Retaining the same style and artistic narrative for 17-odd years is either maniacally stubborn or an extraordinary feat of consistency. In the case of Camp Lo, one of rap music’s longest-tenured novelty acts, the devil lies in the quality of their production. When equipped with undeniably great beats, their obsession with blaxploitation films and 1970s street lore isn’t just charming, it’s convincing. Whereas most revivalists are content with merely trumpeting the milestones of a bygone era, they set out to reincarnate the likes of Willie Dynamite and Black Belt Jones. In the Camp Lo universe, John Lindsay still occupies Gracie Mansion, safari jackets are all the rage, and milk is three times the price of gasoline.
The second installment of the duo’s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s mixtape series is their strongest effort in well over a decade, largely thanks to Pete Rock lording over the boards. The production is irresistibly raw and abrasive this go-round (not unlike the 1979 Bronx gang-life documentary of the same name), providing an almost ideal backdrop for butterfly collar crime sagas. With more than two dozen tracks clocking in at 82-minutes, the project could certainly stand to shed a few clumsy interludes and inept guest features. But overall, Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba appear to have finally regained their footing. — Harold Stallworth
On The #SWOUP Serengeti, rapper Spark Master Tape and producer Paper Platoon assemble a fractured, hallucinatory and incredibly vivid narrative of a life filled with drugs, violence and all sorts of anti-social behavior. Their building blocks are familiar, but their final construction feels unique and is executed with utmost style and proficiency. I have no idea who they are. The mixtape and everything associated with it, including the real identities of the creators, is steeped in complete anonymity. For all I know, the two might be the same person.
Because of this, I had a bitch of a time trying to get people to listen to it. Slickly oblique propositions like ‘Hey you should check this song out, I think you’ll like it’ were inevitably met with a barrage of ‘Who is this guy? Is he white or black? Why does he screw down all his vocals? Where is he from?’ And when I shrugged and replied ‘No idea, I just like the music, it’s awesome and weird as fuck’, many interested parties seemed to lose interest.
I won’t lie and claim to be any more open minded than the next guy. When I first heard SMT I also asked the same skeptical questions, and was also a bit off-put by the lack of obvious answers. My continued interest in him was driven by simple morbid curiosity just as much as it was by the musical abilities on display. But I’m glad I followed into the #SWOUP rabbit hole, because it led me to one of my favorite releases of the year. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like the mixtape, but I’m certain any open-minded rap fan should at least find it interesting. — Alex Piveysky
Declaring one of Milo’s 2013 offerings his best is like choosing between the best Vonnegut books: there’s no right answer, only subjective preference. Between the America sampling Cavalcade and the electronic bump, glitch, and hiss of his double EP things that happen at day // things that happen at night, there are surely Hellfyre Club devotees on either side of the fence.
things that happen at day // things that happen at night is the less focused of the two, but purposefully so. It’s the indulgence in every whim and flight of fancy, expansive within the confines of Milo’s ever calculating consciousness. Traversing the synaptic jump between Kierkegaard and Legends of the Hidden Temple can be difficult, but it’s also worth several gold pendants of life.
On Cavalcade, Milo walks straight into dark apartments. He’s sure of himself and more aggressive. The soft, meditative whispers of thing that happen… are there, but so are the lion-like growls on “geometry and theology.” Milo’s hunger is insatiable and his intellectual guts have been unapologetically spilled between vocal samples of philosophers. Milo also recently released a project called poplar grove (or how to rap with a hammer) under the sobriquet scallops hotel. After a few listens, I’m convinced it gives the aforementioned projects a run for their Bandcamp dividends as his best work to date. Then again, his full-length LP is in the can and forthcoming. When it drops more decisions/evaluations will have to be made. So it goes. — Max Bell
“Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” It may seem that Biggie left out the third option, but there he is rapping those words, so make an inference. Hustling, basketball and rap; it’s the ashy-to-classy trinity. And if there’s a youth league for precocious hustlers, I’m unaware of it. But recently, hip-hop blogs have started resembling basketball’s AAU. We’ve got a farm system over here. Rappers are getting snatched up at a younger and younger age, proclaimed to be the best thing smoking, and promptly flaming out or falling on their asses. Mr. Muthafucking Exquire, Joey Badass, all examples of being drafted too early. Too much hype, too much hyperbole, not enough actually there.
So we’ve tried to keep a tight lid on Chester Watson. After all, the kid was only 15 when he released Phantom at the outset of 2013. It’s a hugely promising tape from a playful disciple of the Madvillain school, who produces most of his own record, who actually bests “Hoe Cakez” with his take on Doom’s magnificent beat “Slut Muffins,” who’s young enough to think that sampling Aladdin is a good idea and somehow pulls it off. Who starts his record with the deceptively amazing line: “being hella brash is the swag bruh.” That’s just true.
Watson’s got the lifestyle rap down cold—imagine Curren$y, Cam’ron, a fifteen year old version of yourself, all mixed together. The kid makes family life sound interesting, for God’s sake. That’s gotta say something. So we don’t want to proclaim anything about Watson. Just that he made a very good tape this year and we’re excited to see what he does next. — Jonah Bromwich
The comparisons between A.Dd+ and Outkast are inevitable but immaterial. So it goes when you’re a Southern rap duo with a viscous twang and appetite for soul food funk, courtesy of a former Badu collaborator (Picnictyme) and modern country rap scholar (Burn One). Also, five tracks of their sophomore album, DiveHiFlyLo were recorded at Stankonia.
But the greatest similarity may be their skill at capturing awkward human interactions. When I listen to this record, it reminds me of that part in “Elevators,” where Andre is flabbergasted at the thirsty buffoonery of the clown at the mall, who claims that he went to the same high school — the one who keeps on asking about the kind of car he drives and the “beaucoup hoes” he’s got from all the records sold. You can see similar introspection and anxiety in “Can’t Come Down”( about getting busted chiefing at work) or “Showtime” (about pre-performance jitters). They glare into the eyes of haters and gracefully register their disgust. A.Dd+ are acutely aware of the symbiotic relationship between you moving your feet and their ability to eat. With this record, the Dallas duo transcend easy comparisons and demand national attention. These are clouded reflections that you can ride to, whether dirty or clean. During a year in which oligarch rap reached new plateaus. A.Dd+ did heavy damage by grasping outside the sun roof and keeping their eyes trained on the asphalt slab ahead. — Jeff Weiss
It pays to play the long game. While label after label reaped the fruit of Dubstep’s commercialization and London’s subsequent turn towards mainstream House and Techno, Keysound Recordings stuck to their guns, putting out dark, experimental music that rejected big room compromise for shadowy strangeness. Even in light of their previous track record however, 2013 felt like the start of a new era thanks to a slew of emerging producers who took the label’s aesthetic foundations and stretched them into new shapes. Wen, Beneath, Epoch, Visionist, Rabit, E.M.M.A, Moleskin, Mumdance & Logos: each of these names made noise in their own circles this year, but chances are, you first heard them on This is How We Roll.
There was the Raekwon-fueled chest puffing of “The Steppenwolf”, The reconfigured Grime of “Dangerous” and “Commotion VIP”, the instant mission statement of “New Wave” and a host of other tracks that combined Funky’s rolling drums to Grime and Dubstep’s darker textures. “In Reverse” provided my favorite moment behind the decks this year: at an illegal squat party in a mile deep tunnel, I saw 200 ravers on acid lose their minds when the back-masked drums kicked in, proving this music could make an impact beyond music nerd circles. This is How We Roll isn’t the whole story: you’ll need to check out the label’s singles output, Rinse FM show and affiliate releases for that. As a quick introduction to what’s going on underneath the shiny surface of London’s club scene however, there are few better releases, making this compilation one of London’s most vital since Rephlex Grime 10 years ago. — Son Raw
Imagine if MF Doom removed the mask to reveal himself as Tony Clifton. And then Tony Clifton removed his tuxedo to be Andy Kauffman, still alive and wearing wrestling tights. But instead of grappling women, he was challenging Shaq to a one-on-one, then eating a celebratory dinner at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House with the guy from Workaholics and an American Gladiator or two. If you’re wondering what the fuck I’m talking about, that’s the answer to why Serengeti isn’t one of the famous rappers in the world. But he is one of the best artists breathing who happens to rap, when he decides to play it straight. The rest of the time, David Cohn is assuming the character of Kenny Dennis or concocting suicide plots for himself with a shotgun. The latter might be false, but barely.
