigeon wings and ultraviolet light.  It's fractured blues and St. Augustine visions. Sipping on Flint water in ruined tabernacles.  Catch him breaking fast where the angels laugh.

 

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Shabazz Palaces

From that rat-a-tat-tat of drums and piano that opens 2009’s Of Light, I was hooked on what Palaceer and his galactic funk warriors were doing.  Battle of the Planets with a Prince soundtrack.  Black Panther by way of the '80s Flash Gordon. Flow my beats, the timecop said.  Rammellzee is the equation.  These are exactly the records we should have in a future we didn’t get, that we should’ve expected two decades after Reachin’ but didn’t.  It's like wearing intergalactic plushpluvial Dapper Dan underpants. It tastes like purple. But it still has street weight, still has depth, still transcendent.

The music silver surfs the tip of the quantum wave between confounding, demanding and deeply funky.  It's totally discordant yet addictively compelling--seeking, chasing, laying back in the swirl.  It creates its own world and trades in backpacks for Octavia Butler paperbacks. Like in The Terminator, it came across time to love you. 

By a hair I’d say 2011’s Black Up takes the prize, but Lese Majesty, double LP Quazarz and totally slept on side project Knife Knights (Did it not show up in your goddamn Spotify algorithm?  I bet it didn't show up in your fucking algorithm.) go Afrofuturist Space Disco Praxis Metastasis in the best way.  I'm always looking for the future.  I'm always looking for what the streets of the future will sound like.  This is it.  This isn't music for now.

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Mach-Hommy

A lot of what defines a rapper is persona, and Mach’s is his cool, removed aura of mystery—the bandana and fisherman hat as iconic and obscuring as DOOM’s.  If DOOM is the supervillain from ‘60s FF, Mach is the Haitian Shadow—who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Dumpmeister knows. It’s also his total remove and almost disdain for the listeners—his shit is hard to find, at best collated on his Soundcloud—what he’s most bitter about is anyone’s guess.  There’s no official bio.  Search Wikipedia and you get ‘Did you mean Mack Holly?’  But that aura, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scattershot output, and level of craft gripped those who know.

It’s easy to forget he dropped the excellent F.Y.I. in 2013 (and was sampling Burroughs and Marilyn Monroe on random mixtapes) before blowing minds with his still-unbeaten 2017 H.B.O.  Across 2018-19 he became practically the host of the Soul Assassins joints, closing out this year exec producing/featuring on Your Old Droog’s best album to date, Jewelry. He has dropped so much shit though, and not all of it hits me right on the beats, but his Selected Works is pretty unparalleled.

Mach has a crisp, shot-pellet cadence and never-ending flow, with Jenga-stacked lyrics on lyrics on lyrics that never unravel, and a good ear for lofi beats to ride on. He clips out lines one after another, with the precision and skilled relentlessness of John Wick popping head shots. His compressed density stacks like quantum microchips rather than loops from here to there in the more associative freewheels of other MCs; there's no variation in voice or tone, just a GZA-level science.

At this point worship at the Temple of Mach is getting a bit ridiculously fervent, but at least the $1,000 albums are discounted down to uh…$150.  Be interesting to see if he stays out there in the shadows, dipping out to bless us, or comes out with some definitive masterpiece a bit longer than his Muggs EPs.

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Griselda Gang

Griselda is a franchise, has been since 2015, and its members are not only highly conscious of that, it's part of their plan.  You don't tune in to the new episode for anything but Conway doing his Buffalo Marlon Brando Godfather growling, Gunn's gritty Joker-style reboot of Frank Gorshin's Riddler, and Benny's...butchering.  Plus Alc and Daringer beats with so much hiss and crackle it seems like part of the drums. I don't expect artistic expression or risks or variation, just good reliable gangsta shit on some Chris Paltrow and Snoop in the SUV regretting their violent life choices.

Maybe they’re spread a bit thin—like Mach, they’re Selected Works not Collected Works contenders.  Until 2019’s WWCD there’s not really been a definitive classic--no 36 Griseldas, just more and more Really? Still With The Hitler Thing?  Maybe that's just how we roll now, but you can only imagine what this crew coulda done with a RZA plan of staggered, tight releases.  What we get is extensive world building--and it's a cold, brutal world.

When it works it’s golden ice grill, pure essence of street rap. Conway's regretful warrior with the thousand-mile stare, Gunn's Jimmy Jump devil-trickster, and Daringer's static crackle, haunted Cadillac beats--they've created their own sound. Out of all the Marci Begats, these cats cemented a new wave of East Coast gangsta shit better than all the others.

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milo

Aka Ruby Yacht aka Scallops Hotel aka Boyle and Piles aka Nostrum Grocers aka RAP Ferreira, the Rap Teju Cole, the Fried Rice Nietzsche, the PhD-Nice.  There were a lot of dudes this decade who did low-key rapping over lush off-kilter beats, but none who wore their big hearts and big brains on their sleeves as well as milo.

There’s a syllabus level of references and name-checking ranging from Kierkegaard to X-Clan to Mamet to Mobb Deep, an intense love of wordplay, humor and quotables. The meandering, the laidback-on-the-futon flow creates an intimacy but also hides the level of work that’s gone in—not a throwaway line in sight.  There was a point mid-decade when he could have settled into a comfortable groove of campus touring, Moleskine-rap, Portlandia guest star, Rap Game Trader Joe’s Wasabi Peas.  But he didn’t.  He pushed himself forward between so the flies don’t come and who told you to think?!!?!?!?!, asking more questions than he can answer and creating another journal for the bibliography.  The lyrics are still well-compressed and laced with references to Camus and the Hagakure and the Voynich Manuscript and Tekken and stuff like that. But there's also a barely-suppressed anger and reconsideration of milo's place in rap and Amerikkka in general.

He's still doing his own thing like no one else's thing.  Splitting the difference between the Golden Rectangle and 3/5ths of a man and Schopenhauer's maxim that we forfeit 3/4s of ourselves to be like other people.  He's still running the math.

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Open Mike Eagle

Basehead’s 1992 Play With Toys was a revolutionary and instantly forgotten about hip hop record with unique funk/blues beats and rapping halfway between singing and rapping, wry and dry, about being depressed, relationships, being an idiot, and being Black in Amerikkka, totally subverting everything about hip hop.  Basehead did two more records and then hung it up.

18 years later, Open Mike Eagle stepped on the scene with Unapologetic Art Rap doing something so similar (e.g. ‘Pissy Transmission’) I was really surprised when he told me he’d never heard of Basehead.  He pressed ahead with an incredible string of smart, funny, playful and honest records—on top of podcasting, wrestling, housing people at Connect 4, and snagging his own comedy show.

As his popularity has grown, he hasn’t compromised one bit—hasn’t played the clown, hasn’t dumbed it down, has kept breaking down the financial crisis while also celebrating school picture day while also crafting a bittersweet elegy to a housing project.  His work is Invisible Man by way of Paul Beatty by way of The Jungle by way of Sorry To Bother You.  He’s whittled his wit to a sharp point to poke us with and continues to build a unique, excellent brick body of daydreaming work.

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Danny Brown

The journey of the Tigger of Rap from 2010's Detroit State of Mind 4 and The Hybrid--the triumphal jump from his earlier mixtapes—across the ‘10s was really something to watch.  The progression to Black & Brown to the mix of introspection/entertainment on XXX and OLD, to the wild experiment of Atrocity Exhibition unfortunately ended with the massive faceplant of uknowwhatimsayin.  But he kept killing it, kept putting more of his raw self out there, kept experimenting. Did Tina Turner have some kinda prancing, devilish, shabby court jester in Beyond Thunderdome? I forget. She shoulda.

For half the decade he hands down snatched the crown.  The waterfall hair and jumble-of-chiclets teeth goes with his intense, nervous slanging.  He's the Constant Consonant Eater.  Revanchist of the Gangster Duck Flow.  Amazing storyteller--'Gremlins,' 'Grown Up,' 'Scrap or Die'.  He can do the party-out-of-control of 'Smokin & Drinkin' as well as the deeply heartfelt 'Thank God' to the tortured emotion of '30.'  Brown takes the overboard getting-high-and-eating-pussy of Ol' Dirty but combines it with a paranoid sense of mortality, and gives us flashes that his crazed behaviour emerges from the ruins of Detroit, still waiting for Robocop's redemption.

 

Honorable Mentions

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Soul Assassins, Vol. 3 :: The Series 

Those that know, know that 1997's Soul Assassins, Chapter 1 is one of the greatest compilations of all time, with Muggs at the height of his production and a grip of that era's greats bringing some real fire.  There was a Chapter 2, and in the early ‘00s begat the Muggs x series, including the ill Muggs x GZA Grandmasters.  But these were just pilots for the past two years of output—starting with Dia Del Asesinato and following up with x Marci, Crimeapple, Eto, Mach, Meyhem Lauren and Fahim.

There's that thing where movie franchises have a couple good ones at the beginning, then they reboot the whole thing and shitcan all the crappy sequels, like Halloween and hopefully Terminator.  Actually Terminator Halloween is a pretty good description of what Muggs came back with.  The dubstep record, the last bad Cypress Hill records--let's say they never happened.  Muggs came back with some of his strongest, heaviest, ponderous and slamming beats across all these—dark cathedrals, rave-beside-the-Ganges-at-midnight, armies of dead homies on the march.  He brought out the best in some of today’s newest talents, elevated them to a higher level while high. I'm up for another season, greenlight that shit.

Ratking :: So It Goes / 700 Fill

El-P once said: “Illmatic is one of the last great rap records attached directly to the lineage of the history of rap culture in our city. It was inhabited by the spirits of a just passed era and a radiant, moody and raw signifier of the next one.”

So It Goes was that too, exactly twenty years later—shifting up the eras.  It’d been a long time since I heard a record that took me back to eating purple mescaline at the NYC Halloween parade. It's anthemic, it's Beat Street meets Kids, it's an episode of Welcome Back Kotter where Special Guest Star Rammellzee on some Kazoo shit time-jumps them to make it rain bitcoins in that Blade Runner club with the robot stripper with the robot snake.  It's The Basketball Diaries via Jamel Shabazz Tik Toks. It's smoking hash on an autumn afternoon and watching Herculoids with a girl you can't quite figure out. It's one of those records that distills and jumps off. 

Their music pulses with the pure vibrancy of youth, and they build a bridge from hip-hop's solidly NY past to its global future...you could poplock on cardboard to 700 Fill's 'Steep Tech' and 'Makeitwork' would rock the Wild Style bandshell or a Panther Moderns oculus rave. It's not a revival or a resurrection. It's new blood, flowing. They brought back the classic triumvirate of main/secondary rapper + DJ, an atomic structure cutting across eras via Run-DMC, Cypress Hill and Company Flow.

