2013 was a strong year for Hip-Hop music, but you wouldn’t know that from mainstream media. The same players were afforded the spotlight, with Kendrick Lamar added to the list as a faux underdog. Jay-Z unleashed a marketing scheme the likes of which we’d never seen before (what else is new) but delivered a lyrically underwhelming overhyped work with Magna Carta: Holy Grail.
Eminem dropped a lyrically strong but thematically weak album with his follow-up, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, which was also omnipresent in its marketing, gracing a cover of an Iron Man comic book and tethering its release with that of the latest iteration of the Call of Duty game series along with an appearance hosting Saturday Night Live.
Pacific Northwest indie rapper Macklemore was the new darling of mainstream media. With his melodic hooks courtesy of Ryan Lewis and his songs supporting gay marriage and eschewing of bling, Macklemore was used as a tool to demonize Hip-Hop and cast the genre as civilize while he was posed as another white rapper who “isn’t like the others.” It’s shameful because the guy does actually have talent, but in no way did his material cover any new ground in rap.
Techn9ne also represented the indie sector strong with yet another high selling, dope album, Something Else. The album was perhaps his most balanced and nuanced work, as most of his albums are generally made strictly for his hardcore fans and feature non-stop rapid fire rhymes. Something else featured a host of guests from various corners of music Big K.R.I.T., The Doors, Serj Tankian, Cee-Lo and Wiz Khalifa among others.
Drake delivered once again with his trademark blend of superior song-writing, deft, understated lyricism and sublime melody with Nothing Was The Same. The album featured a much more minimalist approach from a production standpoint and was more a total work versus individual hit singles
Kanye delivered perhaps the most polarizing mainstream album with Yeezus. Before Beyonce got all the credit from dropping a seemingly out of nowhere album, Kanye dropped Yeezus with little more than a few video projections on buildings around the world and a performance of a couple songs on Saturday night Live. The album doesn’t even have a jacket with art. We’ll get to some of these later. Without further ado, we present the Top ten Hip-Hop albums of 2013.
Honorable Mention: Johnny Polygon -The Nothing
You ever wonder how Drake’s music would sound if he was hard on these hoes and not a strip club rain man? Look no further than Johnny Polygon. He’s not as talented as Drake, but he’s way cooler and someone you can imagine yourself hanging out with. His work, The Nothing is a walk through relationships with full disclosure that he’s a piece of shit guy who does may or may not love you, will probably cheat on you and is out drinking when he told you he was visiting his mom, but he’s a good guy.
Johhny’s falsetto is a weird Clockwork Orange sound, and thankfully there isn’t much of it on the album. He’s got a self-deprecating arrogance borne of being aware of who he is and being unapologetic for it. The arrangements on the album contain elements of Hip-Hop, Trance, Rock and R&B, all of which find themselves comfortable sitting at the same table. Woah Is Me draws those elements together properly with a proper melodic delivery, if not the vocal chops to nail it. But that awkward, regular dude singing is part of the charm of the album. Brain Powder is something you could never imagine a Drake doing thematically. He doesn’t have the machismo for it. But Johnny pulls it off.
The Nothing isn’t for everyone. I can certainly see someone turning this album on and going dude, what the fuck are you talking about. But it is different as fuck and has the moxie to pull it off. I rate it. Deal with it.
10.) Aceyalone – Leaning On Slick
Hip-Hop is supposedly music for young people but what happens when you get older? Can you abandon culture that raised you, particularly when the fire still burns within you? Aceyalone, veteran of Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed, along with an accomplished solo career decided to just tailor the music for his age group and dropped the decidedly dope Leaning On Slick for the mature Hip-Hop crowd.
Leanin On Slick is driven by live, jazzy instruments and melody as well as Aceyalone’s malleable flow, which vascillates between traditional rap flows, to jazzy scat rhythms and spoken word deliveries. Aceyalone’s body of work is full of startling lyricism but he doesn’t waste any time on this album trying to mentally astound the listener. He focuses on the songwriting and balance and the album is much better for it.
Leanin On Slick is possessed of a simple sophistication that is made effective by its avoidance of contemporary Hip-Hop trends. There is no attempt at the radio song or the club song or the posse cut or any existing Hip-Hop tropes. The album doesn’t waste energy justifying its existence or undermining those aforementioned tropes. Lean, people.
