Even the Wet Bandits agree with this list. Do as they say, not as they do. Wealth was attempted to be spread, so as this subjective litany isn’t identical to the Best Album list. There is no Drake because the executive board of this website has a long-standing grudge with his family dating back to the Purim of 343 B.C. Long story.
50. Maxo Kream- “Lewinsky”
I am a big fan of gangsta rap and maybe an even bigger fan of action movies. So in the name of entertainment, I’ve heard and seen scenes of unimaginable carnage, described or shown in minute gory details, and never flinched. By now I should be wholly desensitized to them. But even so, I find ‘Lewinsky’ slightly unsettling.
It’s not the reality of Maxo’s violent personal history in which the song is rooted, he’s far from the first to talk it and actually live it. It’s not the slick video, full of mean mugs and big guns and culminating with the shot of the tied up squirming victims. I’ve seen all that before. What really gets under my skin is the prevailing calm with which the song is executed. In The Silence Of The Lambs, there’s a memorable moment where Hannibal Lecter brutally attacks a nurse while his heartbeat remains at only 85 bpm. This song unspools with similar chilling tranquility of temperament. The beat is creeping, languid and unhurried. There is no urgency in the delivery of the lyrics, nor is there any sense that the author is in any way perturbed (or conversely, excited) by his actions. He comes across as a perfectly dispassionate tool of destruction. He holds his victims’ life in his hands and he doesn’t care if that life is continued or extinguished.
The unsettling part is that by an extension of the artist-audience relationship, that victim is you. — Alex Piyevsky
49. Oddisse ft. Diamond District – “Bonus Flow”
What a weird place Washington D.C. is: creaky septuagenarian lawmakers in tacky suits shuffle around Capitol Hill, trailed by gaggles of twentysomething graduates of Georgetown and Cornell, the supposed best and brightest who gave up six-figure investment banking salaries to sweat through their seersucker suits in the District. It’s a tableau that practically invites defacement.
Its artists have always obliged. Even at the height of hardcore’s vitriol, the Washington strain spewed the most bile. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Scream: these guys lived at the epicenter of Reagan’s America. Who could blame them for playing faster, screaming louder, and moshing harder than anyone else?
I hear the same thrust in a track like “Bonus Flow.” Oddisee spends the rest of his excellent Tangible Dream mixtape spinning literate yarns over tasteful beats. But here at the end, with his better angels out of his system, he lashes out, casting Diamond District cohorts yU and Uptown XO as his demons.
They rhyme viciously, Uptown opting for a delirious double-time and yU for a sanitarium-cackling insanity, both of them delightedly spraying verbal graffiti all over the National Mall. Maybe if they just rhyme fast enough, if they can come up with one punchline scathing enough, they might be able to crack that eerie Stepford Wives façade that D.C. cultivates so assiduously.
It’s a fantasy. But that’s the role D.C.’s alt culture has always played: to present a frenetic weirdo alternative to the city’s Cheshire Cat grin. I’m sure the Obama Youth are just as happy as were the Reagan. — Jordan Pedersen
48. Nacho Picasso – “Crime Waves “
It was a good year to have a God complex. Yeezus draped himself in the Confederate flag and created a cult to donate their Christmas funds to Donda. (No Eric Schmidt). Nacho Picasso starts out “Crime Waves” with a deistic clip from Hunger Games. He’s a generous tyrant from the home of Starbucks, who raps like he’s wanted for holding Howard Schultz’s family hostage. Jesse Robinson is Nacho, the bad guy, Mike Tyson if he never meet Cus D’Amato, with more tattoos than IQ points.
He’s not the dumb bully, but the smart fuck-up, ritualistically disciplined to make bad decisions. Full House’s Uncle Jesse if he came to clap at your knees. A zombie live-wire with the mantra: “my way is the high way. My way is the high way.” He’s drugged-out up in Rite-Aid, with syrup in his lime-aid. At A3C, I saw him sipping on a double cup inside a gas station convenience store. That is consistency and it’s indicative of the last three years that have seem him drop impressive project after project, painting him as a Pacific Northwest answer to a young Killa Cam. You don’t want to know what will happen if you make him wait for his burnt bread. — Jeff Weiss
47. Milli Mars – “Tokyo Noir”
Milli Mars is one of the best rappers San Antonio has ever produced, if not the best. Tony Parker does not count – as a person from San Antonio or legitimate rapper – and I can’t think of any off the top of my head. (Hit the comments section to give us all a comprehensive list).
Mars’ “Tokyo Noir” is eerie and sinister, the soundtrack to grainy security cam footage from some seedy locale. The crisp drums hit hard, and the muted alarms on the track approach the manic in their melody. With respect to the rhymes, Mars offers confident and deftly rapped braggadocio for he and his crew while using vocal-filters. The opposition is left leaking in the trunk and all future pictures will be painted with post-homicide crimson. Even your mother and your father are not safe.
If any of the above sounds appealing, check Milli Mars’ latest project, The Toyotomi E.P. There are samurai swords and femme fatales and San Antonio’s J.J. Gittes is on the case in Tokyo. The last sentence was possible, and thus whether that case is in little Tokyo (in Texas?) or the Japanese capital is irrelevant. —Max Bell
46. YC the Cynic – “Molotovs at Poisedon”
Calling yourself God causes a listener to raise an eyebrow. YC know this, so he points as many guns as possible at the deity-claiming perp. His debut album, GNK, is full of mythological imagery and reference to gods of all kinds, but not once does he say that he’s the most holy. That would go against his character.
In our interview with YC, he revealed himself to be first and foremost a man about his community, selfless and hardworking, more about the well-being of others than simply his own. Seeing the song performed live he asked the audience to think of someone they truly loathed, and to repeat the hook after him: “Do you know who you’re fucking with?” By the third go round, the audience was deafening with participation. The people will always be greater than the individual. — Brad Beatson
45. Vince Staples ft. Schoolboy Q – “Back Selling Crack”
Vince Staples’ sorely underheard collaborative mixtape with Mac Miller (Stolen Youth) contained several instances of his dead-eyed, easy-sounding and straightforward ruminations on life in Long Beach. But “Back Sellin Crack” probably contains the most succinct illustration of what kind of MC the Long Beach native is: funny, profane, vulgar, defiant, paranoid, tough, pessimistic, confident, disinterested and frequently irreligious. Okay, maybe that last sentence wasn’t very succinct but his various qualities make for a new spin on a some old rap motifs. Put it this way: it’s one thing not to trust bitches and a whole other thing to lump ya moms in with those bitches.
