After discovering that it wasn’t wind or rain that made the trees shed their leaves in Autumn, but the earth-shattering vibrations felt from a thousand albums dropping in October, I felt a bit better about hip hop music in 2014. It seemed that for every leaf that fell, a new hip hop release was clawing at our eyes for attention. November was calmer, before December showed itself packing backup ammunition in the form of more albums and EPs, just in time for Christmas. It’s difficult enough as a writer to keep up with all of this new music, and as a fan I’m less likely to split my limited budget between all those albums, particularly with the increase in price of CDs. Some releases are digital-only, forcing us to resign ourselves to the fact that music must now be listened to in MP3-form. Despite this, hip hop has come full circle with more EPs being released, a “less is more” approach to albums (with skits now rarely rearing their largely pointless presence); and more partnerships appearing. Just a quick glimpse at my Top 20 albums below highlights how strong duos are in hip hop, in 2014.
Amongst the relentless, daily grind of listening to music on headphones whilst my wife shouts at me to pass the TV remote, I found myself listening to these albums the most this year, and can wholeheartedly recommend them all – here’s to a fantastic 2015!
20. Von Pea and The Other Guys :: To: You
Another thirty minutes of great hip hop comes courtesy of Tanya Morgan’s Von Pea, who has called in The Other Guys (not Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell) to lace him with some pleasingly mellow beats. It’s not quite the classic Tanya Morgan managed to achieve with “Rubber Souls”, but is further proof of Von Pea’s infectious charm and good ear for beats.
19. Onyx & Snowgoons :: #WAKEDAFUCUP
I’m not one for violence so I’d be forced to agree with anything somebody says that has just listened to this album. It’s angry, relentlessly rugged and most of the rhymes are beyond ignorant – yet it sounds so damn good. Onyx have thankfully refrained from trying to make albums that sound like it’s still the 1990s, instead employing the guys responsible for a lot of the heaviest hardcore hip hop of recent years – Germany’s Snowgoons. Admittedly, some of the best moments here come from Sticky Fingaz’ ludicrous statements; a healthy sense of humor that eases some of the ‘sledgehammer to the skull’ production. Well worth buying, even if you only listen to it in the gym, or during bouts of road rage in the car.
18. Verbal Kent & Khrysis :: Sound of the Weapon
Verbal Kent has a voice that is an acquired taste, being borderline monotonous – the fact that he’s so aggressive helps to ignore that. Alongside Red Pill, his work with Ugly Heroes is brilliant, but his solo albums have been largely underwhelming, relying on the strength of the production. With Khrysis’ airy samples and hard drums, Verbal has found a producer that can match his intensity and boy is it a good listen. If you’re not nodding and/or smiling to tracks such as “Hunched Over Chessboards” or “Underrated?”, then we’ve got a problem. If all weapons sounded as satisfying as this, we’d be calling for more violence in hip hop.
17. MindsOne & Kev Brown :: Pillars EP
Kev Brown done did it again. MindsOne are no slouches, but Kev has carved out a reputation as an underground favorite thanks to his choppy, bass-led style that tends to complement even the most forgettable of emcee. He’s the only reason I remember the name Cy Young. “Pillars” isn’t quite the played out boom bap it could well have ended up being, and that’s down to Kev’s traditional values more than anything. “Equinox” is suitably dim, “Nightstalkers” is classic Kev Brown, booming bass and all; while “Legion of Doom (Remix)” would have Animal and Hawk getting rowdy to a riff that lures MindsOne out of their comfort zone. Underrated.
16. J-Live :: Around the Sun
Mr. Reliable strikes again. For an emcee with a 20-year career, it’s remarkable to see him still delivering albums of such high quality, let alone songs that hit the nail on the head, time and time again. “Not Listening” is one such moment that raises a smile thanks to the blunt, honest manner with which J-Live speaks. J-Live still maintains his “Braggin’ Rites” while actually saying something, solidifying his status as one of the best ever, without ever really being recognised as such.
15. Cormega & Large Professor :: Mega Philosophy
Where many NYC rappers in their 40s now sound bitter or jaded in 2014, Cormega released a concise, precise piece of hip hop that maintains an authentic, relate-able sound (courtesy of the excellent Large Professor). Guests such as AZ and Redman prove they still have it and can capably outshine the youngsters, while Cormega throws down some of the best rhymes of his career. Some of the hooks are a little unnecessary, but they don’t detract from an album that proves Cormega has actually got better with age.
14. Logic :: Under Pressure
There was a lot of hype around this album from Logic, even though he sounds like a copycat artist. There’s a clear influence from Kendrick Lamar, Drake and J Cole, but he managed to deliver on all fronts, beating off all of those artists’ contributions this year; even Cole’s latest effort. “Under Pressure” benefits from a hypnotic atmosphere throughout, with “Gang Related” sounding like a Buddhist monk chanting away as Logic unloads a barrel-load of bars. And unload he does, showcasing his ability to rapidly disperse words on “Growing Pains III” – all while pouring his heart in to every line. It’s this heartfelt and oddly nostalgic feeling that lends the album a timeless quality, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is looked back on more fondly in years to come – even more fondly than it already is.