The Chicago brats connoisseur started the year with a high concept album with a plot line that revolved around a chance encounter at a Sharper Image involving a no-fog shaving mirror. It got Thom Yorke obsessively quoting the KDz on Twitter, even if he has zero idea about the outfield range of Hawk Dawson. The middle of year brought a orchestral rap folk-rap album cut in Bonn, Germany with a Teutonic classical virtuoso renowned for his cello game. Then in December, Serengeti calmly dropped a scrap-rap record more cohesive, haunting, and funny than 99 percent of the competition — straight crushing them like Nitro in the power ball. — Jeff Weiss
Lil Wayne’s mid-2000s reign of terror influenced a lot of awful music. It was all worth it, though, because without Wayne, we don’t get Young Thug. And now that we’ve got him, a world without him seems unthinkable and intolerable, dull and perverse. Comparisons to Weezy populate everything written about Young Thug, and, yeah, the similarities are apparent – the way Thugga over-stretches his vowels, the Auto-tuned keening, the cornball punch lines sold on sheer force of personality. For me, though, it’s about the approach – like Wayne at his peak, Thugga experiments fearlessly, like he’s testing his limits, trying to figure out exactly what he’s capable of. If 1017 Thug is any indication, he can make just about anything work.
This thing is a rap unicorn: a Brick Squad-affiliated tape that doesn’t feel eight tunes too long. It justifies its length with its diversity. Laced with some excellent productions from C4, Nard & B, TM 88, Jay Neutron and others, Thugga tackles beats of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s the booming, major-key horns of “Fuck With It,” the twinkling synths of “Picacho,” or the rolling, up-tempo thump of “Dead Fo Real,” Thugga never seems overmatched. When he’s really on, he seems to exist all around the beat, effortlessly flipping between flows and yawping his own hooks. In his own words: Thugga got a million-dollar persona. — Adam Wray
Quelle Chris has spent a decade making music to what surely feels like underwhelming and short-lived fanfare. It’s only fitting that on Ghost at the Finish Line he sounds near the end of his rope (“Feeling like I worked from the bottom to the bottom here” – “Loop Dreams”).
With said end comes Chris’ harrowing, hilarious, and often poignant reflection and introspection. The album is a testament to the fact that life is eerily analogous to a rap career. They are both far too short with too little enjoyment between the growing pains. And the end — no matter how many bars and beats are employed to distract from the sobering truth — approaches with the first recorded breath.
Still, Ghost at the Finish Line is Chris’ earnest attempt to realize what’s made his life worth living and rap worth pursuing. It’s the backward glance necessary to move forward, and more often than not Chris sounds as though he’s found the silver lining in the liner notes of his life and rap career. His rhymes are razor sharp and the beats have been built with D-town muscle. Love, money, sex, drugs — there’s no stone unturned. Really, the album is the rap equivalent of Woody Allen at the end of Manhattan, alone on the couch and talking into his tape recorder, jumping up and running after what he’d almost forgotten. — Max Bell
41. Tree – Sunday School Part II [Self-Released]
“Freestyle pretty good, why I still write?” Chicago rapper Tree asks himself this question five tracks into Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out, on the booming, victorious “Devotion.” After three years of down-home, crackling-fire, friends-and-family soul trap, it’s a question that might be on the lips of any fan of Tremaine Johnson: does it really matter what this guy says?
Tree’s nothing if not the reincarnation of the Chicago bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf in a flat brim. And not to take away from the limpid lyrical facility of classics like “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightin,” but didn’t Wolf’s howl, like the rattle in your lungs in a bitter Chicago February, matter more than what he was howling? Like the 12-bar pioneers that preceded him, Tree needs only a few stray lyrical nuggets – throwing rocks off the roof as a lil’ n***a, buying drinks for his homies at the bar – and that trademark bray, and he’s transported you back to Cabrini Green circa 1994. Chicago’s most infamous housing project probably isn’t a place you’d have actually wanted to visit. Tree makes it sound as appealing as chestnuts on an open fire.
When I first reviewed Sunday School II, I complained that Tree didn’t use that perfect voice of his to say much of anything. Seven months and countless blasts later, and I’ve changed my tune: I’m not here for the message. I’m here for the feeling. —Jordan Pedersen
Push play at any point on this 4-track EP and everyone within earshot will involuntarily tap and bob. It’s undeniable. The percussive line courses throughout the 15 minute run time, anchoring mystery-pop highs, soulful lows, and grab-your-girl electro-funk. There’s little known about Jungle, and their sole interview suggests they like it that way. The duo that goes by T and J are quick-witted and introspective, with cocooned lyrics that long for hope. They chose to highlight an adorable 6-year old B-Girl in the video for “Platoon,” and similarly manage to look impossibly cool on roller skates in “The Heat.” A clear message has been delivered to anyone infected in London and beyond. Dance. — Brad Beatson
A PoW contributor – I can’t remember who. Harold? Jimmy? – made the Twitter comment recently that the best rap albums feature a single producer and a limited number of guests. (It’s an obvious sentiment, but one regularly forgotten in the value-added era of mixtapes and blitzkrieg album release schedules.)
If there’s just one remarkable thing about Curly Castro’s Fidel it’s that it successfully bucks this pro forma. And that’s likely down to the Philly via Flatbush MC’s absolutely singular vision. You sometimes feel that out of all the Wrecking Crew – a bunch of artists who search hard for perfectionism – it’s Curly who combs over his work in the most detail. In terms of subject matter, Fidel runs a tightly-themed spectrum from growing pains in New York to shuffling paeans to civil rights leaders. It’s by turns aggressive, paranoid and soulful.
The anger comes early with the blazing ‘Call Me Castro’ and laundrette blues of ‘Starch’, clearing the way for clenched teeth frustration in the form of ‘Winter ‘87’ and the Georgia Anne Muldrow-produced ‘Coal’. But Castro’s a two-suitcase salesman, offering frustration and rage in the one hand while peddling a soothing panacea from the other. The LP’s second stretch turns over with a sighing, wistful resignation. ‘The Letter M’ is one of the most quietly affecting pieces of political rap you’re likely to encounter, while ‘Libertad’ closes the album on a head-raised note of defiance. From no matter which angle you view Fidel, it’s the complete product. Castro was overdue, but in 2013 he delivered.–Matt Shea
This album crept up on me. One moment, I was driving to work, nodding my head politely. The next, I was fully ensconced in Jason Chung’s sleek textures and calming vibes, mesmerized by the soft blinking synths of “Safe,” the vaporous melodic counterpoint to “Tell,” and the hushed polyrhythmic complexity that guides “Try.” Listening to this album is like wandering through an ancient cave; the more I’ve explored Home’s twilit contours and corridors, the more I’ve been able to work out its patterns and make sense of its beguiling wonders.
Chung had already created a classic four years ago with his debut album, Drift. This time around, he sinks deeper into his own aesthetic—a seamless mix of G-funk, classical music and Warp-style IDM. Dialing back on the glitched-out textures and brawny beats of yesteryear, he brings forth a greater sense of emotionality, making intricate sculptures out of his electronic drums and turning his bass-lines into immersive down comforters. But Home also finds Chung honing in on a powerful sense of melody, using delicate synth parts that seem to exist on a level far outside the bounds of more dancefloor-oriented electronic fare. This is about as perfect as electronic music gets, but if it sounds great coming out of a sampler, it’d make just as much sense emanating through the Walt Disney Concert Hall, live arrangements courtesy of the L.A. Philharmonic. —Peter Holslin
The title says it all: Nonfiction is the truth. Following a string of successful of EPs and remixes, the Providence, RI beatsmith dropped his full-length debut in 2013 via a collab between Donky Pitch and Project: Mooncircle, two of the finest beat labels today . If these two stalwarts can come together to sing the praises of an artist, who are we to ignore their recommendation? Comprised of 11 new tracks, Nonfiction is the thinking man’s instrumental hip-hop album. As time progresses, beat music becomes increasingly more complex. The Range is at the forefront of this movement that goes well beyond clubs and bangers, retreating back into the much fuller sound scape of the mind.
