Front-Free’s 2014 Year In Music

Happy New Year to readers new and old.  This was a good year for music on the low.  For folks with taste, it looked horrible on the mainstream side of things, but if you’re to any degree proactive about finding good music on your own, you know some dope projects dropped this year that you won’t catch on the Grammy nominee list or on the radio.  Here’s to hoping you find something here you didn’t get a chance to check out and are able to hop on iTunes or Spotify and show some love.

This isn’t a list that appears in any particular order or that says what everyone should have been listening to.  It’s a list that describes, out of what I heard this year, what moved me specifically.

Lord Steppington :: Step Brothers

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I’m an Alchemist fan and will listen to almost any MC he sits down with.  However, with Step Brothers, Alc steps up as both a producer and an MC in his own right, matching wits with the very formidable likes of Evidence.  While Evidence clearly is the more seasoned of the two, Alc manages to not be completely eclipsed, injecting enough humor to make you forgive his stilted delivery.  The beats here are what boom-bap should sound like in 2014…true to the culture and original sound without coming off as dated.  Rare, obscure samples abound.  This is definitely a record that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out.

Black Messiah :: D’Angelo & The Vanguard

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This is one album that made me glad I waited to put this very list out there.  I’m definitely not a person who thinks calling something classic on day one of its release is acceptable, but I’m also a person old enough to recall hearing classics for the first time and remembering how they made me feel.  Black Messiah is very much alive.  That’s major when you’re talking about current R&B, a genre that barely contains what D’Angelo has done here.  This album is organic and flies against the ultra-sleek, soulless alternative-R&B that’s been taking over the genre of late.  This is an album that reminds us of the standard we’re supposed to be expecting from soul music.  While it may not be accessible as his debut, or Voodoo for that matter, one must keep in mind that D’Angelo made those albums as a relatively new artist and wasn’t the elusive, near-mythical figure he is today in rhythm & blues.  Here, D’Angelo shows he has grown significantly since he was the guy who made “Sh★t, Damn, Motherf★cker” back in 1995 (which was a great song but obviously represents a much younger incarnation of the artist).  Messiah simply delivers.

Voices :: Phantogram

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Phantogram is the kind of act whose music could very well get lost in the sauce, considering the fact that their music is well-suited for climactic teen drama backdrops or copping over-priced coffee at your local indie cafe where almost everyone has earphones on listening to their own stuff anyway.  However, if you are fortunate enough to take a more dedicated listen, the duo known as Phantogram takes a painstaking approach to crafting what they call “street beat”, a decidedly edgy brand of atmospheric pop.  Don’t get too caught up in genre-labeling, though, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter come together to show that they’re a group who are students of music, with the sounds on Voices ranging from alternative to R&B but never being easy to pin down.  Songs are grandiose without feeling over-produced or cold.  Phantogram doesn’t come off as girly as, say, Haim, because the production has more of a backbone to it, which is Carter’s influence on the sound refusing to be drowned out by Barthel’s commanding vocals.

36 Seasons :: Ghostface Killah

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This album was the only thing that could have made up for the disappointment of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album.  The tracklist alone made any rap fan old enough to have facial hair damn near blow up, with guest features from the likes of Kool G Rap and AZ.  There’s something to be said about a major veteran MC deciding to reach out to fellow vets to get on tracks as opposed to getting a bunch of flash-in-the-pan upstarts who might get more attention for the project.  Invest in this.

Your Old Droog :: Your Old Droog

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It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s Your Old Droog shocked the hip-hop world this year when he revealed himself to be a young Ukrainian-American MC and not Nas, as some believed him to be.  The Nas comparisons were lost on me, however, as Nas’ music hasn’t excited me the way that Droog’s EP and subsequent full-length did in many, many years.  I also didn’t hear anything but a vague similarity between Droog’s voice and Nas’s.  The unique thing about Droog is that he seems to revel in the strange, as evidenced by his odd moniker (“Droog” being a Russian term for friend) and creative references.

Hood Billionaire :: Rick Ross

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A lot of people are probably surprised that this album made my list, but I’ve been a fan of Ross’ music since his first album…he just stopped moving me some time ago.  With Hood Billionaire, although there are some fumbles (all of them collaborations: Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and K. Michelle, respectively), Ross manages to sell the caricature he’s made himself into with pure zeal and gusto.  Rick Ross thrives in the box he’s supposed to fit in, which is deliciously irresponsible declarations that grate on the nerves when you want something deeper, but are just right when you just want to wild out for the night.  Ross’ music makes you feel ten feet tall and, when we’re looking at appreciation of music, isn’t making you feel something what we should be looking for?

Barrel Brothers :: Skyzoo & Torae

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This is by far one of my favorite projects that dropped this year.  You can read my full review on Kevin Nottingham, but in a nutshell, this was a top shelf offering and shame on you for sleeping on this if you did.

Clear Lake Forest :: The Black Angels

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The Black Angels make the kind of music you expect to hear during a 1970’s period drama during a drug-use montage.  The drowsy vocals and plodding percussion on many of the songs seem to come from another time…in a good way.  This EP is nowhere near as good as their debut album, Directions To See A Ghost, but such is the case I find for rock bands that I enjoy.

