If you’re kind enough to link, use this post, as the complete list will be added tomorrow. Yes, there will be a ZIP file at the end. Yes, we have no bananas.
Odes to the pen and pad seem prosaic in 2009. We’ve all heard a million encomiums to the art of creation and besides, why write it down when the off-the-top intricacy of Jay and Wayne gets you a slot on Katie Couric. That’s why “Laminated Looseleafs” sounds vital, the details of composition vivid but somewhat veiled: Magr and Blu and crumbling herb on an overcast Autumn day in the middle of Jersey. The story spun out in tangential detail: the death of Blu’s girls cousin, a reflection of sitting off Slauson, before he moved out his momma’s crib and “found a conscience.” If you cup your ear, you can hear the chicken-scratch scrawls crossed out and re-written, weed shavings on the table, crumpled dutch’s and beer bottles littering the studio. Backpack rap so that it’s not a dirty word. –Jeff Weiss
The Cool Kids’ style always felt a little gimmicky, born out of easy access to 808 sample packs and percussion-friendly software sequencers. Thankfully, their curveballs on the Gone Fishin’ mixtape were just weird enough to push them out of imitation EPMD territory. “The Light Company” is their strangest detour, a blunted freestyle over dusty drums straight out of a ’96 indie single and a “Stroke of Death” aping, scratched up-sample from Company Flow’s seminal “8 Steps to Perfection.” Transforming the Kids from bratty fusionists to delirious misfits re-appropriating rap’s past for their own pleasure, the rhymes never rise above an apathetic mumble, while the loopy production hints at the group’s potential should they expand their horizons by about half a decade and decide being cool ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.--Sach O
Even from the grave, Biggie’s blunt-basted boom remains the best hook money won’t buy. Something tells me that Dro didn’t show up on Sean Combs’ doorstep willing to trade clearance rights for a car the color of Ric Flair hair. Nor is it likely that Al Green signed off on this lift of the godly organs of “Love and Happiness,”and we’re the better for it. Dro’s not about to win any lyrical-lyrical contests anytime soon, but his skill at color comparison is unparalleled. He calls his “black ice” Haitian. His diamonds of “Sierra Le” are “whiter than Penelope.” To which he ad-libs “she white.” I’m not sure if this means Dro is a big Vicky Christina Barcelona fan, but I do know that were are few more amiably goofy or quotable songs made this year. His auntie Beverly told him he’s sick with it. Who are you to argue? –JW
A list of the things that OJ, Gucci, and Cam also make the trap say: Oy, Snooki, No Me Digas, Arnold Palmer, Uf!, Yee-Ha, Bon Soir, Pecos Bill, Yo, Que Lastima!, Eureka, Bon Voyage, Que Mala Suerte, Carpe Diem, Vini, Vidi, Gucci, Casablanca, Have you seen my Gray Poupon, Yah Trick Yah, Que Barbaridad!, Apple Sauce, Fig Newtons, McLovin, Scalabrine, Sesquipedalian, Posterity, Corned Beef, Whither goest Gucci, Muy Fantastico, and Goyim Nachas.
If you don’t like this song, you may take life far too seriously. Ay.
Without much fanfare, the survivors of what was euphemistically labeled the underground, formulated a battle plan to evolve beyond its 97-01 zenith–a progression predicated on the realization that it’s no longer a bad thing to look like you’re having fun. On “Trippin’ At the Disco,” vanguards of the last charge, People Under the Stairs, point the path via strobelite, offering perhaps their most light-hearted and catchy track ever. The video is essential viewing: Double K in a spanking white leisure suit and cop shades that make him look like a Disco dictator from the Caribbean. Thes One hamming up in full handlebar mustache “Me Decade” glory. Funny, creative, and DIY, it channels the ebullient spirit of the pre-Gangsta era without aping their antecedents. Good People. –JW
Blaq Poet does not give a fuck about your desire for evolution. Willfully defiant in the face of time, Wilbur Bass’ aesthetic is summed up in the first two shots of the video for “Ain’t Nothin’ Changed:” grainy, shaky hand-held shots of Queensbridge and the Queensbridge Projects. What else would you expect from a man whose first released recording was “Beat You Down,” a scathing salvo aimed at KRS and BDP at the height of the “Bridge Wars.” 22 years later, armed with a vintage boom-bap Primo arsenal, the Screwball vet is out to remind you that nothing has changed, his flow is still sick, the beats still bang, he’s in the same spot he ever was. –JW
I can’t think of one athletic related moment where “Blow the Horns” isn’t a better fit than whatever is soundtracking sports right now (“Run This Town?”). LeBron YouTubing some scrub on the Grizzlies: BLOWTHEHORNSONEM! Shawn Merriman shifting the spleen of Matt Cassell: BLOWTHEHORNSONEM! Tiger Woods’ face on TMZ.com: BLOWTHEHORNSONEM! If my gym didn’t insist on playing “Sandstorm” over the muted plasmas airing Sportscenter, I wouldn’t have to keep my “M.O.P. Workout Grizzly” playlist on the iPod. After all, the most vital listening area for Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame’s Brownsvillian operas is the gym (or an east coast stick-up). Add “Blow the Horns” to that playlist between “Cold as Ice” and “Stick to Ya Gunz”. Need help with that 250lb. deadlift? Say this out loud: “You know the name in the game (WHATTUP DOE!) We still bang (BANG!) bang (WHATTUP DOE!)” –Zilla Rocca