Wiki’s solo career has been been up and down.  Lil Me was a pretty great record on some bodega coffee and late night stoop confessions shit.  He decompressed his lyrics from the Naked Lunch-level street abstraction for a much more heartfelt, personal paean on No Mountains in Manhattan, and his 2k Meth & Red record with Your Old Droog, What Happened To Fire, was some hardbody microphone joyful noise, two youngbloods flexing their muscles.  (2019's Oofie was hit or miss for me.) I appreciate the kid is trying to explore, grow and mature as an artist, but nothing since then has reached the shimmering transcendence of Ratking-proper, the fractured concrete-and-fiber-optics verbal playgrounds.

 

10 Most Overlooked of the Decade

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SHIRT

SHIRT's got that big heart, that hunger, that love for the game, the world.  His joints are diamonds as big as the Ritz.  Baldessari's 'Pure Beauty' is text on canvas; SHIRT's text is written on pure energy.  He's taken Baldessari's 'TERMS MOST USEFUL IN DESCRIBING CREATIVE WORKS OF ART' and infused his music with--all of them. Do-rag in the MOMA--it's his time.

SHIRT brings a sandpaper flow and hunger for the mic that's compelling--it's raw ambition, it's ego triumphant ripping through the speakers. Then there's the art. He throws up his dot-Mickey in Brownsville.  He quotes Brion Gysin: 'Writing is 50 years behind painting.' Gysin meant collage and abstraction.  Burroughs flipped that in 1959 with cut-ups. But music was 20 years behind writing until '79 when Herc stepped on the scene.  SHIRT does the first silent rap performance during lunch at the Seagram building, and then he calls it ‘The Hardest Verse You Ever Heard.’

But SHIRT doesn't actually rhyme hardly about art; there's the odd reference to Guggenheim grants or 'Top of the Whitney.'  He raps pretty much about...rap shit.  Polo robes and fly whips, Timbs and herb. It's all good.

I'll wait for 'the modern art rapper,' who drops bars like 'Coke so white, Robert Ryman' or 'Box in hand like my name was Cornell' or 'Dick hard as a Richard Serra / bitch reconsidered her perception of public space' and finally lets me know what rhymes with Kandinsky.  SHIRT is not that rapper. Maybe he will be. Maybe we don't need that rapper though. SHIRT's too real to get pretentious, too much doing his own thing.

Thing is, when he did drop "THEORY"--spitting Kenneth Goldsmith--it doesn't quite work as well as, say "NY TAP WATER." It's interesting, but it's not engaging, aesthetically crafted, honest, raw or heartfelt--all of which are exactly what I love about SHIRT's shit. It's got heart.

On the flipside, he's bringing in the yacht-level swagger of Koons and the gangsta threats of Dada.  He knows about art as repurposing, art as re-appropriation, art as statement--what the fuck you think rap music is?  Jenny Holzer is just Chuck D on postcards and Richard Prince is just Puffy on Wooster Street.

Look peoples, SHIRT is too hungry to fizz out. He really raps the fuck out of rapping. Pay attention and get with him before you gotta pay Sotheby's prices. This king was raised to go for the crown. He's standing on top of the Whitney watching for the blimp that says BE FEARFUL OF MEDIOCRITY. Get with the kid. I think it's time, I think it's time.

 

Yikes The Zero

An amazingly accomplished lyricist and producer, Philly’s Yikes really came into his own on 2016’s The Animal Box.  There’s a sinister cartoon mood, a kinda Earl Steampunk vibe.  Ever watch a junkie’s head so so slowly dip down as they slide into paradise, then snap up back to the razor-strewn concrete jungle they have to navigate?  This is that.

Doctor Molotov’s Gallery of Portals alternates his whispery butter-mumble rhymes with instrumental joints which are sometimes like Herb Alpert high on lean on the deck of the Pequod and sometimes Godspeed Whoops You! Dropped The Boston Philharmonic Down The Stairs In 4x Slow Motion.  This year’s An Echo Storm Howling is like Shabazz Shitty Studio Rental. There's a Melle Mel x Moor Mother thing happening, there's a Doors thing going on, there's an afropunk anime thing going on, there's a broken fairy tale thing going on.

Are these concept albums?  Not really.  It’s an art.  They have allusions, facets, considerations, intimations.  He brings afrofuturist Tom Waits joints from collapsed galaxies, Sudafed overdose comas when there’s some disturbing stop-motion kids’ film on (like that one where Santa is a huge Russian who beats the fuck out of people).  What I like about Yikes is how he changes it up from eerie pulsar drone to lysergic circus to the straight-up, rapping-their-entire-asses-off posse cut of ‘Razor Opera.’ Like I said, it's an art.

 

Skipp Coon

I was psyched to see this cat get some love on the Call Out Culture podcast, because Skipp is a mad talent almost everyone slept on.  He put out an incredible trilogy this decade--women revolution tennis shoes and Sophomore Slump with producer Mr. Nick, and then Miles Garvey in 2014.  It's halfway between Outkast and Paris; soulful and heartfelt but angry and defiant too.

Political rap can be polemic, didactic, oversimplistic and reductive; more than anything, it can be all rage and no soul, all political and no personal. Skipp Coon overstands and overcomes all that. He's a prophet of rage, sure, with coals in the belly but also an ox-sized heart. It's a father's anger, not a collegiate rebellion, closer to late The Coup LPs than early P.E. Rebellion Assemble!  I wish he'd bring us some more.

 

Nickelus F :: STUCK

This dude's been around a while, with some quality shit in the back catalog to dive into, but I didn't get into him before what I still is his best, 2018's STUCK.

It's on some crusty, heartfelt, spit-out-the-side-your-mouth, sipping cough syrup in the parking lot, one sweatpant leg rolled up, Parliaments tucked in the top of the tube sock.  It's growly South, it's scrub brush and dirt weed, cracked pavements and yo open the window, that AC ain't working.  There's something really wonky and weird about it I love, what the fuck kinda drugs they got down there fam? It comes from a place where you're sweaty and tired and the Devil is trying to hustle you into a new phone plan.  It's a deep dive into personal struggle but with a fuck it, let's get down too, let's tag up on the moon.

 

The Diabolical Doctor Strange & Friends aka Guerilla Godz

Across the self-titled LP, The Friday Night Philosopher, Unmask The Phantom these mysterious cats brought some peerless throwback shit to '97 by way of ’87 by way of DOOM by way of 2087 (AD and BC). Alternating between old school Tims/bean pies/street raps and early Jedi Mind-type interludes with the spooky beats (really, really excellent beats) and sci fi/UFO/Atlantis/MK Ultra samples, it's proudly un-2010s in a really unique way. It’s exactly the dusty, echoing sound of the inside of my head in the mid-'90s when I used to chase the dragon and listen to Red Alert.

 

dälek

Couple things I never can understand.  First, why do rappers have such unbelievably shitty, cheesy bad taste in rock music?  It's the 94th Element of Hip Hop or something.  Premier will sample the soundtrack from a 1924 silent movie, Puffy will sample 'Carmina Burana,' but when it comes to anything with guitars we get...'Walk This Way?' And the Judgement. Night. Soundtrack.  All that cratedigging, you cats never once picked up a Minor Threat record?  Bambaataa made a record with Johnny Rotten and nobody ever sampled the Sex Pistols?  My Make-A-Wish Foundation was always that that one time Chuck D ad libbed on a Sonic Youth joint had become a whole collabo LP.  A lot of people listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and thought, I should start a band. I thought, somebody should rap over this.

This is the other thing I don't understand: why don't dälek get their props?  I mean, this decade everyone got ridiculously amped about Death Grips and I was all, this is just Shouty Dälek. Maybe it's the umlaut?  You cats like your clpping and all that and you still don't ride for dälek? And kids who're into My Bloody Valentine wanna hear them sing about...whatever it is they're singing about, sexy girls with dirty feet and cigarette breath?--not the broken-glass-everywhere-people-pissing-on-the-station rhymes, I guess.

Catch. The fuck. Up.

From 1998's Negro Necro Nekros on, dälek took the multi-layered density of the Bomb Squad and swapped out James Brown samples for Einstürzende Neubauten.  They kept Chuck D's political intensity and lyrical density but broke it like bottles and pushed it into a Liam-Neeson-right-before-he-fucks-your-shit-up growl.  All the angry noise of Jedi Mind Tricks but without the WWE theatrics, and all the orbital uplift of Daydream Nation--God in the whirlwind, beauty in the car crash.

dälek were mainlining in the cold vein three years before oxes went cannibal. Their three records this decade—Asphalt for Eden, Endangered Philosophies and Respect to the Authors--still merks the murk and stretch long gobs of hellfire drone, still on the strength, filthy tongues speaking abandoned language.

 

The Difference Machine

Across the decade from 2013’s The Psychedelic Sounds Of The Difference Machine through to 2017’s remix record, Triangle Schemes, this Atlanta collective has brought a huge, funky live sound with on-point cosmic, literate and political rhymes. It's like if Zach de la Rocha had been more into Fishbone, Bad Brains, Parliament and Heavy Mental than Anthrax and Minor Threat…or if he'd cofounded Shabazz Palaces. Joints like 'Bruce Willises' got more props and stunts than lemonade, and the remix of 'Another Tomorrow' takes an already psychedelic joint out to Nibiru's orbit.  (If I hadda pick one of their records, it'd be hands down 4th Side of the Eternal Triangle.)

 

Killah Priest

My faith in the Priest is resolute and unquestionable, but since Heavy Mental he's rarely able to find the beats to rock upon which to found that church. On Planet of the Gods, he brought down Godz Wrath to provide the right 70mm backdrop of flutes and chants and samples--finally befitting his epic of Mac 10s, sandals, eagles, pyramids, flying saucers, wise elders, Biblical computers, convicts, evil ancient scientists, galactic thrones and chakra points, and that's just the intro track. 2013’s Psychic World of Walter Reed similarly comes through.

2017 saw the crazy headspin drop with 4th Disciple of Don’t Sit on the Speakers--Priest plus Wu guests like Ghost and Rae flip and flow over heavy old, old school beats--1980s beats, block rocking, power-from-the-streetlight beats. It's some time travel shit of the Wu 10 years early, when they would've been Prince Rakeem & The Ninjafied Nine or some shit. What could you not fucking love about this?!

 

B Dolan :: Fallen House Sunken City

Dolan's second record from back in 2010 comes mad strong, with mad muscularity--the late great Alias gave him a post-Jux boom bap of beats to ride on and he gets bloody.  It's informed by his slam poet start in its particular way of creating allusions rather than punchlines, but definitely painting within the frame of rap.  I mean he CROWNED BIGGIE SMALLS THE KING OF ATLANTIS.  Like Jus' Machines, no one was trying to hear this level of noise and resistance to power in those pre-Trump days, whereas now we're firmly ticking off the Reptilian Agenda.

