As much as Azealia Banks’s Twitter is the worst thing on the internet and the blogosphere’s obsession with her Twitter is the second worst thing on the internet, the inconvenient truth is that Banks made some of the most compelling music of 2012. Hip-house works far better than it has any right to. What everyone else got wrong though, in overeagerness to pitch a new “movement,” was that it worked because of the idea of hip-house itself. Fuck a movement. Azealia succeeds when she’s rapping her ass off.
This is why “1991” is such a success. Not many people this year attacked tracks more energetically or more joyously. She starts in France flaunting her chocolate croissant and ends in Manhattan bragging that NY rose her and the most high chose her. She makes onomatopoeia exciting again. The presence of rapping on thumping drums doesn’t mean shit, it’s the vigor and verve of that rapping. Vogue-rap, queer-rap, seapunk; all of these are things we talk about when we “talk about” Azealia Banks. But the point of it all is to “listen to” Azealia Banks. Listen to “1991” to hear a potential future commercial giant shred a beat more enthusiastically than she might ever again. —Tosten Burks
A pair of club bangers that exist as twin monuments to two facts: first, Kanye has mattered for a long time and will matter forever; second, 2 Chainz matters right now – regardless of how I feel about it. It’s safe to call a song good or at least, important, when it doesn’t do much for you upon initial listens and it eventually grows on you. That happened fairly quickly with both these songs.
“Mercy” irritated me at first because I knew Nas’ attempt at reviving the lost art of the reggae hook was going to be overshadowed (perhaps deservedly) by G.O.O.D. music’s behemoth of a track – 80s Italo-coke synth interlude or not. On the other hand, “Birthday Song” irritated me because 2 Chainz just cleverly knocked 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” out of its long standing position as THE birthday song.
Nevertheless, both songs dominated club and radio playlists in 2012 because Kanye singles are always going to be important and 2 Chainz is the rapper of the moment. It also helps that “Mercy’s” dancehall coupled with gothic cocaine electronica and “Birthday Song’s” industrial stomp and whine were easily some of the most unique sounding productions of the year. Oh, and that 2 Chainz fella is kinda funny – nods to Push and Medium Sean as well.
Now can someone tell me what “SWERVE” means? Thanks. — Deen
The guaranteed way to get the best out of Big K.R.I.T. is to stack his tracks with other rappers. He may be the nicest guy in rap music, but the Meridian spitter still responds to a vocal challenge. The original “Temptation” was indicative of K.R.I.T.’s 2012: solid but unspectacular, able if ultimately lethargic. This mix is hardly different in terms of production – it still glides along on its 80s b-horror vibe – but finds K.R.I.T. charging up the breaks before jacking his own original raps with a double-timed, back-flipping flow.
It’s fantastic, and enough to actually outshine the contributions from Juicy J and Waka Flocka. These guys are hardly breaking a sweat here, but their dual presence is still welcome: it injects color into what was previously a gray cut, and K.R.I.T. actually goes even better when leveraging his creamy vocals off something more twisted and offbeat. “Temptation” reminds everyone of what made K.R.I.T. so promising in the first place. He should rest well this Christmas (with three full-length projects in the last 18 months he’s earned it) and make sure he returns (late) next year with the same sort of fire. — Matt Shea
On the day, Ronald Reagan died, Killer Mike threw a barbecue to celebrate the death of the celebrated conservative icon simply because he hated the man. He hated the man because his destructive domestic policies, contempt for minorities and the poor and neglect for America’s inner cities caused generations of African-American people to become lost in the cycle of a drug fueled prison industrial complex. Nearly a decade after Reagan’s death, the Republican presidential candidates engaged in series of seemingly endless debates that seemed less a sober political discussion and more of a shameless political pageant to audition to the country as the Reaganiest motherfucker to ever Reagan. As generations of nonviolent drug offenders sit behind bars for no other reason than possession, this must have felt like a sick joke to a man like Killer Mike.
“Reagan,” Killer Mike’s acidic eulogy to the Gipper himself, feels like revenge. A red-eyed political assassination in rap form, Killer Mike holds the man directly responsible for three decades of inner-city misery. Over a ragged El-P beat that seems dipped in battery acid, Mike lays out his case against the dead president by connecting the dots between Reaganomics, the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex to the untold generational decay that were born out of these policies. Lest we think he’s some mere partisan hack, Mike blasts modern politicians too including President Obama for continuing Reagan’s failed policies. It’s a modern day “Fight The Power,” Killer Mike’s last four words are as iconic and devastating to Reagan’s reputation as when Public Enemy told John Wayne to go fuck himself. It’s apocalyptic fight music and truthfully, I’m glad Reagan’s dead too. ––Doc Zeus
Still not convinced Black Hippy could very well turn out the preeminent rap group of this decade? Let’s take a peek into the mental parking garages of its members: Ab-Soul hosts a going-away party in both your honor and Derek Fisher’s. Jay Rock thinks the motion picture that is your life would garner an all-time low score on Rotten Tomatoes. Kendrick Lamar has a shit-list tackboard that could even put Carrie Mathison to shame. And Schoolboy Q? Schoolboy Q is just pissed that you won’t be a man and hit this fucking lick already.
