This year has been a great year for hip-hop fans. Across the board we have seen quality releases and it has been incredibly hard to rank them. I ended up deciding to do the ten best of the year but will be telling you who just missed out as well. First we start with the honorable mentions.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – The Heist
I understand that this may be a shock to some but I really had a tough time putting this in the top ten. Although a great album, I have it sitting on the outside looking in. While I like Macklemore‘s flow and diversity in his lyrics and topics, I find the songs heavily rely on their hooks. It’s got some catchy tunes like “Thrift Shop” but also gets serious with “Same Love”. This a great debut album from Macklemore and I look forward to seeing him develop.
Key Songs: “Thrift Shop”, “Same Love”, “Can’t Hold Us”, “My Oh My”
Schoolboy Q – Habits and Contradictions
Another tough one to leave out but unfortunately it falls a little short. This album really pulls in music from all different directions. You could say it’s quite messy but it works out well. Although he’s somewhat overshadowed by fellow TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) member Kendrick Lamar, Q is building his own image and doing a great job. He doesn’t seem to be conforming to any certain mold and it’s refreshing to see.
Key Songs: “Gangsta in Designer”, “Raymond 1969”, “Hands on the Wheel”, “Blessed”
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Understanding the deep complex lyrics that come from Aesop Rock has always been a challenge and sometimes leaves me straight up confused. The good thing for those of you who suffer the same problem is that this album isn’t as complex as previous albums. However, the lyricism is still there and with Aesop handling the production himself, we get the full aspect of his abstract sound.
Key Songs: “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Grace”, “Crows 1”, “Leisureforce”, “Tetra”
Blu & Exile – Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
Another excellent album, as Exile does a great job producing a smooth flowing work of art while Blu provides the insightful lyrics. I don’t think it’s very fair to compare it to Below the Heavens because that album was such a great album. I see this combo of Blu and Exile to be working really well and hopefully leads to even better things.
Key Songs: “Growing Pains”, “Ease your Mind”, “Good Morning Neighbor”, “O Heaven”
Captain Murphy – Duality
To fully grasp this album one must consider this album as a whole. It’s made up of 1-2 minute songs with a few 3 minute songs sprinkled in that flow really well together. For the longest time we didn’t know who Captain Murphy was and it really played into the persona of someone who wasn’t restricted by anything. He could say what was on his mind and people ate it up. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this, I also knew we were bound to find out who he was, and it turned out to be Flying Lotus. This wasn’t a huge shock to many as he was the producer of most of the album. Keep in mind before you listen to this album that it gets a little weird at times but I still really enjoy it.
Key Songs: “Mighty Morphin Foreskin”, “The Killing Joke”, “The Ritual”, “Hovercrafts and Cows”
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – KoleXXXion
When I saw this album drop I knew exactly what to expect. With DJ Premier on the production I knew I was going to get solid beats with an emcee, Bumpy Knuckles, who would fit the persona of a boom bap beat. There isn’t anything game changing about this album but it’s worth a listen none the less.
Key Songs: “My Thoughts”, “B.A.P”, “The Life”, “Greatness”, “The Gang Starr Bus”
Alright, there were a few albums I thought were worth noting before I got into The Top Ten. With that, here are my selections for best hip-hop albums of 2012.
10) Chiddy Bang – Breakfast
One of the up and coming artists I have become fond of is rapper Chiddy Bang and his producer Xaphoon Jones. The duo popped up on many people’s radar with the song “Opposite of Adults” which featured a sexy sample from the MGMT song “Kids”. The debut album from the two continues on this style of carefree hip hop. This style is much different from your typical hip-hop album and I commend them for venturing into this some what uncharted territory. It’s hard to listen to this album and not catch the vibe created by the various synth and sing along hooks. The downsides to this album is the lack of depth lyrically, as I wasn’t too wowed with anything in particular and some would say it’s a poppy album. This album sneaks into the Top Ten with it’s unique style but shows a tremendous upside for the duo.
