It’s been a pretty nice year in hip-hop, although I can’t speak for other genres. Heads like me watch the annual award nominations with a blank stare because it’s hard to believe what America is actually checking for these days when it comes to “urban music”. I feel the same way about most people’s Best Of 2012 lists and I’m sure many of you might feel that way about this one. This is simply a list of what I’ve heard that really stayed in rotation on my iTunes/Spotify/Grooveshark and that I didn’t find any glaring flaws with. Walk with me.
Rare Chandeliers x Action Bronson & Alchemist
It’s no secret that this tape is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I heard Alc and Action were planning to work together. One of my favorite producers and one of my favorite MCs linked together for an entire collaborative full-length mixtape. Fortunately, they did not disappoint by any means. Every single feature (Schoolboy Q, Meyhem Lauren, Ag Da Coroner, Sean Price, Big Twin, Roc Marciano, Styles P and Evidence) is absolutely necessary and complimentary to both the host MC and producer. Even the title track, featuring the entertaining Big Body Bes simply talking trash (“enough about me, man…and more about myself!”) over a sick instrumental, is almost complete enough to not even need a rap on it. There are some songs that come off like they could fit perfectly on a studio LP (the thankful, slightly introspective “Bitch I Deserve You”) and some that are LP-quality, yet clearly have more of a mixtape feel (“Eggs On The Third Floor”, a track that changes from a smooth jazz feel in the beginning to a rowdy freestyle that sounds as if it were recorded in a prison mess hall or high school cafeteria). This is just one of those tapes that reminds me of the days of walking around with a portable CD player, when you had to make the decision of the one disc you were going to bring with you…this would have been that kind of move.
The Yellow Album x Dom Kennedy
Dom Kennedy reminds me of being home in Cali. Even though I grew up in the Bay and not LA, there’s a nostalgia there that’s appealing to me. That being said, there’s more to his music than just reminiscing on California nights, hoodies, and Chucks. Though it’s not possible to rank Dom with the best of lyricists, there’s something to be said for relate-ability and creating his own brand of music based on a lifestyle. That being said, The Yellow Album was dope because it was the kind of project you could live with for a while It had multiple paces and moods, from the super-mellow “Gold Alpinas” to the mobbed-out “Hangin'”, featuring Freddie Gibbs. In a time where artists are trying hard to appeal to every region in order to sell to every region, Dom consistently adds more than a tinge of west coast flavor on every single track. You just can’t over-think it or you’ve already lost.
Respect The Fly Shit x Meyhem Lauren
Tommy Mas & Harry Fraud produced this joint by a man who became better known to many this year as more than “Action Bronson’s man” and garnered respect as an ill MC with his own perspective and dope material. Personally, I’ve been up on Meyhem for a while, going back to his Self-Induced Illness joint. RTFS was the kind of project I’ve been hyping all year: a cohesive yet diverse collection of music that has clear guidance from the producer(s) who worked on it, not to mention an MC dedicated to bringing his audience the real. Serve your core audience first and whoever else can get down with what’s already going on can easily sink their teeth into it…no cross-over attempts or out-of-place features just to get attention from the mainstream. The lead joint “Special Effects” is a hard-hitting track featuring Himanshu of Das Racist and Action Bronson where Meyhem leads with “waterfalls in the living room, dick, respect my vision”. He switches off with Action, but dominates the track effortlessly, giving listeners a taste of what Respect The Fly Shit is about…a stream-of-consciousness flow peppered with fly lines and hardcore punching-people-for-breathing rap. I’m looking forward to a lot more material from Meyhem in 2013, as well as more of Ag Da Coroner, who appears throughout this project.
Cashmere Killer x Stevie Crooks
LRG linked with California MC Stevie Crooks to release this slept-on project this year, titled Cashmere Killer, a mixtape that has the feel of a concept album. If you ignore the fact that Crooks is from southern California, you would swear you were listening to an album from the mid-90s, as it seems heavily influenced by Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night. Crooks delivers bars with the assured bravado of early Jay and paints pictures with the abstract vividness of the duo that brought us “Luchini”. After a deeper listen, however, and some sampling of other projects, one can tell that Crooks has his own identity and that the similarities merely serve as an homage to a great era for hip-hop. Listen below and download here.
The Prologue Vol. 1 x AB
I’ve all but given up on modern R&B for the most part. Too many singers basically want to be rappers and subtlety is a lost cause. Creativity is a rarity. Aaron Abernathy or AB seems to be trying to reinvent the wheel, slowly but surely. The Prologue Vol. 1 is a project that speaks to music fans who miss what R&B used to be and what it could have become: a new approach that doesn’t trample all over the framework set by classic soul’s forefathers. To illustrate this, AB does a rendition of “Strawberry Letter 23” to show listeners he knows his history. “Kissing You” (Total cover) and “Sweetest Thing” (Lauryn Hill cover) bring things closer to the modern day, flipping the script and imagining both songs from a man’s perspective. AB’s original track “Everlasting Love” is the pinnacle of the project and a song I couldn’t get enough of. Without fear of jumping the gun, I can say that AB definitely has a mastery of his unusual vocal style, which is reminisqcent of D’Angelo and Bilal. AB is actually a guy I went to Howard with, so I was at first reluctant to listen, fearing having to say I didn’t care for it if it wasn’t to my liking. Fortunately, AB blew me away and I’m hearing that volume two is on its way. There’s still hope for vulnerable artists who aren’t afraid to take a new approach to resurrecting what we miss about classic soul. Check out “Everlasting Love” below and download here.
