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.
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-son. To 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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.