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Passion of the Weiss Top 50 Hip Hop Songs, 2012: Part II (#50-26) (Left-Click)

Passion of the Weiss Top 50 Hip Hop Songs, 2012: Part I (#25-1 ) (Left-Click)

Previously: Passion of the Weiss Top Hip Hop Songs — 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006

Novelty Bonus – “Hot Cheetos & Takis”

Yes, “Hot Cheetos & Takis” is a real song by children about two different spicy snacks that aren’t available in all markets. And yes, it is a real song about spicy snacks that is rapped by children as part of an after-school project and not a real band or rap group or some avatar for coolness. But still, it is a real song that is actually enjoyable to listen to outside of the first time you ever heard it.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that this isn’t “Gangnam Style,” which I’m pretty sure was created in a viral marketing lab by the same people who invented Lays potato chips and Betty White.

“HCAT,” as the kids call it, has 4.5 million YouTube views and has been heard in a non-computer setting once. “Gangnam Style” has 962 million views and will be torturing me during NBA game breaks for the next 15 years, has led to a full-on controversy for the artist and is honestly still catchy no matter how many times you hear it but come on. One of these songs is a great piece of music by some children having fun, the other is by an American-trained Korean guy who was sick of the excess and commercialism of a certain area of his homeland — and the wrong one became the world’s biggest viral sensation.

But you know, who’s to say being overshadowed by Psy is a bad thing for the YN Rich Kids? Maybe this is an Eric Bledsoe kind of thing where a talented youngster is allowed to develop out of the limelight until he/they is a fully-formed beast, or maybe I just forgot what website I’m writing for and made a reference to a basketball player who is still kind of off the radar. Whatever the case, we shouldn’t forget about “Hot Cheetos and Takis” just because it dropped in the summer of Psy. It’s still great and it’s still fun and it’s still worth showing someone who’s never seen it. Plus, 10 years from now, you can say you remember the world’s biggest rapper back when he was still Dame Jones of the YN Rich Kids and not the next Method Man.

Also, I am still hungry where them Cheetos at? — Trey Kerby

50. Kool John ft. DB Tha General & Plane Jane – “Full of Dat Weed”

The weed song is a well-loved rap trope, and “Full of Dat Weed” might be this year’s best addition to the canon. Producer Kuya Beats scatters soft, cool synths over deep bass swells and busy drums, leaving the track wide open for Bay Area MCs Kool John, DB tha General, and Plane Jane to talk shit. The trio fills it admirably, playing nicely off each another in markedly different styles. Kool John sets the table with his blunted, low-key drawl, DB tha General darts around the beat in a nasally staccato, and Plane Jane attacks with bouncy, forceful bars. Kuya’s production brings out the best in DB, in particular — he reigns in his typically unhinged delivery to great effect.

The get-fucked-up anthem lives and dies by its hook, and this one is sticky as hell. Kuya snatches one of the many quotables from Young Bleed’s “How Ya Do Dat” and flips it into a dumb-out gem, infectious and purpose-built for repeated hollering. Burn one, or two, or six, and listen loud. – Adam Wray

49. Vince Staples – “Twitch”

“Twitch” comes nestled in Winter In Prague, Vince Staples’ tape with producer Michael Uzowuru, standing as yet another stellar example of two dudes dudes vibing together, making rap magic. Uzowuru’s beat admittedly does most of the legwork here (kilters on off, whirs on unlimited), but as Vince kicks his one-and-done verse you start to notice a sneaky lyricism to his near Poison “Fallen Angel”-level tale of a girl gone wild and then deeply sad.

“Become a ho” becomes “bungalow” bleeds into “bunch of dough,” and suddenly his poor subject has a kid and is shacked up with some dude who can’t stand her. Tyler, The Creator has gone on record saying he actively dislikes Staples, and through the lens of “Twitch” the difference between the pair of young rappers becomes glaring. At his best, Tyler uses his words like wrecking balls, every syllable having the potential to destroy. “Twitch,” meanwhile, is a slow burn. And shit. It’s my sister. –Drew Millard

48. Mista ft. Level & Young Ready – “Going Down (G-Mix)”

The best explanation of Baton Rouge club culture might appear on Trill Fam’s “Watch My Shoes.” The song is basically one long warning not to smudge someone’s Nike’s lest you get shot (word to Chris Rock). One phrase from Lil Phat essentially sums it up: inside fist fight, outside gun play. Of course, Phat is dead now. Homicide via pistol. Baton Rouge club rap is fight music that you can dance to. Cops post up outside the clubs because the murder rate is higher than Chicago. There is an uneasy combination of fun and fury that is ready to explode at any spilled drink or stepped on shoe.

During my two months there this spring, the song that best captured that feeling was the “Gmix” of “Going Down.” Taken from Cain Muzik 2.0, it featured three of the hottest cold-hearted rappers in BR — Mista, Level and Young Ready. Guys who might not ring bells to you, but have soundtracked hundreds of bell ringings in the Bayou. When the DJ would spin this at Vibes or Dreams, the room would rumble, hands would wave in the air, fingers pulling on imaginary triggers, and you understood why “ratchet” came from the region. It was impossible not to get rowdy. But you never knew whether you should dance or duck. – Jeff Weiss

47. Spaceghost Purrp – “Black God (Mixtape Version)”

SpaceGhostPurrp’s Raider Klan could have been the coolest of the new wave of rap cliques. Their “hieroglyphics” and shadowy time-transcending releases had a mystique that was sorely lacking from other crews who opted to say “swag” a lot. The music was there too. It’s safe to say that SpaceGhostPurrp’s sound was part of the initial spark behind ASAP Rocky and I’d argue that SGP produced the best Juicy J song of the year as well.

With audiences intrigued, SGP released God of Black EP Vol. 1 to the World Wide Web featuring a cut that should have immortalized his crew in the hip-hop fossil record. “Tha Black God” is the culmination of SGP’s metaphysical trillness, wrapping his aesthetic of occult and South Florida rap into one. He declares to free his followers from perpetual violence and 9 to 5 jobs over low-key drums and eerie chanting. It was just as effective of a mission statement as “Protect Ya Neck”. Then, a couple of things happened. Raider Klan and ASAP Mob severed ties and Purrp got a record deal that saw “Tha Black God” polished up and scrubbed of its alluring grit. We wax nostalgic about vinyl and cassettes, but SGP, vanguard that he is, made me reminisce over YouTube streams. I got you though. From my personal library, find above an mp3 from the original DatPiff upload of God of Black EP Vol. 1, circa 2012. — Evan Nabavian

46. Clyde Carson ft. The Team – “Slow Down”

Once upon a rhyme, rappers rarely made comebacks. Of course, there were exceptions. LL Cool J. Rakim’s brief return with the 18th Letter (but not “Once Upon a Rhyme)”. MF Doom. But once you hit the wrong side of 30, your career prospects looked weaker than a pay phone repairman circa 1997. But this year saw the rap world finally repudiate itself from Fitzgerald’s adage about there being no second acts in American life. Tity Boi became 2 Chainz and suddenly had entire amphiteatre’s chanting “Bad bitch contest, you in first place.” Roc Marciano became the game’s favorite brolic scholar. Juicy J taught an entire generation of ADD-riddled youth how to focus long enough to get stripper’s phone numbers.

The most surprising return might have been Clyde Carson, who seemed destined for relegation as a 2006 curio of the Hyphy boom. One fourth of The Team- whose World Premiere might have been the most underrated album of the era — Carson and The Team’s “Slow Down” drew a straight line from hyphy through jerkin’ to ratchet. A decade ago, this might never have made it past K-MEL, but instead, The Team found themselves rebuilt. Full of minor chords, clapping drums, and space as wide open as the Bay Bridge at 3:00 a.m., Carson and company recorded a song that smoothly cruised alongside DJ Mustard’s lane, but with the thizzed and pimped out pulse of Oakland. That’s how they do it in Northern California. –Jeff Weiss

45. E-40 – “Function”

E-40 has never sold you wolf tickets. Well, maybe once. But even then it was only to tell you that he didn’t. He’s among the most productive rappers in the game (The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1, 2, & 3 dropped on the same day), which is just another way of saying that he’s about his green like wasabi, or something. When it’s time for a hit to remind the people he’s out here trying to do something or other, the king of “word candy” drops a hit. At the apex of the “hyphy” movement, you couldn’t escape “Tell Me When to Go,” or its countless remixes. “Bitch” was in our Top 50 for 2010. And, now in the year of all things ratchet, 40 Water delivers again.