9.) No Malice – Hear Ye Him
No Malice was one half of one of the most critically acclaimed groups in Hip-Hop and a quarter of one of the best mixtape groups in rap history. And one day, like Saul of Tarsus he was struck from a bolt and decided to turn from the devil and join the ranks of the righteous. Not in a Mason Betha escape from NY way, but a genuine conversion. Last year, his book Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind & Naked went a long way towards delivering his truth and laying down the proof that his conversion wasn’t flippant. This year he returned to the mic to drop perhaps the most challenging rap album of 2013 with Hear Ye Him.
The principal challenge of a positive rap album is avoiding the soapbox and the corn that comes with righteousness. No Malice avoids this through strong production, guest appearances from both Pusha T and Ab Livah, and a willingness to draw his line in the sand, even with brother Terrance. There is no profanity but it’s not all sweet. No Malice speaks of the evils that men do, not with a wagging finger, but with a sinner’s remorse that serves to draw you in rather than repulse you with shame. The Lord said be fishers of men. It seems No Malice has found the hook.
8.) Marco Polo- PA 2: The Director’s Cut
Canadian Hip-Hop is in full effect as producer Marco Polo assembled a cabal of rappers to execute his vision of a Hip-Hop album. Already on the map with full length works with Brooklyn emcee Torae and the previous edition under his belt, PA 2: The Director’s Cut brought together emcees from all walks of rap life.
For the trapped in the nineties cats, there was an Organized Konfusion reunion on 3 O Clock, Astonishing, featuring Large Professor, Inspektah Deck, O.C. and Tragedy, and the closing note Glory which featured Masta Ace, Posdnous, and AG. Both old and new West coast is represented as MC Eiht and King Tee represented on West Coast Love while Malcolm & Martin get busy on Emergency Man. Need some lady rap in your life? Rah Digga got you covered on Earrings Off.
For Marco Polo’s part, the beats are traditional boom bap, with each beat fitting it’s selected emcee/emcees perfectly. The key to this album, especially with its 80 minute run time is the beat variation and the ebb and flow of energy. PA2 never gets bogged down with no-name rappers as most songs featuring lesser known acts are followed by a familiar face.
7.) Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
While Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean get the most headlines from Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt delivers the most consistent bars in the entire group. His gruff, even tenor packs a punch and Doris bangs front to back with no bridges, hooks, or R&B singers (even Ocean’s guest appearance is rhymed). Just beats and bars. Every single one of his guests from Domo Genesis, to Tyler to Vince Staples delivers.
That the album was mostly self-produced adds to the win quotient of Doris. There are slickly chosen samples, crisp arrangements and a concerted effort to stay away from the slick and flashy pop sound that dominated rap records of the last few years. Cosigns and additional production came from RZA and Pharrell Williams on Burgundy and Molasses, respectively, cementing the importance of Doris.
Earl gives you subtle looks into the fractured mind the forced his parents to send him to a Samoan boarding school. Little lines like “like to give a shout to the fathers that didn’t raise us” illustrate a depth that goes beyond cats just rhyming. True grit is delivered on tracks like the Casey Veggie-guested Hive. Doris is short on pyrotechnics and long on well-delivered, intricate rhymes. While the tempo is generally the same throughout the rhyme schemes vary from song to song. Doris is a well done foray into the mind of Earl Sweatshirt who shares his pain without needing a tissue. Decidedly anti-establishment.
6.) A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP
It’s been a while since Harlem was represented with such aplomb. The ASAP Mob brings that youthful energy that hasn’t been seen since Dipset and front man ASAP Rocky dropped an early bomb with his debut. Gone were all the purple-hazed Houstonisms that colored his early mixtapes and videos and in their place stood an album comprised of star guest appearances, strong production and varied deliveries that belied anything he delivered before.
Long Live A$AP had gritty, old school posse cuts (1 Train), radio ready joints (Fuckin’ Problems) commercial tracks (Goldie, featured in Adidas “Quick Ain’t Fair” campaign) and even songs that straddle lines of Illuminati anthems (LVL and album opener Long Live A$AP). Such a leap usually indicates the importation of writing teams so I’ll reserve credit for emceeing but as a work, this album had pretty much all of its bases covered with legit mainstream guest appearances and dope rhymes, even if there is shit you have to decipher and a ton of fashion designer references that old cats like me give less than a fuck about. It bangs hard.