You’ve been browbeaten for almost eighteen months over the individual talents of these immensely talented MCs, and the Black Hippy remix of “Black Lip Bastard” is proof positive that they sound just as unstoppable as a tandem. There’s not a single second of this almost-six-minute track– not even the obligatory shit-talking by Kendrick for the last minute or so– that feels extraneous or tacked-on (pun fully intended). And each member of the collective shows the ways they’re valuable to the others: Lamar is typically ambitious and poetic in his short time here, as Q is typically charismatic and anarchic. Jay Rock– whom it should be noted has the longest verse by a pretty decent margin– accurately describes himself as the group’s “silent assassin of the four-headed dragon” is typically direct, often funny, and legitimately terrifying. Ab-Soul gets the song’s credit and an extra verse, where he’s typically both wise-assed and wise. If this “Black Lip Bastard” remix still doesn’t convince you of Black Hippy’s greatness, allow me to introduce you to Puff Daddy. The real Puff Daddy. —Martin Douglas
Admit it, most of you had thie lingering suspicion that Earl Sweatshirt would either peak at “Earl” or disappear into the Samoan wilderness forever. And when you heard he was home, when you heard there were photographs at a well-known Brooklyn dive venue to confirm this, most of you felt it was too good to be true. And when you heard he hopped on Tumblr and posted a new track– the first new Earl Sweatshirt music post-idiosyncratic-youth-camp, post-Odd-Future-blowing-too-far-the-fuck-up– you had to have had a little part of you that thought it was going to be wack. Or at least not as captivating as it is.
Then you hear the disaffected monotone and flurry of syllables, and you realize how much farther beyond his years he’s become. With all due respect to Joey Bada$$, Earl was long being touted as the most gifted rapper in his age bracket by a mile, and this was when he was fucking around with Asher Roth in applesauce and trigger-warning fantasies. The final line of this song is, “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.” Earl did a lot of growing up while he was away.
He’s also been doing a lot of reckoning: His relationship with his family, both biological (he’s missed his dad since he was six years old, things with mom has strained since fans chanted “Fuck Earl’s mom”) and adoptive (“Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that/Plus he liked how I rap.”). The whirlwind success of OFWGKTA. The Samoa debacle that probably got some intrepid Complex contributor a very nice bonus. Teenage drinking. That grey middle area where you’re “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks.” Earl has seen the real world, and it’s left him scatterbrained and frightened. But it has left his work more sterling than it’s ever been. — Martin Douglas
There’s only so much to be said about drill rap. As Waka and Gucci grew tire, shouting bangers found rejuvenation in Chicago. And while Lil Durk stands out because he frequently aspires for more than that, his best song is the one with humble ambitions. The autotune doesn’t force melody, it just reinforces three catchy notes. Lines like “Coolin on that mac too, hot shit for a winter breeze” are sly venom. The drums bang as hard as any did this calendar year.
Gang-affiliation. Explosive trap. These are both descriptions of the song and of the culture that produced it. When homicides happen hourly, there’s no time for more. Just throw the L’s up for them hittaz. Don’t overthink it. Just make sure you’re not repping Lamron on the wrong block. —Tosten Burks
I could be mistaken (per usual, I doubt it), but 2012 was Molly’s year. After years of mild references in rap, the pure form of MDMA/ecstasy infiltrated pop culture to an ungodly degree, leaving its mark on everything from Madonna’s last smegma sandwich of an album to several struggle rap song submissions I received.
Just when fall came around and folks in the know were beginning to suffer “molly fatigue,” the best song inspired by that devious shit (amongst others) landed on the blogosphere. When a song has the best non-BlockBeattaz trance and screw influenced production I’ve heard in a long time (via DJ Pain-1,) Juicy J’s standard insanity, and arguably the most stylish and animated Pusha T verse of his last busy twelve months, then yeah, you’re listening to the best molly song of the year.
