In the interest of avoiding excess repetition, this Best Rap Songs list strove to include what didn’t make our Best Albums list. Singles were given priority over album tracks. Rap songs that were good were given priority over songs that were bad. White rappers had to submit petitions that included three different references from people with criminal records. This is what made the cut. Now follow 2 Chainz into the cave to get your fix. —Ed.
50. Kevin Abstract – “Drugs”/Anderson Paak – “Drugs”
If Charles Bukowski was a soul-struck Hellfyre Club affiliate who was dragged unexpectedly to a HARD event (take your pick) and found himself hours later pressed up next to some fur-booted hard bodies on the Venice beach boardwalk, he might write a poem with words like the ones in “Drugs.”
It’s not just the romantic nihilism that Paak brings to the PBR&B party (“Who gives a fuck about your history / Nobody mentioned it”) Miguel, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd have been kicking up that dust for a couple years already. It’s not the mere vulnerability either (although there is a special brand of it here: “There’s no love / She don’t even like me / But if we have drugs / She could be my wifey.”) It’s the Chinaski-grade lightheartedness about a situation that is begging to take a turn for the shitty and depressive if you just don’t own up to it.
Of all the places where EDM has sweatily bumped-up against rap, the low-lit drug-lit tent corner has probably been the spot most heavily frequented. Not so many of these moments capture the liberation and the shame and the impatience packed into the every capsule of today’s designer drug culture like “Drugs.”
These admissions, disguised behind the hypnotic light beams and ratcheting thumps and click-click-booms as promotions, are only as “made-up” as a Bukowski character could’ve been. – Alex Dwyer
Kevin Abstract is more straightforward than his name might suggest. Calling a song “Drugs” is like calling it “sex,” “violence,” or “rap good.” If Anderson Paak’s contraband seems procured from would-be kingpins renting Entourage mansions, the teenaged Abstract’s narcotics are copped next to the lockers. Both songs offer vulnerability, but Paak has the awareness that this cycle will soon end. What makes Abstract’s version so visceral is that you see the isolation through the eyes of someone too young to know that this a temporary prison.
His mom tells him he’s on too many drugs. So does his girl, so does his dad. He’s too young to leave, but old enough to feel completely alone. Old enough to threaten to leak his girlfriend’s nudes on the Internet. His world feels bound by four walls and the wireless, somewhere in nowhere Corpus Christi, TX. Draining the last of his high school years bumping Kid Cudi, Dipset, and Frank Ocean, alternately fearing and fantasizing about everything he’ll do when he escapes. For now, there’s just the drugs. — Weiss
49. Cam & Chyna – “Do Dat”
If Tinashe’s “2 On” and Mila J’s “My Main” taught us anything this year, it’s that DJ Mustard should produce more songs for women. Although “Do Dat,” from Cam & China, wasn’t crafted by Dijon’s own fair hands (it comes via D.R.U.G.S. and Beatboy), the song was at least born out of the school of ratchet that he founded. So there’s that winning combination of a one-handed Fisher Price keyboard pattern and hefty bass, while the Inglewood duo spits a stream of filth that’ll leave the prudish scurrying for disinfectant to scrub their speakers with. As two former members of jerkin’ five-piece Pink Dollaz that’s to be expected, but “Do Dat” goes above and beyond high expectations. Cam & China are bold, direct and raw enough to satisfy Dirt McGirt, so may their union continue to bear forbidden fruit into the New Year. — Kyle Ellison
48. The Koreatown Oddity – “Film Roll Splices and the Deleted Scenes”
The costumes and punchlines tell you that DOOM and Kool Keith are the two most direct fathers to Dominique Purdy’s rap style. But if you open your ears, the influences go way further than rap parochialism. Within the first few bars, he’s already lamenting the early obituaries filed on Mitch Hedburg and Patrice O’ Neal. He’s got the gift of compressing incredible amounts of biographical attention into a few bars (“8th grade, anime nickname, sporting waves, bald fade, black and Orange Air Forces.”) Or flashbacks to getting jacked for bus passes. The terror of police profiling stays in the front of his mind, but not so much that he’s not willing to risk a trip to the original El Cholo on Western. Get the guacamole.
