2012? Me and hip-hop had a good year together. I really wouldn’t know how to put it otherwise these days. My hip-hop experience in 2012 was satisfactory. In fact so much so that for the first time since joining the RapReviews staff I feel able to come up with a collection of full-lengths that I deem superior. But know that the releases I’m not familiar with by far outnumber the ones I feel capable to pass judgement on. Among the artists that I’ve ignored this year are Rick Ross, Kanye West/G.O.O.D. Music, Lupe Fiasco, Slaughterhouse, B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa, Young Jeezy, 2 Chainz, Tyga, Future, Nicki Minaj, Kreayshawn, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Murs & Fashawn, Reks, Vinnie Paz, La Coka Nostra, Z-Ro, Sean Price, Maino, Roc Marciano, Ka, El-P, DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles, Wordsworth, Danny!, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. Like any Matt Jost tabulation this one goes on.

If you believe in omniscient, outerworldly beings who observe the annual production of rap music with the Eye of Providence and process it with the Mind of Minolta you might be susceptible to the notion that lists such as the one below actually represent the objectively ‘best’ works of a given year. Just take them for what they are, largely subjective (and often influenced by prevalent opinion) summaries of whatever came across the compiler’s desk. But you could have figured that out just from glancing over my selection, right?

12 FOR ’12

12) Gangrene – “Vodka & Ayahuasca”

Lot of these new rap dudes experimenting with drugs nowadays. Leave it to the experts, kids. Leave it to Oh No and The Alchemist, two experienced users who have already sampled all kinds of substances in their days. Put them together and you get Gangrene, a double-headed creature breathing musical fire and exhaling lyrical fumes. They are more likely to win an award for the score than for the script and what they have to say can be summed up with a simple ‘Don’t try this at home’, but where most of their competitors rely on exactly one recipe to lace their raps with the illegal intoxicant of their choice, the Gang gives you a colorfully illustrated cookbook full of ways to get vicariously fucked up.

11) 8Ball – “Life’s Quest”

The title may suggest that he’s still searching, but what he delivers on “Life’s Quest” indicates Eightball has come to the same conclusion as Nas. That life is good. Unlike younger generations that often fall prey to the attraction of flaunting and flossing, though, Ball’s cherishing of the finer things in life is tempered by the wisdom of age that knows that life can also be challenging sometimes. The result is a classy southern album from one of the most trusted brands in rap.

10) Freeway – “Diamond in the Ruff”

It feels increasingly difficult to make a good rap album the traditional way. Rhymes. Beats. Knocking jaws. Dropping jaws. Not for Freeway. Invigorated by his 2010 joint venture with producer Jake One, Freezer bundles a warrior’s determination and an artist’s creativity on “Diamond in the Ruff,” sputtering forth inspired word associations with a thrust that assures us that this is one well that doesn’t run dry. The album title may ring a little bit too true in terms of Free (not) realizing his immense potential, but as far as the pure emceeing experience goes, he’s such a relief from all these forcedly ignorant, vaguely clever rappers the industry has been cramming down my throat since seemingly forever.

9) Xzibit – “Napalm”

With the help of Rick Rock, Symbolyc One, Ensayne Wayne, 1500 Or Nothin, Illmind, E. Dan, Akon, David Banner and yes, Dr. Dre (check the Likwit Crew reunion “Louis XIII”), Mr. X to the Z returned with one of 2012’s best scored albums. That’s just something that matters to me, that the music fits the lead voice and the song themes, that it considers the artist’s history as well as the contemporary sound. X hasn’t traded in his enforcer demeanor for a more timely delivery but still knows how to give a lyrically refined performance well beyond stand-outs like “1983” and “Forever a G.” In another time “Napalm” would have at least gone gold.

8) Saigon – “The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses”

Here’s what happened last time – my initial disappointment with “The Greatest Story Never Told” eventually gave way to enthusiasm. It’s happening again. The rehashed album title (betraying a lack of confidence in “Bread and Circuses” – google it!) and diminished Just Blaze input jeopardized Saigon’s second official outing early on, but having found a purpose in his rap life, he straddles out of the sophomore slump with a string of highly meaningful songs that get to the core of what rap is about. In case you had any doubts that rap is actually about something, let Sai fill you in.

