Happy Holidays/Happy New Year!
As usual around this time of the year, I’m sharing my offering- my write-up of what I think are the top ten hip-hop albums for 2023. Honestly, I almost didn’t think I’d have a complete list by end of the year. Compared to last year, I didn’t feel hit with nearly as many albums this year where the quality was readily apparent. Thankfully, things work out in the end as I was able to round out my list in time for its annual presentation. As always, give it a read and leave your thoughts and ideas. Excelsior!
Album Title: Czartificial Intelligence
Label: Silver Age Records
Release Date: December 1st, 2023
Producers: The Czar-Keys
A Czarface album is what happens when rappers who also happen to be comic book nerds put their heads together. For a decade now, the trio of Inspectah Deck, 7L & Esoteric have been peppering their raps with a broad spectrum of all things nerdom. It’s like if hip-hop were one giant San Diego Comic-Con. Such topics in the hands of less capable rappers would be a laughable disaster. But luckily, Esoteric and the Rebel INS have chemistry. Granted, there’s nothing innovative about a Czarface album. Topically, the raps don’t stray too far from the nest and the production, courtesy of the Czar-Keys (7L and Spada4), has not grown out of its MF DOOM influence. But nonetheless, a Czarface album remains a fun listen. It’s not gangsta rap, trap music, drill, or even really boom-bap. It’s hardcore east coast hip-hop by rappers who aren’t shy about putting their nerd proclivities on full display.
“Czartificial Intelligence” is the ninth official album from the group, one that isn’t a collaboration with other rap artists (such as DOOM or Ghostface). One of the album’s earliest tracks, “Blast Off”, shows why the Esoterdactyl and Deck work well together. They’re not doing tag-team rhymes, but rather spitting braggadocious rhymes which, while crafted different, are stand juxtaposed equally to one another. As far as guest rappers go, the trio includes Kool Keith, Logic, and Nems. The FYL emcee guest stars on the menacing “You Know My Style” where Deck drops the heavy lyrical load quick with Nems’ Coney Island grime bookending it. The comic book tropes shine throughout the album: From the album cover paying homage the X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” to Eso’s conceptual solo tracks “Mama’s Basement” and “Marvel at That (Road Trip)”. Personally, Diabolic’s “Marvel” is the best topical Marvel track ever, but Esoteric holds his own in terms of rapping ability and comic knowledge.
Though I’ve made mention of this in many related reviews, I’m going to include it here as well: Virtually all hip-hop artists have a soft spot for comic books and their heroes and villains. At their base, both cultures involve having alter-egos with accompanying name-changes. They’re both perceived at times as silly and for boys (they kind of are, and that’s coming from a 40-year-old man who’s been happily immersed in both for most of his life). But they also have the power to fascinate: One does so visually, the other does so sonically. Like most Czarface releases, what makes “Czartificial Intelligence” a fun listen is its unabashed combining of the two.
Album Title: So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Release Date: May 5th, 2023
The title of the latest Atmosphere album can be summed up in one word: Multiverse. The idea that every decision, large and small, creates a branching, parallel universe. Supposedly, there are countless universes out there, which implies that anything is possible. For example: Aside from the relatively recent Felt album, I had grown bored with the Minneapolis rap duo Atmosphere and haven’t gave any of their newer releases a listen since 2019. I thought I wouldn’t do so again, until now. What got me into Atmosphere during college was Slug’s down-to-earth everyman approach as an emcee, delivering what was derisively referred to as “emo-rap”. As for Ant? His ability to flip dope samples into interesting beats (not to mention how his approach has evolved greatly) made him a favorite since the duo’s fourth album. With the release of “So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously” (or “SMORES” for short), interest in the duo has been renewed.
Slug’s at his best when spinning narratives about relatable topics: Family, dive bar waitresses, young volatile couples, alcoholism, among others. He sometimes does so with a wry humor and some level of self-deprecation. But the duo likes to have fun in their albums too, without the introspection. The track “Talk Talk” has ‘80s synth-pop production and is a direct reference to an ‘80s pop group of the same name. Also, usually there are little to no guest stars on an Atmosphere album. However, the few they brought on for this album came correct, especially and particularly D.C. rapper Sa-Roc. She reigns over the syrupy melancholic piano keys of “After Tears”. The Gil Scott-Heron sampling “Positive Space” has a deep bass groove and bluesy bass/guitar that reminds me of traditional Atmosphere.