Staples’ performance here indicates his viability in a variety of context. He sounds just as comfortable next to Schoolboy Q’s energetic (and welcome) yelps as he did while making folks wonder “who the fuck is this new nigga that just shit all over Earl?” after hearing his guest verses on ‘Doris‘. It takes a special MC to sound equally competent next to Earl’s more cerebral and technique-laden stylings and Q at his rantiest. The hope is that Staples’ manages to translate the calm and assured personality that’s obvious on Back Sellin Crack to a wider audience now that he’s on the Def Jam payroll. I’d bet on the kid; he sounds too nonplussed to let anything get to him. —MobbDeen
44. Black Milk – “Perfected on Puritan Avenue”
Just when you thought you could safely put Black Milk on the back-burner, he moves to Dallas and releases this. “Perfected on Puritan Ave” sounds less Dilla and more Madlib, only with a serious slab of acid-washed heart. You could argue it’s the most fascinating piece of rap music released all year. And while new cities equal new artistic horizons, this is all Detroit origin story – “Yeah, Puritan Ave, looking over your shoulder / You don’t realize you’re from the ghetto till you get a little older” – the shudder-inducing soul compelling you reach for the replay button. It sounds like Curtis Cross is refreshed and making music for himself again. All jazz flameouts essential all the time. — Matt Shea
43. Zeroh ft. Jonwayne & Quelle Chris – “Watching Me”
“Loosen up and laugh, there’s no need to be pompous.” Quelle, the first of the three hyper-verbal MC’s featured on “Watching Me” nails it down early on. These Def Jux, Detroit, and Stones Throw legatees, Quelle, Jonwayne and Zeroh—some of the best in this particular class, each of whom is worth following up on– absorbed the most important lesson possible from the failures of their lyrical ancestors. What did being holier-than-thou ever do for the talented MC, other than marginalize him and his fellows, leaving rappers as talented as these flopping outside the mainstream? So here’s a reconstructed environment over mellow piano, listenable, emotional and never pointing out just how over your head it really is. — Jonah Bromwich
42. Isaiah Rashad ft. SZA – “Ronnie Drake”
TDE knows classic gangsta rap’s golden rule: all the posturing and swag ain’t worth shit if you don’t have the music to back it up. The lyrics to “Ronnie Drake” are as hard as anything else out there, but whereas most trappers this year were spitting boasts over the same old hi-hats and gothic church bells, Isaiah Rashad and Sza’s introductory single kept it funky.
Over a laid back beat that recalled nothing if not Pharcyde circa Labcabin; Top Dog’s newest signees hide the medicine in the ice cream, alternating between philosophy and ignorance, smooth and rough, Hip-Hop and R&B. In a year that basically served as a victory lap for Kendrick’s Good Kid m.A.A.d City, this sleeper heralded big things for TDE’s next wave, if ever we get that damn ScHoolboy album. — Son Raw
41. Doe B – “Return of Da Mac”
Covers are risky, regardless of genre. More specifically, since we don’t do covers in rap (shouts to Beans and Bleek’s “So What You Sayin”), it’s easy to go wrong if you go in over a familiar sample – unless you’re a shiny mogul that gets away with brazen rap violations or a mogul that’s so devoid of good ideas that you think a fucking Alphaville sample is a good idea. Actually, the latter was a bad idea period.
The risk quadruples when you combine TWO familiar songs/samples (excuse my focus on risk – it’s how I feed myself). Somehow, Doe B pulled it off. Dunno how it occurred to him to catch our attention with THAT Mark Morrison sample then revert to fairly standard pimp talk over Project Pat’s “Gorilla Pimp,” but shit’s undeniable. Maybe musical risk assessment skills intensify when you wear an eyepatch, kinda like how this kid that had polio punched me harder than anyone ever has when we were 13.
Then Doe B invited Project Pat to come do Project Pat things over that Mark Morrison sample and it was over. I’d bet Project Pat got the idea to shoot a video for “Gorilla Pimp” 14 years after the song’s release because Doe B gave his classic a new lease of life. Doe B is a begetter of great ideas mane. Salute him.
Still, I don’t want ANYONE else, Doe B included, trying this shit ever again. Won’t work. — MobbDeen
40. Droop-E ft. Nite Jewel & J Stalin – “N the Traffic”
“‘N the Traffic” is one of those rare and precious instant neck-snappers. It takes about two seconds for its sub-bass and fluttering synths to colonize your body from the shoulders up, another ten to transport you to a passenger seat, Olympic Torch-sized blunt ablaze, crawling through a cityscape. Once Nite Jewel aka Ramona Gonzalez drops in for the hook, you’re stuck until the track drops you off. Droop-E and J-Stalin both come through with smooth, relaxed verses – you’ve got to float over a beat like this, and neither of the two disappoint. Their restraint here is impressive, too. They could’ve easily rode this butter beat out for another three or four minutes, but they’ve kept it short and sweet, saying their piece and bringing us back to that indelible hook.
Suffice to say: Droop-E knows exactly how to put together a great track. None of this should come as any surprise given his pedigree – you would assume the son of Bay Area legend E-40 would’ve picked up a thing or two from his old man. What’s really impressive, though, is that Droop-E’s doing his own thing, developing a sound that’s all his own. As “‘N the Traffic” clearly shows, it’s coming along nicely. The bassline rolls and thumps, the drums crack with precision – and those marimbas! Attention to detail, man. This song freaking snaps. Easily my favorite song about being stuck in traffic. —Adam Wray
39. Cory Jreamz – “Nina”
Cory Jreamz is 19 years old and says if he could have dinner with any 5 people it’d have to be: David Lynch, Jonathan Ive, Marina Abramovic, Woody Allen, Nas. The music reflects the anxiety, angst and introspection of his heroes. “Nina” paints a rebel against the system, dreaming of 93 octane and plotting his way to innumerable hits by 25 and the MoMA. He might not have a DJ anymore but he pledges to never stop or be stagnant. And Jreamz somehow manages to plant a catchy hook in an atypical reference heavy spree amidst the angry scattershot beat. In our fantastic interview with Cory he mentions that if he had a million dollars, one thing he’d do is shoot a big budget music video of an idea he’s been saving. Here’s to hoping he gets his break in 2014, or at least a crack at Heidi Klum. — Brad Beatson
38. Don Trip ft. Starlito & Kevin Gates – “Leash on Life”
With Jay-Z’s most arduous hardship fitting a mint condition Basquiat on the walls above his bathroom’s gold-plated toilet, and with Kanye West’s biggest complaint being slowly delivered breakfast pastries, it seems that opulence and #firstworldproblems have long replaced struggle as commercial rap’s defining characteristic. This likely left Don Trip, Starlito, and Kevin Gates confused. These three guys have made a career off of grinding hardest, sweat streaming from their face, their bank accounts chronically in the red. It’s one thing to rap for money, girls, or competitive edge, but what happened to rapping for your life?
A heart-wrenching standout on Trip and Lito’s Step Brothers 2 mixtape, “Leash on Life” finds the duo making their most sullen and sharp decisions, stuck between crack rock and a hard place as they roam perilous blocks. At school, children are poisoned with bullying until one of them reaches his brink. But it’s Kevin Gates, his Baton Rouge baritone at full blast, who brings his partners’ aggrieved sentiments home: “Might be locked up tomorrow but we free tonight / Praying to God I get a leash on life.” Knowing their actions could lead to prison might be a hard pill for Trip and Lito to swallow, but they remember to get their prescriptions filled because the next day isn’t promised. –-Alex Koenig
37. Homeboy Sandman – “Men are Mortal”
I’ve discussed with other people and they’ve said they felt the same but I still find it embarrassing: why is it that, when I listen to conscious rap, I always imagine the dude in the earphone to be a nebbishy little shrimp? What kind of terrible socialization have I gone through where I consider brainpower and stature to be inversely proportional?