What’s ridiculous is that Pharoahe Monch released two songs this year, not counting the half-assed 16 bars he spit over Erykah Badu’s “The Healing.” We’ll take what we can get, with JS-1 scratching in Jada samples on the hook, and OC and Pharoahe kicking a few phoned in mid-90s NYC cipher raps (“It’s Ridiculous/How I’m Sick With This”). Of course, Pharoahe at 50 percent is superior to most rappers armed with a thesaurus, a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and a vial of THC liquid (this is how Paul Barman is rumored to have sustained an entire career). Pharoahe is the only person that may like alliteration more than me. We understand each other. Maybe this is comfort food for aging rap fans. I’m alright with that. Have you ever had comfort food, it’s delicious. –JW
I had to fight to get this one on the ballot. Oh No and Alchemist won’t be winning any rapper-of-the-year awards any time soon and it’s easier to praise them for African sampling beat tapes and Raekwon singles than snarling battle raps, but there’s something pure about Gangrene’s first record. The sound of two California beat junkies having fun in the studio with entirely too much weed and a microphone, Gangrene doesn’t try to do anything except provide a menacing loop for the producers to spit on. They don’t have a damn thing to say, but like that “rapper” you knew back in high school that had people hype off of sheer intensity, they somehow pull off the tough guy act. 10 years ago they’d be signed to ABB under some absurd group name like “Elementz of Style” or “Immortal Technique” (oops) but in 2009, “Under Siege” is proof that there’s still a place in California beat music for lyrical nerdiness and organ loops. –Sach O
Those wondering why M.I.A. would want to work with breakout female jerkin’ rappers Pink Dollaz need to look no further than the tandem of “Don’t Need No,” and “Never Hungry.” Like the creator of “Paper Planes,” the Los Angeles quintet is about taking your money and causing woe to anyone who tries to stop them from doing so. J-Hawk’s icy beat lingers at a glacial pace and fits perfectly with the Dollaz’ cold-hearted dismissiveness. Raunchy and unhinged, the Dollaz should be too young to be this calloused, but instead devote four minutes to excoriating broke guys, which ostensibly would alienate 94 percent of the people reading this blog right now. Feminism for girls who think Betty Friedan is a character from Archie comics. -JW
The illogical and infallible Pope of Aftermath, Andre Young, declares that we can “rejoice, real hip-hop is back.” The irony of course being that he’s largely excommunicated himself from the proceedings for most of the decade. His latest protege, Bishop Lamont, has been similarly held back, trapped in Aftermath amber for the last four years, periodically un-thawing himself to drop street mixtapes and other red-meat raps. Backed by Xzibit, who plays the gruffy Henny-swilling preacher on the hook, Bishop rants about that ails hip-hop with a devilish wit that makes it never feel strident. He goes in on everything from the cult of swagger, to the Olsen Girl selling coke to Heath Ledger, to Scientology, in the process creating an underground smash that has racked up nearly three quarters of a million plays on Myspace in just three months. The man is fearless. Clearly, he’s never heard about what happened to Jeremy Blake. -JW
Consider the Brooklyn-based, Atl-raised, Spree, a sonic kinsmen to the Knux, defiantly outside and as indebted to the Strokes as to Stankonia. Great rap EP’s were never common, and have become a lost art in the mixtape era, but Wilson’s Evil Angel EP was one of the best of the year. The No ID-produced “Word” is the stand-out cut and the ideal one to introduce the helium-voiced 27-year old to the world. In his own words, he’s a “misfit…a fearless freak not afraid to fail.” Rap could use a lot more Spree Wilson’s. Word. –JW
Granted, they may have gotten off on the wrong Birkenstock, but Dose One, Yoni Wolf, and (most of) the Anticon dudes aren’t trying to show off their command of $5 dollar words, or trying to put a white privileged, wool-sweater spin on hip-hop. Between Why? Serengeti, and Themselves, few labels have been as consistently dedicated to moving the ball upfield, even there have been many Hail Mary’s along the way. “Rappin’ for Money” is about making art not for “profits” or “working girls and hot chicks.” It’s a letter to the next generation about what they can expect if they are foolhardy enough to enter the great rap shell game. It’s required listening for all aspiring rappers, provided they’re able to decipher it.–JW
During Passion of the Weiss’s Great Jerkin’ Extravaganza of September 2009 I quickly became fascinated with several thousand homemade tutorials on YouTube. Living exactly 1,999 miles from the epicenter of Jerkindom I was hardly familiar with any of the artists that these kids were dancing to, but there was a song I instantly loved. It was the one with the best hard synth since “What You Know.” It was the song that was in, I think, every single DIY jerkin’ video ever made in the history of time. It was “Miss Me Kiss Me” by the Cold Flamez, a group name only Daniel Stern could love. That song convinced me, jerkin’ was legitimately exciting, and not just in Los Angeles. Then they remastered the track for a wide release and lost 88% of the immediacy and immaturity that made it great in the first place. Whoops. –Trey Kerby
It took a decade and a half and Nipsey Hussle to make us remember what we already knew: the beat on “Jump” was an absolute monster. Right now, Nipsey has assumed the mantle of people’s choice south of Interstate-1o. “Hussle in the House” and its accompanying evocative video illustrates why. There’s something overly familiar about it all, from the Mercedes Benz’s swarmed by bodies, to the street signs immortalized on The Chronic, to the lanky and braided Nipsey’s passing resemblance to a young Snoop. But this is done well, with stray details that tell you what you need to know about Hussle’s Slauson: he grew up in the 60s, white chalk on the corners, yellow tape on the gates, choppers up above. Plus, it samples “Jump.” C’mon. –JW