The formula isn’t new, but it’s clearly being perfected here: disembodied vocals float amongst powerful keys and precise percussion, creating beats that are first for the brain, then for the groove. While there’s plenty of fodder for whatever party you’re attending (“FM Myth” would be right at home at Low End Theory), you’re not going to get to the real meat here until you don a pair of headphones, and let the groove wash over you. Tracks like “The One” and “Telescope” are more pensive than giddy, and that’s quite alright by me. As opener “Loftmane” succinctly says of the music that follows, “the street’s like amen.” Preach. — Chris Daly
The white plastic chair creaks as Randrickas Young, blue pen in hand, black fitted leaning to the right, croons on his plywood patio. Wearing an oversized white tee reading “Redemption,” Alpoko Don declares himself Michael Jackson, the way that he turns white. His deep laugh adds percussion. Old heads chirp appreciatively in the background. YouTube views pile up.
Such was the humble introduction last year to hip-hop’s oldest soul, Alpoko Don, the pastor of the porch, the drug-dealing deacon, the trap troubadour in Gucci frames schooling youngens about life with nothing more than a pen, a fist, and a surface to pound on. For The Ol’ Soul EP, he laid down his sermons live in studio, with none of the wisdom lost in translation.
The Greenville, South Carolina native has the type of voice you hear in a New Orleans dive. Blues sketched in black. The falsetto of a fallen angel. Holy and harrowing. Beatboxing as subtle as a cicada. He dips his pen in plasma, writes his rhymes in blood, and hustles for two things only: money and the Father above. As he croaks in 2013’s catchiest hook this side of autotune, “This is all I know.” Most of the songs are more than a year old, but that’s the point. You’re listening to an elder. — Tosten Burks
Despite the rising status of The Producer within the world of hip-hop, the concept of instrumental hip-hop is becoming more and more intangible. In 2013, we are a long way from Endtroducing and Petestrumentals. The influx of varied far flung stylistic influences has almost erased the sub-genre’s boundaries, which in truth were already somewhat vague.
At home in this uncertain world, the sound of Blue Sky Black Death’s Glaciers has as much to do with prog-rock or shoegaze as it does with anything else. Despite that, I continuously enjoy claiming the album for the hip-hop side. Most of my reasons for this are logical – the duo has a long history of successful collaborations with rappers, and their earlier instrumental endeavors were more clearly rap influenced. There is also a flippant element to my argument – I love calling this album ‘the hip-hop equivalent of a mid-era Pink Floyd album’ as a compliment, and really meaning it.
When I interviewed the group earlier this year, I got to have it both ways. They enthusiastically proclaimed their love for rap music, and identified it as one of their main formative influences. They also confirmed all manner of other stylistic tributaries, and they were really happy with my Pink Floyd comparison. Admittedly, the above is mostly semantics that don’t have much to do with the actual quality of the music. Glaciers contains a multitude of complex and expansive soundscapes, combined to create an immersive and evocative listening experience. That’s the real reason to listen to the album. But the fact that BSBD have created music which leaves room for this kind of speculation is impressive in of itself. — Alex Piyevsky
The Underachievers’ spot on this list owes more to their innovation (of sorts) and their potential than anything else. If that sounds like damning them with faint praise, I’d ask you to reconsider. Indigoism was a solid display of AK and Issa Dash’s impressive technique and their slightly tedious interest in psychedelia and spirituality, but to be honest, that project came and went around these parts.
On the other hand, Lords of Flatbush had more staying power in my rotation, largely due to its production. The Underachievers’ partnership with Lex Luger (yes, THAT Lex Luger) hinted at a new route for New York rap to reclaim its presence on mainstream playlists. The A$AP cats are the most prominent young New Yorkers on the mainstream’s radar right now and they’ve managed to attain that status by leaning hard on sounds and techniques heavily indebted to Southern rap – from the beats to slathering chopped & screwed vocals all over their songs.
Lex Luger’s undoubtedly Southern, yet restrained (more negative space, less frantic drums, calmer synths) production on Lords of Flatbush made AK and Issa’s yammering about ambition, ‘third-eyes’ and ‘elevation’ infinitely more palatable to these ears and I imagine that other people (read: Clear Channel) might feel similarly soon, give or take a monster hook or two.
So for the twin achievements of creating another valid route of musical carpetbagging and reminding us that Lex Luger remains talented and breathing, The Underachievers’ get honors in 2013. —MobbDeen
While Teeflii’s AnnieRUO’TAY mixtape series earned the DJ Mustard co-sign, Fireworks was the culmination and the climax (or probably more accurately, the rising action). The former krump dancer featured in Dave LaChapelle’s Rize is in full-fledged radio killer mode here, a dangerous threat when paired with Mustard, the mayor of Rack City. The result is all gloss, baby-making anthems for millennials whose colored skinny jeans still gather dust in the back of their closet.
Teeflii’s formula is simple: dirty dance-floor sweet-talk that soars and stutters in all the right places, melodies as memorable as a massage, and three times as explicit. The video for his single “This D” is age-restricted on YouTube. Point is, he has pipes and he uses the powers selflessly. The world needs people like Teeflii to tell our women that “You, your body looking right, I’m tryna fuck with you,” because we don’t have the necessary falsetto to do it ourselves.
Not this this is at all novel. Ratchet is just a synonym for raunchy, the most resilient of all R&B tropes. Kellz only became a master of euphemism over time. His first single was called “Sex Me.” Maybe Teeflii will evolve into Oreo analogies, maybe he won’t. As long as his literalness stays this lush, it doesn’t matter. — Tosten Burks
Thank Based God we stopped using the term “nerd rap.” One, dorks have been dropping heat since long before Community. Two, it reduces intelligence and obscure interests to a sub-genre, as if intelligence and obscure interests aren’t already part of hip-hop. This is the point drilled in by Hellfyre Club’s debut label compilation Dorner vs. Tookie, a set of high-brow bangers formally introducing Nocando’s new family.
It opens wordlessly with “Bounce in the Trap,” a slapping assertion that the dense imagination and vocab to come isn’t an academic exercise. Bump this rhetoric down Rosecrans. Eventually, Busdriver speaks: “Dorner vs. Tookie: Ain’t that the lowest common denominator of ethical dilemmas?” And they’re off, the posse cut DVT finding Open Mike pulling up to shows in a Ford Focus sitting on 13s, Nocando being frank like the new pope, Kail running from his pig of a neighbor, and Busdriver claiming to be backgammon to the rap game.
The entire roster is as good alone as they are together – the 17-song project never drags. Milo gets sacrilegious throwing chip bags at pigeons on the sprawling poem “Ecclesiastes;” Kail toasts montrachet in Monterrey over the tape’s hardest beat “We On;” Mike Eagle buries every rap stereotype once and for all on “Qualifiers.” And Driver, Milo, and Nocan combine for “Manchester,” one of the best songs of the year, dismissing everybody’s rapper friends while drinking a six-pack of day-old angel tears. Few were bouncing harder and none were bouncing smarter in the trap this year than these hurried Marxist soothsayers. —Tosten Burks
The narrative surrounding Guido’s Moods of Future Joy is that dance music trends have moved away from the Bristol-based producer’s funky, melodic take on Dubstep. With that in mind, maybe it’s Guido who should move away from dance music: the sparkling, musical candy on this album certainly proves that he’s entirely capable of helming a Pop record without resorting to a club context’s musical signifiers. There isn’t a wobble in earshot here and beyond a few intros for mixing purposes, Moods of Future Joy is headphone, radio and bedroom ready. Calling this bass music is just inadequate – more than half the fun is indulging in the producer’s love of melody and seeing how he twists unusual phrases culled from videogames and the TRL era into his own brand of purple funk.