Even had I not met Homeboy Sandman in person, his track “Men are Mere Mortals” would suggest his size. It is rap as a marvel of physical ability, Olympian breath control, clipped syllables hurdling bars with the ease granted by constant practice. He’s jumping rope in the video just to drive the point home. But this isn’t just lyrical miracles, multiple tales pinned haphazardly onto an overloaded verse. The best Homeboy Sandman songs have two modes—either allow yourself to be lulled into enjoying the staccato rhythm, or, if you feel up to it, lean in and attempt dissection. The amount of subjects that Sand manages to squeeze in here covers all sorts of subject matter, cites the value of wisdom over wealth, indicts Bloomingdales and champions Queens peoples. It’s a clinic and a seminar combined, all delivered by a pro who, now that he’s on Stones Throw, is just beginning to receive his dues. Men are mere mortals but some loom larger than others. — Jonah Bromwich
36. Bun B ft. Lil Boosie, Pimp C, & Big Krit – “Cake”
You can see Bun B flipping through videos on YouTube, watching youngins rack up hits maneuvering from the battle plan he drew he wrote. “That’s my throne,” he’d growl.
But lords never worry, right? The A$AP Mob said as much, and they rattled off banger after banger in 2013. And they seemingly did it without breaking a sweat.
Come to think of it though, it’s probably best to consult a true – er, trill – lord when considering these matters. There are few rappers would could include “trill” or “OG” every album they’ve released in the past decade and not elicit eyerolls. Bun B is one of them. He owns the patent.
To fend off encroachers, he calls in favors, from the pen and beyond the vale: incarcerated Baton Rogue hero Lil Boosie is in prime, cackling Salacious Crumb form here, offering Pappadeaux seafood in exchange for oral remedies. On some absence-make-the-heart-grow-fonder shit, he rattles off the finest verse on the track.
As good as the verses are – Bun and K.R.I.T. acquit themselves nicely as well – it’s all about the hook here. It’s a testament to Chad Butler’s prowess that a refrain this sweet was lying in the vault until now. Makes you want to pour out a cup of lean and maybe lay back on the stuff at the same time.
The usurpers are many, but Bun won’t let his kingdom go without a fight. The message, then, is clear: lords always worry. — Jordan Pedersen
35. Lil Wayne ft. 2 Chainz – “Rich as Fuck”
I don’t know what this says about my life, but a few of my favorite moments of the past year have been soundtracked or inspired by 2 Chainz. There was the time over the summer when a buddy drove up to the clearing where a bunch of us were hanging out, all while straight-up blaring the hook from “Rich As Fuck,” which is only hilarious when you consider it was 10 Canadians throwing a football around in a public park. Then later in the year, I took a home-finding trip to the A and told my wife we weren’t dropping off the rental car until we heard “Feds Watching” again, right before we heard it back-to-back on two different radio stations, which was only topped by the time I caught said wife singing “I just got some pants made out of snakeskin” to herself under her breath after we’d moved down south. And of course, everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard a man shout out both his own wrist and his stove, which are two things that really don’t get enough credit. (You try making a decent risotto without a wrist or stove. You can’t stir it enough.)
Such is the power of 2 Chainz, the dad-joking Versace enthusiast who made the idea of a “Best Lines” list seem kind of pointless. All it takes is the right six seconds to become a fan, so embrace the silliness and see how much better your life immediately becomes. We’re talking about a Lil Wayne song in 2013, so you know it works. — Trey Kerby
34. Lil Durk – “Dis Ain’t What U Want”
This is actually the second time I’ve been asked to write about “Dis Ain’t What U Want.” The first time, I declined.
At first blush, drill never suits me. It’s too simplistic, too vulgar – in a stylistic, not moral sense. And I find its eerie approximation of the reality in Chicago depressing, not thrilling.
A song whose central conceit is that it’s not in your best interest to beef with its narrator? Psh, next.
But I kept coming back to it. Those bleating, tornado-warning synths. The way the drums skitter rather than pound. And then that hook, that triumphant declamation: “I’m here. Don’t fuck with me.” Suddenly, its simplicity seemed admirable.
The reason I keep listening to drill, despite my reservations, is that I think it’s good for me. It’s a reminder that as much as my first inclination is to spurn tracks I perceive as “un-lyrical,” I should probably just trust my ears.
Rap doesn’t have to be one thing. The beauty of the genre is that there’s a seat at the table for everyone: your meat-n-potatoes trappers, your hyper-lyrical thinkers, and your radio-bound Autotuned warblers.
In a sense though, all this intellectualizing is counterproductive. “Dis Ain’t What U Want” isn’t a track that wants you to analyze it. It’s a track that wants you to listen to it.
So next time a new drill track thumps its way into your view, shelve the pontificating. Trust your ears. — Jordan Pedersen
33. A$AP Nast ft. Method Man – “Trillmatic”
-illmatic is a suffix unique to rap. It has two meanings which are in direct opposition to each other. The first is iller than ill, maximum illosity. The second is “more ambitious than talented.” There are those who may have seen the name A$AP Nast in front of a song called “Trillmatic” and assumed they were looking at example of the second definition. Even when Nast comes out with fists clenched, you’re still not convinced. It’s good rapping sure, but does it meet the standard for which he’s aiming?
But after the first minute of Nast owning the Ty Beats production he slides from generalized advice into a scenario and you know that the claim is for real:
“It be the ones that say ‘We got this, you ain’t alone,’ as long as I’m here’
To pull out the Glock 9 and cocked it, he mad you got rich, but on the low you should’ve watched him.”
That kind of transition is difficult to pull off, and Nast makes it seem easy, affirming his place, rapping alongside a rejuvenated Method Man, who, even on autopilot, sounds like he’s the next up in the Wu renaissance parade. — Jonah Bromwich
32. Q-Tip & Busta Rhymes – “Thank You”
When the first verse of “Thank You” ends after a minute and a half and you finally hear Alicia Myers sing “I want to thank you, Heavenly Father,” you might notice that you’ve been holding your breath. That’s the combined effect of Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip’s technical marvel of a performance and the needling beat that builds anticipation for the line it’s been teasing you with. The instincts behind “Thank You” don’t usually produce good rap music. The reunion of Busta and Tip along with the funk sample reek of “taking it back” – cynical fan service for a core audience that wears Midnight Marauders pajamas.
But the X factor that makes “Thank You” jam is genuine affection for the craft. The breathless verses are a reminder of how much fun rapping can be and you can’t help but crack a smile at the duo breaking out the old skills like the Electric Slide at a barbecue. There’s even a hint of the long lost “Woo Hah” Busta when he starts rapping nonsense. Come to think of it, we’ve seen many incarnations of Busta Rhymes, from Leaders of the New School to “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” to “Touch It” to his new home at YMCMB. The jubilant Busta Rhymes seen here cutting it up with Q-Tip likely won’t be around long, so enjoy this gift and be sure to say ‘thank you.’–Evan Nabavian
31. Roc Marciano – “Bruh Man”
January 5, 1995. America is united, howling in slack-jawed delight to learn its beloved Kramer’s given name: “Cosmo.” The mystery of the Seinfeld character’s full government designation had once served as both proof and explanation for his sanctioned eccentricity. Dispossessed of his erstwhile mononymity, however, Cosmo Kramer was revealed to be just another shameful human being like you or me. A man with a name has responsibilities and must honor his debts.
Bruh Man was Martin’s answer to Kramer. Discourteous but contrite, epicurean without being hedonist, Bruh Man was a true hero of modernity. Some say he can still be found scaling the fire escapes of Detroit and stalking its sidewalks with his distinctive exaggerated limp. Unlike his wacky neighbor forebears, Bruh Man was self-sovereign. We will never know his real name; it’s since been lost to memory; or he never had one; or maybe that was his real name all along. Nevertheless, to aspire to the condition of Bruh Man is to aspire to the bodhisattva ideal. He would never betray himself.