“Stay off the Fucking Flowers” is a dingy blues traphouse anthem that would’ve fit on Cuban Linx 2; it caters completely to its guest star and reeks of no spontaneous ‘hey man, what about you hopping on this jawn?’ studio patchwork. That’s a good thing because Raekwon is the most descriptive rapper of all time. He switches up his style for no one. I’ve listened to Rae for 17 years and still thought to myself “what exactly is this ‘eskavich green pea soup’ the god speaks of? ‘Lemonade leathers’? ‘Fresh out Toronto, he’s black skin’? Whaaaaa?” To quote Raekwon, the Black Keys cooked up that “perfect sneaker” that was right up his “alleyway”. It had him on his “John Lennon shit,” sitting on a cornflake with the pyrex Persians waiting on crisped out Beloved, an’ all that. –Zilla Rocca
A north-south meet-up as fluid as the Mississippi, with Houston hierophant Scarface and Minneapolis’ Brother Ali, swapping plaintive laments over gentle down-tempo pianos, an angelic gospel choir, and dusty drums. Both Brad Jordan Ali sound weather-beaten and weary, angry but contained and resigned to a certain fatalism that arrives with age. They understand the system is broken, but won’t accept it. I expect a sequel dedicated to attacking Joe Lieberman. –-JW
GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI, GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI, GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI,GUCCI.
The worst and most common pro-Gucci argument was the Atlanta trap-star as a massive populist sensation that the pointy-headed media elitists conspired to ignore. But the dude barely sold more than Asher Roth. The best argument in favor of Gucci is “Lemonade,” which was a popular drink and it still is. Bangladesh is a master at repeating one note until it becomes a part of your waking consciousness. So is Gucci, who riffs on the wonders of the color “yellow.” It’s undeniably catchy and clever. I bet even Elzhi kind of likes it. –JW
It’s inevitable that Def Jam will attempt to transform Y.G into the West Coast answer to Cassidy, but there will always be “I Need Weed,” the Pu$haz Inc. leader’s dedication to herbal refreshment. J-Hawk’s hypnotic quasi-snap beat is almost trance-like in its minimalism. There’s not much to this song really. Y.G. “smokes a lot of weed and “you know he fucks bitches.” Consider this the jerkin’ analogue to “Indo Smoke.” Granted, Nate Dogg is nowhere to be found, but Y.G. is worth listening to. He knows that he can’t get a job because he’ll fail a piss test, but doesn’t care. That’s either zen wisdom or a drug problem. Either way, this ought to be the new theme song of the legalization movement. Get the kids involved, y’know.--JW
Before “High Noon,” the first song from the 5 0′ Clock Shadowboxers project, Zilla Rocca was a very good rapper, but one with an ostensibly limited ceiling. Of course, I never told him that and wrote about him in this space because he rapped well, had clever lyrics, and a good ear for beats. But his songs were usually just that, songs. They were rarely greater than the sum of their parts and there was no clear aesthetic that you could pinpoint. He seemed destined to carve out a solid but small niche on the blogs, and maybe be able to eke out a few national tour dates here and there.
Something happened on “High Noon,” Zilla channeled Phillip Marlowe to a soundtrack of Sergio Leone and in the process forged a style that was singular. Gone was the Aesop Rock and Tom Waits hero worship and in its stead was “Doc Holliday with one lung,” who had “the shit that made Anton Chigurgh shiver.” It was an alter-ego minus the gimmick. It was a taunt to all challengers. Every song that followed built on the bedrock, but in the end the first was the best, instantiating a character that felt as real as the best fiction. Dismiss this as nepotism, that’s fine. You’re probably just one of those saddle-bag bitches who better bring me lemonade.–JW
A weary, spiritual affirmation of life in the face of sorrow, “Wonderful Life,” works in binary. In his trademark nasal twang, Tre invokes the pain of his friend whose father passed away and the joy he receives from seeing his own image passed down to his son. Like any great writer, Tre is a great observer and “Wonderful Life” reads like revelations divined by a curb side prophet. You can almost see him clutching a brown paper bag, drinking away the pain, dropping extemporaneous aphorisms one after the other. “You wanna’ climb from the bottom, you got to see the steps.” Sean Falyon is an ideal partner for the liquor run, invoking shoot-outs to cook-outs, nostalgic for the days when the most dire consequences were his mother’s belt. This has been called comfort-food rap, but there is nothing comforting about it. This song is about looking up at the sun when everything around you is dirt, and finding a solace in the unknowable, redemption from minor miracles. –JW
Cut from the same cloth as Common, Nas and OC in 1994, Fashawn excels at poetic slices of life that used to get emcees quotables in rap magazines. An off-the-cuff examination of growing up poor in Fresno over a static-riddled Alchemist loop, “What’s Your World’s” greatest asset is its simplicity: it doesn’t take on any particular problem and doesn’t burden itself with too heavy a concept. Rather, it lets a laid back loop evoke instant nostalgia in the listener while Fashawn waxes about the choices and mistakes he made, before the hook comes in. Throw in a Rastafian dialogue sample, a miniscule running time and a flow so smooth he could spit a grocery list without anyone noticing and you have a minor classic of the best sort. –Sach O