 

Bigg Jus :: Machines That Make Civilization Fun  

First decade of the ‘00s saw El-P make his grip of classic solos, do his Jux and produce Can Ox, while Jus put out some great records (plus Nephilim Modulation), and Len do a few joints. Second decade, we got C4C and the massive blow up of fratronica of Run The Jewels, just this one record from Jus and Len doing…whatever Len does now.

I wish this record got 10% the love C4C did. The intensity, density, dire predictions, fire predilections…cats are ready for this now in a way they weren’t prepared in 2012. Worth a revisit if you slept.

Best Instrumentalists of the Decade

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3:33That brooding, quantum pulse shit from the edge of consciousness, but with good drums. Nobody knows who they are — complete ghosts lurking out there. But between 2009 and 2015 they put out eight records of the highest order, before disappearing back into the dark. They seem to be unavailable now, which is fucking criminal.

A.M. BreakupsProbably the best kept secret in underground hip hop beatmaking, carrying the torch on from El-P before his right turn into stadium rap.  Don't sleep on WE ARE NOT FOR THEM or Cult Favorite either.

DDay One:Taking on the dusty analog sound of old jazz records, weaving together jazz’ ability to move you and also mourn, DDay One doesn’t just move the soul but the body too. DDay lays down recognizable hip-hop loops, African layers, ambient noise…but I would say through it all runs an obvious primary influence of be-bop jazz, on which he’s both building and commenting.

Gone Beyond & Mumbles :: Notes From The Underground: Legendary beatmaker Mumbles (A Book of Human Language) and Gone Beyond took hundreds of classical recordings of composers who lived under Stalin and created this incredible record.  Their drumwork is complex and multilayered and they've taken the art of sampling to a new height, painting in winter watercolors with this bleak Soviet pallette.

PSY/OPSogist: From 2007 to 2014 this cat made some of the most unique, intriguing instrumental music I've ever heard.  We semi-collaboed on 2013's ZAR/DOZogist tape but a few years ago he hung it up.  The back catalog is worth a deep dive.

odd nosdamAnticon OG nosdam's work goes back 20 years, but across the '10s he kept the squelch squelching across a grip of joints and re-releases.

Tenshun: San Diego's illest noisemaker finally made his original glitch-hop available digitally this decade, and while it'd be great to have his '00s catalog out there, he kept on making some extremely interesting experiments.

2019, after the fall of new york

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At this point it's become pretty much the same picks every year...there's just so many great, prolific artists, and I don't have the time to dig up unknown gems like I used to.  Was 2019 kinda an extension of 2018, or did I just like the next batch of work by the same artists?  Or is that the same thing?  IS TIME EVEN REAL, MAN?

billy woods :: Throne of Blood

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billy woods :: Hiding Places / Terror Management 

You know woods is my favorite working rapper, in my all-time top 10--I been TELLING you since 2008.  Of his six solos this decade PLUS five Armand Hammer joints--the dude put in serious fucking work, with really no drop in quality--I'd have to say Hiding Places is the capstone. 

Hiding Places, thanks to Kenny Segal's production, is more cohesive--something like a modern blues album in feel, with lots of guitar squelch and deep-gut sound, and it pulls together as a novel, in a way some of the others have been short story collections.  And woods is still that dude who packs in references to Things Fall Apart, Andy Capp, Sanford & Son, Wu-Tang, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy all in the same damn song.  Terror Management is icy and glittering where Hiding is dark and muddy; it's a victory lap around the decade, playing around with vibing Love Boat beats ("Western Education")--probably the only potential radio crossover single ever about Boko Haram; Magnificent Seven type beats ("Myth"); postpunk ("dead birds"); glitch-hop ("gas leak"); some kinda Hitchcock soundtrack type deal ("FNU LNU")...you get the idea.

My favorite thing this year was how many people were writing about woods so I can stop killing myself trying to explain to y'all.  I don't really get the whole woods on a best-of list with Nick Cave and Lana Del Rey, that shit is mad weird, but OK cool.  Now the man's made Time fucking Magazine's list though, I can probably retire.

 

DJ Muggs :: Soul Assassins Redux 

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DJ Muggs x Mach-Hommy :: Tuez-Les Tous & Kill Em All / DJ Muggs x Crimeapple :: Medallo / DJ Muggs x Meyhem Lauren :: Members Only / DJ Muggs x Tha God Fahim :: Dump Assassins

Carrying on from last year's KAOS and Dia Del Asesinato, the Muggsaissance continued with five EPs where, as always, Rap's Carl Carlson brought out the best shinings from this generation of army-jacket-wearing spitters. Talking longitude and latitude bitch. Those that know, know that 1997's Soul Assassins, Chapter 1 is one of the greatest compilations of all time, with Muggs at the height of his production and a grip of that era's greats bringing some real fire.  Fact is, with this output and the different rappers jumping on and off each other's guest spots, this year's set is more like one long Soul Assassins, Vol. 3...or Soul Assassins: The Series.  Muggs x Netflix.  I'm up for another season, greenlight that shit.

 

Yikes The Zero :: An Echo Storm Howling

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So this jumps off with ‘We, The Morlocks’…the Morlocks, in case you skipped 7th grade, were the underground mutant future people in The Time Machine, who only came out of the sewers to capture and eat the fey, um, pale-skinned Eloi.  Because mankind had devolved into two separate, unequal races.  Yeah, 1895 was on some shit.  Is this a concept album?  Not really.  It’s an art.  It has allusions, facets, considerations, intimations.  It’s a whole mood, that’s for sure.

The production is just superb; there’s a lotta avant garde art rap I can’t fuck with because it’s too discordant.  I guess you could say Yikes’ butter-mumble rap is like a depressed Homeboy Sandman, but it’s just a vocal resemblance.  (You can’t also compare him to Earl since he’s been around longer.)  And I mean ‘Broken Sun’ is more like an afrofuturist Tom Waits joint from a collapsed galaxy…and ‘Moonchild Exile’ comes off like crashed on the couch, Sudafed overdose coma with some disturbing stop-motion kids’ film on (like that one where Santa is a huge Russian who beats the fuck out of people). What I like about Yikes is how he changes it up from eerie pulsar drone to lysergic circus to the straight-up, rapping-their-entire-asses-off posse cut of ‘Razor Opera.’

The record pairs right up with 2017’s amazing Dr Molotov; this dude really has hit his lane.  If that one was like Godspeed Whoops You! Dropped The Boston Philharmonic Down The Stairs In 4x Slow Motion, this one is like Shabazz Shitty Studio Rental, It Smells Like Weed In Here, Jesus Christ Open A Window. Maybe it's not like that. There's a Melle Mel x Moor Mother thing happening, there's a Doors thing going on, there's an afropunk anime thing going on, there's a broken fairy tale thing going on.  Like I said, it's an art.

 

Roc Marciano :: Marcielago

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Son. It's Roc Marci.

For me Marcberg is a stone-cold classic, and it set the stage for all East Coast rap this decade.  I probably liked Volumes I-IX of the loosies and guest shots a bit more than most of the followup albums--when he hops on someone else's beat, he picks a great one--but also last year's KAOS with Muggs was a close third.  Marcielago is a perfection, a distillation, of a decade's work.  His production is tighter than ever, with Animoss and Alc also gifting two of their best.  It's got his signature blend of smooth and ruthless, of threats and indulgence...it's got the funk and the thousand yard stare.  It's got brunch and cars and what his bitch is like today.  It's got Willie The Kid and Ka.  

 

Griselda, Season Five

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Griselda :: WWCD / WestSide Gunn :: HWH7Conway :: Everybody is F.O.O.D. 3 / Look What I Became / Benny the Butcher :: The Plugs I Met

Griselda is a franchise, has been since 2015, and its members are not only highly conscious of that, it's part of their plan.  I don't expect artistic expression or risks or variation, just good reliable gangsta shit on some Chris Paltrow and Snoop in the SUV regretting their violent life choices.  I do prefer when they avoid the Mantovani, Starring Ava Gardner, warbly-ass syrup beats.  So this season had some damn solid episodes, and Eminem didn't fuck up their Shady debut by forcing them into crap R&B crossover singles or bad Not Dre beats.  He even settled for his terrible guest verse to basically be an aftercredit scene.  He's aged terribly though, they shouldn't have put him on the cover.  

 

Memento Mori aka Hologram Tupac Live In Las Vegas aka Digitally De-Aged DeNiro

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Sean Price & Small Professor :: 86 Witness / Gang Starr :: One of the Best Yet / Nas :: Lost Tapes 2 

The loss of Sean Price hit hard because he was such a vibrant, alive, loud-ass, larger-than-life dude. He hopped on so many tracks for verses it was like the dude who shows up to all the parties and snaps--and for a couple years after he passed, those (feat. Sean Price) joints just kept coming.  Small Pro really did his thing on the boom, the bap, the Carhartt stitchery and the guest spots.  It's a great P! record and a great towering monument to a beast of the microphone.

It took me a while to get through even one listen of the Gang Starr: trying not to hear where Guru was punched in and where the beat was just slightly off, and just the kinda creepy aspect of the whole procedure.  But you know what, Premier is his brother, and he did it justice.  We'll just pretend the J Cole track doesn't exist, and therefore we got one more solid Gang Starr album.

Usually posthumous records feel Frankensteined together, shameless, ghoulish and slick cash grabs.  Both of these came correct, respectful--but also celebratory and banging rather than mournful and bathetic.

OK, I know Nas isn't dead...but the rapper he once was sure seems to be.  The hype around Lost Tapes 2 spoiled within a day or two of its drop, fouled by its many shitty tracks.  Also, just one more time: WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK IS THE DEAL WITH THAT "WHAT IF NAS, BUT A WEREWOLF" SONG.  But once you strip it down to its 5 good joints ('Vernon Family,' 'Highly Favored,' 'It Never Ends,' 'QueensBridge Politics,' and 'Beautiful Life') you get a tight EP of the old Nas.

 

Those are my tops, but how many is that?  Because I'm not really saying all the Muggs totally hit or even that more than 33% of the Nas is all that.  I don't know man.  It doesn't have to be fucking math.  You wanna impose round number structure on music?  Sure, you do that, and I'll tell you what this algebraic equation tastes like.  This was the year when the Top 50 List was scientifically demonstrated as being the most fucktarded, pointless and maddening exercise in music history.