Most notably, the singles with singer Emma Lou Harris are absolute gems, echoes of an era where Timbaland and Darkchild launched R&B into a pre-millennial frenzy of shiny videos, shiny hooks and shiner crystal bottles. “Green Eyed Monster,” the first single and standout track, sounds like nothing less than the direct descendant of Soul II Soul and Massive Attack, combining the UK’s traditional love of Acid House to R&B smoothness and sound system pressure. If it didn’t dent the Pop charts quite like Disclosure’s Garage revival, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it’s easy to imagine Guido reaching the same heights as Rustie or Hudson Mohawke, should he choose to use his talents for the benefits of a mainstream pop star. Oh, and if not: can we at least get a collaboration with Swindle? (Who’s equally funky Long Live the Jazz could have just as easily have taken this spot on our list.) — Son Raw
R.Kelly is carnality personified. He does whatever he wants, with no regard for the repercussions. Black Panties is Robert’s most mature album, but only because he was a few months from 47 when it came out. The Pied Piper of R&B is a legendary figure in the music industry, and his latest project injects his gospel octaves into everything from auto-tune to trap. It’s not a flawless shift in musicality for him – nobody is getting conceived to trap drums. But Black Panties still contains a smattering of great songs for old fans to enjoy, while experimenting far enough into new territory to potentially win R.Kelly some newer, younger fans.
“Tear It Up,” ‘Sex Genius” and both songs with “Pussy” in the title are quality additions to Robert’s catalog of raunchy singalongs, and” My Story’ and “Spend That” are great rap collaborations. R.Kelly has always been a big kid, and now he’s living life unrestrained, making the type of album he knows will appeal to his biggest groups of fans: the women and the streets. The bonus track even offers a song with Migos AND Juicy J – the only person who will probably make for a more ratchet 47 year old than R.Kelly, albeit in 9 years. At times it’s disappointing to hear Kelly try to use auto-tune when he objectively sounds better without it, but listening to him get his tales of love and braggadocio out in any facet of the medium is, at the very least, interesting. A mature R.Kelly album, made for the over-thirty crowd who host their book clubs in the same living rooms where they practice their S&M fetish, may be interesting. But a mature R.Kelly is also an oxymoron. Perhaps, thankfully so. — Slava Pastuk
2 Chainz isn`t even supposed to be here right now. When your name-change is branded as an exciting flash-in-the-pan, the last thing people expect from you is longevity. After placing his hilariously poignant rhymes on all of the songs throughout 2011 and 2012, 2 Chainz released an underwhelming debut album on Def Jam. A year and one month later, B.O.A.T.S 2: Me Time, came out to tepid fanfare. With a lukewarm Pharrell single and a promotional run that focused more on his cookbook than the album it was supposed to coincide with, many people didn’t care to listen to the second instalment of Tity’s Tru stories.
Those people missed the fuck out. Me Time is a cohesive, if not silly, album that features 2 Chainz crafting songs that you don’t expect him to ever make. Never mind the fact that there’s a song with Fergie about uploading a sex tape to Netflix, or the fact that 2 Chainz’s wrist and stove get their own shout-out – those are expected casualties when you’re dealing with 2 Chainz, who is essentially playing the caricature of a modern rapper. Still, Me Time had some of the best rap songs of the year hidden as deep cuts. “I Do It” is a vintage Young Money cut, “Mainstream Ratchet” uses dubstep in a way that won’t disgust purists, and “So We Can Live” is a classic storytelling rap tale in the vein of Slick Rick. 2 Chainz is nothing if not entertaining, and although he attempted to bottle that essence on the first B.O.A.T.S with notable missteps, the sequel does a great job of cutting through the Mike Posner noise and getting right to the entertaining bits. — Slava Pastuk
“Indie,” I think we can all agree, stopped meaning “independent” long ago. Now, the whole “indie” thing is pretty much a cash-cow industry, and the music itself is almost secondary—cheap, disposable, compressed to ever-lower bitrates. And yet, if these days you can get your hands on the entire Keith Sweat discography in a matter of seconds via BitTorrent, you can at least be reassured that No Age put their blood, sweat and tears into the making of An Object. Here are two guys doing even the most basic grunt-work—producing songs but also packing crates—to get their objet d’art out to the world. And thankfully, the object itself, the very thing you hold in your hands (or upload onto iTunes, or whatever) really made this whole grueling exercise worthwhile.
An Object is nothing like 2010’s Everything in Between, in which the L.A. noise-punk duo forged catchy hooks out of pure squall. This time around, they strip their trademark sound apart, keeping some cathartic riffs but doing away with some other propulsive rhythms. And in the process, they explore a headier kind of noise—be it the grey streaks and amp burbles of “Running From A Go-Go,” or the Hoover-lite vapors guiding the brief “My Hands, Birch and Steel,” or the moonscape fever dreams that make up “Commerce, Comment, Commence.” The pleasures aren’t as immediate on An Object; you need to put in some work yourself to take it all in, and to hash out the abstract questions the album raises about what a piece of art is and what makes it important. But in the end, the immense gravity of this album offers its own special kind of bliss. —Peter Holslin
Though project founder and spiritual leader Peverelist would never think of describing it this way, Livity Sound is a victory in marketing. By lowering his tempo, ignoring the word Dubstep, and paying lip service to Techno, Pev found a way to continue his idiosyncratic musical journey without ever deviating from what made his music so interesting in the first place. As such, Livity Sound feels less like a new project than a reminder that Bristol has its own unique musical continuum stretching back to Smith & Mighty, Portishead, Massive Attack and beyond, with the city’s famed Jamaican sound systems as a spiritual center. Whether through Pev’s tribal dread, Kowton’s drum machine workouts or Asusu’s crafted techno, Reggae’s broken pulse, rebellious attitude and universal love radiates across Livity Sound’s output, a factor that elevates their music above practically every Techno-indebted UK release this year.
Which isn’t to say that Livity Sound is in any way backwards looking: this is some of the most up to date dance music weaponry so far, bridging Berlin’s sound design and ruthless efficiency to the aforementioned Dub attitude. The best moments come in collaboration when Kowton and Asusu’s love of mechanical rhythms and sounds collide with Pev’s ability to wear a sample down to its dirty, dusty core. This makes Livity Sound an essential listen: collecting 3 years of output into a tidy package, the label’s first CD release stands as a high water mark in post-Dubstep and post-Techno dance music, the rare release that explores these genres’ ideas to their full potential. — Son Raw
Chaz Bundick’s third full-length as Toro y Moi is a snapshot of an artist hitting his stride. It’s a progression in that it amplifies his strengths and folds in new influences without interrupting his momentum. Put another way: Bundick’s performing similar maneuvers, but the degrees of difficulty have been ratcheted way up. He’s working with more moving parts than ever on these tracks, but they never feel crowded.
Notably new is the flirtation with dance music on the album’s first half, with uptempo joints like “Say That” recalling his recent forays into four-on-the-floor house as Les Sins. Still present are the languid funk, faded pastel pop, and blissy sampledelia of his past releases. The ease with which Bundick flits between sounds and tempos recalls Inspiration Information-era Shuggie Otis – he’s in complete control of his tools. His vocals, in particular, are worth mentioning. They sit high in the mix on Anything in Return, and it’s obvious why – Bundick’s singing is clearer and more confident than ever before. This is open-minded, open-hearted music. — Adam Wray
John Cage’s 4′33″ is a marvel to the ears the first time you “listen” to it. The music theory pioneer’s most famous composition contains four-and-a-half minutes of complete silence. When it was performed live with a full orchestra in a packed theatre, the only sounds to be heard were natural ones made by the audience: a man shuffling in his seat, a woman blowing her nose, a baby crying. When Cage would receive a standing ovation after a performance, he knew the audience had witnessed and therefore learned his lesson: Silence isn’t really nothingness because it challenges you to fill in the gaps.
Logos’ Cold Mission isn’t an album of silence, but it isn’t exactly an album of songs, either. These are sketches drawn with invisible chalk, only giving a few clues to a broader picture. Instruments that perform organic and inorganic sounds are paralleled with one another, as shattered glass and the cocking of a gun are used as percussion on “Surface Area (Main Mix) and “Seawolf.” The former track has a whirling synthesizer ripped straight from Area 51’s jukebox, the latter rides on an industrial bass that rises and falls, as if one was jumping on a trampoline made of aluminum. With the exception of penultimate song “Wut It Do”— the record’s lone skull-shattering banger—it’s the space between the noises that rule the album’s anti-rhythm, making the LP’s hybridization of electronic, urban, and grime music an intriguing labyrinth. — Alex Koenig
What’s left to say about Gangster Gibbs at this point? He’s the undisputed champion of gangster rap – arguably the best rapper drawing breath – and yet somehow remains criminally under-appreciated by the world at-large. At this point, it seems cruel that Freddie Gibbs might never become the genuine star that he deserves to be but that simply does not take away from his ruthless, fire-breathing artistry that he pours in every word he recites on the microphone. Mainstream hip-hop might not fuck with street shit as real as Gibbs’ oeuvre but make no mistake – Gibbs is Gawd.