It fits that the Koreatown is in his name, because the references are hyper-local — right down to the Sportie LA shout out, pupusas, Roscoe’s and Korean slang. These are the film roll splices and deleted scenes, fraying coils of memory, exhumed through rap music. Richard Hamilton winning the chip at UCONN. Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy references. Even a Jayo Felony shout. Ras G handles the beat to make the eccentricity covalent. This brings you back without beating you over the head. He might wear a mask but these are the tattoos under his sleeves. — Weiss
47. Saba – “401K”
Saba’s Comfort Zone didn’t make our Top 50 albums list. No democracy is perfect. But we would’ve been remiss had we not included “401K” on this list. Arguably the best song on the tape, it ranks among the year’s most impassioned critiques of the problems that swaths of Chicago have faced for decades: poverty, unemployment, gang violence…
Over a beat infused with hard drums and atmospheric soul, Saba outlines the stark trade offs in a world as black and white as the homicides printed in the Chicago Tribune. When high GPA and perfect classroom attendance doesn’t translate to a job and money in the bank, 401Ks are traded for AKs, W-9s for 9 millimeters. On the corner, college doesn’t seem like a viable escape. If you aren’t a victim to the violence, starvation may still stop your vital signs. Saba knows the Chicago he deftly raps about will never be perfect, but he also knows it can improve. He won’t stop until it does. Songs like this are a first step. — Max Bell
46. Meek Mill “Off the Corner feat Rick Ross”
A certain strain of gangster rap promises you the world if you have the temerity to take it. It feeds the starving wolf lurking in every restless young man and says “Work harder than the rest of them and one day you can buy and sell all these motherfuckers”. Miserable, insignificant, and wretched though you may be, there’s a black Rolls Royce Wraith waiting for you if you want it bad enough.
“Off The Corner” vindicates the children of Get Rich or Die Tryin. Meek Mill raps with unimpeachable gall and bravado, made all the more contemptuous by the shrillness in his voice. The self-styled millionaire made his money from the meanest beginnings so he could throw it in everyone’s faces. Meek’s flow is punchy and brash in a way that makes you stand ten feet tall whereas Rick Ross’ heft signals the iron-fisted power accrued over years. Coupled with a flashy, theatrical beat, it’s enough to impart a drug kingpin’s invincibility for a span of four minutes. Brag rap is truly great when it’s irrefutable and “Off The Corner” is a supreme example. – Evan Nabavian
45. Jon Waltz – “Bang”
The rap and R&B collision course has endured since well before Chris Rock’s prophecies on “Champagne.” But once Drake stepped into the cipher with a yarmulkah, a bag of lemongrass candles, and a mission to be the light-skinned Keith Sweat, it became complete. Never underestimate the powers of ruthless yet polite Canadian efficiency. It ultimately tipped the paradigm for what’s acceptable for rappers to do.
From hook to bars, young artists are given leeway to write complete songs: radio-friendly melodies that aren’t mutually exclusive to rappity raps. See Jon Waltz, 18-years old and clearly apart of his morose generation. The video for “Bang” shows an artist shrouded in the darkness, invoking pills, pools of liquor and the feeling of drowning. It’s what “Swimming Pools (Drank)” has wrought — teenagers unafraid to reflect on struggles with substance abuse and the violence that comes easily when people are getting that first little taste of the nightlife.
“Bang” is a song about guns, substance abuse, and death. Prayer and dreams. He hails from Memphis, but this doesn’t sound like anything from Triple Six, Yo Gotti, Snootie Wild, or really anything extracted from the last 20 years of Tennessee music. You might point its provenance to the numb vortex of the Internet. You could malign the absence of regional tics. But you’d be overlooking that at its core, “Bang” is basically the blues. —Weiss
44. Kodak Black “4th Quarter”
When I interviewed Kodak Black in late September, we discussed his prior encounters with the justice system, and his future efforts to avoid imprisonment. Shortly thereafter, he went to juvenile hall again. Photos with “#FreeKodak” were posted, and a spate of fellow delinquents popped up to claim they’d encountered the diminutive rapper while serving time. None of this is outwardly remarkable– Kodak is far from the only 17-year old overly familiar with his nearest police precinct, but other 17-year olds also haven’t opened for Migos and Lil Boosie.