K.O.N.Y. x Smoke DZA
Say what you like about repetitive content or what have you, but Smoke DZA does not put out wack projects. The man’s ear for beats is flawless, as evidenced by the lineup of beats provided by Harry Fraud, Ski Beatz, 183rd and others on K.O.N.Y. This is a perfect example of an artist not trying to reinvent the wheel but staying true to his fanbase and making consistently good music (he released two other projects just this year). While he’s not necessarily trying to wow you with wordplay and metaphors, DZA has an infectious flow that can carry a solo project, although the guest artists are a welcome addition. It’s simply a good listen.
A Dream Deferred x SkyZoo
Skyzoo delivered a flawless album this year, in my opinion. Without succumbing to the traps that make lesser rappers more suitable for the radio or clubs, Skyzoo kept the art intact and gave us something for everyone on A Dream Deferred. This is the kind of album that has the serious flow and lyricism a hip-hop-head can enjoy, while still being mellow, jazzy and inspired enough to be something that the same hip-hop-head can play in the car with his “I don’t really listen to rap” girlfriend. It’s cohesive without repetition or monotony and feels like albums used to feel, before the producers got bigger than the rappers and albums started feeling like a bunch of random tracks thrown together for the sake of getting the “hot” beatmakers all on one project. I’d say SkyZoo should be a bigger artist, but today’s mainstream listener isn’t appreciative of this level of craft, so for now, those with a tasteful ear will have to keep supporting him and singing his praises to whoever will listen. Check the video for “Jansport Strings” below.
Wu-Block x Wu-Tang & The LOX
Right on time and exactly what the game needed…a little bit of music to fistfight your parole officer to. Though I would love a Ghostface solo album or a Ghost/Rae collab, this LOX/Wu collaboration was an unexpected surprise to listeners in the latter part of the year. I remember hearing about this project and scrolling right past, thinking how much I did not wanna hear a full album of this. Even though I put it on ready to hate immediately, I honestly could sink my teeth into every track. Even the skits were well done, which is a thing of the 90’s…and that’s most of the appeal here. While it ranges in moods, as an album should, there’s an overpowering familiarity that sounds like classic Wu energy, although RZA is absent from the boards. This is essentially a Ghostface and Sheek collabo and though Sheek gets a lot of flak from rap fans, I never saw him as a wack MC and he’s dropped more than a few hot lines to my knowledge. The energy between him and Ghost, not to mention the other Wu members is fluid.
Reloaded x Roc Marciano
The main complaint that Roc Marciano’s critics have is that his monotonous tone and track selection seem dull at times, which I can understand. Had Roc been looking to gain a larger fan-base with Reloaded, he may have added some more guest features to add some allure and diversity to the project. However, I don’t think Roc is too much into catering to people who aren’t interested in what he’s serving up. In an era where solo LPs are looking more like compilations than albums that give you a view into what that particular artist is about, not who his friends are, Roc Marciano decided to give us the latter. Reloaded is just a series of painted pictures made abstract through Roc’s mellow stream-of-consciousness flow.
The Honorable Mentions: Close But No Cigarillo…
These are a few albums mentioned to me as “bests” that I just didn’t enjoy as much as I might have liked to. This isn’t calling them trash by any means, just that they didn’t appeal to me personally as much as those you see above. So to avoid too much “why wasn’t ___ on the list”, I’ve provided some of my reasoning below.
- Life Is Good x Nas :: You can’t take essential toppings off of a pizza and then call the pizza as a whole a great meal…and Nas’ Life Is Good was an otherwise good pizza with fingernail clippings on it. I had to pick too much off of it to be able to appreciate the album as one complete work. From the horrid Mary J. Blige feature to the absolutely abysmal “play me on the radio please” stylings of the Miguel and Swizz Beats “assisted” “Summer On Smash”, Nas tried to cater to audiences he didn’t necessarily need to cater to…he already had the respect to garner a listen and still stay true to the art. Add to that the TMZ approach he took to covering the years-old divorce with Kelis and you have an album that was well-meaning, but not flawless enough to make it a classic, let alone the best of 2012.
- God Forgives, I Don’t x Rick Ross :: As a big Ross fan, I unfortunately found myself not enjoying his work as much this year. The obvious reaches for radio play have become more trite of late and it’s clear that Ross is looking to attain crossover appeal with the over-saturation of R&B features (Ne-Yo, Usher, John Legend, Drake…) on God Forgives. Like the Nas LP, if I could honestly judge an album solely off of the tracks I liked, this would make the 2012 list, but you have to judge an album off of the completed package, not the a la carte version. And in terms of this “Black Bar Mitzvah” nonsense he’s been talking recently, I may have to just put my Team Ross T-shirt down for good.
- Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City x Kendrick Lamar :: I didn’t have the same enthusiasm about this project that others did, unfortunately. I let the leak sit in my collection for a few days before listening and then started hearing about how Kendrick had saved hip-hop. The clouds didn’t part for me. Aside from a few tracks, I wasn’t moved. To me, KL has done better on features and his style doesn’t appeal to me in a full-length LP format, which is the same issue I had with Section 80, another album of his I made a valiant effort to listen to and appreciate. Sometimes, the hype is hype and people who aren’t used to competent MCs are overly impressed with an MC who gets mainstream support simply because he seems “different”. In this case, I think it’s just a matter of “not everyone is gonna hear what you’re hearing and be as impressed as you are”.
- The Dreamer/The Believer x Common :: This is one of the main reasons you can’t call something a classic too early. It sounded great and well-rounded to me at first, but five months later, I realized I never listen to it. Replay value is such a huge factor when considering classic music. This one just didn’t make it in the rotation until the end of the year.