Best Hip-Hop of 2012

January 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Three albums and three mixtapes for your listening pleasure. If you missed my top ten, check it out at the Mockingbird blog.

 

good kid, m.A.A.d city-Kendrick Lamar

Really, I can’t offer Kendrick Lamar many more accolades than the ones he has already gained last year (this was my favorite album of 2012). His major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city is unlike any other hip-hop album that came out in 2012, balancing emotion and technical mastery perfectly and asserting itself as something new in a crowded hip-hop culture. Lamar is an immensely skilled emcee, and he shows off his many different modes of rapping throughout the album, varying his voice and cadence to suit each song. Moreover, this is an album in every sense of the word, as Lamar tells a story of living in the streets that ends with unexpected redemption. Don’t miss this one, kids.

Best Songs: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Money Trees,” “m.A.A.d City,” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”

R.A.P. Music-Killer Mike

R.A.P Music opens with easily my favorite hip-hop track of the year, “Big Beast,” a driving, forceful explosion of a song that stakes Killer Mike’s claim to the best straight-up hip-hop album of the year. With great production from El-P, Killer Mike effortlessly weaves his way through a variety of topics on the album, never afraid to speak his mind, especially on tracks like “Reagan” and “R.A.P. Music.” In many ways, this album is a throwback, devoid of any Drake-like crooning or the variety of production tricks on good kid, m.A.A.d city, and this stripped down approach lends credibility and brutal honesty to Killer Mike’s scathing lyrics. You probably won’t agree with everything he says, but you’ve got to respect the way he says it.

Best Songs: “Big Beast,” “Go!,” “Reagan,” “R.A.P. Music”

Cancer 4 Cure-El-P

Dark and atmospheric, Cancer 4 Cure blasts its way through its twelve song running time, replete with booming bass and fractured percussion. In both his production and rapping, El-P seems one step from the edge,  the virtuosity of his technical skills belying the rage that simmers just below the carefully constructed madness of his music. Like label-mate Aesop Rock, El-P’s lyrics are a conundrum, a maze of wordplay that obfuscates more than elucidates, yet repeated listens eventually reveal his preoccupations; for instance, “The Full Retard” offers up a somewhat satirical look at hip-hop and politics, while being the most radio friendly track on the whole album. It’s contradictions like this that mark Cancer 4 Cure as one of the more compelling hip-hop releases of 2012, and one to be listened to on high volume with utmost attention.

Best Songs: “The Full Retard,” “Drones Over Bklyn,” “Tougher Colder Killer,” “True Story”

 

bell hooks-BBU

Probably my second favorite hip-hop album of the year, BBU’s mixtape is an exercise in not sacrificing style for content, with music that is a perfect complement to the group’s politically charged lyrics. Hailing from Chicago, the group tackles a number of issues plaguing inner-city Chicago, yet they manage to approach those topics with some lightness, keeping the mixtape from becoming too weighed down. BBU knows how to create a hook, and they rap the heck out of every track, ensuring that their message gets embedded in your consciousness. The group also has a wicked sense of humor, most obviously present in the album’s interludes, where they make fun of mainstream hip-hop and record labels, just to name a few of their targets. The constant interplay of the three members keeps each track fresh, and the serious issues they bring up in their lyrics are worth thinking about, if purposely controversial at times. A wonderful blend of craft and consciousness, bell hooks is everything a mixtape should be.

Best Songs: “The Hood,” “Jumpers,” “The Wrong Song,” “Please, No Pictures”

4eva N a Day-Big K.R.I.T.

After showing up on two of my favorite hip hop albums of last year (Undun and Oneirology) as well as releasing a mixtape, Big K.R.I.T. made his mark on 2012 with another mixtape and his major-label debut, Live from the Underground. While Live from the Underground  has its moments (particularly “Cool 2 Be Southern,” “Porchlight,” and “If I Fall”), 4eva N a Day is far more consistent and thoughtful throughout, making it the best Krit album to arrive in 2012. 4eva N a Day delivers more of what we’ve come to expect from Krit: silky smooth flow, consummate production, and a keen awareness of the problems in hip hop culture and his own place in that world.  Tracks like “Package Store” and “The Alarm” speak eloquently to the struggles Krit sees all around him, accenting the album art of a young child stuck in between a church and a liquor store. Another great mixtape from a perennial overachiever.