“4th Quarter,” from Kodak’s debut Project Baby, features compatriots The Kolyons, but Kodak is the undoubted star. Concert footage shows his fellow teens, dreadlocked and pastel Polo’d, rapping along to every line of “4th Quarter;” Kodak’s a legitimate regional star, whose lack of press is somewhat mystifying. Even if my fellow mouth-breathing bloggers haven’t taken notice, “4th Quarter” has garnered some possibly unwanted attention from Kodak’s peers. Rich the Kid, who Kodak collaborated with, immediately turned around and beat jacked him. “Goin Crazy,” featuring Migos, is the exact same beat as “4th Quarter,” amply noted by Kodak fans on Twitter and YouTube. Fortunately, a lack of mainstream media attention and minor league beat thieving are small obstacles for a rapper whose hero, Lil Boosie, has found great success well outside the myopic eyes of the press.
Though Kodak’s voice isn’t nearly as high pitched as Boosie’s (whose is?), there’s more than a fleeting resemblance between the two artists– Boosie is prone to vacillating between self-reflection and ignorance, a skill, and dichotomy not lost on Kodak. “4th Quarter” isn’t Kodak’s most introspective song, but it’s almost certainly his biggest hit. Kodak doesn’t need bloggers when he has over-eager 18-year old twerkers on stage. —Torii MacAdams
43. Russ – “Coming Through”
Rappers preach self-love more often than they should. It’s fine in moderation, but many a Twitter timeline has probably hurt sales in the self-help section at those Barnes & Noble stores still standing. When committed to wax, the message often comes off as preachy, saccharine, and boring.
Russ’ “Comin Thru” isn’t an answer to the former, but it’s an example of how you turn self-belief into something that shirks the insipid and unsentimental. It’s also the best synthesis of the southern rapper’s promising lyrical ability and pop sensibilities. When not rapping better than most with SoundCloud profiles, he half-sings catchy hooks and deals in honesty without the nauseating smarm. He also produced the piano driven beat, borrowing from the Beatnuts and thus adding to the import and efficacy of his words.
Too much self-love can eliminate the possibility for self-examination, affording the practitioner an undeserved contentedness. In just one line (“I’m going to drop a classic debut called I’m Not Finished”), Russ proves he’ll never succumb to that deluded and artistically damning pitfall. He has every right to believe in himself. — Max Bell
42. Tunji Ige – “Day 2 Day”/”Day2Day Remix ft. Michael Christmas & Makonnen”
The year’s sneakiest hit may also be its silliest. Before known ball busters Makonnen and Michael Christmas jumped onto 19-year-old West Chester University wiz kid Tunji Ige’s sly techno chords and hiccupping snare, the original showcased Tunji slinging cul-de-sac blues out of basements in Pennsylvania and Chicago’s Wonda taking 19 wives for no reason. The hook is all bravado, until post-spliff Tunji looks up above and falls in love, which is kind of how the single functions in general—cocky punch lines undercut by crooning, stoned serenading where the G’s don’t play.
But on the remix, with Boston’s finest afro bragging about the Illuminati following him on Twitter and telling haters to get off his vas deferens, and Makonnen telling ecstasy-loving techno girls to use him, abuse him, and take all his love away over a kick drum and hand clap-heavy outro, what started as a gangster grin twists into a glorious, hyper self-aware romp. An age-old template: gather funny friends and let hilarity ensue. — Tosten Burks
41. clipping. – “Work, Work ft. Cocc Pistol Cree”
Towards the end of “Work, Work,” clipping.’s MC, Daveed Diggs, delivers a set of lines about playing it cool and playing it gangsta—only to turn around and say it’s all in your head and, in fact, “It really doesn’t matter because you’re already dead / No obituaries for the most part / Nobody cares, you are not even a costar.” This makes for a sobering lyrical turn, and it’s also a funny dig at the fantasy scenarios that show up in so many generic rap tunes. But it’s hardly the only thing that makes this track killer. Cocc Pistol Cree almost steals the show with her slicing-and-dicing guest verse. Daveed puts in a memorable performance in the video by recounting his verses while bent over in a curb-stomp position. And then there’s that beat, which sounds like an instrument out of a Javanese gamelan orchestra that’s been carefully fashioned into a shimmering loop all its own.
I’m thinking “Work, Work” has the word “work” in the title twice because this L.A. trio wants to emphasize that sometimes you just need to put in the labor, whether you’re going to get the credit for it or not. Well, they deserve the credit for this one, and any perks to go with it. — Peter Holslin
10. J-Zone – “Mad Rap”
“Cooperators are running shit. That’s people’s models: cooperate and we can survive” – Dame Dash
Nobody wants to be called a “hater” but in the Super Friends era of rap where every rapper is friendly with each other and afraid to rock the boat in fear of upsetting their corporate sponsors, a hater is exactly what is called for.
