Reviewing albums is a dangerous field to be in, especially in this modern-age of free mixtapes and albums being released on an almost daily basis. This year has been very good for hip hop, although I found the more popular releases to be, for the most part, disappointing. Jay-Z dropped another decent if unremarkable project and I managed a review of the French Montana album without requiring therapy. Despite being underwhelmed by Pusha T, Big Sean and Kanye, on the flip side I enjoyed the Drake, J. Cole and Action Bronson projects – three artists I’d always been on the fence about. As for 2013, “Yeezus” seems to be this year’s critical darling. I’m going to do a Kanye and share the unthinkable – there’s no “Yeezus” in this ‘Best of 2013’ list! I found myself enlisted in the “this is garbage!” camp although to be fair, it’s not AWFUL but it felt like a forced, unconventional attempt to move hip hop forward. It doesn’t, it tries too hard to be Deathgrips and there’s only so much of Mr West’s ego I can handle before planting my head through a brick wall. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 hip hop albums of 2013, along with five honourable mentions:
1. Greenhouse – “Bend But Don’t Break” is a heady mix of electronic sounds, crashing ‘old-school’ snares and short but snappy hooks. It’s not quite as strong as Blueprint’s gem “1988”, but comes off as the accessible Ying to Run the Jewels’ self-titled Yang. Melodies dominate the plodding instrumentals such as “The Lock Down” and slow-burner “The Web”. Lyrics are less abstract and more linear, with Illogic’s quicker flow complementing Blueprint perfectly. There’s a bit of everything here, with “Microwave America” tackling bigger issues in society and anthems arrive in the form of “That’s What’s Up” and “E-F-F-E-C-T”.
2. K-Def & DaCapo – “The Article EP”. If Demigodz’ “Killmatic” was the ideal hip hop album for rap historians, this would have been one of the albums it would sample. DaCapo’s presence is not dissimilar to O.C., but is more direct in his approach. “The Article EP” doesn’t really say nor do anything different, it’s just a very good piece of traditional hip hop. Scratches on “Free Speech” are of varying volume levels, lending it an 80s vibe, especially when the acapellas used are ancient (UTFO being one example), Some may find it a dated piece of hip hop in the age of futuristic emcees like Chance the Rapper, but “The Article EP” still manages to pull out the stops, having my personal favourite instrumental of the year in “Gotta Get Tha Cash (Original Mix)”. Coupled with the nimble pace of “Daydreamin” and DaCapo’s neat storytelling on “Life Goes On”, it’s hard to find flaws in this compact yet quality release.
3. Ghostface Killah – “Twelve Reasons to Die” came in two versions: Adrian Younge’s cinematic original and Apollo Brown’s subdued “Brown Tape” – and I’m choosing the former. As big of a fan of Mr Brown’s as I am, the Adrian Younge original felt not only like a genuine entry in the Wu-Tang canon that outdid RZA at his own game, but it was more impressive cinematically. The concept of an album based on a comic book is delivered in an appropriately vivid manner, with Ghostface’s ability to narrate a story enhanced by a collection of constantly eerie instrumentals that sound like RZA at his best, only in high-definition. When separated, the songs aren’t quite the same as when consumed in succession, but highlights include the nightmarish title track “12 Reasons To Die”, classically descriptive vocabulary on “Rise of the Black Suits”, and the hilarious Cappadonna feature on “The Center of Attraction”. We all know Ghostface can deliver, so Adrian Younge is the standout artist here. I’d like to hear Adrian Younge given free rein to craft a full Wu-Tang Clan album.
4. Eminem – “Marshall Mathers LP 2” may have had its fair share of corny lines, unnecessary hooks and a lack of Dr Dre, but it was arguably the finest example of lyricism pressed to plastic in 2013. RA the Rugged Man’s “Legends Never Die” was similarly rhyme-heavy, packing in plentiful examples of “beats getting bodied”, but “Marshall Mathers LP 2” felt marginally more natural, more focussed and less reliant on braggadocio. Perhaps most refreshing was how Em’ didn’t just approach this record like he was still in his 20s, instead lending the record a more matured sound – particularly with Rick Rubin’s throwback drums and guitars. It felt like Em’ wanted to make a piece of hip hop that saw him acknowledge the genre (and fans) that made him rich and famous. There’s still his trademark sense of humour, wordplay and shock-value lyrics that we all know and love. Making a sequel to his classic “Stan” single is inspired, and hearing an intensity on “Survival” I’ve not heard in years from Marshall Mathers is like seeing an Oscar-winning actor put in a performance worthy of accolades despite being in his seventies. He’s thrown out the lame Indian accent from “Relapse” and overblown production of “Recovery” to bring not only a worthy sequel to his acclaimed “Marshall Mathers LP” album, but one of the year’s better records.