The great Roc Marciano Infodump of 2013’s last months yielded nearly two hours of fresh raw Marcberg; “Bruh Man” remains his most consistent biscuit since it leaked back in February. Lord Finesse’s haunting vestigial piano loop echoes off the black ice on Terrace Ave. while Roc stares into the sun above his adopted Los Angeles through Isaac Hayes’ shades, ordained by the deities to sip piña coladas served by white slaves and study film adaptations of lesser-Grisham novels, otherwise known as “Nuttin’ … just chillin.” A Bruh Man lives inside each of us. We are indebted to him. — Disco Vietnam
30. Sage the Gemini – “Red Nose”
First things first: there are few things less erotic than shaking it like a red nosed Pit Bull. No matter how ratchet your Tinder preferences, there’s nothing that can kill desire more than equating yiking with a killer canine. And yet Sage the Gemini has created one of the most vertebrae-snapping and viral songs of 2013. “Gas Pedal” might have been the supreme Vine smash, but “Red Nose” is the better of the two singles. It’s less indebted to Clyde Carson’s “Slow Down” and more of a targeted attack against gravity. I am about as well equipped to describe the orange jello synthesizer jiggles in this song as I am to replicate the dance moves in this video. Whether it’s the “Humpty Dance,” “Crank Dat,” or “You’re a Jerk,” each semester needs a dance song almost as much as everyone needs fossil fuels. People need to get around somehow. And I’m happy to be old enough to have never been guilt tripped into attempting to dance to it. Unlike memories, a 6 second video clip can last forever. —Jeff Weiss
29. IAMSU ft. Juvenile & Kool John – “100 Grand”
IAmSu! is the Bay analogue to Compton’s Y.G. The figureheads of their respective cliques, both are besotted with bouncing booties and make countless bangers for your respective turn up. From Richmond to Berkeley and Oakland to SF, the absence of Su’s slaps at a function is tantamount to treason. Where the two differ – aside from locale and potential set affiliation – is that Su doubles as a great producer.
“100 Grand” is the exception, produced instead by fellow HBK Gang member P-Lo. Su probably had some un-credited hand here, but I’ll give it to P-Lo. The bass slithers like a stripper. The keys are minimal, their presence providing danceable melody and their absence affording the necessary menace. And the “hey, hey” chants throughout give the track so much energy you’re likely to find yourself shouting the words involuntarily regardless.
As far as raps are concerned, Su and Kool John deliver. They’re not saying much, but assert their mic and mack supremacy with Yay slang as deftly as needed. Still, the best part of the song is Juvenile. The man responsible for the apotheosis of ratchet anthems before the slang was in vogue delivers his most energetic verse in recent memory. Here it’s clear Juve knows his legacy will remain intact – whether it’s via Su, 2Chainz, or some leather jorts wearing Canadian – as long as cheeks continue to clap. When he dies, violins will be played in the middle of streets from New Orleans to New Mexico. —Max Bell
28. Open Mike Eagle – “Qualifiers (AT Laundromat)”
Is it synesthesia or apartment fumes? Why does it take two lines to do a one liner? And why does it take three beats to do a two-step? These are key questions, questions from a father with shit on his hands and a mind full of jokes about jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. They are questions from Open Mike Eagle, L.A. transplant turned Blowedian and Hellfyre Club’s de facto soft-spoken guru.
If you haven’t tuned into Open Mike by now, then you must not read this site regularly. As an avid Open Mike listener, it’s with kind of, sort of confidence that I say “Qualifiers” is among his best work to date. His singsong cadence and soft-croon have long been perfected, and here he wields both with equal control and abandon. There’s no one else doing smart, honest, and hilarious dad-rap better. ‘Dad-rap’ meaning rap made by a dad, one who changes diapers, potty trains his children, and still finds time to play thirteen games of Words with Friends.
With respect to the beat, Taco Neck has made the inspiration for his sobriquet (a Taco Bell commercial featuring the ever incorrigible Shaq) the mission of this production. “Qualifiers” is mellow yet undeniably head-nodding. Think industrial rap meets soft Casio keyboard melody.
Above all, meditations on the joys and frustrations of fatherhood and rap are rarely this catchy and thought provoking. Respect all qualifiers and play this for comfort as you wrestle with your temporal isolation. —Max Bell
27. Zilla Rocca ft. Doseone – “On the Freak Beat”
There’s a lack of fuss on Zilla Rocca’s latest mixtape, Neo Noir. The Philly rapper and producer collects some third-party favorites – Gaslamp Killer, Javelin, Blackroc – calls in regular collaborators Has-Lo and Curly Castro — and generates one of the most cerebral but freewheeling listens of the year.
The best cut on the record is ‘On the Freak Beat’, Zilla’s team-up with Doseone, which takes Clam Casino and Imogen Heap’s ethereal ‘I’m God’ and fits it with a high-powered rap retread. Zilla delivers his lines with an off-kilter breathlessness, like he wrote them while sweating through a triathlon (or a pub crawl). But the secret weapon is Doseone. In one verse the now Oakland-based spitter reminds fair-weather rap fans that their cLOUDDEAD phase was totally legit; it’s dense but perfectly weighted stuff, right down to the slight drop of character at the end. Like Zilla and Dose say, “Not looking for the right thing, looking for the right now.” – Matt Shea
26. Young Jeezy – “RIP”/RIP Remixes”
Young Jeezy is one of the few 35+ year olds from the ringtone trap era who I don’t mind hearing in 2013. Perhaps it’s because he has a top 5 rasp in rasp history, but more than likely it’s because DJ Mustard is dominating the playing field at this point. This passes the “likely to scrunch your face 1 second into the song” test. And it will for years to come. It inspired numerous remixes, the best of which featured YG, Kendrick Lamar, Chris Brown and LORD RiFFiNGTON. YG’s hung up, Breezy shoots at Drake, and RiFF shamelessly promotes. The King bodies everyone, of course, and delivers this retrospectively omniscient barb: “bitch I’m eatin’ and shit, you a vegan and shit, get off my penis and shit.” It killed the club, the festival, and every DJ set this year. And perhaps Jay’s appetite. — Brad Beatson
25. Chester Watson – “Phantom”
Chester Watson is cooler than you ever were at 16. Preternaturally talented at rapping and sharp enough to mastermind a cohesive sound while still in high school, the weed smoking, kick-flip attempting member of the Nu Age Crew just makes it look easy. “Phantom” is the mission statement: a blunted, jazzy loop equal parts MF Doom and Madlib, a verse combining Earl Sweatshirt’s verbal gymnastics to underground calm, and most of all – vibes for days. There’s an intangible quality to “Phantom,” a hazy calm unique to that moment in life where you’re discovering yourself but no one else knows yet, when you’re just another kid going to school on the outside but a rhyming superhero waiting to happen on the inside.