Other Records I Liked In Alphabetical Order

A.M. Breakups :: Soldier / Architecture 3 & 4

Bloodmoney Perez :: About Fucking Time

Choosey & Exile :: Black Beans

dälek :: Respect To The Authors

Elucid :: Every Egg I Cracked Today Was Double Yolked

Grift Company :: Too Many Secrets

Jel/Odd Nosdam :: GLASS CUTTERS

Jumbled :: August Heat

Massimo e Massimo :: s/t

MAUP9000 :: Smoke City III

Preservation :: SePtember 1200

Quelle Chris :: Guns

Roughneck Jihad & Solomon Strange :: The Adventures of Dr Voodun

Ruby Yacht :: 37 Gems

ShrapKnel :: Cobalt

Tenshun :: Cat Nap

Tree :: The Wild EndWe Grown Now

W.A.S.T.E.L.A.N.D.S. :: BBQ & Chaos

Wiki :: OOFIE

Your Old Droog :: It Wasn't Even Close / Transportation 

Zilla Rocca :: 96 Mentality

 

Anyway, here's your annual report mix of the hottest joints:

SUPANOVA - Odd Nosdam / Speak Gently - billy woods (feat. Self Jupiter) / L.D.T. - Mestizo & Meaty Ogre (feat. Quangou) / ELO Style - Grift Company (feat ALASKA & iAlive) / Double DD's - Tree & Parallel Thought / Refrigerator P - Sean Price & Small Professor (feat. Rock & DJ Revolution) / Lights Out - Gang Starr (feat. M.O.P.) / Pistol Smoke - Ghostface Killah (feat. Solomon Childs) / Wavy - DJ Muggs x Meyhem Lauren / Titanium White - DJ Muggs x Mach-Hommy x The God Fahim / Bloodtype - DJ Muggs x CRIMEAPPLE / 900K - DJ Muggs x Mach-Hommy / FCK Boy! - Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire / Dominate - DJ Muggs x Eto / NYOPxTONY - Wiki / Devil Springs - Your Old Droog / Blizzard (Gusty Winds Graceful Mix) - Damu The Fudgemunk x Roc Marciano / Rain On Snow - DJ Shadow (feat. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah & Raekwon) / Colony - Elucid / Cat Nap 1 - Tenshun / We, The Morlocks - Yikes the Zero / Broadway Joes - Westside Gunn / No Women No Kids - Conway / Shots Fired - Knowledge The Pirate (feat. Roc Marciano) / Highly Favored - Nas / Combat - Danny Brown

best of mmxvii :: learn the basics, then go disco

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It's funny to me how cats are putting out 'best of the year lists' right after Thanksgiving...the fuck are you, a supermarket shifting your holiday decorations stock?  The year is 12 months long fam.  It's also funny how anyone can claim their best of the year list is objective, because ain't no way you listened to ALL the records that came out this year, unless you're a brain in a jar or some shit.

Finally, it's funny to me, but also great, that Armand Hammer's Paraffin is making so many year-end lists, because I've been shouting about those cats literally all decade and no one was listening.  Also because a lot of lists put them up next to Cardi B. (I'm still trying to parse what this means, but I don't wanna listen to Cardi B.)

I see a lot of these youngbloods firing off with no knowledge or respect for where hip hop came from, and that's fine, but they don't last. They come and go.  You can't have light coming from everywhere.  You need to learn the shadows.  The gods who earn respect are those who master the basics, then go disco.

This year wasn't about best albums anyways.  I like how y'all argue about what's an album, what's an EP, what's a mixtape--as if these things still existed.  The best of this year was groups of projects, flexing musical range; and also projects that were whole, like an egg, perfect and cohesive from start to finish.

1. The Elucid Globular Cluster

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Armand Hammer :: ParaffinElucid x Haj of Dumhi :: No Edge Ups In Uganda / Elucid :: Shit Don't Rhyme No More / Nostrum Grocers :: Nostrum Grocers

There were cats that released 31 albums this year; cats who dropped 300 songs.  That's not range, that's industry.  Elucid wins the year because of his range, the stretch of his output, and the growth in his art.  There's cacophony, doom, prophecy, world-weariness, irony and resistance.  Knowledge of all the Babylon A.D. tricks that RZA taught him in the vampire bar.  He's the cat who can get you past the checkpoints, but a hero ain't nothing but a chopped cheese.  Solo and teamed up with high calibre MCs and producers, these four releases were different powerful stones loaded into one iron mic.  Chuck D wrote his messages billboard-and-protest-sign ready; Elucid, along with billy woods and milo, twist 'em up cryptic and secret, slip them into fortune cookies made of sandpaper and dark syrup.  If I can make you really feel it, I won’t have to explain shit.

In the cold vein of February he dropped Shit Don't Rhyme No More, with the glimmer of hope in "Hyssop" and the O Superman, Blade Is On Drugs of "All of a Sudden We Were in a Vampire Bar."  In June we got his collabo with Dumhi, no snakes allowed, with those Romare Bearden type beats.  Hurricane summer brought the team up with milo for Nostrum Grocers: illuminated, a jazz cookout, two free-association masters in a cipher behind the cellar door.  There's grace and peace here, shelter in the pervading menace of 2018 Amerikkka.

Last year's ROME saw Elucid and billy woods burn the empire; Paraffin throws more fuel on the fire.  Only came back to tell 'em 'bout them fuckin' flames.  As always, darker than midnight, deeper than Mariana, Finnegan-deep with the references--they'll drop Jenny Holzer, Killah Priest and Rumsfeld quotes all up in the same track ("Black Garlic").  'No such thing as halfway crooks' be the mantra.  '100 Miles & Running' be the treatise.  I nominate 'Nature of the Threat' as the new Black national anthem.  Woods' verses on "No Days Off," "Dettol" and "Fuhrman Tapes" are some of his best--service weapon in my face, all I could see was his lips chapped: that's some Richard Price shit right there.  The beats picked from their deck of producers groan, corrode, wheeze, kick, vibrate, snap, fill the unframed sky. It's rightly tipped for album of the year all over. At some undisclosed location woods and Elucid have been anointed Rappers Most Likely To Be Sanctioned By Drone Strike.

The Metrocard machine asks you the big life question: what do you want to do?  Do you want to add value?  Or add time?  You can't have both.  The veil has been lifted, are you listening?  You can only ride those rolling pages after you make that choice.  Spare change for drugstore sushi?  

2. DJ Muggs :: Return of the Dark Star

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Soul Assassins :: Dia Del Asesinato / DJ Muggs x Roc Marciano :: KAOS / Cypress Hill :: Elephants on Acid

There's that thing where movie franchises have a couple good ones at the beginning, then they reboot the whole thing and shitcan all the crappy sequels, like Halloween and hopefully Terminator.  Actually Terminator Halloween is a pretty good description of what Muggs came back with this year.  The dubstep record, the last bad Cypress Hill records--let's say they never happened.  Muggs came back with some of his strongest, heaviest, ponderous and slamming beats across all three projects.  Soul Assassins built G. Rap, Raekwon and DOOM dark cathedrals to preach in.  You know that scene in Fear & Loathing where they're in the Circus Circus and can't get off the merry go round because they're too high?  That's the lysergic big top Muggs Barnum'd up for Elephants.  No one expected in 2018 to get a Cypress Hill record that's a true followup to IV, but there it is.  Last but best, Kaos was Marci's best of his 2018 suite, rolling his whip down a dark road on the edge of town.  Taking Marciano away from the cool, minimalist blaxploitation loops into Muggs' rave-beside-the-Ganges gave his rhymes a larger and sweeping quality, rallying the armies of dead homies.

Oh yeah, there was that exactly-two-songs Muggs x DOOM thing too, which was...released.

3. Roc Marci :: Quartet in G Major

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Rosebudd's Revenge 2 / Behold A Pale Horse / Pimpstrumentals / assorted loosies

What Marci does is to reduce that old style gangsta/pimp shit to its essential elements and build it back up in small, sharp shards, carving with that essence, so every line could be an end-to-end burner or carved on a tombstone (yours, not his).  It's Japanese calligraphy, each track a single character that says "Across 110th Street," painted with a musk-ox hair brush in blood (yours, not his) on Fendi mulberry paper while he's wearing a tangerine silk kimono and a bad bitch rubs his shoulders and makes him rare jasmine tea.  There's an intense simplicity, a harmony and focus that charges every joint.  It's velvet draped on concrete. It's a hand-tooled Mexican leather holster for a gold-plated .45 with mother-of-pearl inlaid handles.  Cutting the garlic paper thin with a razor for those jailhouse meals type beats.  It's Meditations on Pimpstaism.  He slides into guest verses, drops bodies and slides out, assassin style.  Comparisons with those he's influenced are pointless and spurious: "you can't compare a goldfish to Moby Dick."

4. Knife Knights :: 1 Time Mirage

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I can't grasp why the fuck this was so slept on.  It's a Shabazz Palaces side project that sounds like another dope-ass laser beam, electrogalacticfunk, zoned out neon glide Shabazz Palaces record.  Everybody likes Shabazz Palaces, so what the fuck?  Did the name confuse you idiots?  Did it not show up in your goddamn Spotify algorithm?  I bet it didn't show up in your fucking algorithm.  Y'all got They Live'd up by that thing fam.  I mean, I could understand if it sucked, if it was Ishmael Butler reading from his Big Book of Aliases over the sound of, I don't know, ketchup bottles emptying, but this record went Afrofuturist Space Disco Praxis Metastasis in the best way.

5. Nickelus F :: STUCK

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This one came outta nowhere on some crusty, heartfelt, spit-out-the-side-your-mouth, sipping cough syrup in the parking lot, one sweatpant leg rolled up, Parliaments tucked in the top of the tube sock.  It's growly South, it's scrub brush and dirt weed, cracked pavements and yo open the window, that AC ain't working.  There's something really wonky and weird about it I love, what the fuck kinda drugs they got down there fam? It comes from a place where you're sweaty and tired and the Devil is trying to hustle you into a new phone plan.  It's a deep dive into personal struggle but with a fuck it, let's get down too, let's tag up on the moon.

6. SHIRT :: Pure Beauty

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Oh so now y'all down with Armand Hammer, that's cool and all, maybe you should check out another cat I been hyping for a few years that you still sleep on.  SHIRT's still got that big heart, that hunger, that love for the game, the court, the gallery, the world.  Baldessari's 'Pure Beauty' is text on canvas.  SHIRT's text is written on pure energy.  He's taken Baldessari's 'TERMS MOST USEFUL IN DESCRIBING CREATIVE WORKS OF ART' and infused his album with--all of them.  Keeps on playing with the dreams. Do-rag in the MOMA--it's his time.

7. Henry Canyons :: Cool Side of the Pillow

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Canyons' album is light on its feet but not frothy; mellow but not narcoleptic; harmonic but not soft; it's got a Tribe/Native Tongues/Digable vibe but much more...French.  It's introspective and imperturbably chill, but you and your girl could cut a rug to it.  It has that old-wood, buttery tone.  It's a record for that bar with the good pool table and live jazz and the bartender who knows what kind of scotch you like. It vibes.  An accomplished, polished and complete work.