Enter the perpetually aggrieved J-Zone who boldly declares a need for more hate in the rap game on his blistering single, “Mad Rap.” As a self-proclaimed failed rapper with over 15 years experience making music, J-Zone has exactly zero interest in appeasing anybody and is giving out lyrical two pieces to anybody that inspires his wrath. Zone plays the role of vengeful, rap proletariat directly calling out moneyed black people like Jay Z, Russell Simmons and the entire Los Angeles Clippers for failing to publicly stand up against institutional racism in fear of fucking up their money. Zone is as testy and spitefully hilarious as ever taking a well-deserved shit in the mouth of bourgeois assholes who don’t want you to ever complain. Zone For President in 2016! – Doc Zeus
9. Rustie ft. Danny Brown – “Attak”
Y’all can’t spit like Danny Brown. I mean, literally, unless you’re missing one-and-a-half central incisors, and figuratively, because Detroit’s most drugged Fraggle is inimitable. Brown’s flow vacillates between the highs of helium escaping a balloon and the lows of Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff, dropping octaves as quickly as it takes the cartoon antagonist to realize he’s standing on thin air. Brown’s a pliant rapper; his early work is largely straightforward Detroit rap, but as his cornrows were shorn and traded in for increasingly abstract manes, his beat selection became more abstract in turn.
What Brown never lost in his musical and drug experimentation was his sense of low-level criminality, which he’s discussed candidly on and off wax. “Attack’s” baroque façade of warehouse alarm sirens and grandstanding synths belies Brown’s never fully obscured gullies. “Trap” has been cooped into sterile submission by suburban bicep bros and platinum blondes rolling on ecstasy cut with too much speed—”Attak” is not that. Brown threatens the following: chokeholds for “pussy niggas,” shooting brains out of hats, and further bullets to the chest.
Specificity makes for excellent lyrics; Brown doesn’t just threaten your family but threatens to put your daughter’s fingers in a mousetrap, like Home Alone Macaulay Culkin impersonating Method Man. Brown has a gift for brutal honesty adjacent to brutality, a pattern mirrored by his personal life. Crammed between bluster, brags, and threats, Brown raps “Back in 2003 used to post up and roll up bag of pounds of the mid / Use to trap O.T. with the D, on the Greyhound bus, one pair of jeans / Touchdown in the city like ‘Nigga where the fiends?’ ” The devil is always in the details. — Torii MacAdams
8. YG – “Meet the Flockers”
What exactly makes a good lyricist? Does one have to have litter your rhymes with five-star SAT words? Do you have to spit bars with complex internal rhyme patterns? Do you have dreads and speak on social and political issues ? Do you have to be from New York? Compton rapper YG is nobody’s prototypical idea of a great lyricist but what he does do exceptionally well is write songs – the most important part of being a good rapper.
“Meet The Flockers” is the ideal example of why YG’s My Krazy Life was one of the year’s best written rap albums. Over a creeping G-Funk inspired track, YG and guest crime partner Tee Cee deliver a step-by-step manual to becoming a world-class home invader In the tradition of Biggie’s “10 Crack Commandments.” YG’s rhymes do more with less effectively conveying the details of the paranoid thrills of crime with simplicity and straight-forwardness. It doesn’t hurt that producer Mikely Adam delivers a paranoid creeper of a beat that totally bangs. – Doc Zeus
7. Rae Sremmurd – “No Type”
As far as radio-ready joints go, 2014’s belonged to the duo Rae Sremmurd, and “No Type” is their best work to date. They glide over Mike Will’s icy synths and rumbling sub bass, providing us with the year’s stickiest hook. It’s the rare tune whose ubiquity you can live with. They’ve been compared to Kriss-Kross – even if the intent is pejorative, and its effect reductive, I’d take it as a compliment. They may well end up being two-hit wonders, but they’ll always be the dudes who provided some of 2014 most purely enjoyable tunes – a public service, in my mind. Few artists will ever be able to boast such an accomplishment. The Mike Will-Rae Sremmurd connection is better than we deserved this year. – Adam Wray
6. Migos – “Fight Night”
When they weren’t out shopping for Atlanta’s finest patterned shirts, The Three Migoteers spent most of the year perfecting a formula. It’s somehow inevitable, then, that their crowning achievement of 2014 is the song that smashes it to pieces. Eschewing the trios labyrinthine stop-start trap, “Fight Night” swipes a fluid, rubbery baseline from the Bay (albeit from ATL producer Stack Boy Twaun) and runs with it. A chorus of seal claps cheers the song into action, as Messrs, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset get in the ring to trade boxing blows. This might not be Migos’ usual feng shui, as Takeoff puts it, but there’s more versatility under all of the triplets and repetition than the group is given credit for.