This is the soundtrack to summer nights spent discovering weed, of long days skirting responsibility and of dark nights huddled around a computer obsessively downloading rap tunes and samples. It’s rap devoid of celebrity – made by a kid for the sake of self-expression, of having fun, and to process all the crazy shit that’s happening in his life. In other words, it’s Hip-Hop in its purest form and by the looks of things, it’s also the start of something amazing. — Son Raw
24. Billy Woods ft. Aesop Rock – “Tumbleweed”
In his first collaboration with cold-veined New York rapper Billy Woods, Aesop Rock is up to his usual antics. Which is to say, nothing usual at all. He continues to slip insight into slippery language that’s both metaphysical and metaphorical. With an eye for catching corrupt values as vividly as Play It As It Lays, Rock shows us the art of exploitation. Innocent young women turn plasticine: “Seen them Eves grow to vapid fashionistas / Freeing a can of worms mistook for panacea.”
Woods’ words are no less unsettling to the spirit, unloading like a verbal gun from the Def Jux chamber. When he parses together lines about “Russian roulette relationships,” offhand references to Robocop, Greek Mythology, and a South African Prime Minister, it may seem like he’s merely providing bizarre non-sequiturs. If only the images of lost love weren’t so apparent. Crocodile tears are shed, alcohol is swigged, and the final words of Woods’ verse convey suicidal ideation.
A tumbleweed plant breaks away from its roots and is driven about by the wind as a light rolling mass, dispersing seeds as it goes. Like the thistle named after it, “Tumbleweed” is about a relationship washing away, and the repercussions of its scattered seeds. The root of the treatise is Blockhead’s beat, an infection of prickly guitar patterns and a wavering background choir— the sound of young shrubs growing into poison ivy. — Alex Koenig
23. Earl Sweatshirt ft. Tyler – “Whoa”
It’s hard to describe a blender full of drugs and rape-rap thinkpiece fodder as “halcyon days”, but 2010 really was that for Odd Future. Since then, Tyler’s been more successful at creating stoner TV shows than provocative music and Earl was dramatically exiled to Samoa. The once-outré collective has gone through the looking glass and come back ostensibly less compelling than they did three years ago. “Whoa” is a dialect to the introspective “Chum” (cf, Tyler’s bratty intro) and a return to those more “shocking” days. The production is crisp and off-kilter; no more of that mushy, melting trombones atmospheric bullshit. Earl’s delivery is knotty and naughty, “steaming tubes of poop and twisted doobies full of euphemisms.” “Whoa” is a diabolical duo returning to both evil and innocence. — B Michael Payne
22. Chance the Rapper ft. Action Bronson – “Na Na”
If you’ve read this site for more than a minute, you knew a top song list wasn’t going to pass without mention of two of our favorite rappers, one acid-drenched Chicagoan and the beefy Bronsalino. The fact that they appeared on a couple of tracks this year (much love to ProbCause) made our decision that much harder, but “NaNa” showcases both artists at their glorious best. Over rambling percussion, the song never hits high speed, allowing both artists the opportunity to let their lyrics take center stage.
Chance kicks things off with his sing-song rap style doing verbal gymnastics before Action jumps in and name drops 90s college sports heroes and various entrees. The Rapper is at his most clever here, dropping lines like, “acid assed” and “if this was work, I’d get higher.” Not outdone, Bronson talks about the appeal of “three Japanese dykes in his El Camino” and his ladyfrend with “the cleft palate, I ordered chef’s salad, She had the club foot, with that little arm. I couldn’t help but laugh, she ordered Chicken Parm.” Two of the best in the game at the top of their respective games. —Chris Daly
21. Ace Hood ft. Future & Rick Ross – “Buggati”
Memes, Twitter jokers, and gigantic bellies all saw their stocks spike as soon as this hit. It was so good that Memes, Twitter jokers, and gigantic bellies were given unquestionable wings to soar alongside it. If you look at the group responsible in this video, they’re reacting in a way that any one of us would upon hearing the beat. In fact, the first time I heard it was in the summer sipping on brews, and I went so bananas that I spilt it everywhere. So is the effect to your psyche when tempted with the appeal of Future handing you the keys to a just-off-the-lot multi-million dollar automobile. Those jiggly bellies of Rawse and Khaled, the lanky delights of Future, they portray the feeling of knowing you’ve already won and the fun is just getting started. It was as though they had just got the cover of Car & Driver and informed those subscribers (and the rest of the U.S. and Formula One circuit): how to turn the fuck up. — Brad Beatson
20. Dam-Funk & Snoop Dogg – “Faden Away”
Never listen to anyone who complains about Snoop Dogg’s lesser moments. They’re unbearable pessimists who rarely have good weed. Sure the D-O-double-G has had his fair share of disastrous moments: from signing to No Limit in the 90s to Ja-fakin on Vice, Snoop has never been one to distinguish between good and bad ideas. The upside of this is that some of his greatest moments have been low-key experiments most rappers wouldn’t bother with: recording with the Eastsidaz, appearing in a Bollywood movie and now, 7 days of Funk.
“Faden Away” is a natural sequel to Snoop’s much beloved “Sensual Seduction” and is easily the most logical direction for the 20-year veteran tired spitting of gang fuss. Long removed from his Long Beach days, Snoop sounds far more comfortable crooning sweet nothings over rubbery grooves than he ever did Rasta Platitudes – this song just feels right. Of course, at least half the credit here goes to collaborator Dam-Funk who finally gets the yin to his yang: a front man with the charisma to carry his grooves onto radio in 2014 and beyond. Faden Away doesn’t reinvent the wheel or try to compete with the young’ns but that’s the secret to its charm: it’s confident, effortless and oh so funky: it’ll be soundtracking barbecues for years to come. — Son Raw
19. Jay-Z ft. Rick Ross – “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit”
Jay-Z’s dozenth full-length solo outing, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was thoroughly embarrassing on almost every front: Samsung’s unprecedented media blitz oversold the album considerably, hyping it up to be the Rosetta Stone for family-laden ex-hustlers. Its cover art, inspired by a 500-year-old homoerotic sculpture, was dull as dishwater. Most egregiously, the content was monumentally sterile, even by Jigga’s cold, calculated standards. All unmitigated disasters considered, “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” the album’s solitary redeeming quality, was well worth each and every Swizz Beatz ad lib, cringe-worthy performance art film, and awkward contemporary pop reference that came along with it.
It’s been said that Jay-Z doesn’t invent flows, he perfects them. Here, he front-loads his verse with a cliff-hanging technique commonly attributed to Chicago’s drill scene, before transitioning to a more hurried, acrobatic style. It’s a sound performance, but the Sultan of Deny, Rick Ross, steals the show with his burly voice and patient delivery. You have to imagine Rozay is kicking himself for doing the all the heavy lifting—for his label-mate, no less—on one of the year’s most celebrated street singles, while his own forthcoming album, Mastermind, rots away in Def Jam purgatory. — Harold Stallworth
18. Freddie Gibbs — “Eastside Moonwalker”
When an artist is prolific and consistently excellent, there’s a tendency to start taking their output granted. Especially if they don’t make the kind of mainstream breakthrough you hope to see for folks you root for. Case in point, Curren$y. But we’re here for something a tad harder: Gangsta Gibbs.
Since Gary’s finest popped up on our radars back in 2009, he has consistently decimated a variety of beats and made every every possible kind of song a rapper can make. You’d expect a self-proclaimed gangsta rapper to be good at making hard ass shit, but even by Gibbs’ lofty standards “Eastside Moonwalker” is an unbelievably hard composition. From the demonic beat to Gibbs’ gravelly delivery to day in the life of a gangsta imagery, everything is just so damn hard.