Dominican Diner :: Timeless Truth

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It doesn’t take long listening to Timeless Truth for any fan of Queens rap to recognize the influences these two Corona/Flushing MCs take from The Beatnuts.  As a Beatnuts fan, I appreciate the fresh energy brought to the sound by two newer MCs, joining the likes of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson in ushering in a new era of Queens boom-bap.  Buy it here.

NehruvianDOOM :: MF Doom & Bishop Nehru

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DOOM doesn’t fail at what he does.  As king of his own novelty sub-genre, it seems like an unlikely pairing for him to reach out to a teenage wunderkind like Bishop Nehru for an entire project.  However, the youngster shines on his own, managing to impress without coming off as an over-reaching amateur over DOOM’s lavish productions.  While it’s clear that Nehru’s wet behind the ears, his fresh voice juxtaposed with DOOM’s at times weary, grizzled-vet delivery makes for some seamless chemistry.


Tough Love :: Jessie Ware

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From the moment I saw the video for “Running”, I was transfixed on Jessie Ware as an artist.   It seemed like I was getting a concoction of Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Sade all wrapped up within the potential of one artist.  Once I heard her use a particularly menacing Big Pun vocal looped on the song “100%” (“..carving my initials on your forehead”), I was an instant fan.  Following behind the acclaimed debut Devotion, Ware shows the same top shelf musicality on this sophomore effort.  Ware reminds us that it’s okay to expect more out of pop music, adding a level of sophistication that’s mature without aging the sound.  This album feels…expensive.

Silk Pyramids :: Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild

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Artists like Meyhem Lauren are the punch in the face that rap needs in the era of hip-hop-themed reality dramas and Twitter beefs.  While his flow doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Lauren flourishes when it comes to being outlandish when it comes to describing his lifestyle or inserting gruff ad-libs here and there.

Furtive Movements :: Armand Hammer

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While it’s very dense, I’m the kind of person who enjoys that every now and then from a rap album.  Every rap song doesn’t need to be fully understandable from listen one.  Adding some complexity over some solid production is, to me, guaranteed replay value.

If There’s A Hell Below :: Black Milk

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I have to admit I’m almost ashamed I didn’t really check for Black Milk before this year.  I’m a stickler for names and his seemed to put a bad taste in my mouth, literally.  Quirks aside, I forced myself to check out some of his features and ultimately stumbled upon his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below.

The Living Daylights :: Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth

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Last but definitely not least, Willie The Kid’s project with producer Bronze Nazareth was a work of art, similar to last year’s Aquamarine.  This was slept on for no good reason.

The Sweet Spot Vol. 3: Higher :: Maiya Norton

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While it isn’t a mixtape, album, or EP, the third installment to DJ and music aficionado (and also fellow Howard Bison) Maiya Norton’s mix series deserves some recognition as one of the most moving projects I heard this year.  A self-described “old soul”, Maiya presents an amalgamation of 1970s funk, soul, and psychedelic jams that together create a soothing landscape that a person could get lost in.

Honorable Mentions

The following are albums I appreciated, but not as much as the ones above, for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless, they’re worth checking out and they all contributed something authentic to the year in music, hip-hop and otherwise.

Pinata :: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

Cilvia Demo :: Isaiah Rashad

Pre Magnum Opus :: Tragedy Khadafi

Is This Art? :: Michael Christmas

RAP :: SHIRT

Mega Philosophy :: Cormega

Cadillactica :: Big K.R.I.T.

Directors Of Photography :: Dilated Peoples

Run The Jewels 2 :: Run The Jewels

As usual, many thanks to the readers who keep supporting the site, to everyone who bought merchandise and repped Front-Free in public, and to my friends and family.  Shout out to Ebony.com and Kevin Nottingham for published pieces I wrote this year outside of Front-Free and a special shout to UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress for allowing me to sit on a panel based on one of those articles, discussing the effects of drugs on hip-hop culture with UCLA’s best and brightest.  It’s been a dope year for me personally and I have nothing but great expectations for 2015.  Let’s get it.

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Ming Moon :: Courteous L

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New music from one of the hardest-working young brothers trying to get on in this rap game that I’ve been showing support to for years now.  It’s one thing to keep releasing music for the purpose of staying in the public eye, but another thing to put time into your craft and release your work when it’s ready to be received.

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The Obviously Superior Intelligence Of The J. Cole Fanbase: A Strange Case Of Stanning

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The recent release of J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive seems to have kicked up a conflict that seems to have less to do with the music itself than it does hip-hop fans themselves, pitting dedicated fans vs. apathetic (but vocal) non-fans.  Critics of Cole’s have either maligned the album itself or dismissed it altogether based on the opinion that J. Cole’s music is, to put it plainly, boring.  While I have yet to hear anyone say he isn’t talented at the actual science of rapping, any student of hip-hop music can tell you that rapping your ass off doesn’t automatically making compelling music.  In what almost seem like a snub to this critical line of thinking, Cole went from the last album, Born Sinner, into this one not only producing the majority of the album himself, but welcoming zero guest features.  While Cole’s formula is obviously successful (more on what that has to do with anything later), critics, based on their own listening experiences, have a field day referring to his music as “audio Ambien” or “lyrical Lunesta” or dubbing him “Young Eeyore”.  But making fun of rappers is always fun until the stans get involved.

