In 1994 Tha Alkaholiks recorded a prophetic song for their 1995 album “Coast II Coast.” The song was simply titled “2014,” and in it J-Ro found himself stumbling alone across an apocalyptic California, struggling to survive and losing all hope that the times will ever get better again until one day he crosses the path of a boy quoting what seems to be Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” From that point on “2014” takes on a decidedly mythological note. J-Ro has to prove his credentials by emceeing on the spot, before the boy, named Rakim, leads him to a place “deep underground” where to his amazement he not only finds the ancient civilization of hip-hop alive but his fellow Alkaholiks Tash and E-Swift as well.
20 years later Tha Alkaholiks missed the opportunity for a timely comeback, but whether or not their vision of the future was accurate (certainly not for Cali but sadly for a lot of other parts of the world), hip-hop is still being practiced. And like in 1995 I find myself listening to it. Which is… well, great, for the most part. You could say that Liks song came true on two accounts – hip-hop is still around and there are, see Rakim Mayers b/k/a A$AP Rocky, really kids rapping named after one of the greatest of all time.
If you’d ask me specifically about the state of hip-hop in 2014 I’d probably spout some ignorant stuff, and the last thing anybody wants to read on such an occasion is some scrooge’s soliloquy about how everything sucks. Like Taylor Swift says, instead of getting worked up over things you can’t control you could be getting down to some sick beat. One that like Meghan Trainor tells you that it’s all about that bass, ’bout that bass, one that like Charli XCX makes your heart go boom, clap, as the beat goes on and on and on… What are these pop chicks doing here anyway? Well, they happened to drop singles that reminded me of hip-hop, somehow. The only major rap singles I heard all year were on that Iggy Azalea album. My own fault entirely.
I did listen to some albums. There were a few disappointments. Wu-Tang Clan. Atmosphere. Mobb Deep. Saigon. Barrel Brothers. And particularly Big K.R.I.T., whose second retail album again failed to live up to the classics he gave away for free. There were some albums I didn’t listen to. Like J-Live’s. I love that guy. Really. But was I interested in what he had to say in 2014? Not really. Neither could I warm up to autobiographical efforts by rappers without that much to tell. And there’s the persistent problem that a lot of newcomers simply can’t rap. (We have to do something about that.) Hip-Hop thrives without reviews and critics, though – according to J-Ro it would even survive World War III. The list below is strictly subjective and may not fully represent the vigor of today’s scene, still I believe it attests to the vitality of rap music.
14 FOR ’14
14) Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch
No way I could convince anyone that Gangsta Boo and La Chat are, without any reservation, good rappers. But there’s something very cold about these two Memphis veterans doing their own thing – their very own thing. We are all not always receptive for every type of rap music. “Witch” struck a chord with me, one I wasn’t aware was there. All I know is if the entire album was like opener “Witch Brew,” their collaboration with singer Fefe Dobson, it would be literally one hell of an album.
13) Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons
Once more Tony Starks came to save the year for the Clan. The set-up was playing to his strengths as it are exactly the circumstances – the assigned storyline, the reinterpretations of vintage soul, the experienced supporting cast – that make “36 Seasons” a success. More tangible than last year’s “Twelve Reasons to Die,” the tale of a presumable ex-con back on the streets of Staten Island and deciding to make up for lost time (and make up with his woman) may not be great literature, but it’s audio drama rap that frankly 95% of rappers (and we’ve seen many make attempts) would fail at.
12) Dilated Peoples – Directors of Photography
Extending their optical metaphor into the 22th year of their existence, in 2014 Dilated Peoples were back like they never left, in the sense that “Directors of Photography” seamlessly continues their discography. Despite adding some darker and more pensive shades this time around, Evidence, Rakaa and Babu form an outstandingly consistent collective, reminding rap of the importance of a clear vision. This publication once ran a short-lived series called ‘Artist of the Decade’. Dilated Peoples were my contribution, and while we’re already deep into another decade, their latest shows that DP is one brand that cannot be tied to a specific era.
11) Logic – Under Pressure
How would such a list look without at least one debut? Logic belongs to a new generation of rappers who graduated from the school of hard knocks but look at both the hard knock life and the lifestyles of the rich and famous with analytical scepticism and adolescent melancholy. “Under Pressure” is an intimate album whose author clearly spent some intimate moments with albums by Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. But Logic tells his own story, in a way only his generation dares to. If I’m hesitant to co-sign the conclusion of our October review (‘When nostalgic old-timers lament the golden age of hip-hop, for those championing our current era, “Under Pressure” is the album to point to.’), it’s mainly because I consider “Under Pressure” such a contemporary piece.
10) The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
The American film and television industries pride themselves in mastering the art of storytelling, lately even competing for the best writers, directors and actors. As the ‘Tonight Show’ house band, The Roots come in contact every day with representatives of Hollywood and TV Land. Still they opted to script and orchestrate their short play “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” in their own fashion. At the same time this is more than a Roots album, it is “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin,” like any presentation/performance that can stand on its own taking on an identity of its own. So while it may be difficult to rank this in the Roots catalogue or in the 2014 canon, there’s no doubt it stands out as one of the artistically most ambitious projects in hip-hop music this year.