Then to top it off, he sends barely veiled slugs in everyone’s favorite accidental West Coast MC’s direction – the kind of thing Gibbs has been doing since day one. Maybe he’d get more attention if he does it on a song with Big Sean and Jay Neglectronica.
For making the hardest shit of 2013 that wasn’t on a trap/drill sounding ass beat (by the way, he probably wins that one too – peep”‘Lay It Down“), Gangsta Gibbs moonwalks onto this list. Again. Gangsta of the year – four times in a row? By default – and don’t you ever forget it. — MobbDeen
17. Future – “Honest”
Songs by Future like “Sh!t” and “Karate Chop” show a rapper doing weird things with the trap template codified by Atlanta rappers over the last decade. “Honest” is different. “Honest” is a new rendering of pop rap in a year where pop rap is owned and operated by a corporate despot, a sobered up hack, and a moron. The piano chords are the first indication that Future isn’t fucking around with this single. He’s no stranger to ballads, but the chords that anticipate the smash banger sparkle with the kind of lonely tenderness that you’re more likely to get from Elton John than DJ Spinz and Metro Boomin.
This isn’t “Lollipop.” Future’s ad-libbed chants and mournful croon contain more vulnerability than you’ll read in the lyrics about fast-life vices. The prizes of success and fame are jealously guarded and Future hits the high notes singing about how he and his team are never going back. What’s more, success sounds like a party on another plane of existence with Spinz and Metro bouncing electronic warbles off break-your-neck drums. With “Honest,” Future shows how serious he is about becoming rap’s next rockstar folk hero. He gambles with a styrofoam cup overflowing with honesty, but then it’s not much of a gamble when the song is so damn good. — Evan Nabavian
16. Danny Brown – “Dip”
It’s kind of hard to write about a Danny Brown song when you know your mom reads every single word of what you write. So let me just say that “Dip” can be enjoyed under any circumstances. For instance, the first time I ever heard it was while riding my bike along Atlanta’s only-kind-of-scenic beltline, cruising home from work like on any normal day. And trust me, even in that 100 percent clearheaded state, listening to a reinterpretation of “Da Dip” when you never realized you even wanted to hear a reinterpretation of “Da Dip” can be quite the experience. The experience, in particular, of being on drugs when you are very much not on drugs. I guess that is kind of the point of a song about doing a whole bunch of drugs and wilding out, so mission accomplished. — Trey Kerby
15. Fredo Santana ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Jealousy”
In which Kendrick plays Rap Game President receiving his morning briefing:
“Fredo Santana wants a guest verse? Chicago drill kid, right? Somebody get me a one-page memo on Chicago slang and renowned local eateries.”
Or maybe, like he says, Chi-town really is like a second home to him. Either way, his investment in local milieu is impressive: he busts down on some local chickenheads, but he calls them “thots.” He grandly claims to have flown his private jet for Harold’s Chicken straight from Rome. (If he hasn’t already, K-Dot would do well to dip into Home of Chicken and Waffles on King Drive next time he’s in town.)
But King, er, President Kendrick doesn’t let himself be subsumed by local color. Even in sight of the *true* tallest building in America – One World Trade Center and your decorative spire take a damn hike – Kendrick’s still on message, shaming busters who’d rather drown in their sorrows rather than get up off their ass. He’s still above the fray, reasonably questioning why he’d care about rap beef when the streets remain fucked up.
Fredo acquits himself just fine, but you can’t blame him for getting Oochie Wally’d. He’s spitting typical “no new friends” drill talking points in a Future robot warble, but he lays in the cut with a solid hook. Even still, it must be nice just to be in dude’s cabinet. A year after Good Kid, Kendrick’s still the head of state. — Jordan Pedersen
14. Nas – “Let Nas Down (Remix)”
In the lead-up to J Cole’s sophomore album, Born Sinner, much of the buzz surrounding its release stemmed from a song rumored to address Nas’ off-the-record criticism of his first big single, “Work Out.” When the self-produced record, dubbed “Let Nas Down,” finally emerged bearing a plush Fela Kuti sample (undoubtedly his finest work behind the boards since Kendrick Lamar’s “Hii Power”), it proved to be a bittersweet affair.
For the first time in Cole’s professional recording career, he garnered the ire of his detractors with a fairly sensational concept, albeit ill-considered and self-absorbed, rather than by sheer virtue of being the most unassuming rap star in the history of the genre. Unfortunately, he struggled to articulate his plight—which, oddly enough, boiled down to overcoming a commercial stigma that hasn’t existed since the mid-aughts—in any sort of dynamic fashion. Cole’s music was never intended to serve as a vehicle for escapism; his appeal is rooted in everyman-ism, but that caveat doesn’t excuse uninspired writing devoid of colorful detail and suspense.
Nas’ belated response showed the glaring disparity in skill set between the two artists. His verse opens with a whirling montage that follows a young Nasir from conception to nativity to the driver’s seat of a ‘93 E-Class Mercedes Benz, all before doling out practical advice to a wide-eyed apprentice. He’s both ethereal and empathetic in the same breath, a testament to the fact that it’s possible to exude an air of anomaly while remaining relatable and drawing from real life experience. — Harold Stallworth
13. Young Thug – “2 Cups Stuffed”
Young Thug’s been in the shadows for a while. You might have first head the Atlanta rapper on a Rich Kidz track and thought he sounded like a Future-wannabe. He vied with scene contemporaries like Cash Out and Young Scooter for street love and blog mention scraps. After releasing a tremendous mixtape last year in I Came From Nothing 2, Young Thug received the Brick Squad seal. His latest release, 1017 Thug, has the ebullience and swagger of a man who’s made it, or at least enough to buy a condo. “2 Cup Stuffed” is the most energetic track on the mixtape. It smashes you in the face with enthusiasm and shows off Young Thug’s strengths: unhinged delivery, unbridled vigor, near-indecipherable eccentricity. It’s party music for people that bridges the gap between those turnt up on lyrics and lean. — B. Michael Payne
12. Ty$ ft. Joe Moses – “Paranoid (Ketchup Version)”
In which Ty$, Joe Moses, and DJ Mustard turn Robin S ratchet. But there is no love or devotion to be shown. Dolla Sign is arguably the coldest since Nate Dogg made a mission statement out of daily weed incineration and loving no hoes. Say what you want about the Weeknd, his pills and powder orgies leave him feeling like a melancholy creep. Ty Griffin is just paranoid and very very high. The main concern of “Paranoid” is avoiding a club sting between both of his current mistresses. In a near-sociopathic (or very very lazy) twist, he reveals he’s been buying them the same Red bottoms and fragrance. Both drive Range Rovers. Neither can stay over — standard operating procedure from the writer/producer/ratchet-era Warren Beatty behind “Toot it and Boot it.”
The consequences aren’t philosophical, they’re tense and physical, but we never discover what happens — all climaxes occur off-screen. Joe Moses delivers one of the year’s guest verses and easily the best recent T.I. diss aside from Gucci Mane on Twitter. It was such a suplex that B.O.B. was “asked” to do the version delivered to national radio. But the original incarnation remains the closest thing we had this year to a “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None.) Except inside of passing them around, Ty keeps them all to himself. — Jeff Weiss
11. Pusha T — “Numbers on the Board”
Pusha T’s career is a great example of how pushing for artistic progress can be a misguided endeavor. He’s always sounded best over crack-rock beats: the minimalist knock that The Neptunes gifted to the Clipse was the reason we cared. “Numbers on the Board” is vintage Pusha, double-entendres for days. “Your plane’s missing a chef” because you don’t have the means to hire a man to cook up some foodstuffs. But also, because you’re a fake-ass gangster who’s never cooked a day in his life. After all, in the other life that he loves to reminisce on, Pusha was a chef himself.