For “Function” E-40 connected with the two most esteemed ratchet scholars from the poles of Cali, Iamsu! (Richmond) and YG (Compton). He also tapped Problem (Welcome to Mollywood 1 & 2) for the hook (read about the origin of said hook here). Now, if you haven’t heard the portentous distillation of ratchetdom that is “Function,” the menacing bass and off the chart levels of slang and misogyny, then you haven’t been to a single function in 2012. You’ve undoubtedly missed the opportunity to score the lucrative insurance policy on 40’s mouthpiece, and you’re definitely not going to turn a square into a bi anytime soon. Don’t worry though, even when Seinfeld managed to swing it he couldn’t do the deed. – Max Bell

44. Kirko Bangz – “Drank in My Cup Remix”

Promethazine outlasted the mid ’00s Texas rap boom, but at least A$AP Rocky remembered the Houston old heads when he got his purple swag on. Kirko Bangz is a Houston new head, but, like Rocky, his Screw memories have become warped and caricatured over time. Where syrup sippin’ tunes used to be varied in tone and languor, when the current crop of rappers revived the form, they formalized it into a new type of woozy, weightless chillwave, the focus being on accentuating the disorienting otherworldliness of the slowed sounds. Big Moe used to sing too, but Bangz’s croon on the original “Drank in My Cup,” had as much to do with Drake and The Weeknd’s twilight R&B or the ATL swag rap of Future and Cash Out.

The remix takes a more uncomplicated hip-hop approach, with its extended verse from Juelz Santana that mostly revolves around him trying to remember what year it is (“Lollipop” references? Interjecting “swag”? Whatever, it works.) It expands on the hook’s theme of mutually agreeable low maintenance hook-ups mostly by explaining why Juelz is better than you in every conceivable way: “You in the party; I am the party” is logical, if geometrically dubious. “Face it: you basic and I’m so appealing/Your shit ordinary; my shit extraordinary” is the standout couplet simply for its classic Juelz construction. (One word to describe him is, still, spectacular, yes.) 2 Chainz is briefer, but he still fits in a great piece of morning-after imagery: “Every day, I wake up/Pillow full of her make-up.” — Jonathan Bradley

43. King Foe – “F.O.E.”

How about some hardcore? King Foe’s mission statement is somewhere between the Mash Out Posse, Z-Ro and Trae, and the junkie trash scavenging at the early morning edges of raves. The ones who are not there for the good times. The ones who are there because they like drugs. One third of Denver’s BLK HRTS, Foe makes raw rapacious rap. Savage soundtracks for zombie stick up kids. The instantiation of making a beast of yourself to erase the burden of being a man. This is rap that sounds like it actually emerged from underground, covered in dirt,worms, and needles. The vocals are scorched larynx, cannibalistic, starving. This is the introduction to foe — a rapper who isn’t interested in being your friend. — Jeff Weiss

42. Zilla Rocca ft. Has-Lo & Open Mike Eagle – “Full Spectrum 2″

“I’m wearing gold, not bronze,” Has-Lo raps on “Full Spectrum 2”, and it’s perfect shorthand for the continued rise of Philadelphia’s Wrecking Crew. Zilla Rocca, Has and Curly Castro have slowly been tightening their craft over the last two years, their collective technique changing ever so slightly from something insular and angular towards the sounds of parties and summer.

It’s led to cuts like this. The follow-up to last year’s “Full Spectrum”, Zilla Rocca has once again called upon the production of Dr. Quandary but traded in that song’s autumnal vibe for cleaner breaks, bigger beats and hotter raps. As if to drive home his intentions, he’s drafted in Cali’s Open Mike Eagle to see out the change in seasons. It’s arguably the best Zilla Rocca song to date, and you come away from this three and a half minute pounder sensing he has the confidence to know it. This is rap music how many people want it to be: summer block parties enticing the neighbors and getting them to move out into the street. But don’t mistake it for the past. — Matt Shea

41. Odd Future – “Oldie”

The Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Funtimes Happy Train Mainstream Shakeup took on 2012 at a slower speed than it did in 2011 — expanding their scorched-earth youth empire to where several members reached something of an actualization point. Frank Ocean fully insinuated himself into the R&B mainstream. Hodgy Beats finally rapped over Flying Lotus. Domo got to do a tape with Alchemist and everybody in the studio got really high. But it’s this moment, tucked at the end of the second Odd Future Tape, that might prove to be the Los Angeles’ crew’s most important of the year — a rare posse cut that serves as a genuinely cohesive mission statement, managing to justify its ten-and-a-half minute run time.

It succeeds because everybody’s firing on all cylinders. Tyler, The Creator turns on the charm and gets to rap first and last because he’s still the de facto boss. Though he’s not really a rapper, Frank Ocean manages to impart the same casual brilliance that propelled Channel Orange to something resembling greatness. Both Left Brain and Jasper Dolphin deliver a surprisingly deft verses back-to-back, and Mike gets to charmingly say, “We out here!”. Then Earl Sweatshirt, fresh from Ferrisin’ in Samoa, steps to the mic and blows everything in existence out of the water with a verse so good it would have established him as a serious problem in hip-hop even if we’d never heard a word from him before. – Drew Millard

40. Amber London – “Lxx Mf Kxxy”

There are a few ways to do genre. One is to parody, with a tongue-in-cheek adoption of a style’s conventions and calling cards. Another springs from genuine affection for that style. This is how you avoid pastiche, and it’s how Amber London and SpaceGhostPurrp wrote “LXX MF KXXY,” the standout track from London’s 1994 EP.

The tune is no-fuss g-funk, built on a simple piano loop and whining synth from an obscure Ohio gangsta rap record, cloaked in the crackly, lo-fi ambience typical of Raider Klan productions. The beat does just enough: it sets the scene, then mostly stays out of London’s way as she steamrolls two brassy verses and an indelible hook. “LXX MF KXXY” is her theme song, and her statement of intent: you don’t know her, so please don’t fuck with her. Maybe the Klan’s ablest MC, London sounds very much at home here.

London, Purrp, and their Raider Klan affiliates take heat for fetishizing old aesthetics. It’s accurate criticism, but not exactly damning when they’re executing this well. London and Purrp wear these styles like second skins, and, at 18 and 21, may yet expand their sounds and create something truly fresh. –Adam Wray

39. Joe Moses – “Do it for the Ratchets”

Joe Moses doesn’t rap for the sake of motherfucking rapping. That’s what all the rappers who take themselves too seriously do, or at least what they say. It’s trite. It’s cliché. It’s pseudo-intellectual. And really, it’s passé. Thus, Moses raps with the most admirable of intentions—he does it for the ratchets.

So there you have it, the impetus and the hook for another ratchet confection backed by hood chef extraordinaire DJ Mustard (see every YG tape and/or this article). If, like Joe Moses, you have a sweet tooth for bisexual women with their hair and nails tight, salacious women who rock “J’s for the fair price” instead of red bottoms, then “Do it for the Ratchets” is for you. Shit, even if that doesn’t sound like your ideal Match.com mate, “I Do it For the Ratchets” should still be on your New Year’s Eve playlist. It is to the underground what “Rack City” is to the mainstream.

While the latter has moved innumerable units, the former (which name drops “Rack City”) has been steadily showing up at functions everywhere. Though “I Do it for the Ratchets” is clearly surfing the ratchet wave hard, it does so in style (like Rob Machado), with a minimalist beat somewhere in between John Carpenter’s Halloween theme and all things trap, foolish and non-sensical metaphors of misogyny, and the official ratchet stamp: “Mustard on Tha Beat Hoe” or “Musssardondabeathoe” or “Mutter on tha Beat Doe” or “Muff on da Beef Hoe”—you get it. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s for the ratchets. — Max Bell

38. Angel Haze – “New York”

ANGEL HAZE New York from Cara Marceante on Vimeo.

There’s a lot you could dislike about Angel Haze. Her rap moniker sounds like something Brazzers rejected and someone in her extended family probably owns a casino. There are also a lot of things that you can like about Angel Haze, and all of them are on full display with her breakout hit “New York.” Her lyrics are dexterous and punchy, chock full of pop culture references and clever punchlines, and her ear for beats is evident as she chooses to rap on a snap-clap Gil-Scott Heron sample. It’s no wonder that she was so quickly picked up by a major label.

Angel Haze is a female rap artist fighting for attention at a time when the public often praises a female emcee’s marketability over her skill. There’s also something to be said for the fact that Haze was able to form a bond with her near-doppleganger Azealia Banks, a woman known for hating everyone to ever mention her name. If Angel Haze is able to get another single like New York out the door in 2013, we can expect her to hit the Rah Digga ceiling that we know she’s capable of. — Slava Pastuk

37. Xzibit ft. Tha Liks – “Louis XIII”

Tha Alkaholiks hail from a simpler time in rap, where weed and booze were the most popular substances to abuse. We’re caught at an impasse with party music where every song is exhorting us to down more overpriced brown liquors, improbably flavored vodkas and more molly than a thizz party in the Bay. “Louis XIII” is a welcome corrective from the mostly dormant Likwit Crew (Xzibit, founder King Tee, Defari, and Tha Alkaholiks.)

