2012 was a good year for hip-hop, and there were several promising trends this year. For one, hip-hop producers are being more experimental, not afraid to color outside the guidelines and look to unusual sources for inspiration. The Gaslamp Killer has heavy psychedelic influences, Flying Lotus is influenced by jazz and electronic music, and street rap producers have embraced ambient music. Another trend is that musicians from outside of hip-hop are looking to hip-hop for inspiration. Death Grips and Quakers are both helmed by producers who spent most of their careers not involved with hip-hop at all. The result is more interesting, boundary-pushing music that is keeping hip-hop from becoming stale or cliched. Finally, 2012 saw fantastic albums from several rappers a decade deep into their careers, proving that hip-hop is a country for old men. Killer Mike, El-P, Aesop Rock, OC, Nas, and Blockhead all put out albums that were as good if not better than anything else they’ve done in their career.
On a personal note, I had a busy, eventful, and often stressful year. As a result, I found myself listening to either really mellow music to soothe my nerves, or really aggressive music to pump myself up. I listened to a lot of old jazz, ambient music, and on the flip side, some of the noisiest hip-hop I’ve heard in years. What follows is an alphabetical list of the ten albums that I loved the most this year.
Aesop Rock, “Skelethon” – This was the first Aesop Rock album I took the time to actually listen to. It’s a dense and daunting record, but it definitely rewards repeat listenings. How can you not love an album that has songs about the family dog rescuing a drowning child and a kid who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables?
Apollo Brown and Guilty Simpson, “Dice Game” – This was one of two highly praised collaborations that Apollo Brown released this year. His dusty breaks were the perfect compliment to Guilty’s gutter rhymes, and Guilty showed that there is more to his persona than menace.
Brother Ali, “Mourning In America and Dreaming in Color” – Ali made one of the most heartfelt, sincere, and uplifting albums of the year.
Burial, “Kindred” – This may not technically be a hip-hop album, but the beat on the title track of Burial’s first EP of 2012 was one of my favorites of the year.
Death Grips, “The Money Store/No Love Deep Web” – Death Grips could easily go terribly wrong and become a 2012 version of Limp Bizkit. It’s basically a dude yelling about getting wasted over noisy electronica, but somehow it works.
El-P, “Cancer 4 Cure” – Jamie Meline proves that he is not only one of the best producers working, but one of the best lyricists.
Kendrick Lamar, “good kid m.A.A.d city” – The most critically acclaimed album of the year is also one of the most commercially successful hip-hop albums of the year. Kendrick Lamar manages to mix conscious rap, gangsta rap, and mainstream rap into a package that sounds better than almost anything else released this year.
Killer Mike, “R.A.P. Music” – You know how people complain about how they don’t make albums like “Death Certificate” or “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” anymore? Well now they can shut up. Killer Mike blends early 90s political rap with Southern rap over hard-hitting El-P beats. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Oddisee, “People Hear What They See” – Grown-man hip-hop from a man who disproves the notion that producers can’t rap.
Quakers, S/T – The best underground hip-hop comp of the year, courtesy of the dude from Portishead. Who knew?
Honorable Mentions: Gaslamp Killer, Clams Casino, Evian Christ,Flying Lotus, Blockhead, Open Mike Eagle, and House Shoes also put out excellent albums this year. Rozay’s “God Forgives But I Don’t” wasn’t a great album, but “Hold Me Back” was monster single. Nas’s “Life Is Good” saw him returning to form. Also, the hip-hop demographic (young people and brown people) got Obama re-elected. That’s power.