The sheer density of Migos’ tapes can mean it sometimes takes awhile for the best songs to emerge. Subtler hits can often overtake those that bounce right off the bat, but even after the excellent Rich Nigga Timeline, “Fight Night” won’t be budged in a hurry. Other notable things to happen on the song include shouts to Nate Dogg, an ad-lib of the year contender (lil momma!) and the advent of the language ‘Brokanese.’ Most importantly though, Migos find the sweet spot in this simple, limber beat and clutch on to it like their riches depend on it. — Kyle Ellison
5. Action Bronson – “Easy Rider”
Just when you thought Bronsolino’s awesome extramusical endeavors were going to be his only contributions to our culture in 2014, he goes and drops one of his most ferocious songs to date. In advance of his major label debut, Mr. Wonderful (apparently Roc Marciano isn’t the only one who feels he’s Paul Orndorff-esque), comes a Turkish rock-sampling, Dennis Hopper movie-referencing stunner bolstered by Bronson’s natural charisma.
Similar to the aforementioned Marciano—contemporary New York rap’s other premier aesthete—the bulk of Bronson’s rhymes are jump-cut scenes filled with detailed imagery: LSD benders, the climax of the “November Rain” video, a distant cousin of Tattoo from Fantasy Island, his-and-hers machine pistols, callbacks to his favorite example of auto-engineering, and generational updates of “Dreams” are rattled off in rapid succession. As Bam Bam is wont to do, he bros down in exotic places (specifically, “playing Frisbee in the West Indies”) and eats exotic foods by the plateful (specifically, eel). Very loose pants are rocked. Barbs are thrown that could be construed as scathing disses to us fashionphiles (“I heard your bitch still wears Ecko! You don’t even have sneaker money!”).
The trick Bronson pulls off that makes him a special MC is how he weaves these idiosyncrasies into multilayered rhyme schemes. He’s a cult of personality but that’s not all he is; he has serious lyrical chops, an ear for beats that satisfies purists without being succumbing to convention, and a thorough, near-obsessive understanding of his public personality. (I’m almost certain the latter comes from being a huge mark, as there is virtually no difference between wrestling characters and rapper personae.) The results are simple but not formulaic. Action Bronson is a man with uncommon tastes and eccentric exploits, he’s simultaneously a real-ass cat from Queens, that one charming fat guy all your lady friends have crushes on, and the hero of cheesy-but-great action movies. He’s not the man who suffers the same fate as Billy and Wyatt; he was always meant to ride that chopper toward the horizon while the end credits roll. — Martin Douglas
4. Bobby Shmurda – “Hot Nigga”/”Hot Nigga Reggae Remix ft. Roddy Rebel”
“Hot Nigga” will go down as a punchline, as something between a tossed-off meme and a case study on virality. Because how else do you reconcile a hookless song over an old Lloyd Banks mixtape beat becoming one of the year’s biggest hits? But this is reductive. Yes, Vine, yes, crack, yes, the fifth grade. There’s something else: A dead-eyed stare, a fatalistic recklessness. “Hot Nigga” is the police’s least favorite crescendo. The turn up claws higher and impossibly higher until the infamous “MITCH JUST CAUGHT A BODY ‘BOUT A WEEK AGOOO”. When has dry snitching sounded so…cool? Bobby Shmurda scored a cult hit not just with a loose-limbed half-dance, but with a mercurial approach to coping with often grim surroundings.