As a matter of fact, this might be the best thing outta Chicago this year – thanks to King L’s impeccable taste in drugs, drugged out beats, drug rappers and of course, drugged out women. If there’s any justice, this will be the drug song to lead us into a brave, new world completely devoid of Mayan influenced prognostications… —Deen
2012 was a weird year for Tyga. His sophomore album, Careless World, attempted to mimic the sincerity of his (potentially) former label-mate Drake, but he found his true calling with a song about throwing money on yo’ titties. Suddenly, the world changed for Tyga. After “Rack City,” Tyga was able to call himself a somewhat successful solo artist and he went on to take advantage of his 15 minutes by releasing more music aimed at his newly found niche: ratchet strippers.
Ignore the fact that it gave Tyga a reason to live and “Rack City” is still one of the biggest songs of the year — based on the fact that it became a meme to the point where a) the L.A. Clippers commissioned a Lob City remix to use it as their stadium song and b) old, white, grandmothers were dancing to it on YouTube to the tune of millions of hits.
“Rack City” also served as a coming-out party for DJ Mustard, whose formulaic ratchetness had only been exposed to the small segment of people on this planet who listen to YG on their own accord. After “Rack City,” Mustard’s stock went to Platinum Poupon. Now take me down to Rack-Rack City, where the poles are greased and there’s money on titties. — Slava Pastuk
I’ll level with you, Nas has been remaking the same lead single for the past 10 years with varying levels of success. Uptempo Salaam Remi beat + God Son’s battle rap verses= something Hot97 can play for a few months. It’s a pretty good formula too as far as formulas go, satisfying and unsusceptible to the winds of change. This time however, the late Heavy D threw in a secret ingredient: that Super Cat sample.
Possibly the greatest flip on “Nas” as a syllable since Large Professor flipped a Biz Markie verse back in the 90s, Supercat’s sped up dancehall flavor not only ensured extra attention, it also predated Kanye’s own Super Beagle and Barrington Levy flips later that (cruel) summer. Three’s a trend right? Because rap can always use with more Jamaican vocals. Combine that with Nasir Jones’ strongest rapping since his beef with Jay-Z ages ago and you’ve got the rare contemporary New York rap single that managed to sound as timeless as it did current.
As if the original wasn’t enough, “The Don” also supplied plenty of fodder for ambitious remixers with Tom Wrecks delivering a devastating Trap take, complete with explosive 808s and Hesk using for an epic 8 minute Juke symphony titled “New York Girl.” Lawdhavemercy. ––Son Raw
Near the end of the summer, I saw Rocky and the A$AP Mob at a music festival in New York City. The mob—sloppy, excitable—came out first looking like…a mob. They were a rotating mass of yelling bodies, amateur punks having fun together on stage while only creating the barest semblance of what you conceivably call music. And then Rocky came out, the mob faded away and it was showtime.
Rocky, more than other New York undergrounder, is interested in being a star, in the old-fashioned sense. His stage presence shows it, his cautious interviews show it, and singles like “Goldie,” which abandoned the niche-stoner sound of Live Love A$AP for hi-fi catchiness, shows it. “Goldie” is a radio DJs dream: singalong hook, memorable verses, sweet uptempo beat and no fuckery. On “Hands on the Wheel,” Rocky showed that he was a much more dynamic rapper than he had previously been given credit for, but there was no need for that on his own single. It’s all just “smooth, puffing Zig Zags” with “a condo out in space.” This is head-down, smash-mouth, pop-rap music and all Rocky had to do with something so well planned out was show up, rap adequately, and dare you not to like it. — Jonah Bromwich
In 2012, El-P made music for anyone who thought the Bomb Squad’s beats were too easy to dance to. Like his work on Killer Mike’s “Big Beast,” the beat for “The Full Retard” is anything but funky; El-Producto’s bass thuds are the sort that take baseball bats to kneecaps. His rhymes are no more conciliatory: perhaps he crams in fewer words than usual, but the ones that are there bully their way out of the headphones anyway, as if each was rolling with another three of its comrades. Even before channelling pommy soccer hooligans, El-P smashes together unbeautiful couplets like “These watching, plotting minions of the lower God scene/Shit hawks abound, in the town of bullet dodging” as if he was looking to start a riot. It’s not a matter of “Cause you don’t understand him don’t mean that he nice” but more a miracle that he could even force these syllables from his lips in the first place.
Everyone remembers the first part of the Tropic Thunder quote that gives the song its title, but as important is Kirk Lazarus’s reason why you never go full retard: You go home empty handed. El-P overdoes it, littering his post-apocalyptic landscape with gurgles; pings; parachuted-in vinyl scratches; a grumbling, grainy mechanical bassline; and even an ambient DJ Shadow–esque interlude, but the resulting effect is numbing vacancy. It’s music apparently for your “floating whip system” but I imagine the only flying cars blasting this out to be ones hovering over the trashscapes of Pixar’s Wall-E. Something this pulverizing can only possibly result in dust. — Jonathan Bradley
Roc Marciano’s sophomore album, Reloaded, opens with a scene from “Pimps Up, Hoes Down,” in which King James is crowned “Pimp of the Year” at Chicago’s 24th annual Players Ball. Humbled by the prestigious award, he downplays the monetary perks offered by his profession and insists that “it’s really all about the respect.” The quote leading into “Tek to a Mack” is a respectable mission statement, but earnestness is a virtue better suited for Roc’s Metal Clergy counterpart. Moral compasses are intended to guide the actions of law-abiding citizens, not the itinerary of underworld megalomaniacs.