“Still Life” features Murkage Dave and his high-pitched crooning gives it a Pharrell Williams kind of vibe. The album closer “Alright (Okay Reprise)” is little over a minute and feels more like an interlude. However, on the penultimate track, “Sculpting with Fire”, Slug brings the album home full-circle with his closing lines “Let’s bring it back to the original topic / It’s a graham-cracker, marshmallow, and some chocolate” as a slick reference to the album’s abbreviated title. Because the other Atmosphere albums released in the past four years didn’t reach me in the right circumstances or situation in my life, that is probably what prevented me from enjoying them. As experimental as “SMORES” is in many parts, it was enough to bring a fan back into the fold of enjoyment and support.
Artist: Lloyd Banks
Album Title: The Course of the Inevitable 3: Pieces of My Pain
Label: Money in the Bank/EMPIRE
Release Date: April 21st, 2023
Producers: CartuneBeatz, George Getson, Haas Almahdi, V Don, and Tha Jerm
There must be something in the air making Queens rappers come out with their own series of installment albums in the past few years. Between Lloyd Banks and Nas, their respective “Course of the Inevitable” and “King’s Disease” (“Magic” too) albums have been top-notch releases. But while Nas has greater output and is near-lyrically impeccable as expected, Banks is the greater surprise. He’s grown beyond G-Unit into his own and, to symbolize his growth, the “COTI” album covers feature his son and show his progression. It’s similar to the Richard Linklater film “Boyhood.” With “The Course of the Inevitable 3: Pieces of My Pain”, Banks gives the listener a clear glimpse into his introspections and motivations through well-crafted rhymes.
To be clear, the second “COTI” installment remains the best of the three. However, “Pieces of My Pain” is a strong release in a year of mostly so-so albums. In a sense, Banks lampshades my own assessment of his series in the album’s title-track when he raps “Heard that third time is the charm, here’s the pieces of my pain.” The dearth of guest artists on this release might be telling to some, but Banks was rather economic with his approach, which appeared to be “less is more.” Having heavyweights like Cormega, 38 Spesh, and Method Man on a sixteen-track album leaves more room for Banks to do his thing. Though of the three, it’s Mr. Meth who brings the heat with his verse on “101 Razors”. The man just improves as time progresses; rapping is like breathing to him at this point.
Frequent collaborator CartuneBeatz reappears here and produces nearly half of the album. In the future, Banks should do a full album entirely produced by CartuneBeatz as he’s painted some of the best soundscapes for the former to rap over in the past few years. He can go from smooth to NYC grimy boom-bap at the drop of a hat, which isn’t an issue for Banks as there hasn’t been a beat on his album that he can’t ride. Though some tracks have commercial appeal (like the melodically somber “Voices”) and Banks is no stranger to that, it’s not what he appears to be aiming for. As he cleverly raps, “Some things you gotta accept, even decline”, he may be turning down record sales, but not growth. His rap skills haven’t declined in the least, and “COTI3” makes this listener eager for a part four.
Artists: eLZhi x Oh No
Album Title: Heavy Vibrato
Label: Nature Sounds
Release Date: December 1st, 2023
Producer: Oh No
The name of this album literally translates to “massive changes.” For a technically gifted rapper like eLZhi, that’s a relatively simple task. The Detroit emcee has done full albums with Khrysis, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and JR Swiftz behind the boards. His latest offering, “Heavy Vibrato”, is no exception. This time, west coast producer and Madlib sibling Oh No fully takes the position of the sole beatsmith. His sample-based production style works well with eLZhi’s lyrically-oriented style. The fact that eLZhi has a concentration on crafting well-written rhymes has been something of an Achilles’ heel in hip-hop for a long while now. But he bets on himself as he raps on “Trick Dice”.
One thing with the Slum Village rapper is that he’s never short on imaginative concepts: He once rapped an entire song from the point-of-view of the song itself. On “Heavy Vibrato”, he employs that customary party trick more than once. Over the moody bass-laden “RIP (Radio International Programming)”, he and fellow Detroit emcee Guilty Simpson lament what they see as a further death of hip-hop via record executives, artificial intelligence, and even the advent of OnlyFans. On “Bishop”, he takes the role of 2Pac’s character of the same name from the hood classic “Juice”, complete with Oh No adding the sounds of the city such as gunshots, moving cars, people, subway transportation, etc. He also incorporates the added element of shifting production during tracks, such as going from a looped sample to full-fledged drums and layered samples on “Smoke”.
eLZhi is clearly a pensive rapper, one who emphasizes having multisyllabic rhyme schemes, wordplay, and imagination that goes against type, even for underground hip-hop. On “Twilight Zone”, he crosses listeners over into his world with quite the detailed surreal narrative. The final track, “Last Nerve”, is relatable about common inconveniences, be it the inabilities or behavior of others. In twelve tracks, “Heavy Vibrato” packs quite the lyrical punch. Though I consider “Lead Poison” to be eLZhi’s best album, his latest collaborative album provides a comparable listening experience.