7) Blue Sky Black Death & Nacho Picasso – “Lord of the Fly”

Odd Future, A$AP Mob, Raider Klan, all that shit’s cool. But they weren’t able to pull me away from Seattle’s match made in hell, the teaming of definition-defying production duo Blue Sky Black Death and up-and-comer Nacho Picasso. Their collaboration totalled up to three free albums within six months, “Lord of the Fly” being the most potent, a mind-boggling succession of hallucinogenic raps over hypnotic beats. The crazy thing about “Lord of the Fly” is that it manages to be creepier and at the same time funnier than the previously mentioned posterboys for the new wave of goth rap. This one had me trippin’ for real.

6) Lecrae – “Gravity”

The fact that a gospel rap artist released one of my favorite albums this year raises a million and one questions (at least). Guess what, though. Not a single one of them challenges my decision. The effort that established Lecrae in the major league has everything a good rap album needs. Passion, wit, belligerence, delivered with rock-solid rap skills and dispensed over a broad musical palette. There’s more, obviously. There has to be. Maybe the sort of conviction that can supply human expression with a backbone. The kind of conviction that “Gravity” shares with the other albums on this list.

5) Nas – “Life Is Good”

I couldn’t tell you where “Life Is Good” ranks in Nas’ discography, I just know that it dovetails right into the hot mess that is his body of work. You see, Nasir Jones belongs in the exclusive circle of rappers that I entertain a longtime love/hate relationship with. All the while I realize that it’s his imperfection that makes him one of the greatest of all time. There’s a human quality to his music that is unmatched. Nas takes a stand against indifference and ignorance. He may cut a poor figure more often than I would like, still he embodies the ‘homo sapiens’, the intelligent human that represents mankind at the current state of evolution, like no other MC. Twenty years after his debut single Nas remains one of the most relevant voices of rap music and “Life Is Good” is another substantial addition to the most complete catalog in the history of hip-hop.

4) Plan B – “Ill Manors”

Judging by the news, London was a great place to be in 2012. The Summer Olympics were a national triumph and an international success while resident royalty Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. But beneath every metropolis’ shimmering skin human life scurries in all kinds of directions. Not everyone gets to step on a winners podium, let alone remain sixty years on a throne. Plan B’s “Ill Manors,” based on his film of the same name, is a series of social portraits that probe deep into human nature. It’s a crazy record, but so is the environment it describes. It also makes you wonder how rappers manage to glorify these things all the time.

3) Oddisee – “People Hear What They See”

Mello Music Group had a strong run in 2012 with longplayers from Substantial, O.C. and Guilty Simpson, the latter two accompanied by producer Apollo Brown. But their most accomplished release came, surprisingly, from a producer who by his own humble admission is still honing his mic skills, Oddisee. True, some of his rhyme patterns are overambitious, but like other notorious ‘producers on the mic’ before him, Odd still outshines many a better known MC. As individual and original as the best rap and soul music it’s inspired by, “People Hear What They See” is the type of record underground nostalgists and mainstream narcissists don’t even dream of making because their scope is so limited. You’ll be hard-pressed to point me to a more carefully crafted gem of a hip-hop album released in 2012.

2) Killer Mike – “R.A.P. Music”

If you’re like me, it was easy to be excited upon hearing the news of a full-length collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P. I hold both artists in high regards, but they’ve been traveling down two seperate lanes of hip-hop, which made their clash just that more potentially explosive. Turns out, the project isn’t about contrasts, it simply provides Mike with an edgier soundscape than usual. In fact the real triumph of “R.A.P. Music” is that it’s still undeniably a Killer Mike joint, arguing the plight of Black America intelligently and emotionally. Play this at high volume, preferably in a residential area. You owe it to rap music.

1) Kendrick Lamar – “good kid, m.A.A.d city”

The topics are nothing new, the voice is strangely unmusical, the production keeps a low profile – Kendrick Lamar overcomes these odds by laying open his own life with surgical precision. Kendrick belongs to the rare breed of rappers who are actual writers. He registers, he records, he remembers. “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is more than an attempt to make sense of it all, it’s oral history, it’s a document verifying that there was once a young man who had these things happen to him. Why should we care? Not only because the narration is so nuanced but also because the opus’ 17-year old protagonist essentially represents the very creator of rap music, the young black male. And yet “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is free of all the blinding effects and cheap thrills that the genre usually comes with. It only requires that you listen as Kendrick tells it. An exemplary and simultaneously extraordinary rap album and by my estimation this year’s most important release.

R.I.P. Adam Yauch, Don Cornelius, Chris Lighty, Rodney King and Matthew Africa.