Twista understands the smoker’s plight. He acknowledges at the onset of “Fire” that it’s been a long time since someone made a “good song about reefer.” And who better to do it than the self-proclaimed “number one analyst of the cannabis sativa.” Of course, when he recorded those words, it was before he helped make 2009 a minor comeback for the stoner song. From Blackout 2 to Freddie Gibbs, to Y.G., to B-Real and Damian Marley’s “Fire,” to half of Boosie’s recorded output, this is the best news for stoners since Eric Holder and his mustache came to power. Twista, the connoisseur, enumerates his favorite strains (Purple and O.G. Kush) and manages to rhyme “follicle” with “High Times Article.” But Boosie steals the show, stoned out of his fucking mind on the top floor of the Doubletree Chicago, taking the listener on a world wide weed tour, to New York where he smokes diesel and gets the munchies, to a strong endorsement of Jamaican weed. He even explains why Michael Phelps felt the need to take bong rips. This song should come as a free download along with every copy of “Pot Culture.” –-JW
Credit the team of Khujo Goodie and Jneiro Jarel for inventing Irish fiddle rap (though to be fair I haven’t put on Fine Malt Lyrics in 16 years or so.) The heavily experimental Georgiavania suffered from a mild schizophrenia that led great ideas to be followed up by ones that sounded bizarrely like The Knux at their worst. Yet it’s inspired moments far outweighed the bad, and there were none better than “Grussle,” with Khujo spitting gruff and vaguely inspirational lyrics that read like Rick Ross were he about 32.1 times better at rapping and a fan of putting Bailey’s in his coffee.I also imagine that this is what Lil Flip was going for when he put on that dubious Leprechaun outfit. –-JW
Souls of Mischief are like the Shins of indie-rap. You expect them to be the types to touch down and practice yoga and sip Kombucha, but all they want to do is find out where the party and the after-party are at. So I hear. 16 years deep, Hiero’s finest would have ostensibly slowed down, but judging from “Tour Stories,” they’re still getting inspired by the blunts, chilling with white Jamaicans in Australia, having paranoid weed sessions in Tokyo, and drinking Patron and Gray Goose like they were James Mercer in the midst of a lost weekend with Isaac Brock. Plus, they do a mean cover of “New Slang.” –JW
Somehow, Big Boi, one half of the most popular rap group of all-time, has leaked fantastic album material for over a year-plus and still Sir Luscious Lead Foot can’t get a release date. The latest gem from Daddy Fat Sacks’s solo album, “Shine Blockas” combines Gucci’s infectious energy and Big Boi’s unmatched flow over a superbly soulful beat with a distinctly Southern trunk thump. Gucci and Big make a natural pair, given the two’s mutual love for goofy similes and metaphors. Big awkwardly sprays like a skunk, while Gucci strives for Tyler Perry sales. Producer Cutmaster Swiff spit-shines Harold Melvin’s vocals until they glisten like a fresh coat of candy paint on a Caddie. Where Kanye used he same sample on Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life” to convey sadness and lamentation, Big Boi turns it into a playful, triumphant kiss-off to the haters. Of course they can’t close the safe–there’s too much money in it.–Aaron Matthews
Outshining legendary producers like DJ Premier and Large Professor, M.O.P’s Fizzy Womack stole the show on Cormega’s latest album with the laid-back beat to :The Other Side.” Shimmering with smooth-jazz strings and blaring saxophone runs, the track recalls the smoother moments of A Tribe Called Quest’s late 90’s Love Movement, providing an unexpected canvas for Mega to display a newfound maturity. Describing his transition from crack to music, Cormega spits fire proving that rapping about finding peace can be just as entertaining as rhymes about going to war. Like Common on Resurrection, it’s the not the positivity that shines through here but the journey to reach it. —Sach O
Q-Tip signals his intent immediately, imitating the opening of”The Symphony:” I don’t care who’s first or who’s last, I just know y’all better rock this at the drop of a dime. Playing the role of Masta Ace, he sets it off over J Dilla’s X-Files gone boom-bap beat, recycling his verse from the original, a rehash of his ascent battling on trains. Busta Rhymes and Raekwon make up for the lack of novelty, with the former in full-on conspiracy mode babbling about diamonds buried in Jerusalem, and a zoological leitmotif as though he only wore khaki and camouflage. Befitting his epic 2009 run, Rae steals the show in a full-on vivid laser-eye guide mode, squeezing “Johnny Walker in the Benz all freezing,” “poison medals on his necks wrists and arms,” “Louis luggage is bronze. Together they’re they’re the “Chi-Lites, a twist of the O-Jay’s, one line of this will have you leaning like roach spray.” It’s the rare contemporary track that doesn’t let its self-conscious aspirations towards greatness affect its actual greatness. It might lack the magnitude of a “Symphony,” but it’s still rough as brillo and the closest we came in 2009. –Jeff Weiss