Marciano’s work is often accused of being regressive, but revivalists aren’t supposed to carve out their own signature sound. “Tek to a Mack” bears evidence of his artistic growth since 2010’s Marcberg. The writing is brilliantly facetious. Every fourth bar is punctuated by a dynamic stab from an unidentifiable instrument, at which point it’s difficult know whether to smirk or grimace at the prospect of Roc pushing your yarmulke entirely rearward. It’s the most infectious gun show since Biggie unveiled eleven Mac-11’s at Madison Square Garden. You can’t find this pimping in a pamphlet.
In light of the cautious acclaim garnered by Reloaded, perhaps he should have tapped his other favorite documentary, American Pimp, for the album’s introduction. There’s one particular scene where the Hughes Brothers encourage their subjects to make the distinction between authentic pimping and the diluted brand of flash peddling purported by Hollywood executives. Over a time-compression montage featuring Huggy Bear, Kramer, Eazy E, Velvet Jones and Conan O’Brian’s Pimp Bot 5000 portraying pimps as witless, foolhardy caricatures, Mike “Rosebudd” Thompson shares his conspiracy theory. “They have to include that little punk shit to make the pimping look raggedy,” he explains. “Otherwise, they’re just applauding pimping and libel to be turning some young bitches out!” For Marciano, buzz words such as “traditional” and “boom-bap” fall under the umbrella of punk shit. —Harold Stallworth
Triumph. The sound of pure triumph. Doing two awesome things: AT THE SAME DAMN TIME. There are those who have touted Future’s auto-tuning inventiveness — the fact that his album is as cohesive as they come and a more interesting than it has any right to be, as evidence of the fact that the ATLien deserves his propers.
But for me, “Same Damn Time,” and any other Future song that I can get into, is about the simplest pleasures. This one is an ode to a drugged out, almost childlike astonishment at one’s capabilities. You mean I can put bells and brass, the aural signifiers of success on a song, at the same damn time? You mean I can cook up drugs, and be on the phone, at the same damn time? In the past few years, a lot of rappers have made songs in which they list off the pleasures of being rappers, and all the beautiful things they own, and all the wonderful activities they get to partake in, because, you know, they’re rappers. But I can’t think of one other song in which the artist in question is so delighted, jubilant, nay, ecstatic, to be experiencing what he’s experiencing. It makes me outrageously envious of Future and almost disturbingly happy for Future. And, believe it or not, I can feel both emotions simultaneously. — Jonah Bromwich
How did we get here? Here being planet Hip-Hop circa 2012. Where has the underground gone? MF Doom is giving interviews at Red Bull Music Academy. The NY Times dropped a piece on Chief Keef before the release of his first proper album. And The New Yorker even gave El-P and Killer Mike a full spread. What happened to “unsigned hype,” both the Source article and what that title connotes? Have the blogs killed it? Does that make me complicit? Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict? There’s not enough space here to get into any of this stuff. But you get the idea: “Zero Dark Thirty” makes me ask a lot of questions. It’s great. It’s what art (and artists) is supposed to do. I hope you have many of the same questions. But above all else, I’m glad these things matter to Aes.
Deciphering Aesop Rock lyrics, especially those of “Zero Dark Thirty,” is like reading Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” You don’t grasp everything on the first, second, or tenth sitting. You step back, walk away, think about whatever stuck to your gray matter, and revisit. And ultimately, if you’re not well-versed in all things rap music, well acquainted with the canon, then you will be utterly lost, left alone in the post-apocalyptic world dodging “mothmen munching textiles.” Why else would Rock release a series of videos explaining the tracks (some more than others) on Skelethon prior to its release? He is tired of being misunderstood (see the myriad of explanations for lines on Rap Genius).