This is a comeback for the crew’s gravel-voiced prodigal son Xzibit and the only member to make a dent on the charts, thanks to Dr. Dre’s cosign. The good doctor even steps behind the boards for this modest reunion. Dre mixes woozy bass with marching piano and drums, offering the ideal backdrop for slick dozens. Tee, Tha Liks and X all sound thrilled to be back together; the whole song is delivered as 3 bar verses back and forth, like old drinking buddies so familiar they talk over each other.

King Tee promises to drink everything on the wine list. J-Ro is full of 40s like the refrigerator in the “G-Thang” video. Tash is drinking Jack next to Nicholson at the Lakers game. Xzibit’s the rowdy cousin of this family, promising to hunt you down like Saddam Hussein if you upset him. This is beer, bitches, and bullshit done right. Cheers. — Aaron Matthews

36. Flatbush Zombies – “Thug Waffle”

There was no way that I was not going to become a fan of the Flatbush Zombies from the jump. Two hyperactive acid freak rappers with Method Man vampire fronts, leopard-print Rodman hair and bushy James Harden beards? With an appreciation of Portishead, low budget horror movies and breakfast foods to boot? Where can I sign up for the newsletter? You do not have to convince me of the intrinsic value of rappers who make music like this. I am a man who considers Birdemic Shock & Terror to be is deserving of it’s own Criterion Collection. I get this.

If you do not get the appeal, let me make the case for the Flatbush Zombies. “Thug Waffle” is simply grimy New York underground hip hop covered in a thick layer of Brooklyn street sludge. Rappers Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice are both devilishly charismatic punctuating macabre verses about coffin purchases, eating acid tablets and Martin references. Meanwhile, producer Eric Arc Elliot lays down a soundtrack of grimy lo-fi synth production equally influenced by Portishead and 70s horror movie soundtracks. The powers that be might consider the Flatbush Zombies not ready for the radio but these guys are one of the most original entries into the resurgent N.Y. underground scene that has been slowly breaking through this year. With or without, the help from the “major leagues.” No Hot 97. — Doc Zeus

35. Waka Flocka – “Rooster in my Rari”

Before he even utters a bar, Waka mentions Xanax three times. When he finally starts in, he says, “I don’t like your kind. You’re a bougie ho.” Along with the rest of the album, the song’s a bit more melodic than anything on Flockavelli, but it’s just as aggressive and whacked out. You should easily add Waka Flocka to the fast growing group of younger, pharmacological-minded rappers – like Danny “The Adderal Admiral” Brown and every southern rapper with a fixation on promethezine.

There’s always a sense of psychological misfire that underpin’s Waka’s music. That’s not to say he’s mentally disturbed. It’s just that he’s seen some shit, and the party atmosphere his music cultivates grows heavy – it’s either a distraction or a temporary distraction. “Desperately I need some Xans, where my dada at?” No matter the reason, “Rooster In My Rari” is one of the most fun songs of the year and its sullenness only adds to its impact. — B Michael Payne

34. Kevin Gates – “Satellite”

The hardest thing to write is an anthem. With “Satellite,” KVN Gates created the Baton Rouge bizarro version of Future’s “Turn on the Lights.” This is weary sad-robot soul rap at its finest — perhaps the biggest hit that no one heard outside of Louisiana. With no video, the YouTube rip has 1.8 million hits. Last year, Gates was finishing up a four year bid. This year, he was the biggest young rapper in Louisiana.

While labels threw money at Chief Keef and Trinidad James, Gates was the best bet to have a career that will last through the next election. He is the Rookie of the Year for people whose concept of “Rookie of the Year” exists in a world without blogs. He’s already crossed over. I saw him perform “Satellites” in an all-black club in a country town called Thibodeaux and everyone knew every word. Same went for the LSU Brianna’s and Becky’s going berserk when it came on in Tigerland.

“Satellites” is the best distillation of Gates’ appeal. It’s both a love song and a story about coming up out of poverty. Gates sings the absurdly catchy hook and snaps double-time for the last 16 bars. He creates the myth of himself as the self-made enforcer, Luca Brasi, everybody’s sworn favorite. Right now, he’s only speaking for his state but that’s about to change. When you already have the people behind you, the pundits are irrelevant. — Jeff Weiss

33. Nikki Minaj ft. 2 Chainz – “Beez in the Trap”

“Beez In The Trap” is the proof of the power of personality. Nicki Minaj can certainly rap her ass off when she wants to; “Beez” needs no technical acrobatics. It’s all curled upper lip, fuck your whole life. Each syllable pushed through an audible sneer. The chorus pulls the neat trick of paraphrasing Schoolly D’s “P.S.K.” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit” in the same breath. The first verse contains what may be the greatest Hulk Hogan reference in rap to date. The production is all empty space, a welcome evocation of the Neptunes’ glory days while still sounding wholly alien. Producer Kenoe’s hollow drums percolate like radar blips in a wind tunnel, sounding like nothing else on the radio. The second verse is just shout outs to U.S. States and cities known for crack distribution and it works. In a year where everyone had a 2 Chainz verse, Nicki got the best one. He refers to jeans as “trousers” and calls his LS450 a “doohickey”. These are the perks of letting 40 year olds run the rap game. Shouts to Delaware and Hoboken. — Aaron Matthews

32. Underachievers – “Gold Soul Theory”

Cash4Gold is a scam, a waste of valuable time and money (I’m fairly certain). “Gold Soul Theory” is not. Neither are recent Brainfeeder signees Issa Dash and AK, the “beast coast” MCs collectively known as The Underachievers. As far as I know, there’s no tape out yet (INDIGOI.S.M. has been rumored to drop for a minute now). But the duo has released a string of solid loosies in preparation for said drop, with trippy video to back them (check “Herb Shuttles” or “So Devilish”).

“Gold Soul Theory” is their best track to date, with a beat that bumps along like a dark flip of your favorite 90s Nintendo game soundtrack. It is the synthesis of the “elevated mafia” philosophy, of their aesthetic. It is duo’s “theory” for living. That theory: Combine a deluge of mind-expanding drugs (like LSD and stuff) with hours upon hours of psyched-out introspection while sipping on O.E. and penning smooth conscious raps.

Really, “Gold Soul Theory” is the audio document of Issa Dash and AK’s trip to the “solar,” to a higher level of consciousness. Fear and Loathing rewritten and re-imagined by the tripped out reincarnations of Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede. It is an affirmation of the self, as well as an affirmation of all things trippy. — Max Bell

31. ADD+ – “Suitcases”

In the last year, Krit, Kendrick, and Curren$y have all taken bits from ATliens and Aquemini. Every fusion group is still trying to tap into the jungle psych of Stankonia or the tie-died soul of Love Below. But ADD+ remind me of the days when ‘Kast rocked Braves throwbacks and braids. That “Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik” merged with the psychedelic periphery of neo-soul and a little bit of D-Town Boogie.

The beat reminds me of Edan’s “I See Colours.” There are lyrical references to “Git Up, Get Out,” “Juicy,” and “Roc Boys,” and artwork of what I imagine is either the black King Lear or the guy from the artwork for “Mr. Wendel.” The rapping on “Suitcases” is very good. The chemistry is better. There is the hunger that comes when money is the only option because there are no only other options. The bags are packed. The blunts are rolled. The beeper is beeping. The sun is beaming. No time to waste. –Jeff Weiss

30. Mystikal – “Hit Me”

Mystikal wants to be James Brown at the Apollo: hot foot raps and sage SAY IT LOUD advice. Pick your pants up. Put your crown on. Break it down and bust it open. Make up for lost time. The maestro, the bandleader, brazen and barking loud enough get Judy grooving. He screams “hit me” and the drums go Stubblefield. He banshees about congos and bongos and guitars and they start to growl and go…..

He plays call and response with his own voodoo spirit. He is possessed, crowing to no one in particular, “what the fuck was that?” “What man?” What the fuck did you miss? He grabs the microphone and hollering out orders to the band. On the one. Hit me. Kill them with the drumstick. Spinning on the record like an acrobat. Iguanas. Piranas. Vaginas. Abbot and Costello. Muhammed Ali shadow boxing and bragging “I AM THE GREATEST” The berserk snake dancer of the Tank still vital at 42. This isn’t soul revival. This is a soul revived, electrocuted, one thousand demons dancing on the head of a pimp. Listen to the man enact the plan that he had while going mad in solitude. Wow. Ordering around a phantom funk orchestra, dancing to an impossibly rapid rhythm that only he hears. Well, him and Helen. –Jeff Weiss

29. Busdriver ft. Nocando & Mike Eagle – “Werner Herzog”

“I make witch house/up at your bitch house,” raps Busdriver on the spastic “Wernor Herzog,” a Hellfyre Club gang-bang showcasing Busdriver’s best chops accompanied by stellar verses from LA brethren Open Mike Eagle and Nocando. “Herzog” finds each rapper tackling the film industry they’re surrounded by. In Busdriver’s case, Werner Herzog is the counterpart: “I go Wernor Herzog/I go Herzog/Which means I get large bread/art cred/smart head/Czar feds.” Bus aligns himself with film’s weirdest mainstay, and like Herzog, Bus takes our reality, accentuates its oddities and perversities, and shoves it in our faces.