ESGN isn’t Freddie G.’s best album – that’s Baby Face Killa – but it might be the most relentlessly prototypical of his street supremacy. Gibbs’ songwriting is as taut and his flow is as effortless as it’s ever been on the album. Song after song, ESGN is loaded with Gibbs’ textbook blood-soaked bangers that ring out loudly in the streets. It would be hard to find finer examples of 100% puro, medical grade street rap than on songs such as “Eastside Moonwalker” or “Freddie Soprano.”
If I were Gibbs, the next time I found myself left off a media outlet’s “Hottest Rappers List,” I would plant myself underneath a Titantron, cross my legs Indian-style, and deliver a pipe bomb to those who refuse to acknowledge my superiority. — Doc Zeus
When I interviewed L.A. rapper/producer Jonwayne back in September, he spent a good ten minutes trying to get me to publish the name of a Gamestop manager who had treated him like shit back when he was slinging cartridges in his salad days.
What does this ascendant rapper care about when talking to a journalist? Looking cool? Sounding smart? Nah, Wayne’s main concern is to put this one asshole on blast. A friend of mine once said, regarding Wayne: “Jon’s a weird guy who does not give a fuck.” Jonwayne’s debut album, with its “cracker” album art – get it? – and tossed-off title, is the epitome of not giving a fuck.
Say you’re a person who gives a few fucks. You record an accessible, celebratory track like “The Come Up Pt. 1,” featuring Scoop DeVille, a rising star who’s produced hits for Kendrick Lamar. You wanna release it as the lead single, right? You’re obviously not Jonwayne who, to make it clear, gives no fucks. If you’re Wayne, your first taste of your new record is “Reflection,” a stubborn middle finger of a track, featuring enough time signature changes to satisfy a Rush fan and a flow proudly bitten from Busta’s “Dangerous.”
Luckily, Jonwayne can give few fucks because he has many talents, and a fanbase that loves his wordy rhymes and his delirious son-of-Madlib production. As he instructs his fans to chant during his live shows: “It ain’t the crown that makes the royalty. It’s the crowd and their loyalty.” — Jordan Pedersen
Regardless of how gully your musical tastes are, one often needs to decompress by bumping some androgynous sounding, downtempo R&B that happens to delve into white people problems. Aight, maybe that was unfair, given that we all deal with issues of the heart, but even the biggest Rhye boosters have to admit that their stuff sounds like it could easily replace the tracks on the Garden State original soundtrack. In other words, this shit could be the soundtrack to the whitest movie ever. I suppose one oughta expect this kinda shit from a Danish-Canadian combo.
Inappropriate categorizations aside, I think we can all agree that there’s room in all our lives for an R&B group that’s sorta reminiscent of Sade (the band, not the sultry object of lust) and I happen to believe that Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal’s work in this incarnation is superior to the bulk of their prior work as soloists or as members of different groups. The ethereal vocals and simultaneouly lush, varied and sparse (at points) instrumentals just make you feel like a classier human being. And lord knows I love me some muted horns.
Whatever you happen to feel about those more appropriate categorizations, there’s no doubting that Rhye’s “Woman” is perfect boudoir listening, or better yet, perfect music to bond over with that special someone. Yeah, gully muthafuckas get corny too. — MobbDeen
Not knowing that his life was about to change, Prodigy turned right onto 9th Avenue with Alchemist riding shotgun. They made an illegal U-turn and drew the attention of two plainclothes cops who then saw Prodigy hide an unlicensed pistol. Alchemist went free. Prodigy got three years.
In hindsight, I have to wonder if their creative link was strained after Prodigy came home in 2011 and Alchemist had taken to third world progressive rock records. They made a picture-perfect comeback record and Alchemist contributed to Prodigy’s projects, but it was clear that Al’s passion was left field work with Oh No, Domo Genesis, and Action Bronson, not to mention his sprawling Cold War period drama, Russian Roulette.
Two years after Prodigy’s release, Albert Einstein is his and Alchemist’s proper reunion. Prodigy’s rhymes come unadorned by fancy narrative structures and schematic backflips. Instead there’s “Nigga strip who? I’ll beat you til you lavender” – sensational violence that boils over when Prodigy goes on a killing spree on “Confessions”. All doubts about chemistry prove unfounded as they reap terror, resignation, and triumph from Alchemist’s outstanding beats. It is at once the perfect conception of Alchemist’s accelerated crate-digging and a smack in the face from a mature-but-irate Prodigy.
There’s a point on “Bible Paper” when Prodigy is rapping about floating into space (“You leave me be, or it’ll be a holocaust”) over a Hungarian synthesizer riff from 1984 where it becomes clear Prodigy and Alchemist are one of rap’s great duos, even worthy of mention alongside Prodigy’s other group. — Evan Nabavian
It’s rare thing to get a debut that’s clear in intent and sharp in execution, to be both so full of ideas and so effective in communicating them. That may sound clinical, but it’s this precision that allows the warm heart of Jessy Lanza’s Pull My Hair Back to beat so clearly. You won’t find a pop record released this year more thoughtfully assembled. Built around the push/pull between Lanza’s lighter-than-air vocals and her gently thumping synths, there’s not an ounce of fat on this thing. It’s patient, too, setting up its punches minutes before throwing them: the sharp turn in the latter half of “Fuck Diamond,” the synth eruption midway through “As If.”
Vocally, the obvious comparison is Mariah Carey, and it’s actually instructive here – like Mariah, Lanza flutters over top of her instrumentals, feeling simultaneously distant and unnervingly close. It’s this paradoxical, faraway intimacy that draws you in close enough for these tunes to get their hooks in you. At times, it’s even jarring – the title track sounds as though it’s being performed for the listener alone.
At the same time, Lanza’s wide-screen pop instincts are pure. “Keep It Moving” is a smash hit waiting to happen, all glossy synths and steady pulse and just-vague-enough-to-feel-universal lyrics. It’s far more deserving of a Nile Rogers guitar lick than certain other tracks released this year. This tune – and I mean this as a compliment – would sell a million iPhones. And if that’s what it takes to get Jessy Lanza into our shopping malls, dentists’ offices, and chain restaurants, I can live with it. I’d rather hear her record way too often than not often enough. — Adam Wray
In 2013, nothing was more polarizing among the Passion of the Weiss writing staff than Migos’ breakthrough mixtape, Young Rich Niggas. In fact, had there been some type of music-crit filibuster option at our disposal, this entry likely wouldn’t exist. For many, the Atlanta-based trio—comprised of Quavo, Takeoff, and the elusive Offset, who experienced the group’s viral ascent from behind the walls of Dekalb County Detention Center—trigger flashbacks to the ringtone bubble of the mid-aughts. Their proponents, however, championed their relentless energy and trance-inducing hooks. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it type of record.
No matter where you stand on the trap rap ideological spectrum, you would have to admit their trademark run-on flows were utterly inescapable. One of the most anticipated mainstream albums of the year, Drake’s Nothing Was The Same, featured Migos by way of outright mimicry. Even a poorly executed animated parody of “Versace” tallied upward of 2 million views on Youtube. Migos churned out half a dozen brolic street singles, resurrecting a whimsical aesthetic that harkens back to Busta Rhymes’ early stint with Leaders of the New School. Like most great rap groups, Migos’ most valuable assets are one another, followed closely by a rainbow coalition of wholesale cocaine distributors. — Harold Stallworth
David Lynch told Louis CK one of the keys to the entertainment industry is that you have to go away to come back. After seven years out of the game, J-Zone returned this year with Peter Pan Syndrome and learned that Whole Foods replaced the liquor sto’, Basquiats cleansed the sins of former drug kingpins, and selfies are the outbreak monkey that spread the Disease of Me. Success in 2013 is YouTube views, cosigns by lifestyle magazines, and a careful combination of drugs from the ‘90s and banging girls born in the ‘90s. Urban Outfitters is the new Fat Beats. Twitter beef is the new drive-by shooting. Eighteen year olds making boom bap is the new boom bap. But what’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in emoticons?