8. Hermit & the Recluse :: Orpheus Vs The Sirens

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Ka once again cements his rep as the best writer in rap--and a great writer in any format.  Calling himself Orpheus on this one isn't hubris: the name comes from the roots of slave, rebel, darkness, orphan.  Like Roc Marciano, Ka knows street rap is the crafting of epics, of legends--honor and betrayal, heroes and monsters, journeys and battles.  So the homie went Homeric, reached back to the Greek myths to infuse the struggles, and makes a whole album of contrast, metaphor, allusion and comparison.  That golden fleece was North Face.  That cyclops, a crooked cop.  That weight on your shoulders?  We're all Atlas out here son.  Animoss' beats maybe don't grab me as much as Preservation's on Yen Lo or Ka's own on other joints, but they're lighter and bring the Harryhausen and Dionysus panpipes.  It's another volume in Ka's discography that rewards close study and multiple listens.  He's the poet, prophet and musician who went to hell and made it back. "Jinxed to be the man deciphers life riddle or get killed by the Sphinx."

The Greeks had two words for time: kronos, for quantitative time--hours, days, years--and kairos, meaning the right time.  The right moment to convey the right message, with symmetry and balance--the moment to release the arrow so it'll hit the target.  That's what Ka does.  He knows that just because strippers know all the words to your song, it's just money on the clock.  He writes for the ages.

9. The Griselda/Kuiper Belt

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Once again, a swirl of cold ice rocks was way out there in the dark.  The ratio of output-to-quality was down; bound to happen given the output, with WSG losing on Supreme Blah-intele and Really? Still With The Hitler Thing? Part 71.  But there was a grip of loose bullets in all calibers; Conway stayed solid on Everybody is F.O.O.D. 1 & 2, Death By Misadventure with Sonny Jim and Untitled Drums with Imported Goodz.  He's got the best luck or ear for beats in Griselda, and the world-weariness is one of the most earned ever--listen to him intone "cocaine paid my mama's bills" for thirty seconds straight on "Cocaine Paid"...it's not an adlib or a hook.  It's a celebration, a hard fact, a regret, a disbelief in our wack economics. 

I didn't ride for Benny's Tana Talk 3 as hard as everybody, but joints like "Rubber Bands & Weight" definitely brought that '94 Raekwon feel.  Mach-Hommy kept putting in work with random asteroids peeling in from all directions...you can't possibly keep up with it, there's a vigilante mystique to that I like.  Juju Gotti hooked up Dump Towers, a best-of his relentless output with Tha God Fahim that also goes for the unprecedented-for-those-guys low price of $11.11--definitely worth copping before they move the decimal point.

10. Gone Beyond & Mumbles :: Notes From The Underground

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Legendary beatmaker Mumbles (A Book of Human Language) and Gone Beyond took hundreds of classical recordings of composers who lived under Stalin and created this incredible instrumental album.  Their drumwork is complex and multilayered and they've taken the art of sampling to a new height, painting in winter watercolors with this bleak Soviet pallette.  You gotta trust me on this.  It's a work of beauty.

 

I know I said I retired and shit, whatever.  This mix is a selection of some of the best joints of the year, the ones that go hardest, hottest stars in the firmament, where the light is coming from everywhere, all over the dogs, that fucking go disco.

The Diss Co. - Odd Nosdam (feat. the Dannemora School of Painting) / Put Em in the Ground - Cypress Hill / Blue Horseshoes - DJ Muggs (feat. Mach-Hommy) / White Dirt - DJ Muggs x Roc Marciano / Bundles - Royalz (feat. Conway) / 42nd Street - A.M. Breakups / Oyahytt - The Coup (feat. Lakeith Stanfield) / Corrupt Novelist (SP's Revenge Mix) - Career CrooksNo Edge Ups In Uganda - Elucid x Haj of Dumhi / No Days Off - Armand Hammer / Hands - Nickelus F / Quiet Tongues - Henry Canyons / My Dreams Never Sleep - Knife Knights (feat. OCnotes, Marquetta Miller & Shabazz Palaces) / Snowbeach - SHIRT / Constant Struggle - Ghostface Killah (feat. Killah Priest & Bishop Lamont) / Gnashing Of The Teeth - Tha God Fahim / Companion of Artemis - Hermit and the Recluse / sanssouci palace (4 years later) - milo

miraculous weapons

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Nobody loves language the way rappers do. Outside of some poets and writers, nobody. This is why I don't listen to non-instrumental, non-rap music: the lyrics are stupid. (Oh but Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize! *makes jerk off motion*)

Rappers love words, the sound of words, the play of words, the double and deep meanings. Burroughs said language is a virus: rappers weaponized it like biological warfare. Language is a curse. Rappers are real good at cursing.

Rappers use language as a miracle, rappers use language as a weapon against oppression and the entire universe of Ten Thousand Things. They spit with miraculous weapons.

This is the Best of 2017.

This Is What It Comes Too - Raekwon / U.S. Embassy - Da Buze Bruvaz (feat. Ruste Juxx) / Smash The Crowd - Public Enemy / Bannon - B Dolan (feat. Jasiri X & Bambu DePistola) / Colonizers Corpse - Elucid / American Robot - Buy Muy Drugs (feat. Open Mike Eagle) / Welcome to Quazarz - Shabazz Palaces / Retro - Camp Lo / You Don't Stop - Killah Priest & 4th Disciple (feat. Raekwon) / Look What You Made Me Do (Taylor Swift Freestyle) - RA The Rugged Man / Smoke (Supa Dave West Remix) - The Difference Machine (feat. Homeboy Sandman) / Corrupt Novelist - Career Crooks (feat. DJ Manipulator) / The Chase - Controller 7 / Gingerbread Hag - Uncommon Nasa (feat. Brzowski & C-Money Burns of Vinyl Cape) / Refrigerator P! - Sean Price / Malt Liquor - Son Of Sam (feat. Guilty Simpson & Fat Ray) / Bottom Dollar - Jihad the Roughneck MC / Vigilantes - Wiki & Your Old Droog / Actual Facts - Ockz (feat. Conway) / XXXtras - Conway / The Chairman's Intent - Action Bronson / Facts - Royalz (feat. Roc Marciano) / Camel Crush - Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs / Saga City - Tha God Fahim (feat. Mach-Hommy & Your Old Droog) / Fear Is The Key - Diabolical Doctor Strange (feat. Zhaoski) / It Was Written - Armand Hammer / Bodhisattva - Words Hurt / Babaji - Atma / Samsara - Movement I: Existence, Movement II: Reoccurence, Movement III: Resurgence - Has-Lo / Rapper - milo (feat. Busdriver)

best hip hop of mmxvii

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What kind of fucking neighbourhood is this?

2017's year-end lists look more schizophrenic than ever--Drake rubs elbows with Elucid, Run The Jewel's December '16 LP taking top slots, people actually remember Rick Ross dropped a record at some point, not everyone is worshipping at the Kendrick altar, and '4:44' is for some still of-the-moment and others it's already 5:02.

Also Wu-Tang released an album. Yeah, I'm trying not to remember that too. Remember when a Wu release date filled you with joy and unbridled anticipation, instead of gut-clenching dread for the worst?

At the same time the whole year went by without the Trump-era Sleeping With The Enemy or even 'FDT3'.  I was really expecting at least B. Dolan or Bambu or even Immortal Technique to come out of retirement to drop that.  Maybe the era of the polemic rap album isn't coming back any more than DJ scratching or beatboxing is. Maybe the art's moved on. Maybe the personal is the political.

Oh wait, Eminem took care of it with his BET freestyle. Never mind. We're good.

Still, though. All this is because rap is getting broader, more nuanced, wider, more artful, more mature, and despite a firm headlock by big splash releases and Soundcloud bullshit with face tats and dumb hair, it feels like people are more willing and able to dabble here and there to find what they like. Cats are fucking with Brockhampton and Quelle Chris, Lil Pump and Snoop, whatever they feel.

Maybe we're in a short sweet spot where Spotify isn't quite yet choked at the gate by corporations making sure you hear their heavy investments. Rap Caviar and 'curated' playlists and robot-made ambient chillout will soon enough bring us full circle to spoon-fed tastes--that is, back to radio days.

If anything, there's more and more records where I was all, 'is this even rap? I mean, it feels...rappy...but...'  Moor Mother has more in common with Diamanda Galas than MC Lyte.  The dälek record swerved even further towards indie rock.  This Brzowski is some spoken word/punk rock.

What's not lost is the urgency, the personal, the flipped linguistics, the fire-and-ice beats.  The raging against power, the heart, raw thirst for fame, money, for more life.

People are under a lot of stress, Bradley.

Either way, I racked up about 30 or so albums as solid keepers, which at my usual hit rate of 5-10% means I peeped out...a lot of records.  There were a lot of great loosies too, some kinda randomly collected here.

What I still don't fuck with though: made on a 1985 Casio watch beats. Jesus fuck, fam. You could sample any sound in recorded history from a 60,000 year old Neanderthal flute to all the BRAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMPPPPPPPs of the entire Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack and this blippity-blip crap is what moves your booty? Maybe I don't go to enough strip clubs to feel that.

The shit I like is the multi-layered, the don't-know-what-he-said book, the Genius-annotators-don't-have-the-PhDs-to-handle-these-lyrics-sonTo quote Allen Poe quoting a Busdriver tweet, which is a very 2k17 thing to do, word to Digital Piglet: some of the best American writing is locked in these dense rap songs that no one likes.

Not numbered and not a countdown. This ain't Amerikkkan fucking Bandstand. Hit the titles to peep 'em out and buy 'em.

Albums Of The Year

The Fall & Fallerer of the Amerikkkan Empire Trilogy

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Elucid :: Valley of Gracebilly woods :: Known UnknownsArmand Hammer :: ROME

These three records work as a triple-LP for me: like Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy--the first two books following two characters individually, bringing them together for the bleak denouement at the end of the Amerikkkan dream--*sigh*, OK fine, it's like The Defenders, except with Luke Cage and Another, More Sarcastic Luke Cage. Fucking triumphant nerd culture.

This is 'airport music for the perpetually detained,' no Tom Hanks or Otm Shank. It's the slow noose tightening on a fat neck. Milly rocking out the casket. Words stolen from neighbors in bodegas. The soundtrack to the 2019 Netflix series, Ghost Dog Returns: Bitter Wastelands which is 8 episodes of him waiting on line with QR ration coupons and regretting how shit turned out, laying awake waiting for that call in the night. Roll the dice, fuck around lost your life.

woods' newest--strangely for a Trump-era record--felt more expansive, less compressed and dare I say fun, thanks to the Blockhead/Aesop beats, but still blew more hard-crafted words out your dome than Hemingway's shotgun. Still requires multiple re-listens to unpack the footnotes. Every woods song sounds like the closing track from a long road's discography, an epitaph and epilogue. ROME was the fiery fiddle diatribe we were waiting for, a tag team cage fight between Nemesis The Warlock and Frantz Fanon vs. Baked Alaska and Steve Bannon.