While Bus’ verse is typically excellent, Open Mike Eagle takes the cake and once again shows himself to be among the most criminally underrated rappers breathing. Calling himself “The Marc Maron of dark-skinned art barons” is as good as it gets, and the dude may not be too far off when he begins his verse with, “He’s Herzog/I’m P.T. Anderson.” Busdriver’s the vet, he’s done this once or twice before; Eagle’s time is now, he’s been cruising Magnolia Boulevard in preparation and is any given moment away from dropping a Master-piece. His verse is so good that by the time Nocando comes around, Eagle’s words are still making heads spin. Nocan, always the the cultural critic, manages to name drop John Singleton, Quentin Tarantino, Nick Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim Burton within the first fifteen seconds of his verse. While “Herzog” is a Busdriver track by name—the standout on his most recent release, Arguments with Dreams— the song is the product of three dudes who work off one another better than any other folks currently doing it. They simply know what the fuck they’re doing. –Willie Schube

28. Cash Out – “Cashin Out”

One of the effects of social media is that that reminds us that celebrities—once inaccessible as real breathing people with their own sets of likes and dislikes—are just as much fans as we are. When the video for Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” dropped just over a month ago, Drake tweeted that he had played the track at least 130 times in three days, a statement that could have come from any random Twitter account.

Earlier this year, when Atlanta rapper Cash Out’s kinda-epoynmous “Cashin’ Out” began generating buzz, Rihanna didn’t even need to mention the artist or song she was referring to when she tweeted the following: “Ridin’ with a ho named Keisha, smoking on Keisha.” Easily the most ubiquitous line from the “Cashin’ Out,” the track itself was just as ubiquitous this summer. Part of its charm was that hook: an infectious candy-coated thing delivered in this slightly delirious sing-song cadence that made it sound like Cash Out was having without question the Best! Day! Ever! The other draw was the DJ Spinz beat, a funhouse trap banger with a carnival-esque swing. These days, the number of rappers who record their own tracks over a beat is a good barometer of a track’s impact, and you couldn’t go a week this summer without someone else taking a shot at “Cashin’ Out.” But no matter who did, it was Cash Out’s original that could be heard blaring out of vehicles on streets across the country. –Renato Pagnani

27. Serengeti – “Shazam”

Serengeti’s “Shazam!” is the cosmic collision of a hip hop dis track and the deadpan insanity of a Tim & Eric sketch brought to it’s inevitable, alienating conclusion. A faux mustachioed rapper in cut off jorts and a thick Bill Swerski’s Superfans accent recording a dis song against a retired basketball player stemming from a nearly twenty year old beef with a Fu-Schnickens Era Shaq? That’s the type of mildly developmentally disabled comic genius that alienates 95% of your target audience while leaving the remaining 5% in gasping-for-breath agony of laughter.

“Shazam!,” the lead single off the absurdly hilarious Kenny Dennis EP, finds Serengeti performing in his erstwhile alter ego, Kenny Dennis, a mustachioed Chicago sports fanatic. Kenny threatens “the Jolly Green Giant” with decapitation, insults his ball handling skills and claims that his crew, the Grimm Teachaz, would defeat Shaq’s team, the Orlando Magic, in a pickup basketball game. (NOTE: HE EXPLICITLY STATES THE ORLANDO MAGIC!!!) This song is pure pokerfaced absurdism delivered with scalding comic ferocity. Shaq definitely don’t want none and if Dwight Howard is thinking about dissing the ‘stache too, he might as well prepare to bow down to the master as well. –Doc Zeus

26. Freddie Gibbs – “Kush Clouds”

Almost any track off of Baby Face Killa would’ve done for this slot. “Walk in Wit the M.O.” is smooth as hell. “Boxframe Cadillac” finds Gibbs and Z-Ro both deeper in the pocket than two fat stacks, or racks (I guess it depends on how much you’re balling). “Krazy” is the hustler fantasy anthem, and the track where Gibbs forever puts his picture next to the word ‘detrimental’ in the dictionary. “Bout It Bout It,” which is best suited for riding out to when you want to test out your new system, has Kirko Bangz providing the perfect sad-robot counterpart to Gibbs straight (baby) faced delivery. And why “Middle of the Night” isn’t on Power 106 is beyond me.

Basically, what I’m saying is that this tape has something for everyone. It’s Gibbs at his most versatile, proving to stans and detractors alike that the king of G.I. can do it all. And thus, the best demonstration of that versatility, or at least the best concentration of it, is “Kush Clouds.” With the assistance of Krayzie Bone and Spaceghostpurrp, Gibbs—the best “rapper/drug dealer” in the game right now—drops one his best verses over the tapes trippiest (shout out to Juicy) and spaced out beats. Think Bay Area slaps rolled up with some O.G. and drowned in lean, or something.

The opening line, “Mo murder, mo murder/In the Tahoe with my burner,” could have been the only words on the track if Gibbs wanted them to be (I think it might be what Krayzie is crooning in the background). Instead, he drops D-boy rhymes with the finesse and style only afforded to the perpetually floating (stoned). As far as the features, both are smooth and solid weed raps, two extra hits that only add to the high you get from listening to this cut. Really, “Kush Clouds” might be the best sticky icky mp3 of 2012. The advice is obvious: toke up. – Max Bell

25. Azealia Banks – “1991”

As much as Azealia Banks’s Twitter is the worst thing on the internet and the blogosphere’s obsession with her Twitter is the second worst thing on the internet, the inconvenient truth is that Banks made some of the most compelling music of 2012. Hip-house works far better than it has any right to. What everyone else got wrong though, in overeagerness to pitch a new “movement,” was that it worked because of the idea of hip-house itself. Fuck a movement. Azealia succeeds when she’s rapping her ass off.

This is why “1991” is such a success. Not many people this year attacked tracks more energetically or more joyously. She starts in France flaunting her chocolate croissant and ends in Manhattan bragging that NY rose her and the most high chose her. She makes onomatopoeia exciting again. The presence of rapping on thumping drums doesn’t mean shit, it’s the vigor and verve of that rapping. Vogue-rap, queer-rap, seapunk; all of these are things we talk about when we “talk about” Azealia Banks. But the point of it all is to “listen to” Azealia Banks. Listen to “1991” to hear a potential future commercial giant shred a beat more enthusiastically than she might ever again. –Tosten Burks

24. G.O.O.D Music – “Mercy”/“Birthday Song”

A pair of club bangers that exist as twin monuments to two facts: first, Kanye has mattered for a long time and will matter forever; second, 2 Chainz matters right now – regardless of how I feel about it. It’s safe to call a song good or at least, important, when it doesn’t do much for you upon initial listens and it eventually grows on you. That happened fairly quickly with both these songs.

“Mercy” irritated me at first because I knew Nas’ attempt at reviving the lost art of the reggae hook was going to be overshadowed (perhaps deservedly) by G.O.O.D. music’s behemoth of a track – 80s Italo-coke synth interlude or not. On the other hand, “Birthday Song” irritated me because 2 Chainz just cleverly knocked 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” out of its long standing position as THE birthday song.

Nevertheless, both songs dominated club and radio playlists in 2012 because Kanye singles are always going to be important and 2 Chainz is the rapper of the moment. It also helps that “Mercy’s” dancehall coupled with gothic cocaine electronica and “Birthday Song’s” industrial stomp and whine were easily some of the most unique sounding productions of the year. Oh, and that 2 Chainz fella is kinda funny – nods to Push and Medium Sean as well.

Now can someone tell me what “SWERVE” means? Thanks. – Deen

23. Big Krit ft. Juicy J & Waka Flocka – “Temptation Remix”

The guaranteed way to get the best out of Big K.R.I.T. is to stack his tracks with other rappers. He may be the nicest guy in rap music, but the Meridian spitter still responds to a vocal challenge. The original “Temptation” was indicative of K.R.I.T.’s 2012: solid but unspectacular, able if ultimately lethargic. This mix is hardly different in terms of production – it still glides along on its 80s b-horror vibe – but finds K.R.I.T. charging up the breaks before jacking his own original raps with a double-timed, back-flipping flow.

