Since this site’s inception 20 years ago it has been an annual tradition to take a look back at the year in review to take stock of what happened in the last 12 months in hip-hop music and culture. Over the years that concept has broadened into contributors creating editorials that list the best albums of the year, favorite albums they’ve reviewed, and even their own life-changing events outside of hip-hop. This is arguably an unscientific approach to telling you “the best of the best” as so many end of year lists tend to do, but I like the more personal touch that it allows us for writing about what matters and sharing that with YOU the readers. After all without your support we wouldn’t keep doing what it is we do.
I’d like to start that by saying for me it was a very somber year. I’ve seen many pundits address the concept that hip-hop is dead over the decades (including some of the artists) but for me the years come and go and the status quo remains. Hip-Hop as a cultural movement is far too big to “kill” as such, although the relevance of any of the individual arts that make up portions of it could be “dead” to the mainstream in terms of their market saturation or commercial viability. That won’t ever stop anybody from doing those arts. Nobody stopped making jazz music because jazz albums don’t sell big numbers. Hell if that was the case every genre of music would up and die right now considering how far CD sales have slumped.
No for me the only death that really matters here is the one we spell with a capital D and sometimes refer to as the Grim Reaper. There’s never been any shortage of tragedy in rap music. My earliest memories as a listener include sadness over the violent deaths of Scott La Rock, Cowboy and Trouble T-Roy just to name a few. “Stop the Violence” was the natural response of the leading artists of the day, but year after year we still continue to be subjected to the gunplay. The newest form of nihilism to take hold in the arts may be just as deadly.
“To me that’s suicide, self-murder” was a line once uttered by KRS-One in “My Philosophy” when explaining his reason to not eat meat, but maybe it should be applied to cough syrup and prescription pills too. We lost Juice WRLD just this month, but he’s far from the first. DJ Screw, Pimp C, Big Moe, ODB. It used to feel like these were sporadic, infrequent occurrences but the pace has been picking up lately with the deaths of Mac Miller and Lil Peep among others. The problem has crossed all regional and even genre associated limitations it once had. “Sipping on some sizzurp” could lead to your premature demise, but mixing it with Xanax and Oxycontin will do it that much faster. That’s not to say you can’t “suicide, self-murder” just by drinking yourself to death on liquor alone, but prescription drugs and over the counter codeine as so much quicker.
It’s depressing to me to hear so many rappers release albums where they not only advocate their self-destruction but openly display it, singing and slurring their way through a haze so foggy I doubt they could see the lyrics they wrote down (nor remember performing it later). For me when I remember 2019 as a year in review, I’ll remember it as the year this issue came to a head for me personally. I feel like this is the invisible enemy of hip-hop that no one wants to see or talk about that’s lurking in every shadow, creepin’ around every corner. It’s not a subject to address in opposition to the disproportionate amount of gun violence but in tandem with said same. After all that sense of despair in the air when friends, family, loved ones and role models die every day is what leads to use and abuse of so many substances. Why give a shit about your own life when all you know is death? You just numb the pain until there is no more — LITERALLY. It’s a mental health crisis that affects every one of us.
On a brighter note I rediscovered my passion for writing this year thanks to a complete overhaul of the website, which not only gave us a much needed facelift but made it much easier to spark the writing process. Before I dreaded the drudgery of editing code for every review, and now I can just sit down and start typing whenever or wherever inspiration hits. It feels like I’ve been unshackled and I’m enjoying the hell out of it, so this shout out goes to Grant Jones and Matt Jost for not only spearheading the effort to redesign the site but pushing me (admittedly at times reluctantly) to embrace the change. They knew what we needed even if I was too blind to see it, and now that my eyes are open I know it was worth the effort. Judging by those of you who pledged your support to the site this month I know you find it worthwhile too.
Now without further adieu and in no particular order here are some of the most memorable and worthwhile albums I experienced in 2019 that I hope you’ll add to your streaming queue whether or not you buy the physical.
- Gang Starr, “One of the Best Yet“. It’s a more recent review than the rest of my selections, but that should tell you something about just how good it is. It’s made a very strong impression on me in a short amount of times and successfully negated my concerns about a posthumous album from Guru so long after his passing.
- David Banner, “#TheGodBox“. This entry reflects an entirely different scenario wherein the review isn’t late for the year but late PERIOD. Nevertheless Banner continues to prove himself to be a soulful and eloquent spokesman for Mississippi, the South, and hip-hop music and culture as a whole. He’s not to be ignored.
- EarthGang, “Mirrorland“. Calling EarthGang “the new OutKast” might be overstating it, but not at least comparing the two would definitely be understanding it. Perhaps it would simply be better to say the baton has been passed from one generation to the next.
- Ceschi, “Sad Fat Luck“. There was a time where I just thought Ceschi was a weirdo who was making art for art’s sake, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I just found it hard to relate to. His latest album changed all of that and proved to me he’s not only profoundly good but someone I should continually check for.
- YG, “4Real 4Real“. Speaking of rappers who pick up the torch for a new generation, Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson is this era’s superstar for Compton. He’s got pop music sensibilities mixed with streetwise credibility, and if you’re paying close attention his lyrics don’t just glorify violence and drug dealing but tell cautionary tales. Like Tupac before him, even his contradictions make him more interesting.
- Madchild, “Demons“. In a way Shane Bunting’s work in the past decade makes the point I was getting at in the opening paragraphs far better than I ever could. This was a man who nearly overdosed on his success, lost family and friends along the way, then reeled it all back in at the last possible moment he could only to emerge reborn from the ashes of his past life. I will forever follow his journey in hip-hop.
- Your Old Droog, “It Wasn’t Even Close“. I’m sure Droog is tired of being compared to Nas, so I promise to try my hardest not to do so in 2020. Either way the man who recently rechristened himself as simply YOD showcased his far above par lyrical forte on this album, and while the music couldn’t always keep up, it still made for a worthy experience.
- Czarface, “Czarface Meets Ghostface“. I still own a cassette single that teased the idea of Metal Face x Ghostface years before this album ever came to light. It may have taken the mad minds of Inspectah Deck, 7L and Esoteric to finally bring this concept to fruition, but I’m ever so glad that they did.
- 21 Savage, “I Am > I Was“. For me this album is more about what I see coming from 21 Savage in the FUTURE. I don’t believe it’s his best work, but I do believe it as much or more than any other album on this list shows a promising young rapper on the cusp of breaking out into being a national A-lister like YG. I expect as his career continues to bloom it’s one I’ll look back on and remember fondly.
- Ill Bill & Stu Bangas, “Cannibal Hulk“. The only bad thing about this album is that it’s ridiculously SHORT at just 23 minutes. The name and the concept sound like they came straight from the late Sean Price and the music gives off that same vibe, although it’s tinged with the kind of “black helicopter” conspiracy theories only the illest William of them all can do best.
There you have it. My 2019 year in review is now YOURS to review. I hope you enjoyed the editorial and look forward to a prosperous 2020. All the best from the crew at RapReviews to you and yours.