What I always love about these cats is the way they cross the Biblical 'in the beginning...' God-body voice with Across 110th Street:

And the Henny flowed like rivers
And the blunts was like Shaq's fingers
And mens was men, bitches was bitches
All was paradise until the first one started snitching
It was written

If I had to choose, Valley of Grace was the record of the year I kept coming back to, that shook my dry bones. It felt like a complete work of rap reaching to higher art. It felt like the record we needed.

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Mach-Hommy x Tha God Fahim :: Dollar Menu / Mach-Hommy :: HBO / Dumpmeister / etc.

By general consensus (in the category of rappers I fuck with), Mach-Hommy won 2017. Despite his weird-ass business model of monthly $1,000 albums and barely being on anyone's radar a year ago, that's some talent son. I felt like the Dump Gawd Business School thing got really old fast--I don't wanna sort through 10, 15 tracks every month to find the best or have $777 to spend. And no doubt there was some true fire--Dumpmeister was the standout for me--the first drop of Dollar Menu was a truly drum-tight, crafted record. Fact is his 2013 F.Y.I. is as good as anything he dropped this year, maybe better, but we all slept on it: this is a well-honed blade. There's always a sense of a dude who really, really knows his craft.

Mach has a crisp, shot-pellet cadence and never-ending flow, with Jenga-stacked lyrics on lyrics that never unravel, and a good ear for lofi beats to ride on. He clips out lines one after another, with the precision and skilled relentlessness of John Wick popping head shots. His compressed density stacks like quantum microchips rather than loops from here to there in the more associative freewheels of other MCs; there's no variation in voice or tone, just a GZA-level science. Let's see where he goes next.

 

MVPs: The Griselda Microphonic Universe

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Conway :: Reject On Steroids,  More SteroidsG.O.A.T. et al. / Westside Gunn :: Hitler On Steroids et al. /  Benny :: Butcher On Steroids et al.

The way they were killing it last year, this was supposed to be Griselda's year. No doubt across a slew of releases and weekly guest verses, they were everywhere. And no doubt, they killed every single verse. But with spotty distribution--sometimes DatPiff, sometimes Soundcloud, sometimes their weird data-mining website--and lack of definitive product (which is an 'album'? Which is a 'mixtape'? What do those things mean anymore?), it felt more diluted. And it's gotten to the point (like with Mach and Marci) where I just peep out the beat to see if it slaps, since the verse will be--but none of this is resulting in classics we'll be talking about years from now.

Think about this crew vs. Wu-Tang: they arrived big and came hard, but there's no definitive classic--there's no 36 Griseldas, no Only Built 4 Westside Cackling. Maybe that's how we roll now, but people's attention is starting to slip, and you can only imagine what this crew coulda done with a RZA plan of staggered, tight releases.

When it works it's gold--the ice grill lyrics and the warm, drum-light Daringer beats is pure essence of street rap. Conway's regretful warrior with the thousand-mile stare, Gunn's Jimmy Jump devil-trickster, and Daringer's static crackle, haunted Cadillac beats--they've created their own classic sound.

I collected up the best joints here for the Academy's consideration.

You Already Knew...Right?

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milo :: who told you to think??!!?!?!?! 

milo just gets better and better with every record. He coulda easily disappeared on the college-tour gravy train, rapping clever about Nietszche and Harry Potter, but he doubled down on X-Clan and tapped his fury and his sadness for a record that's personal, political, artistical, uncompromising, heavy, funny and majestic in every way. The 8-bit and breezier beats are swapped out for lusher, funkier, jazzier ones, and it gives a heavier gravitas. In his own words: 'Rap is like speaking through time to black people. And I love it. I love it. I love that it's just the grand fucking compendium of black thought.' Still leaving room for the Borges, Jack Spicer & Nabokov checks, it's another solid one from an artist who keeps growing. 

Open Mike Eagle :: Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

This record's gotten a lot of well-deserved praise--it's rare for a record like this to hit the lists of NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, etc.--and better writers than me have tackled it in depth.  Maybe this is the Trump-era defining record we needed, without the gunshot-revenge fantasies Paris would've brought: one about Black Lives Mattering, about real people, real losses. This was rap's Invisible Man meets The Jungle. This was music about the literal search for home. A eulogy, both wry and dry, mournful and playful.

Shabazz Palaces :: Quazarz vs The Jealous MachinesBorn on a Gangster Star

Double album with no filler, light years ahead literally and figuratively, Palaceer and crew never disappoint. Jealous Machines goes somewhat better than the more quiet nebula storm of Star, and maybe at the heat death of the universe I'd still ride a cyberlaserbeam for their first nameless and unknowable LP. Either way, we'll be living on Kepler 3000 before anyone catches up. This is Black Panther by way of the '80s Flash Gordon. Flow my beats, the timecop said.

Wiki :: No Mountains In Manhattan / Wiki & Your Old Droog :: What Happened To Fire?

Wiki decompressed his lyrics from the Naked Lunch-level street abstraction he brought on Ratking for a much more heartfelt, personal paean to New York today and yesterday. It's a bodega Basketball Diaries. His team-up with Droog is a hardbody microphone joyful noise, as close as we'll get to a 2k Meth & Red record--and man, y'all slept on that one. Listening to these two youngbloods flex their muscles, knowing they're heavy on the rise is some bravura balling shit.

  

Pillow Factory Kings: Most Slept On

These ones were so fucking great, and y'all didn't pay no attention.

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Camp Lo :: The Get Down Brothers

Solid ten tracks of shit that just goes, it goes it goes it goes.  So funky, so fresh. This was just unarguably fine-ass hip hop. 

The Diabolical Doctor Strange & Frients :: s/t

Complete mystery who these cats are or where they're from, this LP is a peerless throwback to '97. Alternating between old school Tims/bean pies/street raps and early Jedi Mind-type interludes with the spooky beats (really, really excellent beats) and sci fi/UFO/Atlantis/MK Ultra samples, it's proudly un-2017 in a really unique way. There's a new mixtape just out, The Friday Night Philosopher, which is exactly the dusty, echoing sound of the inside of my head in the mid-'90s when I used to chase the dragon and listen to Red Alert.

The Difference Machine :: Triangle Schemes

Remix compilations rarely as good as the original, but this collection of revisits/loosies/deleted cuts from last year's equally great, equally slept on 4th Side makes for a slightly more hip-hop version of the Zach-de-la-Rocha-in-Funkadelic sound. 'Bruce Willises' got more props and stunts than lemonade, and the remix of 'Another Tomorrow' takes an already psychedelic joint out to Nibiru's orbit.

Killah Priest & 4th Disciple :: Don't Sit On The Speakers, Vol. 1 

Priest plus Wu guests like Ghost and Rae flip and flow over heavy old, old school beats--1980s beats, block rocking, power-from-the-streetlight beats. It's some time travel shit of the Wu 10 years early, when they would've been Prince Rakeem & The Ninjafied Nine or some shit. What could you not fucking love about this?!

 

Undergr...Independ...Prog...Abstract...?

So nobody knows what this kind of hip hop is called anymore...because 'Chance The Rapper is independent' and 'DJ Booth says everyone's mainstream because of the internet' and Open Mike Eagle's mad love across the board--I mean, when you get props in Entertainment Weekly, you ain't subway tunnel level.  And Career Crooks and Jihad The Roughneck go right alongside Sean Price in the solid rappity-ass rapping department.  I can't even fit shit into my own categories.  Let's call it...uh...arthop...abstroprog...indieground...smarthop...I got nothing. Those all suck. I'm going with...

Young Club Sandwich Club

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Career Crooks :: Good Luck With That

Zilla Rocca & Small Pro brought their A-game on this one, with top-notch, Ghost-worthy storytelling ('Cold Ten Thousand') and headbangers Chuck Chillout woulda bugged out for a hot August Friday night show ('Corrupt Novelist'). This one's for the Suzuki Samurai. This one's for the rap nerds who still have a tight fade.

dälek :: Endangered Philosophies

19 years deep and still bringing it, Philosophies continues from last year's Asphalt for Eden in waveform wavering between industrial noise-hop and a more melodic sound, but still comes correct and brings that beauty-in-the-car-crusher distortion and smart, raging lyrics.

Dr. Quandary :: Jukebox Buddha

The good doctor's been my primary care beat physician for a while, and he's settled on his own sound of delicate melody with a strong Afrobeat/Ali Farka Toure feel. He's rounded up lyrics from PremRock, Zilla, Louis Mackey, Has-Lo and Godforbid to lace these medications. Shit is better than Lexapro to re-align your chi.

Jihad The Roughneck MC :: The Wretched of the Verse

Stepping out of the Third Sight shadow he's cast for years but still chilling with dead bodies in a b-boy stance, Jihad brings a more traditional, solid rap record with a funkier, more flowing set. Great beat picks, still with the hype cadence. 

LNYCHPIN :: s/t 

Hey you know those superhero movies the kids like? Imagine if there were one where all the superheroes teamed up to fight aliens, or robots, or alien robots. That would be cool, right? Now imagine that, except with East Coast underground rappers like SKECH185, Teddy Faley, Warren Britt and...all of them.  Brought together by Lt Headtrip & Willie Green in a Rap Nick Fury style, this is Soundbombing 2017. Man, we need more comps like this. 

Uncommon Nasa :: Written At Night 

So many of the cats I been rocking with for years really stretched themselves and went for it this year, stepped up their game in a big way, stretched their wings and flew in your face like a rabid NY pigeon.  Nasa definitely did, lining up guest verses from some of the best MCs in the game, known and should-be-more-known (Open Mike Eagle, Guilty Simpson, Skipp Coon, Quelle Chris, the legendary Mike Ladd).  His production game is tighter than the jeans on rappers we denigrate. It's a long night's run through the city on drum-driven adrenaline.

Words Hurt :: Soul Music for the Soulless

Alaska unleashed his sardonic, witty rage against the stupid fucking country Amerikkka's become, and Lang Vo brought basement-cracking beats to the table for this one. Maybe it's Old Man Raps At Cloud but I was scorched by that Henry Godzilla radioactive fire breath.

Unpacking that sentence, Lang needs to lend me his Home Depot card and Alaska better give up his insurance details. C'mon son, fun is fun but we're responsible fucking homeowners here. 

Yikes The Zero :: Doctor Molotov's Gallery of Portals

Amazingly accomplished and polished record with rhymes like a steampunk Earl Sweatshirt (Earl Steampunk?), alternating with instrumental joints which are sometimes like Herb Alpert nodding on lean on the deck of the Pequod and sometimes like Godspeed Whoops You! Dropped The Boston Philharmonic Down The Stairs In 4x Slow Motion. This cat's new to me, and I can't wait to delve into his back catalog.