5. Talib Kweli – “Prisoner of Conscious” is, for the most part, Kweli excelling in his role as a rapper that doesn’t resort to ignorant or clichéd themes 90% of rappers fill their bars with. With some MCs sounding daft, slinging crack and fucking bitches in to their forties, Talib Kweli’s “Prisoner of Conscious” is not only refreshing, but proves Kweli is more relevant than he has ever been. Still capable of exceptional lines like “I’m not looking for new followers, I’m looking for new leaders” on the ode to Rakim “Turnt Up”, Talib spends much of his latest album attacking each track like his old Black Star sessions. Considering how mediocre “Gutter Rainbows” was for Talib, particularly after the superb “Eardrum”, it’s great to hear such strong music behind his lines on “Push Thru” and “Delicate Flowers” – two highly approachable songs no matter what your tastes in music. It’s a shame this album is being slept on, as there are some huge names featured (Busta Rhymes, Nelly, Kendrick Lamar) that do add to Kweli’s in-depth lyricism.
Top 10 of 2013
10. Drake – “Nothing Was The Same” is an album I felt I owed Drake to check for. Having never really understood the hype behind him as a lyricist, “Nothing Was The Same” relies less on corny punch-lines and catchy singles, instead focussing on Drake’s emotional side. Given how fashionable it is to hate on his leanings towards vocally-driven verses, I thought I’d give this a chance and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a smooth companion-piece to the more rugged records occupying my headphones this year, and while it is by no means a complete triumph (some songs rely a bit too much on Autotune, “Own It” is hot garbage) – there’s an atmosphere on this album. It’s melancholic. It’s music to drive through the city to, late at night; music to lie on your bed and listen to through headphones; to dance drunkenly to at 2am in a nightclub alongside a beautiful woman – none of these situations are the same, yet Drake has rolled them all up in to one glossy package.
9. Epidemic – “Somethin For Tha Listeners” sees underground duo Hex-One and Teknition profess their love for golden era hip hop once again, with their best album to date. Except where their previous work saw them talk about their rhyming ability, “Somethin For Tha Listeners” is full of poignant life stories. Their deliveries can seem lazier than Fed-Ex on their worst days, but it is the production from Esco that marks this album out as a great listen. Near enough every instrumental is mellow, yet somehow keeps your neck moving. Thematically, the rhymes here aren’t going to blow you away, but there’s genuineness running through songs like “Cool Out” and “Patience” that are reminiscent of classics from CL Smooth. Each track feels comforting, like a big arm around your shoulder on days when you think “man, maybe hip hop really is dead” – it’s not, and will never be as long as there are albums like this being made.
8. Demigodz – “Killmatic” is a fan’s album. Call yourself a hip hop fan? Listen to this. Simply put, “Killmatic” is what The Demigodz are all about: technical rhymes and throwback beats. The reason this latest effort from Apathy and co is so good is that each member involved is operating at their highest level. Apathy himself has outgrown his sexist rants; Motive has blossomed in to a legitimate song-stealer whilst Ryu (formerly of Styles of Beyond) sounds like a rapper that’s been given a new lease of life. Their cohorts Army of the Pharaohs may be obsessed with violence and weaponry, but there’s a charm to The Demigodz that reeks of nostalgia (“Raiders Cap”), childish banter (“Captain Caveman”) and geeky imagination (“Tomax & Xamot”). It’s a genuinely likable album with a lot of love for hip hop, full of detail and references catered to rap aficionados.
7. Qwel & Maker – “Beautiful Raw” is just that. Full of detail, as if the record was produced by a team of guys at the top of their game, Qwel & Maker blew me away with this collaboration. Pretty much every great rap album has been raw yet beautiful in its own way, and this record is no different. The rawness isn’t in the gruff delivery of Qwel or the gritty sounds from Maker, it is in the purity. There’s a real naturalness to the production, there’s no singing on the hooks or false sense of superiority in the rapping. Some of the lyrics are bordering on poetry, manipulating metaphor and vivid imagery to fine effect, but when coupled with the refined flow and delivery of a seasoned emcee, it makes for essential listening. Qwel shows how technically gifted he is on “Broken Pendulum”, stating that he is “smarter than your average rapper you listen to”. It’s true, and “Beautiful Raw” is smart rap that may well need to be studied to fully appreciate. Personally I love that, because it adds longevity to each track, but the lack of accessibility may put off some.