Say what you want, I loved the Slaughterhouse album, if only because it served as a great rap litmus test for my RSS feed. Though it was definitely uneven, the record’s uncompromising hoodies n timbs aggression served as a fantastic way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to rap critics: if you didn’t fuck with this but spent the year bigging up Drake, Gucci Mane or Diplo, I stopped reading your blog. With that out of the way, “Hood Love” from Royce’s Street-Hop is the best thing any of those guys did all year, a laid-back Premo produced banger that had cats catching ’95 flashbacks for real. Royce continues to be the closest thing we have to early Nas and Biggie, spitting razor sharp meticulousness about street life without dropping ridiculous lies about the weight he’s moving. Joell’s nasal flow is his perfect foil, dropping humorous details about an Ice Cube quality good day and proving he’s Slaughterhouse’s most underrated member. As for Bun B, he continues to prove correct the theory that Premo steps his game up whenever a southern emcee spits on one of his tracks and adds the rare elder-statesman cosign that still means something in 2009.–Sach O
Sean Price inevitably drops at least one song each year that’s so amazingly ill that you hold out hope that he’ll put 11 of them together in one album. “Figure Four” is 2009’s pick of the litter, a sneering old man rap clinic that’s custom-made for aging backpackers to wild-out to. As hilarious and talented a writer as hipster favorites Cam’ron, MF Doom and Ghostface, Sean Price is so adverse to trends that he’d forgo that demographic’s fandom to avoid their bullshit, a fact that’s made him the champion of rap’s stubbornly die-hard NY purists. When Sean name-drops Nahright, he’s not currying favor with Eskay so much as shouting out his fan base: the site’s readership sums up his entire audience in one fell swoop. And while critics can complain about his choice of production and refusal to update his style, there’s something immensely satisfying about a rapper who doesn’t give two shits about what people outside the five boroughs (and his corner of the internet) think.–Sach O
By now, every single rap fan should know what comes next when they hear those blaring clarinets. You’ve bobbed your head to it and searched for the sample. Hell, you and your boys have probably even freestyled to it. But out of the multitude of rappers who have laid down vocals over “DOA,” there’s only one rapper who sounds completely at home on it, and it’s not the Carter who the beat was given to. The Mixtape Weezy takes the ball that was given to him via shout-out and runs all the way to the touchdown, with the 27-year-old gleefully navigating the terrain in true Wayne fashion. In addition to the usual fecal metaphors and going mentally-disabled on the beat, he hosts makeup parties (“Paint your face red, you all dolled up,”) fucks the game up like a bad call, name-drops rap pioneer DJ Red Alert for the hip-hop geeks, and ends Aaron Brooks’ career in one line just like Biggie did to Kwame and them fuckin’ polka dots. A bottle of water and two blunts later, Young Carter is cackling his way out of the song, knowing good and well that he had just usurped the King. –Douglas Martin
Clipse were bizarrely tentative and unsure throughout most of their last album, which made “Popular Demand” all the more thrilling. After 2008’s wanton abuse of the word “swagger,” I never wanted to hear it again but there’s no better word to describe the brothers Thornton’s arrogance on this track. Tossing off punchlines like peanut shells, Pusha and Malice shuffle words over a swinging Neptunes beat that combines buzzing synths and chintzy piano melody straight out of Rza’s playbook. It’s Cam’ron who steals the show though with a verse that’s practically one giant double tracked adlib, flipping a style that’s half imitation Jeezy half Cam 3.0. The soundtrack to a rap showdown at high noon, Popeyes isn’t the kind of track that’s made for the dancefloor, it’s the kind of the tune the DJ drops when someone important walks in the room.–Sach O
The Knux spent their 2009 listening to Raw Power, rocking every festival that featured falafel and women with armpit hair, and ingesting enough hallucinogenics to confuse New Orleans with New Mexico. Which would explain why Rah Al Milio’s hair is approaching Hendrixian volume and why the warped tape loop on “Fuck You,” sounds straight out of Abbey Road. Long obsessed with synthesizing the Cadillac music and Wu-Tang worship of their adolescence with the Strokes and Stooges fervor of their early adulthood, the brothers Lindsey produce a winning alchemy, casting aside the white girl gloss of their debut for the sun-split psychedelia of their present. Drums dredged from moats, mangled keyboards, and the disorienting high of the infinite California summer, The Knux produced this year’s sleeper summer jam–like chillwave if it happened to turn towards the hardcore. –JW
With scant jobs available and fewer jobs still with the potential for career advancement, young workers everywhere are feeling the crush of a lack of a certain future. So when Cameron Giles laments that “hope sits in a casket” on his zeitgeist-diagnosing single “I Hate My Job,” an entire generation, potentially robbed of their future by the greed and lack of foresight of its predecessors, nods solemnly in agreement. Over a stuttering catchy piano riff, Cam’ron’s “I Hate My Job” diagnoses the bitter resentment and apathy of Generation Y better than any song released since the global recession struck, lamenting: “All this bullshit for twelve bucks an hour/Plug Me To Chuck D, wanna fight the power/instead I light the sour before I go in the office.” A transformational single for the traditionally hedonistic and amoral rapper, Cam’ron spits some of his most humanist and empathetic rhymes of his career as he bitterly describes the resigned apathy of “the everyday working woman” and the self-destructive hopelessness of an ex-con trying to find a job. Remember the words of Cameron Giles before any hypocritical baby boomer attempts to accuse my generation of being selfish.–Doc Zeus