 

Part Of A Complete Breakfast

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Action Bronson :: Blue Chips 7000

I like Bronson more when he sticks to his gluttonous construction of gourmet food+baroque substance abuse+sexual perversions, when he really revels in his tremendous appetites.  He does less of that here, but it definitely goes and it's a lot less hit-or-miss trackwise than his earlier LPs.

Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs :: Gems From The Equinox 

Muggs continues the Vs. series of collabos with rappers who aren't in many people's GOAT lists, but elevates them to a higher level while high. Meyhem brings his best to this, and it definitely delivers.

Roc Marciano :: Rosebudd's Revenge

There will never be another Marcberg anymore than there will be another Cold Vein. That's some Louvre shit that can't be repeated. Still, another Roc LP that rolls like a brushed-copper Escalade with butter-leather seats is always worthy of our worship. He simply runs the fucking game, and we're living in the Marcazoic Era where every new MC is carbon-dated against his 2001-monolith shadow.

And once again for the fifth year running, Marci ruled the guest-verse-recorded-in-a-private-Per-Se-dining room.  Hand-picked selection of 16 of those here.

Sean Price :: Imperius Rex 

The best posthomous release ever assembled. How could it not be? Price was such a microphone fiend, guest verses he did are still dropping two years after his death. It's a fitting closing act to one of the most solid discographies in the game.

 

Old School University

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Prince Paul :: The Redux

Crazy mixtape of lost, forgotten, b-side, remix joints with always-dope Paul production and featuring a jaw-dropping list of greats--Breeze Brewin, Jean Grae, Horror City, Trugoy, Guru, DOOM, Masta Ace...man. This is probably gonna disappear soon, so cop it while you can.

Public Enemy :: Nothing Is Quick In The Desert

Free LP celebrating PE's 30 years in the game that's now disappeared from official release, they sound as good as ever. This one really fucking goes as good as anything they've dropped since Muse Sick* (*insert your last favorite PE record as directed by your dentist).

 

Dept. of Illstrumentals

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Controller 7 :: Right Handed Straw 

Been a long, long time since I heard a straight-up instrumental album of this quality--acrobatically flipping from track to track, great drum precision, wide-ranging samples and styles. Watch the boy flex his chops, it's a bravura performance.

DDay One :: Artifact EP

I've been riding for DDay One's peerlessly crafted sounds and hard-be-bop drums since 2008's Heavy Migration, and he still keeps it haunting, head-nodding and opening up new worlds in the brainpan.

X to the L

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Intro

Ten years in the game today.

So many of the blogs I came up with, or fucked with heavy--all gone. I'm still standing here.

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a DJ.

Not some long-haired bitch in the club in an ironic t-shirt. And I didn't have the skills to be a Grandmaster. But I wanted to be DJ Red Alert.

I started making pause tapes in 1987. Off the Marley Marl, Mr Magic, Chuck Chillout and Red Alert shows. One night Red Alert started cutting up 'South Bronx,' spinning it, scratching it. That was when I saw what hip hop was, what it could be.  Something ever-elastic, ever-changeable; you could always add something new, remix it, play elements off each other. It was like a living thing.

And Red Alert would always bring you the best new shit. You knew he was gonna let you know all the latest fire.

I made 50 pause tapes through to 2007. The MP3 era. How was I supposed to get a digital file on to a cassette? Went digital. Went worldwide.

X to the L

There's 153 posts up in here, 116 are mixes. There's about 2,500 different ill joints I brought you. I had over 300,000 listens from almost every country on earth, except like North Korea and Vatican City.

I only had three reasons for doing this. First, there's that feeling when you hear a joint that's so tight, so perfect: you feel like grabbing cats by the shirt and hollering, 'LISTEN TO THIS!' You gotta share it with someone, some how. That's why people start music blogs, until they get married, get bored, or get pimped out by Complex.

Second, rap's given me so much, I wanted to give something back--especially to the fam who are so fucking talented and don't get enough shine. I been hyping up the best of the year shit since 2008. I feel like I championed a lotta cats early on who went on to get respect--Ka, milo, Elucid, billy woods, Open Mike Eagle--and other cats who I'm still waiting for you to catch the fuck up on, like Shirt.

Third, I wanted to see if the mixtape could be--maybe not an artform, but a medium. Could you sonically paint with it, collage with it.

Could you even make narratives with it? So over three mixes I tried telling a story about robots--robots as slaves, robot revolution, a melding of human and machine.  I never felt like 9/11 got any kind of artistic treatment that really felt like the thing itself. And so much of it was visual, the video, the photos--what could you do with just sound?  So The Falling. That's probably the best thing I ever did.

Could a mix be a kind of curation, cataloging--that's been another side of it. What kind of juxtapositions could you do without it being stupid? How incredible is the art of crate digging and sampling--transformation, alchemy from any element into strictly dope?  Here's all the best joints with Asian samples. With classical music samples. I gave you eight Super Chicken dub-hop mixes. Seven B-Bop For B-Boys mixes of the illest jazz-hop.  The spaghetti Western ones.  I can't scratch or beat juggle or any of that shit. But I got a mean ear and I curate. This is the place where I explore what hip hop can be, because it covers so much ground--so many styles, so many topics, so much life.  Never forgetting that at its core, hip hop is political.  Hip hop is street stories. Hip hop is about injustice.

Outro

Thing is, I kinda feel like I did all I set out to do here. It's getting old. There's not really another level to take this to. Once you do the Old and New Testaments in mixtape form, where you gonna go with it? The odes to graffiti, They Live We Sleep--that's as tight as it gets.

I could do interviews but nah. I could do more label-oriented mixes I guess, like the ones I did for Uncommon and World Around. I could do more single-artist mixes I guess, but anyone could do that. The Autolect two, PSY/OPSogist vs Zardoz and Rammellzee ones are tight, not sure I could top those. I thought about trying to get artists together for compilations to raise money for good causes, but man--they gotta eat.

I could try making my own beats but they would be pretty strictly amateur hour, and there's so many talented people trying to eat off their beats--I'm not gonna add to the competition.  I could be more of a blog--but nobody reads fucking blogs and there's talented writers trying to eat off that too. I used to write press releases for rappers for $100 back in the day: there's only so many ways to say 'it's got a funky beat and you can dance to it.'

I might write some stuff for other sites or throw it on Medium though. Thirteen Ways of Looking At Critical Beatdown, Letters To A Young Rapper, Towards A Complete Theory of Rap Music--look out for those eventually. Who knows, if I find an 808 in a garbage can you might hear beats from me some day.

Also all the mixtape sites that used to show me love are gone--Pearson Towers, Mr Blentwell, Mixcrate, and the mighty Percussion Lab. And everyone has a goddamn podcast now. And everyone's making Spotify playlists instead of mixes. Shit, Spotify makes playlists for you.  Apple Music has 'playlist curators.' You got an algorithm DJ, fuck you need me for? Go ask the robot DJ what lives in your phone. And you can't put no Joe Pesci samples up in your playlists fam.

iTunes won't fuck with me because I only speak with my hands. I got a Mixcloud but who doesn't?  Pay for SoundcloudPro? Nah g. These dudes won't fuck with me because...whatever. But I don't do this for clicks, I'm not interested in building a brand, never was. I do it for those of you who listen, and I thank you. But I done run out of ideas, places to go with this that aren't like what anyone else does.

So there's four, maybe five more mixes to come, and I'm out.

If you fucked with me along the way, I'm grateful--I really am. I might throw up some of the pause tape archives. Hollering retirement and then making a comeback is the 68th Element of Hip Hop, so you never know, right?

But I'm still looking for the perfect beat. The perfect beat was already made by The 45 King in 1987. The perfect beat is Roc Marciano's 'Snow.' The empire never ended. The search is the thing. You never stop searching for the perfect beat. It don't stop.

what if…melle mel was the herald of galactus?

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So old school heads complain that hip hop isn't political anymore, by which they mean there aren't as many didactic calls for revolution.  I'd argue that the records cats like Elucid and Kemba are making are political--just more personal, more exploratory, more complex.  They're drawing on wider influences than slogans and fighting powers more insidious, more entrenched, internal as well as external.  If race, and discrimination based on race, is ever going to be eliminated it has to be treated for what it is: a social construct. We need to hear wider narratives than guns and butta. So the more subjective experience, complexity and nuance are explored, that's pushing beyond race a lot more than hashtag activism. And the furthest beyonds are space and the future. I mean, even W.E.B. DuBois wrote science fiction.

The Silver Surfer, in case you're not a nerd or don't have kids who read comics, was like the Invisible Man with the power cosmic, reflective (literally and emotionally) instead of transparent. You could write a dumb Master's thesis on Galactus, The World Eater, The Cosmic Hunger, as Space Whiteness (and The Watcher as Space White Liberal) and the Surfer as an afrofuturist slave narrative, but hey let's not (especially because you have to twist up a connection with surfing and there ain't enough lentils in all of grad school for that).  Let's put it in afrofuturism instead as another new cosmology, like Farrakhan's Mothership Connection.  But no doubt Galactus is about holocausts, genocides, the total erasure of civilisations. And the Surfer is the sole survivor, who's also morally compromised by what he's done to try and save his people. And loses everything.

When Galactus rolled up on his planet to eat it, the Surfer gave himself up to save it, but after years? Centuries? of servitude, he turns on his master and for this rebellion is exiled. He never finds his way home. That's the feeling imbued in the joints in this mix--they're not necessarily about flying saucers, but they have a celestial heft, whether it's raging against the planet-eating machine or the loneliness of the galactically disenfranchised.  They're shooting bars like energy beams all up in Galactus' Kirby-purple grill.

And let's not forget that in that shitty Fantastic Four movie, the Surfer's voice was provided by none other than Laurence Fishburne, aka Mr. Clean/Jimmy Jump/Morpheus/Ike Turner/Furious Styles/the guy who evaded the slave hunters in 'Predators' himself. (Uh, also Cowboy Curtis.) That's some afrofuturistic shit right there--'Time is this really fluid thing. Now is now, but the past is now and the future too.'  -Niama Safia Sandy

There's a superstring of the cosmic in rap's legacy, with seeds from Sun Ra, the Black Ark and P-Funk mythology...from 'Whitey On The Moon' to 'Planet Rock,' 'Space Rap' and 'Space Is The Place' to the O.G. (Original Galactic) Rammellzee, to Kool Keith to Divine Styler to Deltron to Killah Priest and even Killarmy--remember 'Galactics'?--through to Binary Star, Cannibal Ox, Shabazz Palaces, Cudi and on and on, you don't stop. An ever-expanding universe. There's always been that reaching for something up from the gutter, beyond the dirty streets, something higher, the strength within infused with power from beyond. Something above the clouds.

These songs from 2016 reflect the power cosmic, the soulfulness and loss of traveling the spaceways, the intersection of Sun Ra and The Message.