6. Lewis Parker – “The Puzzle Episode 2 – The Glass Ceiling” is like the last 20 years of hip hop never happened. Crunching drums and heavy kicks give Lewis Parker’s latest offering a timeless quality that isn’t far off of a Pete Rock classic in its use of samples. Of course, this isn’t as horn-reliant or packed with beats WITHIN beats like Soul Brother #1 was capable of, but for an album in 2013 (from a Brit no less) to encompass that classic New York sound better than ACTUAL New Yorkers is a feat in itself. And at two discs and over thirty songs in length, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
5. Kid Tsunami – “The Chase” is how to make a 2013 boom bap album sound relevant. “The Chase” sees Kid Tsunami call on numerous past hip hop heavyweights to provide some bars, which usually ends up in forgettable compilations such as DJ Skizz’ “B.Q.E.” released this year. The difference here is Tsunami’s ability to create a barebones rhythm which gives the emcee space to flow. There is a genuine freshness to Kid Tsunami’s style of production that is somehow familiar yet contemporary. It’s not going to blow up, or be recognised as a life-changing moment in hip hop, because it is nothing more than a dope producer providing beats for a group of veteran rappers. Despite this becoming a common theme with producers making their name by selling their work to legendary figures, Kid Tsunami isn’t obsessed with raw, dull sounds that many up and comers are, he breathes life in to his songs and in turn gives a bunch of forty-somethings a new lease of life. “The First Letter”, “The Chase” and “Catch Wreck” are some of these guys’ best tracks, and that list includes O.C., Pharoahe Monch and Masta Ace. Perhaps the best moment is Sean Price’s spirited ignorance on “Bang Exclusive” which sees Kid Tsunami provide a deliciously catchy production for ‘P’.
4. L’Orange & Stik Figa – “The City Under The City” is a piece of hip hop that truly takes you somewhere. L’Orange and Stik Figa have delivered an album that sounds like a secret underground movement that has popped up during the 1920s era of prohibition. It’s the soundtrack to a mysterious world long forgotten by technology, where gramophones are preferred to turntables and grand pianos are played instead of Yamaha keyboards. Much of the album is dominated by L’Orange’s incredible work behind the boards, but “World of Monsters” and “Smoke Rings” see Stik Figa turn top notch beats into mouth-watering songs.
3. Tanya Morgan – “Rubber Souls” is an absolute joy to listen to, pure and simple. There’s the mini-track on “For Real” that makes you crave more, the thumping “The Day I”, in fact fuck it, EVERY song on “Rubber Souls” is classiness personified. The phrase ‘grown-man rap’ has never been more apt, with Tanya Morgan delivering an album that doesn’t pander to violence, bragging, or even the dreaded “claims of being real” – it’s plain old honest rhymes and phenomenal beats. J Dilla would be proud of “Eulogy”, but each track is exceptionally produced by 6th Sense. I’ve been sleeping on Tanya Morgan, and after being told on “The Vehicle” to “tune in, don’t ask ‘where you been?’ – get to Googling”, I feel like I have been missing out on something special. It’s also worth noting that Von Pea’s “Duly Noted” EP is equally excellent, if you’re craving a top-up on these eleven tracks.
2. Ugly Heroes – “Ugly Heroes” sees Apollo Brown maintain his incredible run of consistently thumping production assist another emcee. Except this time it’s two – Red Pill and Verbal Kent. Both prevalent in the underground, this self-titled album from their partnership name ‘Ugly Heroes’ is a consistently exquisite blend of swinging, soulful production and genuine rhymes that turns the run-of-the-mill status of underground emcees Verbal Kent and Red Pill in to convincing rap maestros. Dope beats and dope rhymes is such an overused statement, but this is just that. Apollo Brown’s endless vault of booming beats may become formulaic to long-term listeners, but if you’re after something that sounds hard without having to endure tedious threats or lavish braggadocio, snatch this album up NOW.
1. Innate & EP – “Such As I” is an album you probably won’t find on many listeners’ radars, let alone Best Album lists, which is a shame. It can come off as a bit soft, a bit dorky, but this is an album chockfull of excellent hip hop music. Hell, the first song “Everything” is a grimy affair that would have any hard-core rap fan’s neck slamming. It’s decidedly conscious, innocent even, and with both emcees often singing between verses it could effectively be the underground’s equivalent of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. However, there’s nothing poppy about “Such As I” despite a mature, expletive-free attitude lending this album a universal appeal. Musically, it’s surprisingly diverse with effectively every song throwing in a different instrument: electric guitars on “Come Again”, flutes playing on “Interloop”, pianos on “Around You” – it’s endless. “Stella” is an ingenious flip on the women/hip hop metaphor famously used by Common on “I Used to Love HER”, but this time sees Innate and EP talking about their pet dog instead of a lady. There’s a lot to like on “Such As I”, and it deserves a wider audience.