Artist: Beneficence x Jazz Spastiks
Album Title: Summer Night Sessions
Label: Ill Adrenaline Records
Release Date: October 20th, 2023
Producers: The Jazz Spastiks
Mostly composed during the heights of the pandemic, Newark, NJ-based rapper Beneficence is Michael Jordan in a sense. Not in terms of greatness, but because he also plays for the team he owns. The founder of Ill Adrenaline Records has teamed up with U.K. production duo known as the Jazz Spastiks to share an album which lives up to its titular season. The Jazz Spastiks also live up to their chosen name, providing a sonic canvass with elements of a smooth jazz improv session. Admittedly, I was first put on to both the rapper and producers around the time this album was released. With jazz-rap being in the air, you’d think A Tribe Called Quest would be here (and they are, in sampled spirit anyway). On the Skyzoo-assisted “The Boom”, the Spastiks include a Q-Tip vocal sample for good measure.
Musically, there’s as much hypnotic zoning out as there is head nodding. On the “Check 1 2” instrumental interlude, this listener was provoked into making that mean-mug “taking-a-strenuous-dump” facial expression when hearing those thumping snares, jazz horns, and DJ scratching. For the next track, Beneficence reaches all the way from Jersey to Cali. Rakaa Iriscience from Dilated Peoples makes a Black Thought-esque verse on the awfully funk-driven “Man Vs Machine”. As an emcee, Beneficence doesn’t act with any thug posturing, mainstream mumble rap, or clichéd complicated rhymes (i.e. “miracle, spiritual with clerical and lethal while lyrical”). He writes with substance and thought, and rocks a mic like summer park jam session as opposed to say, Def Poetry Jam.
On “Rhymin’ Teknicians”, Beneficence is joined by fellow Brick City rapper and Artifacts survivor El Da Sensei. The track sort of reminds me of Nas’ “Halftime” because of the production. The airy boom-bap of the first single “Wicked & Wild” fits right for Doodlebug of Digable Planets to rap over, showing his lyrical styles and disdain for culture vultures alongside Beneficence. The title-track features Kid Abstrakt & Shabaam Sahdeeq and has layered and looped jazz samples which gives the music an organic feel. The last verse encapsulates Beneficence’s tropes as an emcee: A multi-faceted emcee who wants to translate his talent into generational wealth and to keep himself out of the politics of the street. Overall, “Summer Night Sessions” is grown-man hip-hop. It has the youthful appeal of hip-hop, but its tranquil vibe makes it adult contemporary for the genre.
Album Title: Adultish
Label: Substantial Art & Music
Release Date: July 14th, 2023
Maryland emcee Substantial has grown, and please pardon the lame dad pun, substantially. Not just in terms of trading in his dreadlocks and babyface for short hair and patches of grey, but his rap style as well. Fifteen to twenty years ago, he was primarily a punchline rapper, with him and his Extended F@mm brethren writing rhymes to wow listeners and destroy opponents. Granted, hip-hop is competition, but its youthful aspect often ventures into sophomoric territory. His fifth studio album is aptly titled “Adultish”. It isn’t just a one-word statement about his personal life, but one with a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect: He’s no longer an unrefined emcee, but he’s not yet occupying the role of his full potential either. Though considering his role in the hip-hop advocacy organization Words Beats & Life, Inc., he’s getting closer as we speak.
“Adultish” was entirely produced by Substantial himself, a strong departure from his usual enlistment of beatsmiths (Tonedeff, Algorythm, The Other Guys, et. al.). While he’s evolved as a rapper, he can still dazzle a listener with his multis and metaphors. On the opening track, “Reed Richards”, he kicks knowledge coupled with wordplay in lines such as “Slept on by the masses til I left a few with rubbernecks / Took a swing at rapping and I sent it to the Upper Deck.” On “Per Diem 2.0” he raps alongside Philly underground emcee Mega Ran about having self-respect as a rapper with no regrets, even with the oft-times low returns. Substantial cleverly raps that he’s been “undervalued by the overrated”, and that’s only given him motivation to progress. The album contains several interludes, but “The Beautiful Dichotomy” is the one which actually defines the album title.