It would be highly inaccurate to call everyone who enjoyed 2014 Forest Hills Drive a stan.  Many people who weren’t even fans of Cole at all before now seem to enjoy it.  However, it’s the apathy toward his music that seems to spark the interest of J. Cole stans, who have come up with the most curious of arguments in response to people who don’t care for and/or about his music:

The idea that you may not be smart enough to understand the lyrics of one Jermaine Lamarr Cole.

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Now, we’ve seen this odd behavior before in standom, most notably from the stans of Lupe Fiasco, who assumed that anyone who didn’t care for “Kick, Push” just thought the song was about skateboarding and was unable to comprehend the deep, philosophical meaning behind it.  A major part of the stan agenda is finding a way to make anyone who doesn’t like what they stan for look like some kind of bumbling idiot, or worse, a hater.  With Cole, there’s an assumption that the St. John’s graduate is kicking rhymes so cerebral, you have to be on a higher plane of understanding to appreciate them.  This is used to combat the idea that Cole’s music is boring and/or that he himself is simply not that interesting a persona to draw the listener in.  I’m a person who seeks out hip-hop, new and old, on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that nothing Cole is talking about even comes close to being too deep for comprehension by your average Joe on the scale of conscious rap music (a category I wouldn’t even place Cole into).  Not to say that the music is of a lesser value, but it’s not what stans make it out to be.

I myself, in case you haven’t gathered at this point, am not a Cole fan, but “fan” to me is a strong word.  As a self-styled critic, I try not to be blinded by adoration for artists whose work I like so that I can expect the most out of them each time around and so that my opinion can be trusted.  So I would say that I’m a “fan” of very few artists.  J. Cole doesn’t bother me, but he also doesn’t interest me as an MC.  Skills aside, his story doesn’t draw me in and his execution isn’t something I’m interested in hearing for more than a feature or single.  That’s a personal taste thing, I know.  I don’t think he’s a bad rapper or (and this is most important to me) that he’s bad for the culture.  He’s actually very good for hip-hop…stanning isn’t.

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[Review] A Better Tomorrow :: Wu-Tang Clan

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I wanted to like this album.  I wanted to love this album.  I wanted it to be the most important record of 2014.  Needless to say, judging by the intro to this review you just read, none of these things happened.  It was clear from the early turmoil that fans were made aware of, with Raekwon and RZA sparring in the press about creative differences.  Even judging from the singles that have dropped, it’s clear that RZA is more interested in giving Wu-Tang fans what he thinks they want as opposed to what we need, which is vintage Wu.  We live in a time where the rap game is positioned squarely in the lobby of a W hotel and what we need to see again is rap living in the pissy stairwell depicted in ODB’s “Brooklyn Zoo” visual.  That darkness and edge is missing for most of A Better Tomorrow, with zen master RZA presiding over the boards.

Surprisingly, it’s Cappadonna who, to me, comes with some of the most consistent verses, displaying the same kind of energy he did on his first few appearances with the Clan.  Similarly, Method Man, GFK and a noticeably absent Raekwon put in decent work. Even U-God holds his own alongside Deck and GZA, but it isn’t the rhymes that are a problem here, aside from having to endure hearing Method Man mention being “turnt up“, which made me nauseous.  The problem is the realization that RZA’s vision for the album got in the way of what could have been a solid album.  What Raekwon described as RZA wanting to do “a more humble album” led to Tomorrow being an album where tastemakers concede to trends set by upstarts, following a pattern designed to attract the young whippersnappers instead of making some authentic hip-hop and letting it feed whoever was willing to partake.

Unfortunately, more than half of the album has little to no replay value, even as a Wu fan.  The better portion of the album are mostly tracks that aren’t even produced by RZA (Adrian Younge’s “Crushed Egos” and 4th Disciple’s “Necklace”).  Other tracks are plagued with failed attempts at nuance.  While awkwardly sung vocals are a Wu staple, the choruses they tried to shoehorn onto Tomorrow are amazingly bad, making me wonder where the hell Tekitha, Blue Raspberry or even Popa Wu were for the recording of this album. For example, the vocals on “Miracle” seem like a joke.  It’s even worse on “Ron O’Neal”: “No matter what the weather, we be gettin’ that cheddar, so…”  SERIOUSLY?!?!  These rap vets really just gave us a hook rhyming weather and cheddar?!?  I don’t know if I can also explain how awful the singer is in words, so I’ll just say that if it was a smell, it would closely mimic that of used earring backs.

It’s hard to admit that we may not ever see another Wu-Tang Forever, but it’s true; at this point, there’s just too much of a disconnect between the artists involved to expect a beneficial chemistry to occur.  Despite the pre-release marketing ploys and the big talk, A Better Tomorrow is a forgettable album. Unfortunately, Wu-Tang may not be forever (but judging by 36 Seasons, Ghostface Killah is).

Album Reaction:

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