Success is learning the drums in your mid-thirties. Success is self-publishing a book… about failure. Success is selling out of your new album on cassette. Success is filming your first music video fifteen years into your independent music career. Success is turning your back on LinkedIn. Success is creating something because you love it, or because it’ll get you dap from Granddady IU. No matter how much self deprecation and corporate work horror stories make up his album, don’t let Peter Pan Syndrome fool you – J-Zone is successful. — Zilla
Myths are made for the mythmakers—people love to amplify stories and that of Thebe Kgositsile, who was removed from the world just as his name and that of his crew caught fire, was a doozy. The lost boy, the blockbuster rapper, the superstar forcibly stopped from doing what he loved. It’s not as if the facts weren’t there. It’s just that maybe we all got a little carried away. When Earl returned from Samoa, he returned to a world that was primed for a superstar, a wunderkind. Not some weird lonely kid who wasn’t quite sure how to be in the world even before he was famous.
Not that Earl wasn’t a wunderkind. But this is lyrics we’re talking, people: devilish testaments, they aren’t so easy to pick apart. And Earl refused to give even the most cursory of nods to the mainstream, possibly irking his label, who may have been hoping that hype would give them something in the vicinity of Kendrick at the very least. I don’t think so—this is insular rap, diamond hard, pavement dark. But spend some time with the record and watch Earl’s world come alive, his ability to hone in on the very real feeling of a frustrating relationship (“Sunday”) or write the best thinkpiece on Earl Sweatshirt in existence, and only need about four minutes to do it (“Chum”). See how Earl prefers collaboration to the challenge of working alone, how he thrives in the company of his buddies in Odd Future, a crew that quietly had its best year yet. Hear how he’s not intimidated by working with RZA, how he’ll rightfully defend the skills of the suddenly respectable Mac Miller. Myths are easy—Earl came back as a fully formed artist, creased and crenellated, his music difficult and rewarding. Came back from Samoa willing to make his record and promote his record, but only on his own terms. Came back a man. — Jonah Bromwich
Odd Future aren’t the alt-rap crew we need, but 20 years into the reign of gangsta rap, they’re probably the alt-rap crew we deserve. Either way, those Wu-Tang comparisons were way off, the no-fuck-giving skate rap crew has evolved to resemble nothing less than a post-millennial Native Tongues: quirky, rebellious and completely refusing to fit rap stereotypes. While Earl Sweatshirt earned the most critical praise this year, ringleader Tyler might have made the greatest leap forward with Wolf, consolidating his teen-angst-engaging worldview with massively improved production and songwriting that’s becoming impossible to ignore.
Landing halfway between a black Beastie Boy circa Check Your Head, Pharell at his NERDiest and Brian Wilson’s teenaged symphonies, Wolf is an ode to the childhood summers Tyler never had. Of course, Tyler being Tyler, this means school shootings, deranged fans and absentee fathers alongside odes to mountain bikes and campfire sing-alongs, but Wolf’s magic is that this time, it all comes together musically. Mostly devoid of Loiter Squad’s Punk’d style humor, Tyler instead throws his energy into break beats, chord progressions and some genuinely touching song topics, and it’s downright fun to see him figure out that life doesn’t suck, especially after the horror show that was Goblin. Sure, the rapping won’t have Kendrick worrying about his crown, but with songs like “Campfire,” “Answer,” “Lone” and “Treehome95″ – Wolf proves that when he sets his mind to it and wards off the ADHD, Tyler has everything it takes to make a complete statement. Who says growing up has to suck? — Son Raw
Action Bronson may be the most entertaining man in show business. The first of his two 2013 releases, SAAAB Stories, was wrongly tainted. An extra ‘A’ was added to the title distorting the nostalgia, the drug mule cover was mistaken for misogyny, and the label neglected 70 virgins on the opening track when uploading to iTunes. In the weeks and months that followed, Bronson’s demeanor waned despite his bodyguard frame. But a tour in Europe and enough dabs to impress Signac brought Bam Bam back better than ever.
“It’s Me.” When he says it, you believe it. Cuisine by the course load whipping classic cars. Bronson’s bravado makes him a natural rapper. And you can hear him smile on these recordings with Party Supplies’ Justin Nealis. Frequently laughing mid-take, Action takes everything in stride, he’s having fun with it. The guests are limited and comfortable as can be alongside the former chef. As the album flies by, you find yourself mentally replacing Tracy Chapman, Phil Collins, and Champs’ classics with Bronson’s bodied takes. These are just a few of the reasons that make Blue Chips 2 outstanding.
Without ever having to say “I am a god,” he shows us his life through lyrics and is relatable enough to inspire confidence to seize the day. Off butter the color of Jalen Rose, he’s etched himself into the finest marble, imported from Connecticut. Flushing has another legend that will never die. All he can do is grow. — Brad Beatson
Simply put, Boldy James and The Alchemist gave us traditionalists (I prefer the term ‘classicist’ – feels more racisty thanks to Metalface Yeezus) that comfort food. You know, rap chicken noodle soup for gangstariffic ass souls. ALC brought the heat like he always does on the board and Boldy James revealed himself to be Rap Game Paul George. Those of us in the know always knew that Boldy had bars, but it took superior production from a veteran to illuminate just how good he is.
I mean, this shit basically hits every mark for a dope ass rap release in my book. Brevity (13 tracks), solid production (The Alchemist), great guest verses (highlights are the back & forth verses with Action Bronson on ‘Traction’ & Vince Staples blacking out) and a compelling character to tie it all together – Boldy. He handles everything from threats to hooks with sanguine-ass, OG-level aplomb. Applaud that man.
My 1st Chemistry Set isn’t the hardest or most innovative sounding album of 2013, but there’s something to be said for sticking to a lane and mining it to perfection. There are a number of albums ranked ahead of M.1.C.S. on our list this year, but I guarantee that none of them sound as detached, anti-social and consistent from track to track as this album does. And guess what? For a certain breed of rap geek, that equals nirvana. — MobbDeen
The boldest move that Shlohmo could have made after rattling off 2012’s soul-devouring Vacation EP would be to begin its follow-up with an R&B song. Yet that’s exactly what he did when he recruited How to Dress Well to sing on the poignant “Don’t Say No.” Just don’t call the L.A. electronic producer a sellout; somehow his distinctive pitch-black atmosphere pervades. In comparison, singing along to ballads from Frank Ocean or the Weeknd can make Shlohmo seem allergic to sunlight.
To listen to rest of Laid Out is to enter R&B and rap’s catacombs. Elements of each genre—lyrical introspection, moving melodic shifts, boom bap beats—are buried underneath layers of gloom and shadows. Shlohmo’s presence is felt even though he never opens himself up completely, touching each of the tracks with a harrowing beauty before they fade out. The two concluding tunes, “Put It” and “Without,” lull like haunted television static, slicing such a thin line between tuneful and paranormal that The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling should be credited in the liner notes.
The EP’s six-minute centerpiece and defining cut is “Later.” Beset with glistening keyboards and circling vocal howls, it signifies a salute and sayonara to old habits and contradictions— the sound of a car pulling out of the house garage as the driver doesn’t look back. One can’t help but believe that when it came to his narcotic-laced art, this was Shlohmo’s goal all along. — Alex Koenig
Coming off the unqualified success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I was convinced there was nowhere left for Kanye to go. I assumed his next album with a preposterous name would be his Waterloo, the point where the tide finally broke on his remarkable career.
Upon first listen, I think everyone on Earth had the same reaction to the ugly, glitchy beats, the tortured primal screams, the punchlines, totally and completely absurd, even for Yeezy, muck of confused racial and sexual politics. We exchanged looks of revulsion — that this wasn’t just a wreck, it was a disaster. But we listened to it again, and again, and again. The hooks wormed their way into your head, the punchlines became catch phrases, the album filler played on terrestrial radio several times an hour. The album revealed itself to be full of little, brilliant, courageous decisions. It was a puzzle box, with each listen you uncovered something new and strange and often, beautiful. Kanye did everything he could to push us away, and still won us over.