Intro / High John The Conqueror Speaks - War Church / Exquisite Cutlery - Bigg Jus / Kill Your Masters - Run The Jewels (feat. Zach de la Rocha) / Guaranteed Struggle - Dälek / A Palace In The Sky - L'Orange & Mr. Lif / Organ Donor (UZ Remix) - DJ Shadow / Sativa - Killah Priest & 4th Disciple / Testify - Guilty Simpson / That Cold and Lonely - Ka / Already - Kemba / M.A.B.A. - Atoms Family (Cryptic One & Alaska) / Blame The Devil - Elucid / Waves - The Quantum (feat. Vordul Mega) / Waiting For The Barbarians - Pawcut (feat. Billy Woods) / Open The Brain - Quelle Chris / Lordstaviour - Ill Clinton / Facts (Extended) - Yung Gutted (feat. Wiki) / All Coltrane Solos At Once - Saul Williams (feat. Haleek Maul) / Another Tomorrow - The Difference Machine (feat. Stacy Epps)

the year in litness :: mmxvi

Another year in rap, another list that I can't keep down to 5 or 10. And I still don't know how to pronounce Rae Smreurrd? Smruerdrd? and I really don't see what's so great about that 'Black Beatles' joint.  On the other hand, that stupid 'Panda' bullshit came and went.

 

Albums of the Year

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Ka :: Honor Killed The Samurai

Ghost Dog didn't die at the end of The Way of the Samurai.  He lives in a Brownsville basement, waking at 3am from PTSD nightmares and digging in the crates for the dustiest loops.  Another way: Illmatic never got released, and Nas has spent 20 years refining and compressing his craft for a wintertime debut.

Ka has blessed us with his fifth release, and it carries on the tradition of both reducing and elevating rap to its finest natural elements.  The sword-sharp writing, the pared-down beats, all delivered with exacting precision.  It's street-level frescoes carved on grains of rice.  Just as there's five elements of hip-hop (six including arguing about Wu-Tang), Zen includes the tea ceremony, sword fighting and calligraphy--the art and meditation practice of writing just one letter, just one thought, after long and careful clearing of the mind, with one chance only to get it right.  So it is, as always, with Ka. He soldiers on. He blesses us with his service.

Elucid :: Osage EP / Save Yourself

Did Amerikkka get the president it wanted or the president it deserved?  Elucid's one-two drops were the records we needed, and didn't know we wanted. Personal and political, strictly hip-hop yet reaching far and wide beyond it, it's a roam through what it means to be here, today. Like I said earlier, he's breathing ghosts on this one.  It's fractured blues and St. Augustine visions. Sipping on Flint water in ruined tabernacles. Sprinkling baby powder in kicks on power lines.  For real, god took a bag of coal and turned it into gems.  Every cut on these are repping some Jane Jacobs, some Amiri style.  Skinny Luther nailing it up son.

 

 Most Slept On

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Man. Y'all slept so hard on these, you got those pillow creases on your face.

The Difference Engine :: The 4th Side of the Eternal Triangle

Can't recommend this one enough. Huge, funky live sound but still with great drums and on-point cosmic, literate and political rhymes. It's like if Zach de la Rocha had been more into Fishbone, Bad Brains, Parliament and Heavy Mental than Anthrax and Minor Threat. Go get this one.

The Higher Up :: The Higher Up Album

An amazingly accomplished debut that bridges early Digable with '98 Juggaknots with today's lighter but still iller cats like Denmark Vessey. Polished production maintaining a consistent, lush sound, smooth & soulful but also rugged, introspective but also rhyming-about-rhyming, great storytelling without sparing the wordplay. It's the greatest record nobody was talking about this year.

 

MVPs :: Griselda Gang
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These cats ran shit in 2016, hands down. They had every guest verse on lock and ran the East Coast, no doubt. I mean, they never left the studio this year I don't think. They're at the peak of their powers, able to lace a verse on every track out there without any dip in quality. A lot of cats complaining about how many MCs out there copping the Marcberg style, but Griselda rode out the cold Buffalo winters to bring it back with a lot more Mobb Deep up in it.  I mean, these dudes named their crew after one of the evillest narcos there ever was, Griselda Blanco, a cold-blooded killer at 11 years old and dropped in a drive-by at 69. (Not The Story of Griselda like I first thought, which is good, I don't really fuck with Boccaccio.) 

WestSide Gunn brings the nasal, on some AZ with more attitude or the Troy Ave that shoulda been. Conway brings the million-yard-stare of Prodigy after thirty years on lockdown. I mean the dude been shot in the face and is still rhyming.  Together they go for that great high/low combo a la Cypress, PE and Rae/Ghost. They know how to ride a beat, drop their illest lines when you least expect, and keep it straight old school G.  The secret weapon here is Daringer, who produced all their best tracks--a close study of the grimy loop genealogy of Muggs begat RZA begat Havoc begat Alchemist begat Roc Marci. The kid goes deep and knows how to pull down that foreboding, smoked-out, hazy sound.

If you ever owned a pair of Timbs and don't fuck with these guys, something wrong with you.

You Already Knew

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A Tribe Called Quest :: We Got It From Here

I never was the biggest Tribe fan outside of a long drive or a drunken house party, but I definitely fuck with this (along with everyone else).  Thicker and heavier than their old stuff. It just. Fucking. GOES.

Danny Brown :: Atrocity Exhibition 

Didn't understand some of the older heads not feeling this.  I mean, it's a straight trilogy from XXX and Old, who's done that since P.E. or Gangstarr? What, you want him to go back to those shitty flip-phone beats from the Detroit State series? He keeps killing it, keeps putting more of his raw self out there, keeps experimenting, keeps making great records.

Also those 'When It Rain' and 'Pneumonia' joints though! Sounds like two cats fucking and one cat has a eye scratched out and both of them are on acid somehow and they're fucking in a pile of crushed up Adderall and spilled rum and it's smearing all over the place and they knock over a pile of dirty plates and THEN the party gets started. That's what that shit sounds like.

Underground Kings

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'Underground' hip hop...the term's a lousy catch-all for any record not on a major label, on Bandcamp not Youtube, getting more play in indie bookstores than strip clubs. But under that umbrella is incredible breadth, artistry, complexity and an ever-expanding definition of what it can be.  I mean you got your Def Jux vets (Aesop, Lif), your Original Dirge Rap (dalek), your Neo-Afro-Futurists-sic (Kemba, Saul Williams), your rising multiplatform 'art rapper' (Open Mike), your weird frustrated kid in a gold mask pouring his bitter heart out (NoEmotion), and your If-There-Was-A-Dischord-or-SST-for-Rappers-These-Dudes-Would-Be-Signed, Never-Stop-Rhyming-&-Grinding, Cats-I-Always-Fuck-With (all the others who I always fuck with).

None of these records are alike, except they're all outstanding examples of the art and the craft.

Aesop Rock :: The Impossible Kid

Blueprint :: Vigilante Genesis

dalek :: Asphalt for Eden

Kemba :: Negus

L'Orange & Mr Lif :: The Life & Death of Scenery

Mr Lif :: Don't Look Down

NoEmotionGoldMask :: A Freaking American

Open Mike Eagle & Paul White :: Hella Personal Film Festival

PremRock & Fresh Kils :: Leave In Tact

Saul Williams :: Martyrloserking

Short Fuze & Uncommon Nasa :: Autonomy Music

We Are Not For Them :: Captures, Vol. 1

Words Hurt :: Fuck That Pretty Boy Shit

 

Meat & Potatoes Just Goes Hard Shit

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Fuck your kale smoothie and cinnamon-spice frappucino.  There'll always be room in the rap diet for a Waffle House breakfast or the now-infamous bodega chopped cheese.*

Czarface :: A Fistful of Peril

DJ Rude One :: ONEderful

Vinnie Paz :: The Cornertone of the Corner Store

(*Offer may vary depending on your location.)

 

Ill True Mentals

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Best of the illbient, beat-driven shit this year I heard that made the hairs on my neck stand up.

Bugseed :: Street Mentality

FRKSE :: Rode A Horse Made of China

Ill Clinton :: Juniper

odd nosdam :: Sisters

Quelle Chris :: Lullabies for the Broken Brain

 

it was litten

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It's that time of the year familio.  Your roundup of the second-half bangers.  Joints that provoke, as the kids say, 'flaming emotions.'

I'll break you off a proper year-end list and one more mix before the MMXVII.

We The People - A Tribe Called Quest / Steranko - Czarface (feat. Meyhem Lauren & Rast RFC) / Nineteen Ninety Three - Vinnie Paz / Signs - We Are Not For Them / The Abyss - Mr. Lif / When It Rain - Danny Brown / Feast - PremRock & FreshKils (feat. C-Rayz Walz & El Da Sensei) / Phone Check - Geechi Suede / Same Damn Thing - Little Shalimar (feat. Ghostface Killah, Boldy James & Mr MFN eXquire) / Brain Damage - Sick Jacken / Can't Wait (Remix Instrumental) - Pawcut / Residual Tingles - The Gaslamp Killer / It's Alive - The Difference Engine (feat. Paten Locke) / Wit No Pressure - Ras Beats (feat. Roc Marciano) / God Bless Me (SKYWLKR Remix) - Wiki (feat. Antwon, Sporting Life & Skepta) / Dunks - WestSide Gunn (feat. Conway) / Bible On The Coffee Table - Benny / Red Tops - Conway (feat. WestSide Gunn)

 

the devil’s dynamite

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Summertime mid-year roundup of all the fire.  Also reminiscing about the blackout of '77 a year early because fuck your round numbers.

Keep cool familio.

Summer Not Coming - SHIRT / Hall & Nash 2 - The Purist & WestSide Gunn (feat. Conway) / R.E.D. - A Tribe Called Red (feat. Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear) / Rubble Kings Theme (Dynamite On The Street) - Run The Jewels / Mystery Fish - Aesop Rock / Smoke - The Difference Machine (feat. Homeboy Sandman) / We Are Fucked - Words Hurt / Not Sure Why I Came Back - Blueprint / Breakdance for the Def - Short Fuze & Uncommon Nasa / Dimelo - Timeless Truth / Bosses - Skizz (feat. Roc Marciano & Conway) / Nas Album Done - Nas & DJ Khaled / El Dorado - Milano Constantine / Park Avenue - AG Da Coroner (feat. Action Bronson & Roc Marciano) / PayPal The Feature - Ras Kass (feat. Steele & Sean Price) / Rap Professor - Sean Price & DJ Skizz / Halftime - The Higher Up (Mark Scott x Kye Brewin) (feat. Breeze Brewin) / Surreal N*gga - Gensu Dean & Denmark Vessey / Rose Water - Baje One / Smiling (Quirky Race Doc) - Open Mike Eagle & Paul White / SummerSlam 88 - WestSide Gunn, WS Pootie & Your Old Droog / Fame - Bugseed