It’s fantastic, and enough to actually outshine the contributions from Juicy J and Waka Flocka. These guys are hardly breaking a sweat here, but their dual presence is still welcome: it injects color into what was previously a gray cut, and K.R.I.T. actually goes even better when leveraging his creamy vocals off something more twisted and offbeat. “Temptation” reminds everyone of what made K.R.I.T. so promising in the first place. He should rest well this Christmas (with three full-length projects in the last 18 months he’s earned it) and make sure he returns (late) next year with the same sort of fire.  – Matt Shea

22. Killer Mike – “Reagan”

On the day, Ronald Reagan died, Killer Mike threw a barbecue to celebrate the death of the celebrated conservative icon simply because he hated the man. He hated the man because his destructive domestic policies, contempt for minorities and the poor and neglect for America’s inner cities caused generations of African-American people to become lost in the cycle of a drug fueled prison industrial complex. Nearly a decade after Reagan’s death, the Republican presidential candidates engaged in series of seemingly endless debates that seemed less a sober political discussion and more of a shameless political pageant to audition to the country as the Reaganiest motherfucker to ever Reagan. As generations of nonviolent drug offenders sit behind bars for no other reason than possession, this must have felt like a sick joke to a man like Killer Mike.

“Reagan,” Killer Mike’s acidic eulogy to the Gipper himself, feels like revenge. A red-eyed political assassination in rap form, Killer Mike holds the man directly responsible for three decades of inner-city misery. Over a ragged El-P beat that seems dipped in battery acid, Mike lays out his case against the dead president by connecting the dots between Reaganomics, the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex to the untold generational decay that were born out of these policies. Lest we think he’s some mere partisan hack, Mike blasts modern politicians too including President Obama for continuing Reagan’s failed policies. It’s a modern day “Fight The Power,” Killer Mike’s last four words are as iconic and devastating to Reagan’s reputation as when Public Enemy told John Wayne to go fuck himself. It’s apocalyptic fight music and truthfully, I’m glad Reagan’s dead too. --Doc Zeus

21. Ab -Soul ft. Black Hippy – “Black Lip Bastard” (Black Hippy Remix)”

Still not convinced Black Hippy could very well turn out the preeminent rap group of this decade? Let’s take a peek into the mental parking garages of its members: Ab-Soul hosts a going-away party in both your honor and Derek Fisher’s. Jay Rock thinks the motion picture that is your life would garner an all-time low score on Rotten Tomatoes. Kendrick Lamar has a shit-list tackboard that could even put Carrie Mathison to shame. And Schoolboy Q? Schoolboy Q is just pissed that you won’t be a man and hit this fucking lick already.

You’ve been browbeaten for almost eighteen months over the individual talents of these immensely talented MCs, and the Black Hippy remix of “Black Lip Bastard” is proof positive that they sound just as unstoppable as a tandem. There’s not a single second of this almost-six-minute track– not even the obligatory shit-talking by Kendrick for the last minute or so– that feels extraneous or tacked-on (pun fully intended). And each member of the collective shows the ways they’re valuable to the others: Lamar is typically ambitious and poetic in his short time here, as Q is typically charismatic and anarchic. Jay Rock– whom it should be noted has the longest verse by a pretty decent margin– accurately describes himself as the group’s “silent assassin of the four-headed dragon” is typically direct, often funny, and legitimately terrifying. Ab-Soul gets the song’s credit and an extra verse, where he’s typically both wise-assed and wise. If this “Black Lip Bastard” remix still doesn’t convince you of Black Hippy’s greatness, allow me to introduce you to Puff Daddy. The real Puff Daddy. –Martin Douglas

20. Earl Sweatshirt – “Chum”

Admit it, most of you had thie lingering suspicion that Earl Sweatshirt would either peak at “Earl” or disappear into the Samoan wilderness forever. And when you heard he was home, when you heard there were photographs at a well-known Brooklyn dive venue to confirm this, most of you felt it was too good to be true. And when you heard he hopped on Tumblr and posted a new track– the first new Earl Sweatshirt music post-idiosyncratic-youth-camp, post-Odd-Future-blowing-too-far-the-fuck-up–  you had to have had a little part of you that thought it was going to be wack. Or at least not as captivating as it is.

Then you hear the disaffected monotone and flurry of syllables, and you realize how much farther beyond his years he’s become. With all due respect to Joey Bada$$, Earl was long being touted as the most gifted rapper in his age bracket by a mile, and this was when he was fucking around with Asher Roth in applesauce and trigger-warning fantasies. The final line of this song is, “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.” Earl did a lot of growing up while he was away.

He’s also been doing a lot of reckoning: His relationship with his family, both biological (he’s missed his dad since he was six years old, things with mom has strained since fans chanted “Fuck Earl’s mom”) and adoptive (“Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that/Plus he liked how I rap.”). The whirlwind success of OFWGKTA. The Samoa debacle that probably got some intrepid Complex contributor a very nice bonus. Teenage drinking. That grey middle area where you’re “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks.” Earl has seen the real world, and it’s left him scatterbrained and frightened. But it has left his work more sterling than it’s ever been. — Martin Douglas

19. Lil Durk – “L’s Anthem”

There’s only so much to be said about drill rap. As Waka and Gucci grew tire, shouting bangers found rejuvenation in Chicago. And while Lil Durk stands out because he frequently aspires for more than that, his best song is the one with humble ambitions. The autotune doesn’t force melody, it just reinforces three catchy notes. Lines like “Coolin on that mac too, hot shit for a winter breeze” are sly venom. The drums bang as hard as any did this calendar year.

Gang-affiliation. Explosive trap. These are both descriptions of the song and of the culture that produced it. When homicides happen hourly, there’s no time for more. Just throw the L’s up for them hittaz. Don’t overthink it. Just make sure you’re not repping Lamron on the wrong block. –Tosten Burks

18. King L ft. Juicy J & Pusha T – “My Hoes They Do Drugs”

I could be mistaken (per usual, I doubt it), but 2012 was Molly’s year. After years of mild references in rap, the pure form of MDMA/ecstasy infiltrated pop culture to an ungodly degree, leaving its mark on everything from Madonna’s last smegma sandwich of an album to several struggle rap song submissions I received.

Just when fall came around and folks in the know were beginning to suffer “molly fatigue,” the best song inspired by that devious shit (amongst others) landed on the blogosphere. When a song has the best non-BlockBeattaz trance and screw influenced production I’ve heard in a long time (via DJ Pain-1,) Juicy J’s standard insanity, and arguably the most stylish and animated Pusha T verse of his last busy twelve months, then yeah, you’re listening to the best molly song of the year.

As a matter of fact, this might be the best thing outta Chicago this year – thanks to King L’s impeccable taste in drugs, drugged out beats, drug rappers and of course, drugged out women. If there’s any justice, this will be the drug song to lead us into a brave, new world completely devoid of Mayan influenced prognostications… –Deen

17. Tyga – “Rack City”

2012 was a weird year for Tyga. His sophomore album, Careless World, attempted to mimic the sincerity of his (potentially) former label-mate Drake, but he found his true calling with a song about throwing money on yo’ titties. Suddenly, the world changed for Tyga. After “Rack City,” Tyga was able to call himself a somewhat successful solo artist and he went on to take advantage of his 15 minutes by releasing more music aimed at his newly found niche: ratchet strippers.

Ignore the fact that it gave Tyga a reason to live and “Rack City” is still one of the biggest songs of the year — based on the fact that it became a meme to the point where a) the L.A. Clippers commissioned a Lob City remix to use it as their stadium song and b) old, white, grandmothers were dancing to it on YouTube to the tune of millions of hits.

“Rack City” also served as a coming-out party for DJ Mustard, whose formulaic ratchetness had only been exposed to the small segment of people on this planet who listen to YG on their own accord. After “Rack City,” Mustard’s stock went to Platinum Poupon. Now take me down to Rack-Rack City, where the poles are greased and there’s money on titties. – Slava Pastuk

16. Nas – “The Don”

I’ll level with you, Nas has been remaking the same lead single for the past 10 years with varying levels of success. Uptempo Salaam Remi beat + God Son’s battle rap verses= something Hot97 can play for a few months. It’s a pretty good formula too as far as formulas go, satisfying and unsusceptible to the winds of change. This time however, the late Heavy D threw in a secret ingredient: that Super Cat sample.

Possibly the greatest flip on “Nas” as a syllable since Large Professor flipped a Biz Markie verse back in the 90s, Supercat’s sped up dancehall flavor not only ensured extra attention, it also predated Kanye’s own Super Beagle and Barrington Levy flips later that (cruel) summer. Three’s a trend right? Because rap can always use with more Jamaican vocals. Combine that with Nasir Jones’ strongest rapping since his beef with Jay-Z ages ago and you’ve got the rare contemporary New York rap single that managed to sound as timeless as it did current.