When you inspect the championships of a dynasty, which are the most impressive? Is it the improbable beginnings, when a young upstart breaks a reigning champ? Is it the muscular culmination, the perfect season in which wins are stacked in record breaking fashion and foes are discarded with laughable ease? Or is it the final victory lap, when wheezing, seemingly against the ropes, the champ digs deep and musters the last bit of effort necessary to put down a worthy challenger. The stuff of guile, will and pure determination, before riding off into the sunset.
Even a diehard fan has the sinking impression that Kanye West won’t be so fortunate, to enjoy a hero’s exit. But let the record show that in 2013, expecting a child with a woman destined to confine him to tabloid hell forever, with his best album in his slipstream, and with his sanity unraveling by the minute, Kanye West delivered a noise rap album that expanded parameters, challenged preconceived notions and ultimately worked. He even launched another paradigm shifting tour on it.
Yeezus doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever heard before in any genre, or are likely to ever hear again. Unlike past Kanye efforts, this album is practically biter proof, it will resist all attempts at replication. It’s a singular, staggering achievement only one man could have pulled off. Once again, perhaps for the last time, the greatest pop artist on Earth bravely pulled victory from the jaws of inevitable defeat. My fellow pundits, retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment. — Abe Beame
I’ve seen Classixx turn daylight to twilight. At FYF this past summer they hit one of the tented stages in L.A. State Historic Park with the afternoon sun still high and shining. After playing some of their fantastic remixes (see “Green Eyed Love”), the duo launched into tracks from their Innovative Leisure debut Hanging Gardens. Almost immediately, as if by some synth sorcery, the sun began to descend. The multi-colored lights were turned on. Spinning disco balls became talismans. And the entirety of the tent jumped, clapped, swayed, and smiled uncontrollably. Then again, maybe I was the only one who couldn’t stop smiling. I was significantly stoned.
Regardless of whether or not you’re fortunate enough to experience Classixx live, Hanging Gardens should be one of your picks for dance record of the year. There are higher-ranking albums on this list with electronic elements, but few possess the ability to move you both physically and emotionally. Hanging Gardens is the near perfect synthesis of electronic, pop, disco, funk and all other genres of groove. It’s also equally good whether you’re alone with your headphones or listening to it blaring out of speakers in a packed tent in the summer heat. If you don’t dance to this record then you have no right to a fully functioning body. And if it doesn’t make you feel some type of way, then you’re a sad robot. — Max Bell
Post 2009, the shorthand for Juicy J is that he’s somehow achieved global domination by simply returning to the well every year when the water’s fresh. But it’s a simplified viewpoint that underestimates the influence he and fellow Three Six Mafioso DJ Paul had on today’s beatmakers. The Wiz Khalifa connect might have been the spark that lit this codeine fueled-fire, but it also helped open up Juicy to a clutch of high profile producers who more or less already worshipped the ground on which he walks. Strapped with that firepower, Stay Trippy is a triumph of establishing your shtick and stamping on the accelerator. Pound-for-pound, it’s arguably the most consistent rap album of the year.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Juicy J has more personality than his extensive guest list put together (which, with Wale, Chris Brown and Big Sean all featuring, might not actually be saying all that much). And he’s almost intensely likeable: if your girl is wondering why she’s dancing to lines such as “All this ice I’m just livin’ the life / Bad bitches want me, give me head like lice”, it’s probably because they’re delivered by a guy with the goofy-grinned #FOMO disposition of a meerkat.
So you have the pragmatic hedonism of songs such as “Bounce It” and “Scholarship” and “The Woods,” each packaged in the expensive, candy-painted beats that signal the ultimate triumph of artistic and commercial reinvention. But while memories of Hollywood and Good Charlotte and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lawn may have faded, the spirit of 3 Six is never far away, whether through the bounce of “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” the clipped snares of “Show Out,” or indeed the horrorcore that lurks just beneath the surface of the entire album.
It’s that rare LP about conspicuous consumption of women, weed and booze that works when you’re stone cold sober. Still, if this wasn’t playing at every house party throughout the summer, you need new friends. — Matt Shea
Over the past twelve months, a lot more 420-friendly girls at after-hour nightclubs twerked to roadrunner snares and swooned to euphoric chord changes. This is for good reason: Rashad recruited the finest reggie-puffing row of DJ and vocal collaborators of his Teklife troop—Spinn, Taso, Manny, among others—to create stoned symphonies so authentic to weed and lean-sipping culture that you can almost inhale the vape and taste the purple Jolly Ranchers. Even to those who never breathed in a whiff of secondhand smoke, the album’s mantras are straightforward: “We got drank, we got kush, we got bars in this bitch.” “Light it up, motherfucker, light it up.” “Break it down, roll it up, pass that shit, what the fuck?”
If those topics seem overdone, rest assured that Double Cup’s songs transcend the substances that sparked them. “She a Go” is tale of seduction by way of popping pills, but not even the president of D.A.R.E. would be able to resist dancing to it. Rashad isn’t hotboxed into one style, though; he’s an auteur for the everyman, inflecting universal emotions like love, hurt, and menace into nearly every album cut. 2Pac’s threatening snarl from Juice is sampled on “I Don’t Give a Fuck,” his words flaring up as breakneck drums clash like spinning plates. The gorgeous refrain of “Only One” rings like a lullaby to a lost valentine. After spending nearly a decade in the underground circuit, Rashad has at long last unleashed a toe-tapping masterwork, one to crack craniums and dance floors. — Alex Koenig
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for you merely adopted the darkness; Ka was born in it. The Night’s Gambit is a cold relic from a distant age, as uncompromising and uncompromised as its author. This is rap in its most concentrated form. This is minimalism. Consonants weave menacingly through storm drains below flickering street lamps over beats that don’t bump so much as throb and pulsate and respire.
Where is hip-hop’s vanguard? Is it at the Museum of Modern Art? Is it projected on the sides of buildings? Or is it where it’s always been? In the shadows at the edge of defeat. On “Nothing Is” Ka confesses, “I don’t get rich from this, this is labor of love.” The Night’s Gambit only exists to exist. — Disco Vietnam
Despite nearly abandoning the idea of a sequel to Forest Swords’ Dagger Path, you sense that Matt Barnes is one of those English musicians who’ll be around forever. You know the kind: the country dwelling, capital A artiste who might not drop anything for 10 years but who’ll suddenly re-emerge with a mind-blowing record that’s even more surprising than his last. Think Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. All comparisons and predictions aside, we’re incredibly lucky that Barnes did power through – Engravings is everything we loved about Forest Swords’ previous output and more, refracting Folk, Dub, third world musical traditions and more into an weather-worn opus that’s simultaneous ecstatic and gloomy.
If you want to stump just about anyone – ask them to pigeonhole this album. It’s not dance music, having little interest in the rules of sound system music, but calling it Indie is an insult. It’s not rock, nor soul and while I’m pretty sure someone’s going to sample Thor’s Hammer for a beat one of these days, it’s not yet Hip-Hop. No, Engravings is the rare album that truly stands on its own – a hyper-mediated combination of memories and dreams that feels like it should come with a bag of Kush and an 8MM film shot in a distant galaxy, just to give the listener an idea of what these sounds are supposed to represent. As it stands, we’ll probably have to make due with the weed and approximations of future civilizations of mystic Rasta shamans. — Son Raw
32 minutes. 10 stick-up kid salvos. Two great artists bludgeon the rap industry with skull-cracking rhymes, stealing diamonds while they do it. At first glance, they make an unlikely combination: the fiery avatar of old no-bullshit Brooklyn who made “independent as fuck” a war whoop, with a Dungeon family strip club connoisseur. But Killer Mike and EL-P are built tougher than the leather on Run and Paul Pierce’s jacket.
Instead of focusing on production like their first collaboration, 2012’s R.A.P Music, EL-P picks up the mic and matches his partner verse for verse. There’s an air of competitiveness and genuine friendship as El and Killer Kill swoop in like your favorite anti-heroes. This is lyrical, but there’s no preachiness or lazy wordplay. These guys have mastered the art of shit-talking and combined with some extremely listenable aggression, their wit stays cutting. Killer Mike “Shyne Po’s a ho. His partner in crime does the cleat Riverdance on your face.