13. Dilated Peoples :: Directors of Photography
Eight years is a long time, but when “Directors of Photography” dropped it was like Evidence, Rakaa and Babu had never left. In all fairness, they hadn’t! Excluding Evidence, the other two may have been less active, but this album proves that Dilated hadn’t lost a step. The massive single “Show Me The Way” showcased that while the mass media may continue to ignore them, Dilated Peoples are still making some of the best hip hop out there; hip hop that will please long-time listeners and new fans alike.
12. Dag Savage (Exile & Johaz) ::E&J
Deep Rooted was a group that was making moves in the underground during the latter half of the 2000s, but despite putting out some strong music, they didn’t really have any memorable or outstanding members. If anybody, it would be the female vocalist (Brea) whose voice was incredibly captivating. Fast forward to 2014, and one of the emcees (Johaz) has teamed up with production extraordinaire Exile, and they managed to meet the high expectations anything with Exile involved, inevitably receives. Johaz sounds great on his own, but it’s Exile once again that proves to be the star of the show.
11. 1978ers (yU & Slimkat) :: People of Today
Mello Music Group just don’t let up, do they? If it’s not another thumping Apollo Brown project, it’s Oddisee dropping another gem. MMG weren’t satisfied letting artists drop albums of such high quality that they took to releasing not one, but two very strong compilations in “Polysonic Flows” and “Today’s Mathematics”. October was a hectic month for hip hop, so I’m not surprised that 1978ers’ “People of Today” was overlooked. It’s a shame, because it’s full of great tracks. There’s a soulful atmosphere to songs like “Without A Clue” and “U Know How It Iz” that aptly summarises the Mello Music brand – it’s albums like this that keep me going. Albums you show to naysayers criticising the state of hip hop. Albums people of today should be listening to.
10. Intuition & Equalibrum :: Intuition & Equalibrum
It’s albums like this self-titled release from producer Equalibrum and emcee Intuition that have convinced me to move towards MP3s over CDs (well, the increasing price of CDs has helped too). I discovered this album via Bandcamp, that hot-bed of hip hop populated by underground mainstays and interesting up-and-comers. What sets this record apart is its remarkable quality that never really drops below excellent. Equalibrum’s production is something to behold – “Ain’t the Blues” packs in suave guitar licks, “Best Fool” is a brutal head-slammer, “Never Going Home” should be on the radio – I could go on and on. Coupled with Intuition’s regular Joe raps and the fact he holds down the whole album on his own without ever getting monotonous, means you’ll be glad to be in the Internet age too. Who needs CDs?
9. Blueprint :: Respect the Architect
Much like J-Live above, you can always rely on Blueprint to deliver quality hip hop. “Respect the Architect” contains some of his finest work, clocking in at a slim 29 minutes, not a minute is wasted. Blueprint remains an emcee you can’t help but enjoy listening to, and given his consistency, one that deserves more respect. The song “Respect the Architect” touches on his battle with alcohol and having his style bitten. “Overdosin'” points out the hypocritical mindset of the hip hop industry. Every track has something to say, and while it may be short, it’s certainly a case of quality over quantity.
8. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib :: Pinata
I wasn’t keen on Freddie Gibbs following the release of “E.S.G.N.”. It felt like another derivative gangsta rap album with average production – and it looks like Freddie aimed to rectify this on “Pinata” because it’s the production from Madlib that takes Freddie from an emcee I would happily overlook, to somebody I’m now a fan of. His subject matter remains the same, entrenched in a lifestyle not too dissimilar to Roc Marciano’s best work, and “Pinata” finds itself in that lofty area of gangsta rap purely because Madlib acts as the perfect complement to Freddie Gibbs. Just as MF Doom would put many to sleep without his (often self-produced) great beats, Freddie turns generic gangsta idioms in to a vivid canvas where his words act as strokes from a paintbrush dipped in the blood of his enemies. Them beats though, THEM BEATS. Madlib can create incredible albums, taking the listener to places – whether it’s the cartoon-ish fantasy land of “Madvillainy” or the modern-day Scarface that is “Pinata”. It’s violent, it’s hedonistic and it’s all very profane, but it’s a world I find myself being absorbed in to.
7. Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark :: Slimkid3 & DJ Nu-Mark
This one’s for the grown-ups. Not because of adult language or “mature themes” (no raps about being a granddad here) but because Slimkid3 and DJ Nu-Mark have just sat down together to make music and ended up crafting something rather special. There’s no 2-bar loops endlessly playing out; songs grow as each second ticks by, all while encompassing the masterful execution we’ve come to expect from DJ Nu-Mark’s work with Jurassic 5. J5 have many fans, but they can be susceptible to corniness at times – not so here. Slimkid3 may look like the gamertag of an annoying Call of Duty player, but is actually a legendary member of The Pharcyde. Slim isn’t an emcee that you’d think could hold down an album on his own, but his playful storytelling is the perfect Yin to Nu-Mark’s Yang. It’s difficult to even pigeonhole this record as an underground favorite (despite being one) because songs like “I Know, Didn’t I” could easily have been chart-toppers.