9) Retch – Polo Sporting Goods
The only mixtape in this list, Retch’s “Polo Sporting Goods” continues the Roc Marciano legacy of brand-conscious but danger-apprehensive and death-aware New York renaissance rap. Dragging producer Thelonious Martin’s organs (instruments, not intestines) out into the streets, Retchy P begins to tell stories as soon as he opens his mouth. In one of the most surprising full-length moments of the entire year, he reminisces about a handicapped kid he develops a feeling of responsibility for (“Special Jim”). It’s usually a good sign when a rapper leaves you guessing about his next steps.
8) Essa – The Misadventures of a Middle Man
From my November review:
Admitted, an approach that focuses on the average man and his average life can just as well result in mediocre music, but in this case it gives us a piece of rap that is as outspoken as it is subtle. If you like an artist who is able to open your mind, Essa is up there with the best who achieve that through rhyme and reason. If his homeland decides to ignore him like it ignored so many brilliant rappers before him, he all the more deserves broader attention.
7) The Grouch & Eligh – The Tortoise and the Crow
“The Tortoise and the Crow” is comprised of three individual albums – The Grouch’s “Lighthouses,” Eligh’s “Nomads” and their collabo “333.” These guys have been creative forces on the independent scene for a long time, and each disc is well pondered, well penned and most of all well produced, including Eligh’s work on his – partially instrumental – section. At a time when we should expect a little bit more from hip-hop albums, G&E came up with a fresh concept, but the biggest surprise is how much mass appeal their music has. All the while maintaining their philosophical bent and ethical beliefs.
6) Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
If you’re too talented for doing things the way they’re typically done you start to look for new ways. You wouldn’t believe for how long this has been Pharoahe Monch’s mode of operation. By now he’s an absolute master of his approach to scientifically sound, creatively bursting, socio-political-minded rhythm and poetry. There’s hardly a rapper who sounds so at peace with how he expresses himself – and that’s outside of his current role as a war veteran. The deep discomfort with our times simmers through the flawless execution, though.
5) Diamond District – March on Washington
Their brand may not be as established let alone as highly estimated, still I consider Diamond District to be the group that took the baton from NC’s Little Brother. A trio steeped in a local setting and in rap tradition but with a broader appeal to lovers of quality hip-hop and adjacent genres everywhere. An inferiority complex still lingers, but that may be exactly the reason why “March on Washington” is more nourishing than the fast-food music produced elsewhere. Oddisee, yU and Uptown X.O. still have something to prove, this being only their second joint longplayer. Backed by one of the most skilled producers of today in Oddisee, song by song they paint well composed, beautiful as well as meaningful acoustic pictures, resulting in an album with plenty of replay value. March on, Washington.
4) PRhyme (DJ Premier & Royce Da 5’9″) – PRhyme
Relevance is hard to earn. The two artists that make up PRhyme have at times struggled to attain the relevance they are naturally and by virtue of their past achievements entitled to. In 2014 they worked hard for a return to musical relevance. DJ Premier finds inspiration in the raw material provided by Adrian Younge and Royce Da 5’9″ once again proves he’s one of the game’s most gifted lyricists, and writing these rhymes is probably not done in a flash. Helping him is the fact that he’s got opinions, strong real-life opinions, not the supposed opinions of a stage character. “PRhyme” is a classic collaboration stemming from a symbiotic relationship. One needed the other. That’s really the grandmother’s recipe for good rap – finding the right combination of beats and rhymes. Easier said than done. Let PRhyme show you.
3) Apathy – Connecticut Casual
Him seeming like a grumpy cat (and me not being an awful lot merrier), I wouldn’t wanna hang out with Apathy, but he makes for one hell of a tour guide through his home state of Connecticut, drawing from his environment in a very peculiar fashion, cleverly weaving his fringe existence as a rap artist into tabloid events from the Connecticut chronicles. Equipped with solid storytelling skills and a timeless STFU attitude, Ap finally delivers something different from the same old same old. There’s still the Apathy of old, but if you listen closely he’s trying to tell you something you might not heard from rap before. Either way it’s a very unlikely project that succeeds with time-tested rap means.
2) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Look at these eager beavers. Remember how El-P was non-compliant when it came to following up “Funcrusher Plus” and “The Cold Vein”? And now him and Killer Mike are already at “Run the Jewels 2.” What sounds like the least imaginative cash-in since the latest blockbuster sequel is of course anything but uninspired and grabby. Jaime and Mike, as they like to refer to themselves in a deceptively harmless way, are rap masterminds with an explosive chemistry that blows away any barriers that still might have existed within rap music. A sophomore triumph, “Run the Jewels 2” is a demanding but rewarding listen. All things considered, if there’s been one release you couldn’t possibly exclude from your considerations for album of the year, it’s this one.
1) Lizzo – Lizzobangers
Consider this an addition in the spirit of Adam Bernard’s ‘Some Sh*t You May Have Missed’ angle to our Year in Review feature. (Although – I’m not sure how you could have missed this when I covered it…?!) Lizzo and Lazerbeak delivered a totally cool and creative album with only one concern – not to bore, not to bend, not to bullshit. (Actually, that makes three concerns…) If you let me have Lizzo, you can have Iggy. And if not we’ll be all come together in unity and enjoy the manifold manifestations of this artform.