When the coolest duo of 2013 are rapping about kicking over your son’s fort and taking grip plyers to your feet, it’s hard not to pay attention. If a project makes you feel like enough of a badass to mean-mug the elderly whilst on public transportation, it’s a winner. — Jimmy Ness
The Luca Brasi Story is the looser, longer and more cinematic of Kevin Gates’ two excellent albums released in 2013. Stranger Than Fiction is comparatively tight and unified – dense and fine like a diamond. But there’s really no reason to limit yourself to only one – credit the bounty of the internet.
What makes Kevin Gates so good? It’s relatively hard to say. Or at least, it’s hard to say while avoiding the over-the-top diction that’s become the standard jackhammer music writers use to break through our readers’ concrete cynicism (or overstimulation). He’s just, like, really good at rapping. Gates constantly strings together a couple hundred word narratives that take hairpin turns through funny to dreadful to redemptive. He doesn’t need top-notch production to make one of the best singles of the year. Hell, he doesn’t even need a beat at all to make a hair-raising track. The world needs more Kevin Gates: a self-aware, narratively gifted, and above all, *genuinely human* rapper. His work speaks for itself. All you have to do is listen. — B. Michael Payne
Nicolas Jaar somehow managed to top his solo debut this year with the unveiling of Psychic, the first full-length from his side-project Darkside. The tracks on Psychic all congeal into one amorphous blob of sleek downtempo electronic, showing influences as diverse as Tortoise and Nightmares on Wax, but the real beauty of the album lies in its sleek modern take on many of the stylistic hallmarks of psych-rock: disembodied vocals, extended guitar solos and slow, gradual builds. When combined with the dark, industrial tone of the album, these structural nods lend character to its overall concept.
Even with Jaar’s bubbly, seductive style, there’s no arguing that Psychic is an immersive late night listen, designed for those seeking transmission from a higher power or just purification after a long night of sinning. But more important than any kind of mimicry is the powerful transportive quality of the album. Psychic sounds exactly like what it was meant to be: an homage to after-hours NYC. It’s the album you imagine playing in every apartment with a light on while walking home in the rain at 2 AM. It’s the soundtrack to loneliness in the big city. — Aaron Frank
In spite of what Jay Z will have you believe, rap is a young man’s sport. Youthful vigor can not only propel an artist into fame, but grant legitimacy to their more outlandish claims. Youth is what allows Chance the Rapper to rap about both retweets and gang violence with earnest, and it’s what makes us pay attention to what he has to say on both topics. Youth is a lens that we can only experience once in our lives for a very brief period. Most of the time we take it for granted, which in turn forces us to seek out and live through someone else’s youth.
Acid Rap allows us to do just that, which is why it was the best rap mixtape to come out in 2013. It has the sort of nuances that could only come from a project that was tediously combed through by its creator – the samples, the structure, the looping, the features, the well timed dramatic pause that separates the happy-go-lucky “Pusha Man” from the morose and cynical “Paranoid.” Everything about Acid Rap is premeditated and essential to the point where, if you take away any one song, the whole thing crumbles like a sandcastle under the foot of a teenager running away from the beach because of gunfire.
Acid Rap pays respect to Chicago’s deep history of musical talent without ever focusing on one specific aspect long enough for it to feel familiar. It’s spoken word, drill, juke, soul and funk coming together in a mosaic that melts together at the edges. It’s the sound of all of Chance’s worlds colliding, with none of the unpolished debris. Acid Rap may have flown under some radars due to the fact that it lacked a hit with widespread appeal – the type of song that makes you want to drape yourself in “Versace” while feeling “Some Type of Way.” But those songs come and go so often, that creating them doesn’t seem like an accomplishment anymore. Almost any plain Jame$ can make a song for Atlanta strip clubs, but Acid Rap couldn’t have been made by anyone other than Chance – a smart teenager from Chicago who has seen more violence than he would like to admit, and one who has the talent necessary to not only express the pain and helplessness that accompany that violence, but the jubilation that comes from escaping it. — Slava Pastuk
You don’t need to research Thundercat’s Apocalypse in order to enjoy it. The jazz-fusion space-age newness out of Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder camp is one of the two most technically impressive records of the year (the other, Random Access Memories, has unconscionably been left out of our top 50). It’s also got some of the most disarming lyrics I’ve heard, and a huge sense of fun. It shows Thundercat to be a practical hippie, new age, yet down to Earth, even in the face of enormous grief. I can’t think of another record on which you might find a song like “Special Stage,” a how-to-live primer that doubles as a meditation on ambition and triples as a life-as-video-game allegory.
But if you’d really like to understand Apocalypse, you have to go back to a record called Endless Planets. It’s the only original studio record from Austin Peralta, the piano genius who was one of Thundercat’s best friends and who died in late 2012 at the age of 22. On Endless Planets, Peralta’s love for his instrument is quite literally uncontainable: flurries of chords burst out of any given song, doubling, tripling and moving back on one another. Listen to Apocalypse and the bass churning, roiling living below each and every song and you’ll find that Peralta’s ghost lives on this record.
That’s true instrumentally, and it’s true of the songs here too. “Heartbreaks and Setbacks” may sound generally metaphysical in its exploration of life’s ups and down, but its companion piece, the record’s closer, is heartbreakingly specific. “A Message for Austin” is the kind of song that a professional songwriter might avoid. It’s beautiful and simple, and the saddest part about it is that the message is overwhelmingly one of gratitude: “Thank you for being the friend that you were to me,” Thundercat croons.
But if Apocalypse is a requiem, and it is, then it’s a mourning session that celebrates about as often as it grieves a friend’s departure. There’s enormous joy in living here; a diverting if hilariously unglamorous song about drug use, a paean to another friendship that still survives, trips and big ideas all wrapped up in delicious, instrumentally sublime jazz, disco, and funk, the type that most musicians wouldn’t even know how to go about making. It’s not just Austin Peralta who informs the core of Apocalypse. It’s the relationship between Peralta and Thundercat, a relationship no less loving for being platonic. That makes Apocalypse a record of both love and love lost and that combination of warmth and grief is beautiful and rare as rare gets. —Jonah Bromwich
Old is the sound of a brain boiling. It captures the gruesome limbo between night and day, when it’s unclear whether you’re grinding your teeth because of the drugs or the nerves.
Danny Brown writes minor details that add up to chronic nightmares. The weight eyeballed with a jeweler’s precision—only .8 grams off. The $25 sum that his mom charged for hair braiding. A blood trail on a plastic baggie. Timbalands used for a pillow in prison.
You might want the old Danny Brown, but he’s spent the last two decades trying to forget it. Old is a failed attempt to reconcile his Detroit post-traumatic stress disorder with being America’s favorite Blanca-haired “hipster rapper.” He hears the corny epithets, so he conscripts Freddie Gibbs, all pyrex vsion and pistols, to flip “Return of the Gangsta.”
Danny Brown spent the last 32 years rifling back-and-forth between the poet and the pimp. Now he just wants some serenity. Instead, there are flashbacks so intense you’d mistake molly for mescaline. On any given night, doom and euphoria are a matter of chemistry. Whether pills, powder, or pussy, he’s searching for an antidote. But he’s lived long enough to know that no cure exists.
Danny Brown spent three decades dreaming about being the greatest rapper ever. He’s gotten as close as any rapper from his generation, but by the time he got here, he figured he’d be long gone. Old is what it’s like to wake up when you think you should be dead. His sins have only brought rewards. But the scars and residue make it so he can’t even enjoy the blowjobs from model twins. Well, I’m sure he can, but within a few bars he’s back to reminiscing on eating corned beef hash and apple jacks for dinner.
Side A of Old reads like a flipbook of fucked up memories. Getting your face kicked in as a juvenile on the way to buy Wonderbread. The dope fiend eaten out by pit bulls as punishment for not paying the boss. Sleep interrupted by the constant gunshots. Side B is cartoon animation. Drugs, orgies, grime, laser rave beats, becoming a beast to blot out the pain. Freak Nasty’s “Da Dip” is converted into a pinky-licking drug anthem. If MDMA is the cocaine of this decade, Old is our Station to Station.
The consensus best album of 2013 confuses a night at the club as an excuse for primal scream therapy. Danny Brown’s problem is that he doesn’t have a God complex. Despite the critical acclaim, sold-out tours, and Thin White Duke-worthy debauchery, there is something depressingly mortal about him. Gods don’t grow old, but you and I do. Danny Brown is busy dying, but no one has ever had a better time doing it. —Jeff Weiss