If I could venture a guess, I’d put my money on the fact that “Zero Dark Thirty” is Rock’s confession, the verbalization of one unconscious and yet all consuming burning thought over clattering drums: He knows he is alone. The “huntable surplus” is no more. He is the invisible man, scribbling away underground and bouncing off of the billion bulbs blaring on the walls. Is it any wonder why the track samples P.E.’s “Public Enemy No. 1?” Aes Rock is the “poetic, political, lyrical, son” of the underground bubble of the early-aughts. Where is his New Yorker piece? Maybe they’ve already asked. And maybe he doesn’t want one. Regardless, he’s grown, lyrically, sonically, and conceptually on each and every record since then. “Zero Dark Thirty” is where you begin. The rest of the record(s) waits for you to listen. “Anything less would be ri-god-damn-diculous.” —Max Bell
At this point, French Montana is the rapping equivalent of DJ Khaled. I can’t think of another artist more dependent on guest cameos. Luckily, for this (almost) song of the year contender, everyone brings their A game. Ross and Frenchie’s verses mirror one another. They are slow and plodding in a way that suggests a boss’ confidence, with punchlines worth dropping out the beat for.
The 2 Live Crew sample that opens “Pop That Pussy” comes off manic, breathless — a beat that opens at 11 and never really let’s up throughout French Montana’s instant stripclub anthem classic. Rick Ross is Galactus, lording over the proceedings with his gut bucket baritone and it’s very hard not to listen to him chanting “WORK” like a monk, over and over without getting motivated to go out and open a business or fuck a stripper.
Drake, who didn’t release an album this year but contented himself with showing up seemingly everywhere to steal songs from some of rap’s biggest names, makes the bold decision to rap on beat, and in this syrup saturated company he’s practically Busta Rhymes in quadruple time. The approaches are studies in contrast. French and Ross sound nearly careless, the verses are exercises in brushing the shoulders of their mink coats. Drake is unapologetically hungry and borderline desperate to assert his dominance, and he’s incredibly successful in accomplishing that goal. The craft and emphasis in every punchline connects and it is an all out assault, a clinic in writing a successful big time clear channel radio cameo in 2012.
Which brings us to Wayne, still stuck in the doldrums of a post incarceration hangover, this is as bad as we’ve heard from him. The entire affair is utterly forgettable and had this song been a minute and a half shorter I’m pretty sure it would’ve landed about 5 spots higher. But yeah for the sheer kinetic energy wafting off the production here this has to be an all time DJ go-to for turning a party into a ratchet ass episode of Cops. It will be inspiring booty dropping the world over long past 2012. — Abe Beame
“Hookers at the Point” spares no detail in mocking hookers and johns. Action Bronson gleefully depicts the the prostitute’s transaction with evident delight in every awkward, pitiful moment surrounding his star hooker, Cindy. It’s disgusting and I’ve struggled to identify why I like this song beyond surface-level reasons like these:
- Bronson is a great storyteller and challenges himself to do something interesting with the narrative. First, he introduces us to Cindy, the neighborhood whore and quickly sets the tone (“That’s what she gets for being a whore, though!”). Next, he shifts character and becomes the hooker by hitching up his voice – and not the powerful, morally vexing woman from Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me”, mind you. Bronson’s character is a vicious caricature. Then Bronson becomes the equally pitiful john, noting his second character shift by changing his voice again and opening with “Dos en el morning”, because Dano, the pathetic Bronx truck driver, is half Puerto Rican.
- Party Supplies’ beat is a left-field stroke of brilliance. The sparse two note beat follows minimalist classics like “Tried By 12” and “Brooklyn Zoo”. It’s functional too in that the lolling melody makes you feel like you’re staring at the minute hand of your watch, waiting to find out if you have an STD. The stillness makes Bronson’s voice and lyrics that much more stark.
That should be reason enough to laud “Hookers at the Point” while rationalizing the vileness as a quirk of Bronson’s sense of humor. But I think there’s a perverse charm as well. Action Bronson, himself a tubby oddball, seems to harbor an affection for his pathetic characters. He peels up the city’s nasty underside for everyone to see and has a great big laugh about it, because he’s one of the freaks too. The first time I saw him, he was in the studio with Statik Selektah while Statik and Termanology live-streamed the making of an EP. He introduced himself to the camera with a feigned rapper tough guy act and hyped his single, “Get Off My PP” to scattered laughter. Then he went in the booth and recorded a verse that made me check for him ever since. —Evan Nabavian
Andre 3000 has popped up now and again since The Love Below to remind us that he deserves his place in the canon (most notably, to my mind, on “Da Art of Storytellin’ Part 4”), but he just can’t bring himself to make an album, and on the best veteran collaboration of the year, he explains why: “I hated all the attention so I ran from it…I’m a grown-ass kid, you know ain’t never cared about no damn money, Why do we try so hard to be stars, just to dodge com(m)e(n)ts?” I don’t want fame, I don’t care about fortune, and I don’t want you guys talking about me—what’s the point of working?
