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 crowd 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