His QN5 Music connections remain intact as labelhead/musician Tonedeff makes an appearance, albeit only on the “Acknowledgement” interlude, but still. “Ghost In A Cell” has samples mixed with live instrumentation, and is probably the most introspective track on the whole album. With “Adultish”, the rapper born Stanley Robinson is further coming into his own as an artist. The fact that the album was self-produced makes Substantial a double threat now. The interludes actually tie the album together and inform the listener, though they’re usually filler material for lengthy albums, “Adultish” is less than 40 minutes long, however. I wouldn’t say that Substantial is a ‘grown-up’ here, but “Adultish” does carry a heavy-helping of maturity.
Artists: El Michels Affair x Black Thought
Album Title: Glorious Game
Label: Big Crown Records
Release Date: April 14th, 2023
Producer: El Michels Affair
Last year, Roots front man Black Thought found himself on most critics’ best-of/end-of-year review list (mine too) with his critically acclaimed collaboration with Danger Mouse entitled “Cheat Codes”. The critical darling was like a masterclass in hip-hop emceeing and producing, and an example of what happens when both are blended well evenly into one another. For 2023, he’s repeated the same formula, but not with Danger Mouse. This time, El Michels Affair earned the sole production credit. The Leon Michels-helmed Brooklyn-based group has known Black Thought for a while and have thrown their paint onto the canvass for BT to put his words over. Black Thought is one of those rappers who consistently refines his crafts, so when he drops an album or just a verse, the word “disappointment” is nowhere to be found. “Glorious Game” is no exception to that standard.
The album features three singles and opens with the lead single “Grateful”. Black Thought wastes no time in letting his raps assault the listeners’ ears and EMA’s production is a mix of live instruments and sampled ones. The title-track’s music video is akin to a surreal dream sequence from 2018’s “Black Panther” feature film while the track’s music takes on a neo-soul vibe. Meanwhile, “That Girl” is a narrative about elusive love with the accompanying music video being entirely comprised of footage from a 1976 French short film. Though EMA doesn’t have Danger Mouse’s penchant for utilizing quirky samples, they can still craft a psychedelic soundscape for Black Thoughts lyricism which is as varies as the production he’s been rapping over.
Other album standouts include “Hollow Way”, “Protocol”, and “The Weather”. The first begins with haunting shrieks before the lo-fi snares drop. “Protocol” features Son Litlle with surreal sonic elements interspersed throughout. As for the latter, it’s a soulful and nostalgic revisiting of summers long past. Philly’s native son, Black Thought’s improves his capabilities on every release. Whether he’s just rapping some straight stream-of-consciousness lyrics are waxing conceptually, he’s a master of his craft.
Artist: Killer Mike
Album Title: Michael
Label: VLNS/Loma Vista
Release Date: June 16th, 2023
Producers: No I.D., Cool & Dre, El-P, Beat Butcha, Tec Beats, et. al.
At this point, it’s hard to separate Killer Mike as a solo artist. True, he began as one, but he’s been part of the Run the Jewels duo for so long (more than a decade, in fact) that some have forgotten what a solo project from the ATL rapper would look like. Even his last solo album, 2012’s “R.A.P. Music”, was something of a precursor to the RTJ period considering El-P produced the entirety of it. This time, there’s less over-the-top shit-talking and a return to his southern roots. With “Michael”, there’s also a dichotomy that’s evident from both the album title and cover: “Michael” is both his name and an angelic one, the latter appearing as a halo juxtaposed with devil horns superimposed over a younger Killer Mike’s childhood school picture. This was an album of fresh air in 2023 and unexpectedly soulful AF.
The opening tracks, “Down By Law” and “Shed Tears, have live organs mixed with 808 drum programming. Over both, Mike mixes humor and social commentary into his raps which are delivered with a customary southern flow. The lead single “Run” is also categorized by this. Comedian and uber hip-hop fan Dave Chappelle provides a motivational intro before the deep bass and gospel horns drop. Young Thug also kicks a verse to help Mike “run” across that southern red clay. The last two mentioned tracks were produced by No I.D., and though I’m more accustomed to seeing his name associated with a Common album, he tinges the three beats provided for Mike on this album with some southern fried soul. The other guest rappers include Ty Dolla Sign, Curren$y, El-P, and even André 3000.