Funny thing is though, Andre just can’t help himself. And when he says that he used to be a way better writer and a rapper, near the beginning of his verse, he’s lying. Since he stopped making music consistently, every time he finds himself on wax, dude murders everyone, delivering theses at top-speed, the most comprehensive verses being made right now. As even our favorite rappers resort to lists, prepackaged slick phrases and basic storytelling to fill their bars up, Andre is still telling it like it is, fast or slow, always nuanced and always in keeping with the basic subject matter of his song. He raps like no one else does. He raps like no one else can. Maybe the King of the Hill actually needs to live on the goddamn hill, but, seemingly whenever he wants to, Andre can retake his spot at the top, and he doesn’t ever even have to push. — Jonah Bromwich
It begins with a gang initiation and ends with one of Beth Gibbons’ most frightening vocal performances. It features Osama Bin Laden, burgundy blood, and a female cop frisking our narrator’s lady friend. For God’s sake, it’s titled after the founder and inaugural year of the Crips. Schoolboy Q may have the reputation of being the wild, hot-headed gunslinger of the Black Hippy collective, he may not have learned too much in school, but dammit if he can’t paint an incredibly vivid picture. He had to have at least gone to art class.
Kendrick gets all the ink as Black Hippy’s poetic visionary, but Verse One of “Raymond 1969” is just as poetic and harrowing as Lamar’s best work, as Q focuses on both the still and moving moments of the aforementioned gang initiation. A twelve-year-old hits a laced blunt and stages an execution and a home invasion. It’s a brutal and chilling moment, which only amplifies upon learning the reward for taking human lives: “Didn’t get a comma nor a sentence for the karma/Just an imaginary stripe so he can hold his head in honor.”
The remaining two verses are a melange of scattershot images, each no more or less important than the last. The Portishead sample only lets up at the end and the lives at stake are never spared. Q never apologizes for habits or contradictions. He believes in having a moral code, but he sees the fear in his own mother’s eyes when she looks at him. “Raymond 1969” represents the Los Angeles rappers tried to warn you about before the Rodney King riots. It represents the parts of Los Angeles that are still this way, the parts that aren’t blinded by the glitz of Hollywood or the shiny, free-trade coffee bean of Silverlake. But they’re not worried about what kind of threat they face at home. They’re worried about Osama. — Martin Douglas
“Lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end,” Tony Soprano said once. “The best is over.” Rick Ross is the last wheezing gasp of an era gone, one final fat motherfucker trying to recreate the glory days of lavish crime narratives and the even more lavish luxury rewards. He started off a fraud, a bit player trying to hustle his out-of-breath gasps into something more than a collection of two bit Miami misdemeanors. When he eventually won hearts, it’s also because he won minds; he faked it so hard that we decided he had to have made it.
Maybach Music Group was once a brand of fatuously illegitimate opulence — rap’s bootleg Louis handbag — but Ross no longer conjures even that tacky glee. “Stay Schemin’” is cold and joyless, a creeping, crotchety synth line augmented with what passes as capos in these end times: French Montana fanuting his way into dictionaries and… uh… Drake. No wonder Rozay can barely think of more to say in his verse than “fuck it.” Even Drizzy’s stupidly sexist opening gripe — “It bothers me when the gods get to acting like the broads” — conveys the sense that something good is over and all we can do now is scrabble amidst the scraps. French Montana might have that Ghost, but his verse is a weary one about the labor of moving work, not the rewards. No wonder that sing-song hook sounds weary; the scheming is never-ending and the returns ever diminishing. — Jonathan Bradley
Keen observers might note that this is the THIRD time I’ve written about this song. That’s gotta mean something, right? I’m a busy person; so there’s no way I’d devote 3 different posts to ONE Chief Keef song if it wasn’t good – in a numb, mindless sorta way – but good nonetheless. “Love Sosa” stands on its own merits and don’t bother waiting on another backhanded compliment because I’m out of those. And that’s not because I’m scared of dirty, dreadlocked 17 year olds. I’m not.
But before we get to Keef, let’s discuss Young Chop a bit. It’s fair to say this is song that separated Young Chop from the legions of Lex Luger imitators still cashing rap checks in 2012. Chop’s “B.M.F.”/”Hard In Da Paint” moment if you will. This hypnotic concoction of twinkly cocaine synths, ominous horror strings and drums de jour provided the perfect platform for Chief Keef to calmly mumble and chant his way on to many playlists this year. Seriously. I think I tweeted about this song for a month straight after the snippet leaked. And even better is the fact that unlike Keef’s other big song this year, “I Don’t Like,” Love Sosa is idiosyncratic enough to ensure that no one will be riding this wave under the guise of “giving” the kid a good look. Shots fired.