As if the original wasn’t enough, “The Don” also supplied plenty of fodder for ambitious remixers with Tom Wrecks delivering a devastating Trap take, complete with explosive 808s and Hesk using for an epic 8 minute Juke symphony titled “New York Girl.” Lawdhavemercy. --Son Raw

15. A$AP Rocky – “Goldie”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofoIMg76Sng

Near the end of the summer, I saw Rocky and the A$AP Mob at a music festival in New York City. The mob—sloppy, excitable—came out first looking like…a mob. They were a rotating mass of yelling bodies, amateur punks having fun together on stage while only creating the barest semblance of what you conceivably call music.  And then Rocky came out, the mob faded away and it was showtime.

Rocky, more than other New York undergrounder, is interested in being a star, in the old-fashioned sense. His stage presence shows it, his cautious interviews show it, and singles like “Goldie,” which abandoned the niche-stoner sound of Live Love A$AP for hi-fi catchiness, shows it.  “Goldie” is a radio DJs dream: singalong hook, memorable verses, sweet uptempo beat and no fuckery.  On “Hands on the Wheel,” Rocky showed that he was a much more dynamic rapper than he had previously been given credit for, but there was no need for that on his own single.  It’s all just “smooth, puffing Zig Zags” with “a condo out in space.”  This is head-down, smash-mouth, pop-rap music and all Rocky had to do with something so well planned out was show up, rap adequately, and dare you not to like it. — Jonah Bromwich

14. El-P – “The Full Retard”

In 2012, El-P made music for anyone who thought the Bomb Squad’s beats were too easy to dance to. Like his work on Killer Mike’s “Big Beast,” the beat for “The Full Retard” is anything but funky; El-Producto’s bass thuds are the sort that take baseball bats to kneecaps. His rhymes are no more conciliatory: perhaps he crams in fewer words than usual, but the ones that are there bully their way out of the headphones anyway, as if each was rolling with another three of its comrades. Even before channelling pommy soccer hooligans, El-P smashes together unbeautiful couplets like “These watching, plotting minions of the lower God scene/Shit hawks abound, in the town of bullet dodging” as if he was looking to start a riot. It’s not a matter of “Cause you don’t understand him don’t mean that he nice” but more a miracle that he could even force these syllables from his lips in the first place.

Everyone remembers the first part of the Tropic Thunder quote that gives the song its title, but as important is Kirk Lazarus’s reason why you never go full retard: You go home empty handed. El-P overdoes it, littering his post-apocalyptic landscape with gurgles; pings; parachuted-in vinyl scratches; a grumbling, grainy mechanical bassline; and even an ambient DJ Shadow–esque interlude, but the resulting effect is numbing vacancy. It’s music apparently for your “floating whip system” but I imagine the only flying cars blasting this out to be ones hovering over the trashscapes of Pixar’s Wall-E. Something this pulverizing can only possibly result in dust.  – Jonathan Bradley

Roc Marciano’s sophomore album, Reloaded, opens with a scene from “Pimps Up, Hoes Down,” in which King James is crowned “Pimp of the Year” at Chicago’s 24th annual Players Ball. Humbled by the prestigious award, he downplays the monetary perks offered by his profession and insists that “it’s really all about the respect.” The quote leading into “Tek to a Mack” is a respectable mission statement, but earnestness is a virtue better suited for Roc’s Metal Clergy counterpart. Moral compasses are intended to guide the actions of law-abiding citizens, not the itinerary of underworld megalomaniacs.

Marciano’s work is often accused of being regressive, but revivalists aren’t supposed to carve out their own signature sound. “Tek to a Mack” bears evidence of his artistic growth since 2010’s Marcberg. The writing is brilliantly facetious. Every fourth bar is punctuated by a dynamic stab from an unidentifiable instrument, at which point it’s difficult know whether to smirk or grimace at the prospect of Roc pushing your yarmulke entirely rearward. It’s the most infectious gun show since Biggie unveiled eleven Mac-11’s at Madison Square Garden. You can’t find this pimping in a pamphlet.

In light of the cautious acclaim garnered by Reloaded, perhaps he should have tapped his other favorite documentary, American Pimp, for the album’s introduction. There’s one particular scene where the Hughes Brothers encourage their subjects to make the distinction between authentic pimping and the diluted brand of flash peddling purported by Hollywood executives. Over a time-compression montage featuring Huggy Bear, Kramer, Eazy E, Velvet Jones and Conan O’Brian’s Pimp Bot 5000 portraying pimps as witless, foolhardy caricatures, Mike “Rosebudd” Thompson shares his conspiracy theory. “They have to include that little punk shit to make the pimping look raggedy,” he explains. “Otherwise, they’re just applauding pimping and libel to be turning some young bitches out!” For Marciano, buzz words such as “traditional” and “boom-bap” fall under the umbrella of punk shit. –Harold Stallworth

12. Future – “Same Damn Time”

Triumph. The sound of pure triumph. Doing two awesome things: AT THE SAME DAMN TIME. There are those who have touted Future’s auto-tuning inventiveness — the fact that his album is as cohesive as they come and a more interesting than it has any right to be, as evidence of the fact that the ATLien deserves his propers.

But for me, “Same Damn Time,” and any other Future song that I can get into, is about the simplest pleasures. This one is an ode to a drugged out, almost childlike astonishment at one’s capabilities. You mean I can put bells and brass, the aural signifiers of success on a song, at the same damn time? You mean I can cook up drugs, and be on the phone, at the same damn time? In the past few years, a lot of rappers have made songs in which they list off the pleasures of being rappers, and all the beautiful things they own, and all the wonderful activities they get to partake in, because, you know, they’re rappers. But I can’t think of one other song in which the artist in question is so delighted, jubilant, nay, ecstatic, to be experiencing what he’s experiencing. It makes me outrageously envious of Future and almost disturbingly happy for Future. And, believe it or not, I can feel both emotions simultaneously. — Jonah Bromwich

11. Aesop Rock – Zero Dark Thirty”

How did we get here? Here being planet Hip-Hop circa 2012. Where has the underground gone? MF Doom is giving interviews at Red Bull Music Academy. The NY Times dropped a piece on Chief Keef before the release of his first proper album. And The New Yorker even gave El-P and Killer Mike a full spread. What happened to “unsigned hype,” both the Source article and what that title connotes? Have the blogs killed it? Does that make me complicit? Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict? There’s not enough space here to get into any of this stuff. But you get the idea: “Zero Dark Thirty” makes me ask a lot of questions. It’s great. It’s what art (and artists) is supposed to do. I hope you have many of the same questions. But above all else, I’m glad these things matter to Aes.

Deciphering Aesop Rock lyrics, especially those of “Zero Dark Thirty,” is like reading Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” You don’t grasp everything on the first, second, or tenth sitting. You step back, walk away, think about whatever stuck to your gray matter, and revisit. And ultimately, if you’re not well-versed in all things rap music, well acquainted with the canon, then you will be utterly lost, left alone in the post-apocalyptic world dodging “mothmen munching textiles.” Why else would Rock release a series of videos explaining the tracks (some more than others) on Skelethon prior to its release? He is tired of being misunderstood (see the myriad of explanations for lines on Rap Genius).

If I could venture a guess, I’d put my money on the fact that “Zero Dark Thirty” is Rock’s confession, the verbalization of one unconscious and yet all consuming burning thought over clattering drums: He knows he is alone. The “huntable surplus” is no more. He is the invisible man, scribbling away underground and bouncing off of the billion bulbs blaring on the walls. Is it any wonder why the track samples P.E.’s “Public Enemy No. 1?” Aes Rock is the “poetic, political, lyrical, son” of the underground bubble of the early-aughts. Where is his New Yorker piece? Maybe they’ve already asked. And maybe he doesn’t want one. Regardless, he’s grown, lyrically, sonically, and conceptually on each and every record since then. “Zero Dark Thirty” is where you begin. The rest of the record(s) waits for you to listen. “Anything less would be ri-god-damn-diculous.” –Max Bell

10. French Montana ft. Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne – “Pop That”

At this point, French Montana is the rapping equivalent of DJ Khaled. I can’t think of another artist more dependent on guest cameos. Luckily, for this (almost) song of the year contender, everyone brings their A game. Ross and Frenchie’s verses mirror one another. They are slow and plodding in a way that suggests a boss’ confidence, with punchlines worth dropping out the beat for.

The 2 Live Crew sample that opens “Pop That Pussy” comes off manic, breathless — a beat that opens at 11 and never really let’s up throughout French Montana’s instant stripclub anthem classic. Rick Ross is Galactus, lording over the proceedings with his gut bucket baritone and it’s very hard not to listen to him chanting “WORK” like a monk, over and over without getting motivated to go out and open a business or fuck a stripper.