“Michael” is a largely personal album. True, Mike is no stranger to rapping about societal ills and racial issues, he delves into his own life as well. “Motherless” is an ode to his deceased mother and on “Something For Junkies”, he raps about substance abuse users, including ones within his family. The production is mostly marked by gospel influence, giving the album something a “take it to church” feel. “Don’t Let the Devil”, which features and is produced by El-P, falls in with that sound and surprisingly doesn’t delve into El’s usual futuristic style of beats. Capped off with the closer “High & Holy”, Mike ends his album with content full of relatable material conveyed via well-written raps.
Artist: Rasheed Chappell
Album Title: Sugar Bills
Label: Perfect Time Music Group
Release Date: September 15th, 2023
Producer: The Arcitype
Though many hip-hop producers have their own trademark style, a major component that makes them good at their jobs is knowing the artists for whom they’re crafting sounds. The Boston-based beatsmith known as the Arcitype has proven his versatility within and without his native city. From helming the entirety of Slaine’s “One Day” in 2020 to now providing beats for New Jersey emcee Rasheed Chappell in the form of “Sugar Bills.” Filled with well-chosen samples to create an appropriate backdrop for the dope game, Chappell’s lyrics are detailed crime dramas from the perspectives of both spectator and participant. The first track “Mascots” is built from deep bass and piano samples with solid bars about urban warfare laid on top.
Street tales and crime narratives aren’t new in hip-hop, though the sub-genre has received something of a resurgence in popularity in recent years courtesy of coke rhymers such Pusha T., Freddie Gibbs, and the Griselda Records roster. Rasheed Chappell’s take on it is reminiscent of AZ, with comparable rhyme schemes and the vivid facets of his lyrics. Rasheed seems to have one foot in the streets and the other foot in the lavish lifestyle resulting from it. On “Lullaby”, which contains several samples and references to 1991’s “New Jack City”, he raps about expensive items while still having a direct hand in street-level dealing. “Lucifer in the Candlelight” is the album’s best track, with its deep bass and brooding horn samples to give it an overall neo-noir urban crime atmosphere.
It’s isn’t all about crime, however. With 2023 being the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Chappell pays proper tribute on “1520”, referencing the street number of the very address where the genre was born. “Keep On Shining” has Jasmine Lopez on the hook with similar radio potential to “Feel It In The Air” by Beanie Sigel. What keeps some audiences fascinated with fictional urban crime is that it’s a different world than what they’re used to. It’s why there were so many White boys bumping Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” back in the ‘90s and why Black audiences are enamored with shows such as “Power” and “BMF” in the present. Rasheed Chappell has the imagination and the right producer to provide his own dope raps. “Sugar Bills”? It’s testament to his cleverness given its reference to both revenue raising and the prevailing lyrical topic.
Artists: Skyzoo x The Other Guys
Album Title: The Mind of a Saint
Label: HipNOTT Records
Release Date: January 13th, 2023
Producers: The Other Guys
Of all the albums included on this list, this one had the earliest release. That holds significance because Skyzoo’s “The Mind of a Saint” held the crown as the best hip-hop album of the year for me, even in the face of the subsequent releases of comparable quality. Going hand-in-hand with the album’s deliberate cinematic aspects, hearing the album initially was like going to the theater to see a movie sans prior knowledge of it. For me, the results of both experiences were the same: I enjoyed them. A concept album, “The Mind of a Saint” has Skyzoo stepping into the shoes of a fictional character: Franklin Saint from the FX series “Snowfall” which ended earlier this year.
Giving the concept further thought gives way to a certain bi-coastal/trans-Atlantic connection: Skyzoo is New York emcee rapping from the point-of-view of a teenage South Central L.A. drug dealer brought to life on screen by a Black English actor (Damson Idris). But that musing aside, the album was released prior to the end of series. In light of the finale, it puts the album’s narrative in a new perspective. This should now be seen as Franklin prior to his ultimate fate. Take the boom-bap piano sampling “Bodies!” where Sky raps Franklin’s rationalizations of the murders he’s caused. Compared to his ending, he’s more mentally free there than he is here. As the track’s hook states, “it makes you breathe different, don’t it?” The jazzy “Eminent Domain” is also a stand-out track which falls under this new view.
The one track that coincides with the series finale is the album closer “Purity” for its similar anti-drug commentary. Skyzoo is clearly a fan of the series and studied it enough to be able to rap an entire album as Franklin Saint with such detail. I mean, talk about acting. He’s a relentless emcee with no-frills, but copious imagination brought to life with his rhymes. With the varied production the D.C.’s The Other Guys, “The Mind of a Saint” is hip-hop’s most vivid listening experience of 2023.