Party people. 2012 was busy and 2013 slightly less so, so like a good worker bee I resumed my anal obsession that is listening to darn near everything rap-related with eyes on the ultimate discernment that is my Year in Review editorial.
It’s a Year in Review cliché to complain about being buried by the overabundance of good music, lack of leisure time, and the internet, as in the same internet which provides access to a world of music at the push of a few carpal tunnel-inducing buttons, but 2013 was the year rap became an official and irreversible wormhole for me. All it took was for Spotify to tell me that Sean Price or Z-Ro were featured on some street corner MC’s tape and next thing I knew I had wasted a workday immersing myself in some city or country’s under-underground scene, further convincing myself that my self-important grasp of quality hip hop was a fraud. The volume of music I’d like to fully appreciate has always been overwhelming, but oh for the days when in my blissful ignorance I could woo women on New Year’s Eve with authoritative claims that CunninLynguists or Big Boi had produced the album of the year. As tends to be the case, I found myself cramming months worth of music into the last few weeks, which may in part be reflected in my final rankings which seem to skew more heavily toward albums released earlier in 2013.
This year I recognize mixtapes separately, not because I perceive them as inferior due to use of preexisting beats, free distribution to promote subsequent products, or general half-assedness, but because for some reason I maintain the completely outmoded notion that the distinction between a mixtape and album not only exists, but is somewhat worthwhile. Here goes with my picks from the year that was.
Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rap”
It’s amazing how far a little vocal energy goes in making a rapper so compelling, but Chance’s is the type of charisma to make you stop whatever you’re doing just to take it all in. The smooth beats are a perfect foil.
Action Bronson & Party Supplies’s “Blue Chips 2”
Caddy got the brown hard top just like the crème brulee. You know what it is.
Big K.R.I.T.’s “King Remembered in Time”?
A return to form following the derailment that was his big label debut.
K-Os’s “BLack on BLonde”
Another cliché alert! This is a very good double album that condensed would be a superb single disc. At its core is a breakup record, driven by “Nice 2 Know Ya” and “The Dog Is Mine,” two of the very best songs of the year, as well as the peppy “Billy Bragg Winners.” At risk of turning off potential listeners, there’s at least as much singing as rapping here, and K-Os shows a great ear for melodies and guitar chops throughout. There are tantalizing choruses, retro-rock gems, and fully realized walls of sound across nineteen tracks.
Ugly Heroes’ “Ugly Heroes”
A worthy sequel to The Left’s “Gas Mask.” Apollo Brown has received no shortage of criticism for being formulaic, but his are the beats Red Pill and Verbal Kent were born to rap on. A rallying cry for Detroit and effectively sentimental.
Rittz’ “The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant”
It was a banner year for Strange Music, and “The Life and Times of Johnny Valiant” was the best of the bunch. Rittz is an intensely personal, supertechnical rapper, spitting in triple time but keeping the listener fully engaged with tales of a rough upbringing and convincing confessions. My favorite tracks, “Sober” with Suga Free and “Switch Lanes” with Mike Posner, sound like b-sides to a Do or Die and Johnny P session from the late ‘90s.
Prodigy & Alchemist’s “Albert Einstein”
Few producers with as tenured and loyal a following as Alchemist manage to keep trucking out clever, original material. The same can’t usually be said of P, but he holds his weight.
Mathematics’s “The Answer”
The top Wu-related entry of the year, a producer-driven vehicle utilizing a stellar guest list for some of the best tracks of the underrated beatsmith’s career.
Epidemic’s “Somethin’ for tha Listeners”
Among the year’s most well-executed throwback rap. HexOne and Tek-Nition evoke your favorite East Coast duos from the ‘90s, but producer Esco seals the deal with a winning formula.
Ghostface Killah’s “Twelve Reasons to Die”
I enjoy seeing the original Wu members going full bore and embracing their Wu-ness. Adrian Younge breathes a little life into GFK with a performance wholly modeled on vintage RZA, kung-fu samples and all.