Drake, who didn’t release an album this year but contented himself with showing up seemingly everywhere to steal songs from some of rap’s biggest names, makes the bold decision to rap on beat, and in this syrup saturated company he’s practically Busta Rhymes in quadruple time. The approaches are studies in contrast. French and Ross sound nearly careless, the verses are exercises in brushing the shoulders of their mink coats. Drake is unapologetically hungry and borderline desperate to assert his dominance, and he’s incredibly successful in accomplishing that goal. The craft and emphasis in every punchline connects and it is an all out assault, a clinic in writing a successful big time clear channel radio cameo in 2012.

Which brings us to Wayne, still stuck in the doldrums of a post incarceration hangover, this is as bad as we’ve heard from him. The entire affair is utterly forgettable and had this song been a minute and a half shorter I’m pretty sure it would’ve landed about 5 spots higher. But yeah for the sheer kinetic energy wafting off the production here this has to be an all time DJ go-to for turning a party into a ratchet ass episode of Cops. It will be inspiring booty dropping the world over long past 2012. — Abe Beame

9. Action Bronson – “Hookers at the Point”

“Hookers at the Point” spares no detail in mocking hookers and johns. Action Bronson gleefully depicts the the prostitute’s transaction with evident delight in every awkward, pitiful moment surrounding his star hooker, Cindy. It’s disgusting and I’ve struggled to identify why I like this song beyond surface-level reasons like these:

  1. Bronson is a great storyteller and challenges himself to do something interesting with the narrative. First, he introduces us to Cindy, the neighborhood whore and quickly sets the tone (“That’s what she gets for being a whore, though!”). Next, he shifts character and becomes the hooker by hitching up his voice – and not the powerful, morally vexing woman from Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me”, mind you. Bronson’s character is a vicious caricature. Then Bronson becomes the equally pitiful john, noting his second character shift by changing his voice again and opening with “Dos en el morning”, because Dano, the pathetic Bronx truck driver, is half Puerto Rican.
  2. Party Supplies’ beat is a left-field stroke of brilliance. The sparse two note beat follows minimalist classics like “Tried By 12” and “Brooklyn Zoo”. It’s functional too in that the lolling melody makes you feel like you’re staring at the minute hand of your watch, waiting to find out if you have an STD. The stillness makes Bronson’s voice and lyrics that much more stark.

That should be reason enough to laud “Hookers at the Point” while rationalizing the vileness as a quirk of Bronson’s sense of humor. But I think there’s a perverse charm as well. Action Bronson, himself a tubby oddball, seems to harbor an affection for his pathetic characters. He peels up the city’s nasty underside for everyone to see and has a great big laugh about it, because he’s one of the freaks too. The first time I saw him, he was in the studio with Statik Selektah while Statik and Termanology live-streamed the making of an EP. He introduced himself to the camera with a feigned rapper tough guy act and hyped his single, “Get Off My PP” to scattered laughter. Then he went in the booth and recorded a verse that made me check for him ever since. –Evan Nabavian

8. T.I. ft. Andre 3000 – “Sorry”

Andre 3000 has popped up now and again since The Love Below to remind us that he deserves his place in the canon (most notably, to my mind, on “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 4”), but he just can’t bring himself to make an album, and on the best veteran collaboration of the year, he explains why: “I hated all the attention so I ran from it…I’m a grown-ass kid, you know ain’t never cared about no damn money, Why do we try so hard to be stars, just to dodge com(m)e(n)ts?” I don’t want fame, I don’t care about fortune, and I don’t want you guys talking about me—what’s the point of working?

Funny thing is though, Andre just can’t help himself. And when he says that he used to be a way better writer and a rapper, near the beginning of his verse, he’s lying. Since he stopped making music consistently, every time he finds himself on wax, dude murders everyone, delivering theses at top-speed, the most comprehensive verses being made right now. As even our favorite rappers resort to lists, prepackaged slick phrases and basic storytelling to fill their bars up, Andre is still telling it like it is, fast or slow, always nuanced and always in keeping with the basic subject matter of his song. He raps like no one else does. He raps like no one else can. Maybe the King of the Hill actually needs to live on the goddamn hill, but, seemingly whenever he wants to, Andre can retake his spot at the top, and he doesn’t ever even have to push. — Jonah Bromwich

7. Schoolboy Q – “Raymond 1969″

It begins with a gang initiation and ends with one of Beth Gibbons’ most frightening vocal performances. It features Osama Bin Laden, burgundy blood, and a female cop frisking our narrator’s lady friend. For God’s sake, it’s titled after the founder and inaugural year of the Crips. Schoolboy Q may have the reputation of being the wild, hot-headed gunslinger of the Black Hippy collective, he may not have learned too much in school, but dammit if he can’t paint an incredibly vivid picture. He had to have at least gone to art class.

Kendrick gets all the ink as Black Hippy’s poetic visionary, but Verse One of “Raymond 1969” is just as poetic and harrowing as Lamar’s best work, as Q focuses on both the still and moving moments of the aforementioned gang initiation. A twelve-year-old hits a laced blunt and stages an execution and a home invasion. It’s a brutal and chilling moment, which only amplifies upon learning the reward for taking human lives: “Didn’t get a comma nor a sentence for the karma/Just an imaginary stripe so he can hold his head in honor.”

The remaining two verses are a melange of scattershot images, each no more or less important than the last. The Portishead sample only lets up at the end and the lives at stake are never spared. Q never apologizes for habits or contradictions. He believes in having a moral code, but he sees the fear in his own mother’s eyes when she looks at him. “Raymond 1969” represents the Los Angeles rappers tried to warn you about before the Rodney King riots. It represents the parts of Los Angeles that are still this way, the parts that aren’t blinded by the glitz of Hollywood or the shiny, free-trade coffee bean of Silverlake. But they’re not worried about what kind of threat they face at home. They’re worried about Osama. — Martin Douglas

6. Rick Ross ft. Drake & French Montana – “Stay Schemin”

“Lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end,” Tony Soprano said once. “The best is over.” Rick Ross is the last wheezing gasp of an era gone, one final fat motherfucker trying to recreate the glory days of lavish crime narratives and the even more lavish luxury rewards. He started off a fraud, a bit player trying to hustle his out-of-breath gasps into something more than a collection of two bit Miami misdemeanors. When he eventually won hearts, it’s also because he won minds; he faked it so hard that we decided he had to have made it.

Maybach Music Group was once a brand of fatuously illegitimate opulence — rap’s bootleg Louis handbag — but Ross no longer conjures even that tacky glee. “Stay Schemin’” is cold and joyless, a creeping, crotchety synth line augmented with what passes as capos in these end times: French Montana fanuting his way into dictionaries and… uh… Drake. No wonder Rozay can barely think of more to say in his verse than “fuck it.” Even Drizzy’s stupidly sexist opening gripe — “It bothers me when the gods get to acting like the broads” — conveys the sense that something good is over and all we can do now is scrabble amidst the scraps. French Montana might have that Ghost, but his verse is a weary one about the labor of moving work, not the rewards. No wonder that sing-song hook sounds weary; the scheming is never-ending and the returns ever diminishing. — Jonathan Bradley

5. Chief Keef – “Love Sosa”

Keen observers might note that this is the THIRD time I’ve written about this song. That’s gotta mean something, right? I’m a busy person; so there’s no way I’d devote 3 different posts to ONE Chief Keef song if it wasn’t good – in a numb, mindless sorta way – but good nonetheless. “Love Sosa” stands on its own merits and don’t bother waiting on another backhanded compliment because I’m out of those. And that’s not because I’m scared of dirty, dreadlocked 17 year olds. I’m not.

But before we get to Keef, let’s discuss Young Chop a bit. It’s fair to say this is song that separated Young Chop from the legions of Lex Luger imitators still cashing rap checks in 2012. Chop’s “B.M.F.”/”Hard In Da Paint” moment if you will. This hypnotic concoction of twinkly cocaine synths, ominous horror strings and drums de jour provided the perfect platform for Chief Keef to calmly mumble and chant his way on to many playlists this year. Seriously. I think I tweeted about this song for a month straight after the snippet leaked. And even better is the fact that unlike Keef’s other big song this year, “I Don’t Like,” Love Sosa is idiosyncratic enough to ensure that no one will be riding this wave under the guise of “giving” the kid a good look. Shots fired.

Simply put, before Keef, there was (is?) Waka. Before Waka, there was Lil Jon and before Lil Jon there was Tim Dog. While that isn’t the most chronologically detailed or accurate goon rap timeline, the point I’m making is that there’ll always be a lane for youth powered aggro rap. Each half-generation probably gets the rappers they deserve and World Star Hip-Hop suggests that this is one unwashed ass generation. Keef is just the next up in a long-standing trend and Love Sosa stands as his magnum opus, as well as one of the best songs of 2012. Here’s to Keef never working with B.o.B. or Flo-Rida. You don’t have to love Sosa, but you will hail, or at least, acknowledge the Chief. — Deen

4. Riff Raff ft. Action Bronson – “Bird on a Wire”

I really want to know where these guys are rolling to that night in the “Bird On A Wire” video. Jody Highroller, Bronson and the gang are leisurely strolling down the street, brown bagged malt liquor in hand, a couple of unlit spliffs in the mouth, delving deep into the night as the sun comes down in the City of Angels. It’s game time in Los Angeles and the boys are coming out to play. All we really know for sure is that something epic is about to happen. I mean…they are rolling with Simon Rex and the Alchemist. It’s definitely on tonight.