Push is a formulaic rapper with a great voice and a gift for punchlines. He is the rap Oliver Stone, glamorizing vice with snarls and sneers. He might sell a brick on his birthday: the shit is fun for him. And when he raps like this, over this raw Kanye/Cannon glitchery, it’s fun for everyone else too — Jonah Bromwich
10. Ka – “Peace Akhi”
Ka doesn’t need to yell to get his point across. He’s much better off operating with his calm, collected, mostly-monotone flow, because the shit he says is chilling enough. In “Peace Akhi,” his rhymes are as exacting and precise as a fillet knife sliding across a throat, full of double-meanings, sly disses (“I got full bars, you need better reception”), and moments of bare, honest simplicity: “I’m pain in the spoken form,” he utters at one point, over the single-note clang and crackling white-noise of a beat that resembles bone-chilling winter drizzle. Opening with some chessboard wisdom lifted from The Wire, “Peace Akhi” is all about knowing who you are and where you stand in a volatile environment.
A weak MC would lose his shit with empty bluster, but at his age, and with his mastery of craft, Ka can see movements in the dark and plot accordingly. He hugs his cousin’s revolver, just in case, but in the end, he keeps his head and holds firm, wishing peace to his brothers in time of war. —Peter Holslin
9. YG ft. Jeezy & Rich Homie Quan – “My Nigga”
“My Nigga” is about the bond between friends, veiled in terse threats if one friend betrays the other. If that subject sounds too harsh to garner 33 million YouTube hits for its music video, rest assured that the rap trio who recorded it are more raucous than rolling on dubs through Crenshaw on Sunday. YG might let his homies ride the coattails of his rap career, but he can’t help it if they carry “the glock that don’t think.” Jeezy is all about love and loyalty, but cross him and he’ll “knock the gravy out of your biscuit.” Rich Homie Quan’s hook is air-lifted right off of Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3 classic “Sky Is The Limit.” The spirit of the syrup-sipping star from New Orleans is all over the cut, as if Wayne and the Hot Boys took a break from riding in hydraulic Lexus Coupes to bless this group effort.
The music, though, isn’t exactly the southern-fried romp of Mannie Fresh or Birdman. The West Coast bass thump is courtesy of “Rack City” producer DJ Mustard, who proves that you don’t need to cause a racket to make people get ratchet. His beat is minimal enough for headphones and hard enough for strip clubs. Quan, who sings both the chorus and a verse, may get the most airplay on the track, but YG is the star and facilitator. The result is a hard gangster vibe turned playful for his peers, one that would fit on a comedic heist film soundtrack. The radio-friendly version of this track was dubbed “My Hitta,” which is less of a title or testament to camaraderie, and more of a warning— YG’s now swinging in the big leagues.- Alex Koenig
8. Problem ft. Bad Lucc – “Like Whaat”
One man’s “Ya Heard” is another man’s “Whaat.” There are plenty of ways to do it. You can throw up your set or just use your balls and your word as collateral. You can be slanted and enchanted or you can just yell woo like Flair. Young Bleed, Master P and C-Lo claimed to run it from California to Virginia with the remix to “How You Do Dat,” but within Los Angeles, it scarcely earned airplay outside of The Box and connoisseurs of the I’m Bout It soundtrack. Therein lies to the genius to League of Starz’s decision to flip the ’97 classic from Young Bleed, Master P and C-Loc. Even most of the people old enough to have heard it, probably didn’t hear it.
They speed up the track and tweak the drums, but those Happy Perez synthesizers are Pavlovian–causing havoc from Compton to Baton Rouge. Whether you are cruising in the diamond lane on the 10 or riding the tank near the levee in Southside B.R., this binds murder music with hydraulic bounce. After all, Bleed and Problem keep the pistol grip pump on their lap at all times. That nod to Volume 10 stayed on both versions, proving that the back-and-forth influence between LA the city and LA the state, has been constant for decades. But Problem and Bad Lucc pay the ultimate form of homage to Concentration Camp and No Limit, they give credit where it’s due and still do it their own way. — Jeff Weiss
7. Rich Homie Quan – “Type of Way”
I KNOW YOU DO!
I’M SHININ’ HO!
DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT!
THANK YOU LAAAAAAAAAAAWD!
LEH GO, LEH GO!
Oh? I have to write more? Well if you insist.
It’s fair to say that Rich Homie Quan’s heavily and hilariously ad-libbed ode to jealousy was 2013’s song of the summer. If you think that assertion is wrong then you have my permission to feel some type of way about it.
If you take a brief second to think about it, you’ll realize that the sentiment our wealthy friend is expressing on this song is yet another in the long line of songs rappers have devoted to the most familiar of tropes: haters. You know, like 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper,” Maino’s “Hi Hater,” Mase’s “Looking At Me,” and Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City” or “Hate” or every other song in his catalog.
The beauty of “Some Type of Way” is that Rich Homie manages to sling all his taunts off without using the words “hate” or “jealous” once. And shit still stings like a muthafucka. Ain’t a lotta shit folks like more than vicariously living through rich muthafuckas and Rich Homie filled that void admirably in 2013. And while this single is easily the best thing he’s done in nascent career to date, his subsequent work in the form of guest appearances and a strong mixtape suggests that rap has another star in the making. —MobbDeen
6. Schoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Collard Greens”
“Collard Greens” is the most addictive collaboration that Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q have ever done. They’re both rapping with equal effervescence, eyes locked on women, weed, and the VIP section of The W. Q has a bucket hat and a briefcase of drugs that would rival Raoul Duke’s, and Kendrick talks about his dick in Spanglish before vanquishing all with power of the pen.
Above all, this song is capital-F Fun. It’s a slightly muted banger broadcast from a bottle that’s half-full, somehow both relaxing and raucous with a bass line built to shake load-bearing beams. Nothing of great import is said, but that’s the point. Q is on a quixotic quest and K-Dot is along for the ride. This isn’t the paranoid and enraged Q struggling on Figg St. Here he is the “groovy gangster with an attitude,” the one that all the college students love. He functions on the fire and this is his favorite tempo. Play “Collard Greens” at high volumes. Maybe the neighbor who has asked you to turn down your sub every week for a year will finally want to party too. —Max Bell
5. Migos – “Versace”
The upstart trio from Atlanta known as Migos took over the Summer with a chorus that sounds like a record skipping. Part free brand promotion, part Shamanic chant, the repetitious hook was the most devastating salvo yet in the war being waged against content by style. What could be more devastating to the idea rap songs are supposed to be about things than a chorus that is merely a brand name being repeated until the word loses its meaning and the entire English language sounds disjointed and broken? And that said song was incredibly, insanely addictive. It’s as though KRS-One once hit an old gypsy with his car and she cursed him to have one word stuck in his head for the entirety of 2013.