So pretty soon, everyone is quoting this unmarketable unknown. The Vines come and go, then come around again, but “Hot Nigga” won’t go away. The reggae remix–menacing and absurd in a way New York rap seldom has been since the pink Range Rovers went away–helped keep the single relevant, to be sure. Epic Records jumped at the chance to sign the 20-year-old Shmurda, a Hail Mary in the best of sales climates. (To be clear, his signing was not totally unfounded: Shmurda She Wrote is a startlingly dynamic EP, “Bobby Bitch” an abrasive heat rock.) What first looked like another in the infinite void of made-for-Youtube loosies became the fulcrum for an anachronistic rise.
And now, the coda: Bobby Shmurda’s improbable year was punctuated two nights ago by an arrest–the culmination of a special prosecutor’s investigation into “multiple violent crimes and narcotics trafficking”. There he was, limp as the marionette he turned into in the video that made him famous, cuffed and crying. Just as there exists the effort to make Bobby Shmurda a virtual joke, a scarecrow made of retweets and HTML code, there’s our tendency to view gangsta rap in a vacuum. But songs like “Hot Nigga” don’t just materialize. They’re born from neighborhoods that where “multiple violent crimes and narcotics trafficking” seem like the more sensible career paths. So the Vines will keep looping in perpetuity, but so will the Brooklyn streets where the video was filmed. And so will “Hot Nigga”. — Paul Thompson
3. iLoveMakonnen – “Club Going Up on a Tuesday (No Drake)”
The world needed a trap ballad. A magnetizing anthem that sacrificed the sinister yet remained authentic. 25-year-old Atlanta resident and Goldberg doppelganger Makonnen Sheran knew. In the not so distant past, he spent the hours after graveyard shifts on lucrative corners locked in the booth. Once there he combined based rap delivery, trap rap tropes, and croons reminiscent of The Killers’ Brandon Flowers over plinking piano suites. Though often rough and underdeveloped, these songs contained the formula for that ballad. Makonnen perfected it on a Tuesday.
“Club Going Up on a Tuesday” is the most relatable trap song of 2014. Whether you’re flipping hard or words about rap music, working from home and working late are universal. Anyone who’s ever had a Wednesday off of work knows the feeling of looking for a release on a Tuesday night. This is why the song works. When paired with Metro Boomin/Sonny Digtial’s soothing, minimal, and muted 808 thump, Makonnen’s shaky warbling earnestly evokes that feeling. In this light, the words aren’t meaningless, they mean whatever you want them to mean. The club goes up wherever you want it to. You just have to press play.
Given Makonnen’s aesthetic and lyrics, the Drake remix was inevitable: Drake’s always sung; he’s always wanted your girl and a backstory as troubled as Makonnen’s. The remix may have resulted in an OVO signing and a Grammy nomination, but “Tuesday” belongs to Makonnen fifty-two weeks a year from now until forever. It’s his style. He made it on his own. – Max Bell
2. Vince Staples – “Blue Suede”
No one’s calling it “Long Bitch” to Vince Staples’ face. The Long Beach rapper’s 2014 included two sterling, hard as fuck EPs—Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 and Hell Can Wait—which combined to land him at #10 on our Top 50 albums list. Staples was an integral part of a surprisingly strong year for West Coast rap, vastly outperforming limp releases from the suddenly weakened TDE—this isn’t self-love fuckshit made to sell subcompacts. Staples is following the heavy Nike Cortez footprints Ice Cube stomped before Staples was born, an indignant, sometimes righteous voice teetering on the precipice of violence. Ice Cube, both as ghostwriter for NWA and solo act, was equally capable of catchy hooks and quasi-liberalism passing as g’d up realpolitik. Staples doesn’t yet have his Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, but “Blue Suede’s” street-savvy fatalism and cocky bombast cast him as a younger version of “The Nigga You Love to Hate,” Ice Cube.
So, what’s the pinched squeal that opens “Blue Suede”? The synth from GZA’s “4th Chamber”? Tires burning out post-driveby? Air whistling from bullet-punctured lungs? The sound of grind house horror, a siren alerting the audience that someone is well and truly fully fucked? It is all of these things. “Blue Suede” is a curbside spiritual to premature demise, and a thundering bit of gallows humor—Staples can only hope to outlive the gravesite red roses. “Blue Suede” is the flip side to Staples’ fuck-the-police jam “Hands Up,” a rampaging answer to the question “What if Vince Staples was a fuckup?” Staples abbreviates the ne’er do well gang banging lifestyle; “Finna kill a nigga walking’ to his mom’s tonight / Shit real in the field, get caught, don’t squeal / Best deal that the judge finns offer: life / Play this track in Calipat, get it pippin’ in the prison.” The best writers, rap or otherwise, can tell complex stories economically—it only takes Staples two bars to go from running up on vulnerable rivals to serving a life sentence, listening to rap music as a temporary escape from California’s overcrowded prisons.