“Bird On A Wire” is the bro anthem of the year. It captures the carefree spirit of a night out on the town with your boys when the feeling of invincibility washes over you and anything can happen. Harry Fraud’s spacey, psychedelic beat sounds like summer twilight and provides the proper atmospherics for the duo. The unlikely union of Action Bronson and Riff Raff have a yin and yang alchemy that simply compliments the other. Bronson, the novelistic underground rap foodie, is the duo’s leading man as he drops an instantly iconic verse dedicated to the tailor made leather suits, karate and the other finer things in life. Meanwhile, Riff Raff, the drawling quasi-novelty rapper with a penchant for the absurd, proves he can be more than an ironic fashion victim — with a slyly understated verse aspiring to better days and sunny weather. It’s a combination that could have easily ended in disaster, but proves that opposites can make beautiful music together. On some Jodeci shit. — Doc Zeus

3. Darq E Freaker ft. Danny Brown – “Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)”

Don’t like Grime? Too bad, it’s already here…sort of. Because if London’s alien futurism was too bizarre the first time around, rap has slowly caught up by increasing the tempo, using weirder and weirder synths and encouraging emcees to snort a shedload of drugs. T.I even signed Chipmunk, although I don’t think Americans have to worry much when it comes to foreign emcees stealing their jerbs. At least not while Danny Brown’s around.

Tearing into UK producer Darq E. Freaker’s chopped up organs with all the fury of a banshee, Brown introduced a much lighter, party-oriented persona on this one after last year’s dire XXX. Surprisingly, this approached proved to be just as successful, inciting crowds to riot,  bloggers to blog and just about everyone to wonder what the hell was going on because let’s face it…this song is weird. Who the hell tells girls to “shake their asses for a hipster n*gga” while endorsing PBR over a beat fast enough to cause seizures in the elderly? And that’s not even counting the chorus’ blatant drug endorsements which make his previous habbits look tame in comparison.

The entire track is a loud, obnoxious assault on good taste and common sense, accompanied by a video straight out of Tipper Gore’s worse nightmare. Danny Brown may have previously called himself the hybrid but this evil combination of Eminem, Rick James and Tempa T was something else entirely. Re-wind selecta! — Son Raw

2. Juicy J ft. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne – “Bands a Make Her Dance”

We don’t always reach a consensus on which song gets to hold the banger of the summer belt each year and if I recall correctly, I expressed a great deal of panic at 2012’s early candidates for banger of the year. I mean, people were seriously tryna sell me on that “Cashin’ Out” shit being the club banger of the year. But I needn’t have fretted so much. Between Yeezy, 2Chainz & Future we would have been just fine in 2012, but one man gazed across the desolate rap landscape from some random hotel room equipped with a home studio and decided that we could do so much better. That man was Juicy J. You peasants should be thankful and I get the sense that you are – after all, “Bandz” is Juicy J’s first solo appearance on the Billboard charts.

It’s still a bit difficult to fathom how this song became the behemoth it was in 2012. It wasn’t the guest appearances; Lil Chainz and 2Waynes weren’t on the original version of the track and based on the ever-reliable Twitter charts, “Bandz” was well on its way to blowing up before they got added. Maybe it was the Mike Will Made It production – after all, he had an excellent year making hits for everyone from the aforementioned 2Chainz to Future and even a bonafide popstar in Rihanna. But the masses don’t live by beats alone – no matter how trippy, martial and catchy they are. And it certaintly wasn’t Juicy J’s alignment with Wiz’s Taylor Gang. Wiz can’t even make himself a hit these days. So why “Bandz?”

All those factors probably contributed to the answer in some small way, but ultimately, the lion’s share of the lean and pills should go to Juicy J and his pedigree. The truth of the matter is that his (and by extension, Three 6 Mafia’s) highly influential style of catchy hook and verse chanting alike has always been chart-ready. Long before synths started ruling our rap airwaves, that Memphis shit always sounded as if it was designed to rule our ears and asses. I mean, who doesn’t dig a good chant? Chants are awesome. Like cross-culturally n’shit. Chanting is good money everywhere – from America to Papua New Guinea. Add in clapping and we’re outta here. Its the most communal bonding ass shit ever. I’d make a list of instances in which chants come in handy, but I’d be here all day. Chants are that important and awesome because they appeal to some base innate instinct within everyone – even people who can’t twerk. And Juicy J has known this for almost 20 years.

And so it came to be in 2012 that we bonded over a chant expressing an undeniable truth about one of our most esteemed sub-species: the stripper. Women want to be her, men want to throw hard earned money at her and Juicy J provided the druggy soundtrack to these respective transformations and transactions as only he could. And we liked it. Because it’s the truth – strippers will do stripper shit like twerking and pussy-popping, i.e., dancing, when you toss copious amounts of cash in their general direction. Because we’re all primal, idiotic beings that worship cash and love strippers. Don’t deny this inalienable truth. That would be some un-American, heathen shit.

So be grateful, because Bandz was probably the soundtrack to 80% of the bad decisions you made in 2012. You know, all that ratchet pussy you couldn’t say no to either… — Deen

1. Kendrick Lamar ft. Gunplay – “Cartoons & Cereal”

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Our own childhoods are strangers. While snippets of moments and faces remain, half remembered, second hand events and anecdotes stay with us:  the sense of wonder, confusion, fear, animal instinct and unbridled emotion. But they’re all lost when self awareness dawns.

In Hip Hop this problem has been often remedied largely through sentimental detail. Hardships: Sharing a bed with your young relatives who have yet to master bladder control, the embarrassment of being teased by your P.S. classmates as the poor kid with hand-me-downs, the ass whoopings you would receive from your surly grandma. Joys: The unexpected moments of kindness, games you’d play with your friends in the streets you grew up in, the rare family get together. But it comes with a degree of context, a reminiscence.

Enter Kendrick Lamar, a bright young artist who made a name for himself by addressing many of hip hop’s well worn themes in ways that defy it’s established tropes and archetypes. And “Cartoons & Cereal” might be his masterpiece to date. Of course, Kendrick covered issues of frustrated, alienated youth before with his stirring, POW 2011 album of the year award winner, Section 80. But he was occasionally accused of tackling the confused, violent and misogynistic tendencies of Regan babies with a heavy hand. The knowing elusiveness of “Cartoons & Cereal” is testament to his growth as a songwriter, and on its own merits, a fucking incredible song.

I’s my favorite song of this very good year in Rap because it raises more questions than it answers. It brings into focus the challenge of calibrating a moral compass when your role models, authority figures and heroes are characterized as criminals by a country that thinks of poor, desperate teenagers that way. And the “good guys”, the paragons of virtue in the society you’re confined by are regularly seen beating the shit out of your friends and neighbors on the evening news. It communicates the frustration and disorientation that comes with growing up in a predatory concrete jungle. Kendrick playing the desensitized latchkey kid raised by a TV set and ducking stray shots through the living room window. It offers no easy solutions to the problems that come hand in hand with such an upbringing.

The structure is as brilliant and challenging as its scope. 7 minutes, with a few Kendrick verses sprinkled sporadically around bridges and hooks, including an affecting snippet of a Gunplay verse that buries the track. And what a verse. What an inspired choice. Gunplay is in full Big Rube mode here, balancing Kendrick’s brilliantly intricate wordplay with tertiary, 4,000 year old wisdom. It’s a role Big Boi perfected with Andre 16 years ago, the street corner preacher to Andre’s precocious, existential introvert and for this one shining moment, it’s arguable he even manages to improve upon it.

As for Kendrick’s part, the beauty lies in how difficult the whole thing is to pin down. He crafts two perfect, labyrinthine verses that function as Rube Goldberg devices: impossible to unpack in a single listen and filled with gems in its nooks and crannies. Bleak observations and images are scattershot from producer THC’s ticking hi-hats, alien rattles and murky spaceship synths. Are the reflections his own or is the whole thing impressionistic? These questions are nagging, but largely unimportant.

The opening salvo of Gunplay’s verse is isolated and strewn through the song because more than anything else it conveys a desire to relate experience, to put who you are, what you feel and what you’ve been through into words that can be understood and related to by everyone. “Cartoons & Cereal’s” reflections are universal because they’re so inscrutable. The song is like Kendrick’s coyote in the moon, as large and ominous and ultimately impossible to fully process as the formative years that shadow us throughout our lives. — Abe Beame