6. PRhyme (Royce Da 5’9″ & DJ Premier) :: PRhyme
Eleven years after Gang Starr’s final album, DJ Premier has finally released an LP with a lyricist that can live up to Guru’s legacy. All due respect to Freddie Foxxx, Blaq Poet and Big Shug, but Royce Da 5’9″ is a top tier emcee, one that deserves to ply his craft over some of the best production of 2014. Even as a DJ Premier dick-rider, I can admit that for every great beat, there’s a half-finished one that he’s sold to an up and comer. After one listen, this may feel underwhelming due to the different edge that Adrian Younge’s input has on Premier’s beats, but with 10, 20 or 100 listens, the whole project still feels fresh. Royce has packed in some great wordplay (“I call my bullets Expendables, because I can’t believe I squeezed all of those boys in one clip”) and is throwing around some experimental flows like he did five years ago. This record only came out in December, but it already feels timeless.
5. Pharoahe Monch :: P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
I saw Pharoahe in concert last month, and while I knew how good “P.T.S.D.” was, it was when Pharoahe kept dropping track after track from it that I realised how many great tracks it had. The concept isn’t far from his previous LP “W.A.R.”, but the incredibly intricate rhymes and morbid undertones to the production help lend this album an unrivalled atmosphere of gloom and doom. Considering the political and social activities that have occurred in 2014, this album hits that little bit harder, but also throws in playful lines (including an unusual number of soccer metaphors) and the best collaboration of 2014 in “Rapid Eye Movement” alongside The Roots’ Black Thought. Pharoahe is addressing mental health, drug habits and racism through stories, which when seen live (as he adopts different characters) is a treat. It’s a testament to Pharoahe’s talents that this is only his fourth solo album in a career spanning nearly 25 years. When he releases an album, it’s always worth listening to and “P.T.S.D.” is no different.
4. Rapsody :: Beauty and the Beast
Another so called EP that’s longer, and better than many albums released in 2014; “Beauty and the Beast” is a fantastic achievement from Rapsody. The beats are just the right level of dope so as not to overshadow Rapsody’s insightful social commentary – “Hard To Choose” is an important song addressing the largely ignored voice of black women and highlights the difficult decisions (both artistically and financially) young women have to go through when working within the industry. It’s actually hard to choose the best moments, because the production from The Soul Council maintains a consistently strong, mature backdrop for Rapsody to share what’s on her mind. Every track goes hard. Essential.
3. Run the Jewels (Killer Mike & El-P) :: RTJ2
Believe it or not, I didn’t like this album at first. It was typically brash and quirky, just as El-P’s work has always been. He has always been a challenging listen for me, but this is a case of following the hype-train and as I listened more, and the lyrics started to sink in, it all clicked in to place. “RTJ2” is to “Run the Jewels” what Terminator 2 was to The Terminator – it ramped up the action, the hilarious one-liners; all while maintaining the original’s incredible character. El-P can be a handful for some listeners, but Killer Mike is the antidote to El’s complex schemes. Mike sounds even hungrier than he did on the last album, lending a vicious “Ice Cube in ’91” quality to his verses, but it’s the production that’s the highlight here, sounding simultaneously futuristic and throwback in a way that only El-P could pull off.
2. Ugly Heroes (Red Pill, Verbal Kent, Apollo Brown) :: Ugly Heroes EP
While I wouldn’t class Red Pill, Verbal Kent or Apollo Brown as ugly, this EP is a real beauty. They have proven that their self-titled LP last year wasn’t a one-off, with a few leftovers from that album combining with some new material to give us the year’s best EP. Apollo smashes it here, with every beat offering a new twist on a classic soul sample. To turn soft soul in to some of the hardest beats of the year is no mean feat, and Apollo even ignores the soul for “Michael, Scottie and Horace”, implementing a killer M.O.P. quote: “you’ll never be able to understand what we’ve got, son”. It sounds like chemistry to me, lads. I love that Red Pill is eternally pissed off, yet in a friendly, approachable way – Verbal Kent similarly so. None of it feels sinister or overbearing though, it just feels genuine – with Pill even admitting he has been compared to “Brother Ali if he ate sausage”. I won’t agree with that statement, just in case I end up in Pill’s latest rant, but whatever these guys are eating, it’s working.
1. Diamond District (yU, Oddisee, Uptown X.O.) :: March on Washington
We all knew Diamond District were capable of making a great album, but “March on Washington” still caught me by surprise. It’s title suggests a political theme, but it’s less prevalent than you’d think with much of the album spent looking at sociological issues and society as a whole, as well as the state of hip hop music in 2014. Somehow, none of this record sounds as consciously charged as anything I’ve just said – this is an album that oozes hip hop from every second that it plays. Proof if ever it was needed that the genre is capable of growth without losing that original sound we so often label as boom bap or throwback. This is modern hip hop at its best; every song is a must-listen and the production throughout is damn near flawless. It’s a testament to the strength of Oddisee’s work that the Redux version with new beats from the likes of icons such as Diamond D and Large Professor pales in comparison. Mello Music Group have had a strong year, but they’ll have a job topping this – “March on Washington” is a genuine classic and my choice for album of the year.