On paper this track was a terrible idea. Pretentious indie rocker+African rappers=awkward post-racial gunk strictly for my H.I.P.S.T.E.R.S. Surprise, surprise! “TV in the Radio” is one of those rare super-group tracks where everyone keeps his ego in check and does what he does best. Dave Sitek’s boom-bap instincts are surprisingly sharp, delivering a stuttering drum pattern punctuated by clipped horns and rumbling subbass that could have only come from someone intimately familiar with Boogie Down Productions. Meanwhile K’Naan and Wale sound like a more-fun new millennium Black Star. What should have been an awkward collaboration based solely on their respective African heritage instead feels like the most natural pairing in years, with Wale’s midrange contrasting perfectly with K’Naan’s sing-songy alto. In 2009, old rappers started teaming up for “dream projects” (and I use this term loosely) in droves to shore up their fan bases. Let’s hope Sitek, K’Naan and Wale don’t wait until they’re in their forties to bless us with a CD’s worth of this stuff. –Sach O
One of L.A.’s best rappers hooks up with one of its best producers and magic happens. “GNG BNG” finds Blu hopping on the most overtly boom-bap beat off Los Angeles; the track’s ESG-by-way-of-LSD thump gives Blu a perfect jumping off point to weave a head-spinning web of punchlines and similes over the twisting breaks. Blu is at his prime here, abandoning the self-conscious Resurrection-reflection raps of Below The Heavens for jaunty play between robotic syllable chopping and freeflowing assonance. It’s the first vocal performance over a Flying Lotus beat to actually match the unearthly crackle of Lotus’s sound. And remarkably Blu still finds time to reference Scrooge McDuck, Rick James, the Dukes of Hazard, Parmesan cheese and queefing. –Aaron Matthews
It was a rough nine months for Rick Ross. In July of 2008, the Officer Ricky photos were exposed. Then in February of 2009, the complete lunacy that is Ross’s entire musical oeuvre was exposed by a Jewish rap group that’s not even the Beastie Boys. Tough break, William Leanord Roberts the 2nd, but it’s quite the accomplishment that in an otherwise humorless year of music, a joke song could exist as a viable commercial entity, going gold and garnering a Grammy nomination. “I’m On a Boat” is superbly crafted, cleverly written, and just respectful enough of hip-hop tradition that it can be discussed critically. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is T-Pain mocking himself and the word “flippy-floppies” and nautical-themed pashmina afghans. Have some fun every once in a while, rappers. —Trey Kerby
The best part about rap music in 2009 was the spate of unexpected collaborations. From Quik and Kurupt, to Del and Tame One, to Dame Dash secretly purchasing stock in American Apparel and creating a soundtrack to answer Meth’s original question of “what exactly is a panty raid?”, the lack of funds, ease of communication and transport meant that rappers were more apt to take interesting chances. Granted, pairing Meth and Red–the Eastern Seaboard’s #1 Ranked Stoners for 15 years running–with Bun B makes sense on paper, but Def Jam labelmates ate up all the spots on the first Blackout (or did you think Reggie Noble was a Ja Rule stan?) With Lyor Cohen more apt to bank on Rihanna than Redman these days, “City Lights” found rap’s Cheech and Chong messing around with auto-tune and kicking red-eyed, trunk-rattling raps alongside Houston’s finest, complete with the ghost of Pimp C lingering for one last hook. I’m starting a petition to get Lawrence Ferlinghetti to make this his theme song. –JW
Everytime I hear a Ghostface story rap, I think about what might’ve inspired the Wally Champ’s fable. Maybe it’s angel dust and funny ass weed carriers (see: the majority of Supreme Clientele). Maybe it’s repeat viewings of Ray on Starz (see: “Alex (Stolen Script)”). For “Guest House” off this year’s Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry, I’m pretty sure Verizon pissed off Black Jesus. Don’t think an all-time top 5 rapper isn’t immune to the cable providers; you might be a Ghost, but we’re only coming on Monday from 11am-5pm, mothafucka! With a beat twice occupied from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League via Def Jam (see Rick Ross’ “Yacht Club”), Ghostface got his Ready to Die on: epic rap cinema complete with vivid details, gunplay, internal questioning, and an ending that makes you think “I know this probably didn’t happen, but COULD this have really happened to someone in Ghost’s circle?” Every rap purist had to be overjoyed that Fabolous was reduced to a cable technician jumping out the window in his drawers after being pegged as “the black Adam and Eve, some sinful lovers”. “Guest House” makes me want to switch from Comcast to Verizon so I can casually proclaim on installation day that I’ll be getting a visit from a “FiOs mustache wearing muthafucka”. Thank you Ghostface! –Zilla Rocca
Featuring the lushest instrumental opening ever recorded for a rap song, “Maybach Music 2” is everything wrong with Hip-Hop… so why couldn’t I stop listening to it? A gaudy, overproduced monstrosity by an overweight, bearded, former corrections officer, “Maybach Music” is the best pop-rap money can buy and you can bet that Def Jam ponied-up something fierce to get Mr. West and Weezy to drop guest verses, not to mention T-Pain and his hundred layers of auto-tuned vocals. Give them credit though, from the swelling string crescendos to the Miami Vice saxophone line, the song blasts past the point of self-parody into a fantasy world so improbable that Rawse may as well be rapping about moving kilos on the back of a space dragon. Like Camp Lo (yes, I just compared Rick Ross to Camp Lo) Ross’ gangster surrealism is total fiction but taken as such, it’s as entertaining as any other focus-grouped mass-media product released this year. Who knows why Rick Ross still gets to release records, but as long as they feature the two hottest rappers of the moment, the game’s best hook-man, a top notch-ghostwriter and a six-figure production team, there’s no doubt I’ll be entertained by the results.–Sach O