Simply put, before Keef, there was (is?) Waka. Before Waka, there was Lil Jon and before Lil Jon there was Tim Dog. While that isn’t the most chronologically detailed or accurate goon rap timeline, the point I’m making is that there’ll always be a lane for youth powered aggro rap. Each half-generation probably gets the rappers they deserve and World Star Hip-Hop suggests that this is one unwashed ass generation. Keef is just the next up in a long-standing trend and Love Sosa stands as his magnum opus, as well as one of the best songs of 2012. Here’s to Keef never working with B.o.B. or Flo-Rida. You don’t have to love Sosa, but you will hail, or at least, acknowledge the Chief. — Deen
I really want to know where these guys are rolling to that night in the “Bird On A Wire” video. Jody Highroller, Bronson and the gang are leisurely strolling down the street, brown bagged malt liquor in hand, a couple of unlit spliffs in the mouth, delving deep into the night as the sun comes down in the City of Angels. It’s game time in Los Angeles and the boys are coming out to play. All we really know for sure is that something epic is about to happen. I mean…they are rolling with Simon Rex and the Alchemist. It’s definitely on tonight.
“Bird On A Wire” is the bro anthem of the year. It captures the carefree spirit of a night out on the town with your boys when the feeling of invincibility washes over you and anything can happen. Harry Fraud’s spacey, psychedelic beat sounds like summer twilight and provides the proper atmospherics for the duo. The unlikely union of Action Bronson and Riff Raff have a yin and yang alchemy that simply compliments the other. Bronson, the novelistic underground rap foodie, is the duo’s leading man as he drops an instantly iconic verse dedicated to the tailor made leather suits, karate and the other finer things in life. Meanwhile, Riff Raff, the drawling quasi-novelty rapper with a penchant for the absurd, proves he can be more than an ironic fashion victim — with a slyly understated verse aspiring to better days and sunny weather. It’s a combination that could have easily ended in disaster, but proves that opposites can make beautiful music together. On some Jodeci shit. — Doc Zeus
Don’t like Grime? Too bad, it’s already here…sort of. Because if London’s alien futurism was too bizarre the first time around, rap has slowly caught up by increasing the tempo, using weirder and weirder synths and encouraging emcees to snort a shedload of drugs. T.I even signed Chipmunk, although I don’t think Americans have to worry much when it comes to foreign emcees stealing their jerbs. At least not while Danny Brown’s around.
Tearing into UK producer Darq E. Freaker’s chopped up organs with all the fury of a banshee, Brown introduced a much lighter, party-oriented persona on this one after last year’s dire XXX. Surprisingly, this approached proved to be just as successful, inciting crowds to riot, bloggers to blog and just about everyone to wonder what the hell was going on because let’s face it…this song is weird. Who the hell tells girls to “shake their asses for a hipster n*gga” while endorsing PBR over a beat fast enough to cause seizures in the elderly? And that’s not even counting the chorus’ blatant drug endorsements which make his previous habbits look tame in comparison.
The entire track is a loud, obnoxious assault on good taste and common sense, accompanied by a video straight out of Tipper Gore’s worse nightmare. Danny Brown may have previously called himself the hybrid but this evil combination of Eminem, Rick James and Tempa T was something else entirely. Re-wind selecta! — Son Raw
We don’t always reach a consensus on which song gets to hold the banger of the summer belt each year and if I recall correctly, I expressed a great deal of panic at 2012’s early candidates for banger of the year. I mean, people were seriously tryna sell me on that “Cashin’ Out” shit being the club banger of the year. But I needn’t have fretted so much. Between Yeezy, 2Chainz & Future we would have been just fine in 2012, but one man gazed across the desolate rap landscape from some random hotel room equipped with a home studio and decided that we could do so much better. That man was Juicy J. You peasants should be thankful and I get the sense that you are – after all, “Bandz” is Juicy J’s first solo appearance on the Billboard charts.
It’s still a bit difficult to fathom how this song became the behemoth it was in 2012. It wasn’t the guest appearances; Lil Chainz and 2Waynes weren’t on the original version of the track and based on the ever-reliable Twitter charts, “Bandz” was well on its way to blowing up before they got added. Maybe it was the Mike Will Made It production – after all, he had an excellent year making hits for everyone from the aforementioned 2Chainz to Future and even a bonafide popstar in Rihanna. But the masses don’t live by beats alone – no matter how trippy, martial and catchy they are. And it certaintly wasn’t Juicy J’s alignment with Wiz’s Taylor Gang. Wiz can’t even make himself a hit these days. So why “Bandz?”