Unlike his little homie serving time in Ironwood State Prison, Staples is free enough to lace his suede Jordans, and at 21, is already one of the leaders in a rap scene which had been in dire need of a revival. This was never a given. The alternative, in Staples’ words: “Coulda been a felon selling’ nickels off of Linden / Nigga fuck that.” — Torii MacAdams
1. Young Thug – Year of Young Thug (“Lifestyle,” et. al.)
Young Thug is rap’s great wedge issue. He’s one leopard skirt photo shoot away from being deployed in anti-Millennial thinkpieces and Republican mailers. You either love him or you’ve stopped reading this, and are plotting to leak awkward “Danny Glover Freestyles” from our staff.
I attempted to explain his appeal earlier this year. At the risk of self-plagiarism, I’ll repeat it here because why bother to re-word what’s ultimately inexplicable.
“Neither toxicologist nor translator can interpret Young Thug. His vocabulary is a creole of Atlanta trap slang, Hopelandic, and the language of thought—the yeows, yelps, and coos used by babies to communicate. His bloodstream is equal parts Strawberry Jolly Ranchers, promethazine, tropical Fanta, marijuana, molly, and alien drugs beamed in from the plug on Betelgeuse.
It is possible to explain him in terms of conventional lineage. There’s the croaking syllable plasticity of Lil Wayne circa the lunar peaks of his Martian phase. But Thugga hails from one planet further out, an inhospitable and volcanic sphere of choppy rock where the strip clubs only accept hundreds. He shouts out Fabo and OJ the Juiceman. Gucci Mane is his spiritual advisor. But when he looks in the mirror, 22-year old Jeffrey Williams only sees a meal ticket and occasionally Princess Leia buns.
The eccentricity makes him compelling, but it doesn’t make him great. His hooks are sticky as resin. His craggy voice sounds ancient and energetic at the same time. You might question the lifestyle decisions, but few make self-destruction sound so gleeful. He spells out “l-e-a-n-i-n-g” on “2 Cups Stuffed” like Styrofoam and codeine were presents under the Christmas tree. “
If you hate Thug, you could argue that this is toxic. But positivity isn’t always possible from the poisoned. He was raised in the worst slums of Atlanta, surrounded by reckless drug use and gruesome murder rates. He turned himself into one of rap’s biggest young stars sans nepotism, co-sign, or gimmicky #viral video.
So when I hear “Lifestyle,” I hear the cataracts of that pain and the bittersweet joy. The hook might be basic, but sometimes, even minor celebrations become sweeter by remembering emotional and physical casualties. The lack of narrative doesn’t matter, nor do the details of the lifestyle. It can be hedonistic or a moment of peace after a long interior journey. The beauty is its simplicity—the main-vein euphoria, the shit you did just to get here, right now. Or maybe you can just appreciate it for a style exercise as flamboyant and aerial as Dr. J with a red and white blue basketball and Afro bigger than the Ritz.
When our ballots were counted, “Lifestyle” beat out everything else. But 13 other Young Thug songs received year-end votes: “Lifestyle,” “Stoner,” “Danny Glover,” and songs with Zuse (“Treasure”), T.I. (“All About the Money), Travis Scott “Skyfall”), Juicy (“Low,”) Salva, Nick Hook, Freddie Gibbs & ASAP Ferg (Old English”), Migos (“New Atlanta”). Not to ignore his Rich Gang project with Rich Homie Quan and the world’s oldest Baby (votes earned for “Milk Marie” and “Flava.”)
If you had the inclination or infinite capacity for the turn up, you could sit here and rank the best 50 Young Thug songs of the year. But that contradicted what makes him special. None of this seems forcefully conceived or self-conscious. This mix is the 30 best Thug songs of the year – more or less. There’s no tracklist because you don’t need a tracklist.
It’s creativity at its most berserk, when it heeds no limitations or rules you should or shouldn’t avoid breaking. It might not be what you consider to be “real hip-hop,” but creativity trumps legibility every single time. And in a year of total chaos, no style was wilder. — Weiss