In 2009, Pill and Freddie Gibbs emerged as two of the most talked about rappers on the blogs. Whether or not it was a matter of undeserved hype is less important than the fact that both of them connected with a lot of people who had never heard of them prior to this calendar year. “Womb 2 The Tomb” and its gritty, graffiti-scarred video was a major reason why, a clip that captured two rappers who aren’t out to necessarily redefine their genre but rather work around it’s most common signposts to convey well-worn topics (getting paid, ducking death, dealing drugs) in a naked light that illumines their own unique sagas. They’re lyrical without being pretentious, hard without being audacious, and aware of convention but brazen enough to flout it. Authenticity may be irrelevant but honesty will never be and I suspect Pill and Gibbs struck a chord with so many people because they felt more real than anything they’d heard in a long time, irrespective of whether or not they actually were. –JW
Take Raekwon’s fly pelican mockneck butta suede tims slanguistics, add Doom’s emphasis on abbreviated song length for extended quality, toss in triumphantly funky post-College Dropout soul beats handled by Ski Beatz, and inject EPMD’s rhyme partners trade-off routine and you STILL don’t quite have Camp Lo in 2009. Unlike their revered colleagues, Lo-ah haven’t dominated the blogs, the indie thinktanks, the old school revivalist tours, nor the “grown man rap” movement that is giving a home to our former platinum heroes from the 90’s. And it doesn’t seem to matter to Geechie Suede or Sonny Cheeba. They’re having too much fun dropping projects every year like the superb Another Heist. “Son of a” is a snapshot of Camp Lo right now: a jittery wah-wah guitar with soul fever drums that would get your neighborhood Pretty Tone on his feet. Cheeba and Suede run down the list of fathers to their style: Willie D, the Black Panther Party, the D train, even the Jackson 5 when Mike was feeling euphoria. They’re not asking for Black Nostaljacks; they are “sons of the past, fathers of what’s to come, fathers of right now, Lo sons just begun.” —Zilla
Loaded” can mean too high, but it also means fueled–in the case of this song, it means both. The necessary supplies to get you through another session, and the wobbly disorientation you get when you starting losing things and empathizing with Plaxico Burress. There’s a joyful resignation here, acknowledging a creative debt to a drug, but simultaneously singing its praises. In the first three minutes of the song Boosie demands blunts of train wreck and purple kush–it’s the only way he can keep rolling. Then the clouds in his head turn cancerous, his nose starts running, he sees ghosts of fallen friends, his deceased father Ivy hovering around him. It’s simultaneously a rock-solid endorsement and a damning condemnation, the stuff they didn’t tell you in DARE class, the truth. –JW
Like the urban legend concerning Mariah Carey’s voice and garage door openers, it’s a believable conceit that the volcanic bass in “9 X Out of 10” can cause seizures. An acquaintance once told me a story about the time that he was supposed to go to a party with DJ Quik, but first had to accompany him to the record store to purchase some re-mastered Prince albums. The moment they got back into the car and popped the CD in, Quik threw a temper tantrum at the desecration done to the Purple One, canceled plans to go to the party and forced said acquaintance to accompany him back to the studio, where he proceeded to remaster them himself for the next four hours, despite the fact that the acquaintance told him that they sounded perfectly fine in the first place. When he was finally finished, the product supposedly came out sounding pristine and the acquaintance had no idea how Quik did it nor how he’d detected the imperfections in the first place. That’s sort of how I feel about “9 X Out of 10.” I don’t have a clue how he made this beat, nor do I care. All I know is that turning it up really loud can cause Prince Myshkin moments. –JW
Without “You’re a Jerk,” jerkin’ would’ve been confined to a minor regional dance that flamed out by the Winter Break of ’08. Instead, Ben J and Legacy’s best attempt at bonding a Cool Kids beat to cocky double entendres ended up spawning hundreds of dance crews, imitation rappers, and sent Asylum executives digging into their wallet with the insistence that this one would be bigger than snap, Houston, or hyphy. If perfect pop is one of the most trite terminologies extant, the New Boyz’s debut single is one of the few things worthy of the epithet, a minimal beat with the low end cranked higher than spaceships on Bankhead and a couple of 17-year olds too young to know that they shouldn’t be having this much fun and instinctively aware that they should never look back.--JW
In the Year of Our Hipster Rap Lords 2009, the prospect that a lyricist and unironic rock music devotee would finally decide to Jimi Hendrix “The National Anthem” seemed unattainable. Surely, a disposable mohawked Urban Outfitted neophyte who just discovered Radiohead via torrent would revel at the chance to “stand out” and “show these bloggers a thing or two” by spitting on Thom Yorke and company’s hardbody bruiser from 2000’s Kid A. Enter Lupe Fiasco. Recently considered “un-hot” by MTV, Lupe unloaded a murderball mixtape titled Enemy of the State in response. Only Chi-town Guevera could combine oh shit! emcee moments with Yorke’s grim oh, shit stanzas. “Health care hair, drive by thighs, education lips, HIV eyes, environment feet, justice get her so wet, brains get you brains, you can fuck her if you protest”. Every other rapper has now got the fear.–Zilla