Pete’s 10 of ’13:
10. Terrace Martin’s “3ChordFold”
I was never a big Terrace Martin fan before this—in my mind, he was always the guy who contributed shitty tracks to shitty Kurupt albums—but “3ChordFold” blew me away. It’s an album about relationships, chronicling the rise and fall of loves, and just when you think it’s starting to get corny the ultra-soulful music wraps you up. There’s a strong assembly of West Coast rappers—see Kendrick Lamar on “Triangle Ship” and Snoop on “I’m for Real”—and Terrace is an adequate rapper himself. And did I mention the sax playing? One of the year’s best-sounding albums.
9. Tyler, the Creator’s “Wolf”
Earl Sweatshirt’s scatterbrained “Doris” stole most of its thunder, which is a shame because “Wolf” is the most fully realized Odd Future project to date. The most relatable portrayal of teenage anxiety I’ve heard on record, it follows a storyline and is a musical treat, variously recalling soundtracks from ‘80s teen films with an imprecise nostalgia and dripping with paranoia. Placed in the context of the album’s narrative, Tyler’s oft-derided and over-criticized violence and misogyny assume an unlikely poignancy, appearing as a reflexive grasp for power, a coping mechanism, and an escape. “Answer,” “Ifhy,” and the excellent trilogy “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” best position him as a teenage anti-hero, but in case anyone takes him too seriously, he refutes it with a fan horror story on “Colossus.” It’s also well-sequenced, closing with a procession of posse cuts highlighted by “Rusty” and the uber-smooth Erykah Badu collaboration “Treehome95.” Tyler has a profound sound and vision and it’s never been as focused as on “Wolf.”
8. Daz n WC’s “West Coast Gangsta Shit”
While certainly not the year’s most innovative album—where some might use “unimaginative,” I prefer “consistent”—Daz and Dub seem to be self-aware, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Daz smartly delegates production to a team including the Arsonists, Beanz N Kornbread, and Battlecat, each of whom brings the type of music you’d expect on an album discussing bandana fashion and automatic weaponry, but it’s very well done. The thunderous “Dubs in the Air” and silky Butch Cassidy-aided “Moves I Make” are the standouts, and “Blam Blam,” “Don’t Get Wet,” and “Late Nite” are all worthy of the DPGC canon. With maybe one or two debatable exceptions, it’s banger after banger for a full fifty minutes, and while it probably won’t convert anybody in the adolescent crowd, they’re catering to an audience (ranging from “people who buy Soopafly albums” to “people who have a tattoo of Lil Half Dead’s face”) and they do it exceptionally well.
7. Mac Miller’s “Watching Movies with the Sound Off”
If my 2012 self could see my 2013 self including a Mac Miller record in my top 10, he’d crucify me, but my 2012 self never had the pleasure of hearing 2013 Mac Miller. “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” is fascinating in many ways, perhaps foremost in the way Mac condemns “Easy Mac with the Cheesy Raps.” I’ve never seen a rapper, yet alone one all of 21 years old, disown his past work and so decisively transform from a legitimately shitty rapper to a legitimately good one. Armed with somber production and a newfound worldliness, “Watching Movies” is one of the year’s most contemplative, introspective, and honest records. He brilliantly captures the feeling of being 21, sensing the world at his doorstep but simultaneously feeling pressure and fearing a departure from that which he knows, perhaps best evoked on the late highlight “Aquarium.” His reflections on relationships ring deep and insightful, beginning with the slow, melodic “Objects in the Mirror” and growing in optimism through “Someone Like You” and “Youforia.” There’s plenty of good-natured shit-talking to boot, but even those tracks sport maturity and are enhanced by strong guest appearances and production, much of it his own. The show-stoppers are the Alchemist-produced, Action Bronson-aided drug ballad “Red Dot Music” and the wistful “Remember.”
6. Shad’s “Flying Colours”
“Flying Colours” didn’t immediately impress me the way that its predecessors did, but Shad is just an insanely good rapper, and if I’ve learned anything from his prior efforts it’s to give them time to grow on me. “He Say She Say” is the obvious standout, a breakup narrative sure to cue the waterworks. Immigration is a theme, best explored on “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrants)” and the “American Pie” suite. “Epilogue: Long Jawn” eases the album’s overarching heaviness as a sunny outro. Shad is one of the best ever to try this rap thing and “Flying Colours” builds the legend.