All those factors probably contributed to the answer in some small way, but ultimately, the lion’s share of the lean and pills should go to Juicy J and his pedigree. The truth of the matter is that his (and by extension, Three 6 Mafia’s) highly influential style of catchy hook and verse chanting alike has always been chart-ready. Long before synths started ruling our rap airwaves, that Memphis shit always sounded as if it was designed to rule our ears and asses. I mean, who doesn’t dig a good chant? Chants are awesome. Like cross-culturally n’shit. Chanting is good money everywhere – from America to Papua New Guinea. Add in clapping and we’re outta here. Its the most communal bonding ass shit ever. I’d make a list of instances in which chants come in handy, but I’d be here all day. Chants are that important and awesome because they appeal to some base innate instinct within everyone – even people who can’t twerk. And Juicy J has known this for almost 20 years.
And so it came to be in 2012 that we bonded over a chant expressing an undeniable truth about one of our most esteemed sub-species: the stripper. Women want to be her, men want to throw hard earned money at her and Juicy J provided the druggy soundtrack to these respective transformations and transactions as only he could. And we liked it. Because it’s the truth – strippers will do stripper shit like twerking and pussy-popping, i.e., dancing, when you toss copious amounts of cash in their general direction. Because we’re all primal, idiotic beings that worship cash and love strippers. Don’t deny this inalienable truth. That would be some un-American, heathen shit. —Deen
So be grateful, because Bandz was probably the soundtrack to 80% of the bad decisions you made in 2012. You know, all that ratchet pussy you couldn’t say no to either… — Deen
Our own childhoods are strangers. While snippets of moments and faces remain, half remembered, second hand events and anecdotes stay with us: the sense of wonder, confusion, fear, animal instinct and unbridled emotion. But they’re all lost when self awareness dawns.
In Hip Hop this problem has been often remedied largely through sentimental detail. Hardships: Sharing a bed with your young relatives who have yet to master bladder control, the embarrassment of being teased by your P.S. classmates as the poor kid with hand-me-downs, the ass whoopings you would receive from your surly grandma. Joys: The unexpected moments of kindness, games you’d play with your friends in the streets you grew up in, the rare family get together. But it comes with a degree of context, a reminiscence.
Enter Kendrick Lamar, a bright young artist who made a name for himself by addressing many of hip hop’s well worn themes in ways that defy it’s established tropes and archetypes. And “Cartoons & Cereal” might be his masterpiece to date. Of course, Kendrick covered issues of frustrated, alienated youth before with his stirring, POW 2011 album of the year award winner, Section 80. But he was occasionally accused of tackling the confused, violent and misogynistic tendencies of Regan babies with a heavy hand. The knowing elusiveness of “Cartoons & Cereal” is testament to his growth as a songwriter, and on its own merits, a fucking incredible song.
I’s my favorite song of this very good year in Rap because it raises more questions than it answers. It brings into focus the challenge of calibrating a moral compass when your role models, authority figures and heroes are characterized as criminals by a country that thinks of poor, desperate teenagers that way. And the “good guys”, the paragons of virtue in the society you’re confined by are regularly seen beating the shit out of your friends and neighbors on the evening news. It communicates the frustration and disorientation that comes with growing up in a predatory concrete jungle. Kendrick playing the desensitized latchkey kid raised by a TV set and ducking stray shots through the living room window. It offers no easy solutions to the problems that come hand in hand with such an upbringing.
The structure is as brilliant and challenging as its scope. 7 minutes, with a few Kendrick verses sprinkled sporadically around bridges and hooks, including an affecting snippet of a Gunplay verse that buries the track. And what a verse. What an inspired choice. Gunplay is in full Big Rube mode here, balancing Kendrick’s brilliantly intricate wordplay with tertiary, 4,000 year old wisdom. It’s a role Big Boi perfected with Andre 16 years ago, the street corner preacher to Andre’s precocious, existential introvert and for this one shining moment, it’s arguable he even manages to improve upon it.
As for Kendrick’s part, the beauty lies in how difficult the whole thing is to pin down. He crafts two perfect, labyrinthine verses that function as Rube Goldberg devices: impossible to unpack in a single listen and filled with gems in its nooks and crannies. Bleak observations and images are scattershot from producer THC’s ticking hi-hats, alien rattles and murky spaceship synths. Are the reflections his own or is the whole thing impressionistic? These questions are nagging, but largely unimportant.
The opening salvo of Gunplay’s verse is isolated and strewn through the song because more than anything else it conveys a desire to relate experience, to put who you are, what you feel and what you’ve been through into words that can be understood and related to by everyone. “Cartoons & Cereal’s” reflections are universal because they’re so inscrutable. The song is like Kendrick’s coyote in the moon, as large and ominous and ultimately impossible to fully process as the formative years that follow us all throughout our lives. — Abe Beame