“Trap Goin Ham” is the tensest, most-claustrophobic rap single of the year and while much has been made of its accompanying video, the song really needs no visual. All the fucked up details of hood life are right there in the cut with Pill reporting live from a hellish Fourth Ward that’s threatening to boil over into bloodshed at any minute. Attacking the track with an aggressive flow that captures the paranoid, overworked, drug dealer lifestyle to a T; Pill was the perfect antidote for those equally sick of corny stream of consciousness swagger raps passed off as lyricism and metro-sexual Hypebeasts styling in GQ. Better still, the song’s beat is an uncompromising monster: 808 hi-hats, marching band horns, plucked strings straight out of a chase scene and of course, the Beastie Boys sample that got him in the New York Times. No autotune, no Euro-dance, no R&B vocals; just a cacophonous racket for the emcee to rip apart. Sounding like something that 1989 Dr Dre would produce if he were beamed 20 years into the future, “Trap Goin Ham” is the rare Hip-Hop single that remembers what a good hip-hop single sounded like before the advent of Rap & Bullshit. –Sach O
It starts with a prayer, segues into a snippet of Malcolm X, explodes into Oh No’s Turkish psych-rock boom-bap and before you know what hit you, Mos Def is BACK. Wilder than ever, he finally releases the unhinged, bluesy wildman persona he’s been hinting at since Rawkus’ marketing team labeled him an overly sensible backpacker, ripping into the track with an intensity belying his frustration with years of major label shenanigans. He raps! He sings! He Yells! Meanwhile the aforementioned beat by Oh No recycles one of the best moments on his underrated Oxperiment project, chopping up sun-drenched guitar and operatic vocals from the depths of Turkey’s acid-rock scene and transforming them into a pan-gobal soundscape for the Mighty Mos to do his thing on. Opening one of the year’s strongest full length rap releases, “Supermagic” is pure kinetic energy, the sound of Mos Def gaining his independence and telling the world he’s back and ready to kick ass. He knows that you cannot confuse him, bitches. –Sach O
Successful comebacks in hip hop are about as rare as rapping leprechauns are (See: Rakim; Seventh Seal). Thus the improbability of Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II” of escaping the dreaded Aftermath vaults is only matched by the improbability of the sequel to the most influential crack rap album of all-time being any good at all. It only takes two bars into Raekwon’s “10 Bricks” to know that Raekwon is back in the kitchen cooking up that “marvelous shit to get your mouth watering” again.
When Rae authoritatively stomps “Rapper step into me, they wanna brick, son/But I’m the Chef, my price is 26, son,” he’s serving notice that he’s back and ready to take back the legacy that was always rightfully his. He isn’t some mere, petty street hustler kicking cliche rhymes about selling drugs on the block. He’s the fucking supplier and you aren’t going to be getting his pure uncut raw for cheap. You’ll be paying full price. Over a gritty, metallic J-Dillla beat that sounds more authentically Wu-Tang than anything RZA has done in a decade, Rae, Ghost and Cappadonna trade fierce, vicious rhymes like it was 1995 all over again. Ghost being Ghost steals the show as usual but there isn’t a single person that doesn’t come off at the top of their game on this song. “10 Bricks” is a tour de force of anti-social, grimy New York hip hop at its finest. –Doc Zeus
Nas hit him up on the phone, said, “What you waiting on?” Tip hit him up with a Twit, said, “What you waiting on?” Diddy’s sending texts every hour on the dot, saying, “When you gonna drop that verse, nigga? You taking long!” The whole hip-hop world is waiting on Jay Electronica, the New Orleans-bred nomad, to drop the classic that literally everyone knows is in him. Over dramatically-triumphant production by Just Blaze (a man with the preternatural ability to make any rapper, let alone one who is actually great, sound like a god), Jay Elect composedly goes over his own backstory, homeless and sleeping on trains, all stoned and existential, gaining and losing money from shooting dice.
Not since “Nutmeg” has someone with a pop guard in front of his face sounded so larger than life, but where Ghostface created a classic rap song through stream-of-consciousness poetry written in jail, Electronica uses a dexterous and percussive flow to drop crazy scientific metaphors, ingest rappers and defecate their jewelry, squint his eyes at fake gangsters (“You sound real good, and you play the part well/But the energy you giving off is so unfamiliar”), and– probably greatest of all– evokes that nostalgic feeling of the days before rap became a cash cow and was primarily the world’s most exciting artistic medium. Reverend Run rocking Adidas out on Hollis Ave, indeed. On “Exhibit C”, Electronica crams so much intelligence, so much experience, so much heart into one song, that it’s easy to see why the whole rap world– from the bloggers all the way up to the legends– are doggedly checking their watches and tapping their feet, impatiently waiting on pins and needles for Electronica to deliver his full-length debut. And that, my friends, is how an incomplete version of a radio-ripped track became the best rap song of 2009. Abracadabra. –Douglas Martin