But to reduce Migos to another trendy blip on the seemingly forever emerging and never quite arriving Atlanta trap scene feels false. For one, Migos has mastered their own form of mutated wordplay. They pull it off because they actually can rap. And their Y.R.N. mixtape was about as much fun as you could have listening to music this year — with its surprising and deeply funny associative punchlines and repetitive hooks. The group are like the bastard child of Gucci Mane, Future, and Red Bull and vodka on fire. You can have qualms with their approach, but you have to admit, there’s a method to the madness.
Apologies aside, “Versace” is simply a great pop song. Zaythoven is in classic form with a busy pinball beat the guys tap dance all over. It’s a dizzying, psychotropic popular rap song that showed us a new way out, and introduced a promising young Versace-clad pack who should continue to fuck shit up for years to come. — Abe Beame
4. A$AP Ferg ft. A$AP Rocky – “Shabba/Shabba Remix”
Pity the DJs of New York City. The “Industry” is large and cutthroat. Every laptop owner under the age of 30 is now competing for Thursday night sets at any piddling bar below 14th Street, for an increasingly miniscule sliver of the door. There’s the nostalgia circuit and trap and EDM, all often jumbled into a single hour and no one leaves happy. It’s a life of part time restaurant jobs, empty rooms at Bed Stuy restaurants trying to etch out a bar crowd on Tuesdays and crushing uncertainty as to whether or not you should try putting that liberal arts degree to work.
But this year, there was one thing, perhaps the only thing, the DJs of Brooklyn and Manhattan could count on, and that was the grinding, percussive, titanic stomp of A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba Ranks” and “Work (Remix)”. Fergenstein, a miniature flame thrower who once existed as a dark star on the outskirts of the A$AP solar system, exploded this year in a big way, with Trap Lord, an iron wrought spin on trap that bridged gaps in generations, tastes and styles.
The subject matter of “Shabba Ranks” is immaterial to Ferg’s West Indian background, it has little of the sway it once held over Bootcamp Click or golden age Brooklyn acts raised on curried goat and jerk pork. Rather, it’s another nod to New York, a tinge of nostalgia inspired by a snippet overheard on a livery cab’s radio console or your uncle’s dancehall collection. What drives it home, and elevates it from a silly hook to a HOOK is Ferg’s verve and soul as he hits that digressive cadence mid verse from out of nowhere. It’s mad, inspired, intoxicated brilliance and he sells it with everything he’s got.
Tonight, go downtown, below 14th Street, below Houston even and wait for “Shabba”. Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long. When that vile synth kicks in and the drums start ticking, note the collective spark of recognition around the bar, or lounge, or club or whatever, the way wrists and arms start churning, back and forth like windshield wiper blades, the moment when the entire room cheers the introduction, “Short n***** but my dick tall” with a resounding, “WOO”, and the sheer pleasure of celebrating one of the years biggest songs with a large group of satiated drunk people one last time. — Abe Beame
3. Rocko ft. Future & Rick Ross- “UOENO”/UOENO Remixes w/ A$AP Rocky & 2Chainz”
Last March, Rocko dropped Gift of Gab 2.” If you’re like most rap fans, you didn’t even know that this happened. However, those of us that spend an inordinate amount of time downloading and listening to music on the Internet quickly recognized that Rocko may have gotten himself another minor hit in the vein of “Umma Do Me” before we even got to track 3. After all, the strangely titled song had guest appearances from Future and Rick Rawse, along with the sole obvious production credit on the tracklisting to Childish Major.
We were right. But the most interesting thing about “UOENO” definitely wasn’t Rocko’s standard braggadocious verse, Rawse’s distasteful quip or Future’s colloquial wrangling of the phrase “you don’t even know it” during hook or verse. Highlight honors go to Atlanta newcomer Childish Major’s woozy and plodding production – a restrained and propulsive banger that would’ve inspired every rapper and their mother to drop an unwarranted verse over it even without the controversy surrounding it. And I mean EVERY rapper. “UOENO” was THAT ubiquitous this year.
To his his credit, Rocko, ever the the businessman (Future is signed to his imprint, A1 Recordings – CHA-CHING!) commissioned a series of “remixes” that substituted Rawse for a variety of rappers including ASAP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz. He even hinted at a remix with Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, but that never came to fruition.
Ultimately, the remixes or the controversy didn’t matter. The beat and Future’s hook mattered. Folks just kept bopping, grinding, singing and chanting along with “UOENO” and there was no mistaking that fact. I’d even go as far as to suggest that there was no better song to hear while drunk or drinking in 2013. Maybe even driving too. Don’t read into that though… — MobbDeen
2. Kanye West – “Bound 2″
For all the endless back-and-forth over Yeezus, no one talks about how well the thing was sequenced. Can you imagine it ending any other way? It had to be “Bound 2,” because it brings us full circle, looping back to one of the two or three central themes of Kanye’s work: how hard it is to do the right things. His whole career, he’s grappled with the dilemma. Benz or backpack, one good girl or a thousand bitches – the dynamic is essentially the same. After nine tracks of middle-fingers-engaged, dick-in-fist antagonism, “Bound 2″ finds Ye letting his guard down, and we’re reminded how charming and witty dude can be. The song should resonate with anyone who’s wrestled with the anxieties of surrendering personal autonomy for the sake of a committed relationship. The mink is a red herring – “Bound 2″ is about submission and compromise and faith and the labour of love – emphasis on labor. It may actually be the most mature song Kanye’s ever written.
Sonically, the shit is a revelation. The fried, choppy, loop, the way it caroms rather than glides between sections – the beat is a deconstructivist self-reflection that carries its own narrative weight. The tune’s form augments and reveals its content – there’s a rough honesty in its lyrics that’s reflected in its construction, which makes zero attempts to conceal its seams. The way it’s assembled feels broadly significant, like Godard’s jump cuts in Breathless, still studied in Film 100 lectures. My lunatic proclamation: “Bound 2″ could have a similar impact on rap music. Its nouvelle vague may have already begun. UH-HUH, HONEY. — Adam Wray
1. Kevin Gates – “4:30 AM”
No matter how much gloss gets liberally applied to the crab-caked glam noir of modern street rap, the best rap music always seem to come from a place of truth. The truth often simply sounds better than fiction. The glimpses of authenticity floating in the details – a man hunched over a toilet bowl, an asshole track coach, gladiators on dec. It makes for a richer experience simply because the artist knows what they’re talking about. When I interviewed Kevin Gates for XXL a month ago, the Louisiana rapper told me his masterful “4:30 AM” was a “true story” and the pain it conveys is rooted in his rendition of the facts.
As a piece of novelistic storytelling, “4:30” is Ghostface’s “Shakey Dog” in a Louisiana drawl. Gates has a gifted eye for specificity and is able to draw from some of the most agonizing anecdotes of his life to tell a tale of wounded betrayal that stabs the audience in the gut with each listen. You won’t find a more powerful moment on wax this year than when Kevin Gates describes staring into the eyes of former-friend-cum-would-be-assassin and begging his friend to shoot him.
Sometimes you simply know when an artist has “it” – that indescribable quality that defines a “star.” Biggie had it after “Juicy.” Nas had it after “Live At the BBQ.” Even Kendrick had it after “ADHD.” Kevin Gates had already proven that he could write a great song after “Satellites” became a regional hit in 2012 but “4:30 A.M.” is Gates’ ultimate moment of truth. The song is the type of star-making moment that can lead a rapper into becoming one of the greatest MC of his generation.
Gates, man, he really do it. — Doc Zeus