5.)Black Milk – No Poison No Paradise
A few years ago, Black Milk was the emcee on the Random Axe album that they hid because his bars were solid but unspectacular; the rhyme version of a shower singer. Fast forward to No Poison No paradise and not only has Black Milk stabilized his bars, but he has added more layers to his production. At a time when Hip-Hop’s sound is getting more digital than analog, Black Milk added instruments and orchestral arrangements to his repertoire with brilliant results.
There are still elements of Dilla in Black Milk’s DNA but his understanding of rhythm and melody has increased significantly. Look no further than the many moving parts of his intro, Interpret Sabotage. The strings and background Congo drums guide the rhythm along with the distorted bassline and the ebb and flow if his flow with the changing pace was something he just wasn’t capable of before. Work has definitely been done.
Black Thought drops by on Codes & Cab Fare introduces a narrative element that continues throughout the album that conjures crisp visuals. Black Thought serves as character actor, switching his Philly vet status for that of a repentant Detroit street soldier. The vroom of the cab and the vocal samples add commotion and substance to the track. The sublime Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst combo is the highlight of the album and something to make you laugh when you hear people bitching about the state of Hip-Hop.
4.) Skyzoo X Antman Wonder – An Ode To reasonable Doubt
I waffled over including this record because it has an inherent advantage: It is built on the shoulders of an established classic. With that head start, I could not justify giving this album the top spot. I will however say that this album was the best listening experience I enjoyed from Hip-Hop this year. I still have my original Reasonable Doubt CD, emblazoned with Mr. Freeze records, not DefJam. I connected with that album on a primal level and to hear Skyzoo deconstruct this album was truly wonderful.
Jay-Z intended his album for a specific population. What Skyzoo has done is transfer the target from the hustler to the common man, making it infinitely more relatable. The essence of the original is wholly respected, but no lyrics are repeated and the song concepts are reworked to fit 2013. Cristal references give way to Ace of Spades [the only way Cristal could be replaced by that bastard Champagne] but the Range Rover 4.6 remains.
An Ode To Reasonable Doubt is efficient at nine tracks thankfully with no attempt to recreate Ain’t No Nigga and unfortunately no attempt at trying to update 22 Twos and Cashmere Thoughts. Composer Antman Wonder has delivered an orchestral masterpiece with strings and stadium level drums and wind instruments all in conjunction that breathe new life into a 17 year old concept. Enough of the original concepts are retained so that you know the inspiration. Samples are replayed and reworked and vocalists like Mary J Blige are replaced.
At this stage in their careers, Skyzoo is a better songwriter than Jay-Z was during Reasonable Doubt and as a result, his story isn’t as densely packed or in need of decoding, but doesn’t want for lyricism or complexity. An Ode To Reasonable Doubt has taken a classic that has aged and distilled it to a more timeless vintage. Think You Can Hang, featuring the triumvirate of Skyzoo, Torae and Sha Stimuli is fantastic lyrically and living proof that there are emcees today that can hang with the best of the rappers those trapped in the 90’s cats can’t let go of. It was available for free and I bought it. That’s all you need to know.
3.) Oddisee – Tangible Dreams
If you are looking for serious emceeing and top-notch production, look no further than the DMV and perhaps the best producer/rapper in the Hip-Hop today, Oddisee. His latest work, Tangible Dreams delivered hard-hitting, weighty lyricism that was profound, yet simple enough to digest.
The album is a testament to how far hip-Hop has advanced but how little real rap matters in the general zeitgeist. Oddisee isn’t a flash in the pan but a consistent performer whose beats lend in-house strength to his Melo Music Group and whose rhymes can stand up to just about anyone rhyming today.
He opens the track Yeezus Was A Mortal Man with “I been in this game for years…it made me intelligent/stupid niggas fade into irrelevance I’m permanently settled like melanin Adamantium skeletons,” giving a nod to Biggie and Wolverine while hipping you to the fact that these labels are not pushing anything healthy to the masses. The melodic repetition of Killing Time lulls you to sleep, only for you to be gripped by a rapid fire flow. Oddisee rhymes, “I never been to Howard and I didn’t wish I had and I wasn’t on the ave and I wasn’t in a class, but I was in the lab turning music in to math.” Indeed
I can quote lines form the album all day but you really need to check it out for yourselves. If not for the breadth of emotion or the social resonance of Yeezus and Nothing Was The Same, Tangible Dreams would be my pick for album of the year, complete with the best posse cut of the year, Bonus Flow, featuring his Diamond District brethren. “Oddisee better than Kanye, too.” Yeah man. With each release, it’s not only a tangible dream but a defensible position.