Best Songs: “Boobie Miles,” “4EvaNaDay Theme,” “Package Store”

Attack the Block­-Talib Kweli & Z-Trip

Unfortunately, Kweli’s new official album was delayed until 2013, but Attack the Block, named after a fantastic film from 2011, is more than enough to tide me over until P.O.C. gets released. Complete with an incredible list of guest spots (Black Thought, Jay Rock, Killer Mike, etc.), Attack the Block is a surprisingly consistent effort from Kweli, especially considering the mixed bag that was his last album, Gutter Rainbows. The best moments on Attack the Block are the unexpected ones: “The Corner” sampling R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”; the five killer guest spots on “That’s Enough”; and the slow-burning closer, “Fly Away.” To me at least, Attack the Block shows that Kweli still has something to prove, and it makes me even more excited for P.O.C. this spring.

Best Songs: “That’s Enough,” “The Corner,” “Getting to the Money,” “Fly Away”

 

The Ones that Got Away: Other Good Music in 2011

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are a few other albums that I think deserve your attention from this past year. If you missed my top ten, head over to the Mockingbird Blog to check it out.

Return of 4eva-Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper’s rapper: he makes his own beats, writes his own songs and releases song-heavy mixtapes for free. The reason Return of 4eva didn’t find a spot on my top ten was due in part to the sprawling nature of the album. With 21 songs on the album, some of them just don’t measure up to the others. K.R.I.T. is at his best when his raps are personal and socially conscious, and those tracks are the ones that carry this mixtape along and make it stand out. One such song is Dreamin’ where K.R.I.T. tells his life story, his smooth flow sliding over a laidback beat, which acts as a counterpart to the personal and relatable final songs of the mixtape Free My Soul and Vent. However, the two best songs on the album find K.R.I.T. commenting on the perception of hip-hop and African Americans. American Rapstar’s chorus is a hard-hitting condemnation of the hip-hop lifestyle and what it engenders, while Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism’s (it’s an anagram) quiet piano and shimmering horns mask a potent social commentary about race.

Metals-Feist
The newest album from Canada’s Leslie Feist is beautiful and heart-rending, and would have made my top ten save for a few songs I just really don’t enjoy. However, Metals is home to some of the most beautiful songs I heard this year: Cicadas and Gulls, Graveyard and Bittersweet Melodies. And bittersweet this album is, filled with Feist’s tender voice ruminating on a broken relationship, emotional and fragile. It is a certainly a cathartic piece of art and more than worth your time.

Lasers-Lupe Fiasco
If you know anything about Lasers, you probably know about Lupe’s problems getting this album released and the eventual compromises he had to make with his record label. When Lasers is good, it’s very good; however, when it’s bad, it’s some of the worst music Lupe has ever put his name on. For an artist who thrives on his nerdy persona, slick, over-produced songs like Out of My Head and Break the Chain just don’t work. Fortunately, songs like The Words I Never Said, The Show Goes On and All Black Everything find Lupe at his best and are welcome additions to his best songs.

The Whole Love-Wilco
Shortly after arriving in Texas, I went on a Wilco kick and finally listened to some of their older albums like Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born. This minor obsession culminated with my purchase of The Whole Love, which is a perfectly good album, but can’t compare with albums like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It simply doesn’t have the same consistency as those albums, however it still boasts some fantastic songs like I Might, The Whole Love and the twelve minute album closer One Sunday Morning.

The next three albums definitely would have found a way onto my year-end list had I listened to them in 2011. Alas, I can only give them my stamp of approval now, and hope if you haven’t already checked them out, that you do so ASAP.

Bon Iver-Bon Iver
While I often have no idea what Justin Vernon is singing about, his music conveys emotion with such ease that it is hard to not be swept away. In that manner, Bon Iver reminds me of a Terrence Malick film: poetic, abstract and transcendent. Art like this is not immediately accessible, especially if you’ve never listened to Bon Iver before, but it’s worth the effort to appreciate.

Camp-Childish Gambino
I’ll come right out and say it: this is not an album for those easily offended. Donald Glover, known for his role on NBC’s Community, is also a very good rapper, and Camp showcases those skills much better than previous mixtapes he has released. Musically, the albums stands out, with luxurious soundscapes on the softer songs, and hard-hitting beats that let Glover’s explosive flow stand out. Lyrically, Camp reminds me of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as songs like Outside, L.E.S. and That Power are achingly personal, while others (Bonfire, Sunrise) are straight-up battle raps, pointed at Gambino’s haters. Despite some of these ill-advised jabs, Glover often takes aim at important social issues, which makes Camp an engaging, if paradoxical listen.

Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues is a big album, asking big questions about life and love, and doing so with such grace that it never feels overblown. The folkish Americana played by the group transitions in between upbeat and slower tempos effortlessly over the course of the album, and often even mid-song, creating a musically well-rounded album. Considering that themes of purpose and growing older carried through the album, Helplessness Blues feels like a coherent work of art, not just a few scattered songs.

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