5. Aceyalone’s “Leanin’ on Slick”
A perfectly conceived summer album, “Leanin’ on Slick” finds the Project Blowed vet abandoning the lyrical acrobatics and concept rap that garnered him acclaim in favor of a set exploring the funk of the 1970s. Good spirits, energy, and lively basslines are in heavy supply as Aceyalone induces the listener to kick back, have a good time, and cut up some rugs if he’s so inclined. It’s a lush wash of horns, pipes, and a kickass rhythm section, but Acey steals the show on the irresistible “Boss” and the encouraging “Things Get Better,” closing with an inspired cover of “Hit the Road.” Few rappers can claim discographies that cover the range of territory Aceyalone has, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him having as much fun as he appears to on “Leanin’ on Slick.”
4. Gene the Southern Child & Parallel Thought’s “Artillery Splurgin”
After hearing Parallel Thought’s earlier work with Del the Funky Homosapien, one wouldn’t expect an album the likes of “Artillery Splurgin.” An obvious if not necessarily accurate analogue for Gene the Southern Child is Big K.R.I.T., if only for the Gulf Coast drawl and slow, funky production shown on “Roll,” but Gene’s an old-fashioned trash talker who makes his own name. Equally adept with fast-paced posturing (“Wanna War”), dark rumination (“Homicide Victim”), and UGK-styled anthems (“Never Been”), “Artillery Splurgin” is a ride into his Alabama, replete with cautionary tales, such as “Collecting 100s,” and a slew of rallying cries highlighted by the menacing “Drive Wisely” and “I’m from Bama.” Gene’s charismatic in spite of his demeanor, and Parallel Thought’s beats are rich and bright even when slow-tempoed. An enjoyable coming out party for two impressive talents.
3. Goodie Mob’s “Age Against the Machine”
I feel bad for the folks who had to market this record—most of the music-consuming public only knows Cee-Lo as Cee-Lo, and many longtime Goodie Mob fans resent him for that. But it’s a great sounding record and damn if this shit doesn’t go hard. Cee-Lo is his weird self but not at the expense of the other Goodies, and while nobody would ever escape this for “Soul Food” it’s got anthem after anthem with “I’m Set,” “Vallelujah,” and “Pinstripes” leading the charge. It’s a clever approach for the group—integrating Cee-Lo’s newly infamous character with the Goodie Mob foundation—and much of the album might be described as epic with tinges of irony. Late highlight “Understanding” flips notion on its head, though, following a tradition inaugurated on “Soul Food” of reflective, slow-burning album closers. The title is perfectly selected, and most rappers would kill to age this ingeniously.
2. Uptown XO’s “Colour de Grey”
Prior to this release, I tended to view XO as the Lord Jamar to Oddisee and yU’s Grand Puba and Sadat X, but “Colour de Grey” might be the best Diamond District project yet. XO has a breathy, frenetic rhyming style, and his thoughts don’t always move in linear patterns, but “Colour de Grey” is a record orchestrated to his strengths. AB the Pro is the producer, and his work reminds me of the music on the first Binary Star solo outings, using distant soul samples to create moods ranging from bleak to triumphant. “Reflection Eternal,” “XO Skeleton,” and the closer “If I Should Die” are darker and thoughtful musically and lyrically, while “Soul Value,” “Poor Man’s Copyright,” and “They Say” exude a timeless quality. “Needs and Wants” is the highlight, mostly for the gorgeous music but also for the way XO perfectly matches the sentiment AB the Pro generates. The interludes create a vivid atmosphere, and while AB the Pro might outshine XO at times, I couldn’t imagine a better set of tracks for him to inhabit. D.C.’s musical history is evident in its fabric, and Washington should be proud to call it its own.
1. Tanya Morgan’s “Rubber Souls”
Everyone’s favorite “rap group that met on OkayPlayer” (cut to angry Foreign Exchange fans) outdo themselves on “Rubber Souls.” If it seemed like they were building toward something of magnitude after a strong round of solo projects, “Rubber Souls” exceeds expectations across the board. It starts fresh with “For Real” and “The Day I,” a pair of supersmooth winners that if anything build anticipation for the expansive “The Only One” and enchanting “All Em,” where the crew sports a sly charisma old fans may struggle to recognize. “Eulogy” is a lyrical standout, and the bonus “Upon Soul” is an energetic closer. “Rubber Souls” tends almost exclusively toward “soulful” rather than “mumbly,” and shows versatility as Tanya Morgan strikes a smart balance between varied and focused.