2.) West: Yeezus
Coming off the pretentious excess that was Watch The Throne and the group release that was Cruel Summer, Kanye West put on the coat of a different color with the masterful Yeezus. Kanye took the production back to Hip-Hops first elements, with elements of old Euro electric music and aural contributions from Daft Punk doing their best Trans Europe Express impression. All save the closing note, Bound 2, are a departure from the traditional Ye we had grown accustomed to seeing.
Black Skinhead is delivered with the all the vitriol of a handcuffed junkie foaming at the mouth for a hit. The track mixes stadium pep with a heart pounding, heavy-breathed manic energy that flat-out gets you ready to go. The bone-chilling monotone guest appearance of driller King Louie is the perfect flow for the reggae-powered blaring horns of Send It Up. New Slaves encapsulates so many issues that have affected America with its rich n***a/broke n***a racism framing.
The towering pièce de résistance is undoubtedly Blood On The Leaves. Kanye melds the most powerful protest song of all time with one of the most savage club songs ever and takes it back to the ‘Nolia with sublime results. The piano serves as a poignant touchstone that draws in the emotion from the chopped up vocals of Strange Fruit. For my money it’s up there with Jesus Walks as Mr. West’s most sonically potent, poignant number.
At the height of his commercial powers, Kanye turned in a protest album that critics loved and regular fans hated. Some of the moves he’s recently made detract from the overall message delivered by Yeezus and gnaws away at its tonal authenticity, but here we only judge the albums. While Drake probably dropped the best mainstream album, Yeezus was probably the year’s most culturally potent.
#1.) Drake: Nothing Was The Same
How do you follow up a strong, near classic album when the internet is full of memes making fun or your sensitivity? You drop a devastating album that forces listeners into your world, featuring the anthem of the year with single Started From The Bottom, the club anthem of the year with the non-rapping Hold On, We’re Going Home, and a minimalist, revelatory masterpiece that was thisclose to perfect. He shares the cost of fame and gives you a look into a life that was not rosy, despite his Degrassi fame and even puts his family issues on front for listeners to relate to.
There is the arrogance of an emcee who realizes that he is perhaps the best mainstream rapper, aligned with the vulnerability that so many rappers cover with the armor of bravado. Drake cements his status as a heavy hitter and covers more ground musically than any other rap album this year. There was the highly protested but succinctly deft Wu-Tang Forever, the anthemic Worst Behaviour and the melancholic Too Much. More than anything, Noah dialed back the underwater production and not many things sounded the same on Nothing Was The Same. Drake even coaxed two verses out of Jay-Z better than anything on his own album on Pound Cake/Paris Morton music.
Nothing Was The Same is proof of Drake’s staying power. He had essentially the same opening week numbers as Eminem, without the immense marketing budget and managed to rock speakers, whips and clubs with the same ferocity. It’s okay. You can buy it and blame it on your babe, but on your way to the gym or to the club make sure you turn that shit up to ten and blast it.
Verse Of The Year:
Tyler the Creator’s Verse on Pigs
We took their heads but we just took back what they took from us… I guess we lost ours. Music had nothing to do with my final decision, I just really wanted somebody to come pay me attention. Nobody would listen…but stuffed animals that I had since I was a kid but I’m growing up so they’re missing… I didn’t mean to hurt anybody I’m sorry, I wouldn’t hurt a fly, I considered joining the army. I’m forever angry, Roger Rabbit framed me. Momma I’m the same kid that you made, see? I don’t want to go to jail, I just want to go home and I want those fucking kids at school to just leave me alone
Though this verse flew beneath the radar, and most Hip-Hoppers dismiss all things Odd Future as gimmickry. Tyler The Creator managed to capture the mindframe of the bullied with such clarity that you wonder if there isn’t some personal truth in this verse. You almost feel sorry for any kid compelled to take matters into their own hands despite how far they take it. Yes Kendrick’s verse set the rap world on fire and brought back a discussion of competition and lyrics, but this is a much more powerful verse with an actual direction.