Key Songs: “Breakfast”, “Ray Charles”, “Run it Back”, “Happening”
9) P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here
When I first heard P.O.S. tell everyone he was messing with “electronic shit” I couldn’t have been happier. Two years later he dropped We Don’t Even Live Here. The “futuristic sound” as he describes is something special in it’s own right. We are starting to see many artists starting to use electronic, especially dubstep, beats. This seems to be the next direction that hip-hop is taking and I’m excited for what the future holds.
Now, with this album, we get an anarchist style from P.O.S. that can be perfectly summed up with a single verse.
No one gives a fuck about shit//So fuck your shit//we fuck shit up//cuz shit’s fucked up anyway
This line coming from “Get Down”, featuring Mike Mictlan, in which he lays out the plan to not think about it and just get down. Now, before you get to this song you’ll have to go through “Fuck Your Stuff” which he clearly articulates he doesn’t care about any of your materialistic ways. Directly after that tune we get a feature from Justin Vernon in “Where we Land” in which he offers a smooth alternative to the jagged electronic beats that flood this album. Near the end, we get the gritty Boyz Noize beat from “Weird Friends” and “Sick Pout” which offers a deep underlying bass reminiscent of a dubstep culture that stems from artists like Skream.
Overall, this album is something we’ve never really heard before and it really works. I think the risk of trying a new style definitely paid out for P.O.S. and he impresses me yet again.
Key Songs: “Fuck Your Stuff”, “Where We Land”, “Get Down”, “Weird Friends”, “Sick Pout”
8) Action Bronson – Blue Chips
Coming off of a huge debut with Dr. Lecter, Action Bronson does it again with Blue Chips. If you had any doubt about his lyrical talent, then this album will be enough to convince you otherwise. He has made tremendous strides since Dr. Lecter and it shows. He appears more confident with himself and that he has found his place and style. Many people have compared his voice to Ghostface Killah but he lays that comparison to rest in his song “Ron Simmons”.
His character of a punchline rapper that comes from left field may seem overdone, but with this album I see him distancing himself from everyone else. There aren’t very many hooks, if any, so that’s one thing I would hope to see improved on. Overall this album is tailored quite well to Bronson and we have Party Supplies to thank for that.
Key Songs: “Pouches of Tuna”, “Thug Love Story 2012”, “Hookers at the Point”, “9-24-11”, “Blue Chips”
7) Nas – Life is Good
When you look at the cover art for this album you already know what you are in for. It happens to be Nas sitting in a booth holding his ex-wife Kelis’ green wedding dress. A lot has happened to Nas in the past couple of years and you can feel the emotion that has built up from it in this album.
If you were ever worried about beat selection with Nas you don’t need to on this album. He seems to find a happy medium between simplistic and complex beats and does well with both. He features beats utilizing the piano, orchestral sounds, and boom bap elements that creates a great variety.
He begins the album with a reflection in the song “No Introduction” where he looks back on his upbringing and maturation into what he refers to as a “graphic, classic song composer”. Not shortly after he’s at it again discussing senseless violence with featured artist Rick Ross. This leaves two issues that we would assume to hear him talk about, his daughter’s Instagram debacle and his divorce with his wife. These topics can be clearly found in his song “Daughters” and “Bye Baby”. The great thing about this album is that even without these emotional songs we would still get quality tunes. With upbeat songs like “The Don”, “Summer on Smash”, and the orchestral/R&B mix in “World’s an Addiction”, Life is Good offers an overall quality that goes to show that Nas is in fact back.
Key Songs: “No Introduction”, “Daughters”, “Accident Murderers”, “The Don”, “World’s an Addiction”, “Stay”
6) Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color
Although Brother Ali saw the departure of long time producer Ant, Jake One has stepped up and fused nicely with Ali. Like classic Ali, this album is full of deep topics that many are afraid to discuss and some self-reflection on where his life is at. If you were to try and compare it to his previous work I would say that it’s a mix of The Undisputed Truth and Us.
Right off the bat Ali rushes into the political topics in “Letter to my Countrymen”, where it seems he is trying to motivate the people that are too defeated to try and initiate change. In “Only Life I Know” he dedicates a verse to the fact that he believes there are three roles in this life. The first being the “normal” straight forward person that society approves of, the second role being the outcast that goes to prison, and the third being the person that ends up on welfare.
Right after that he goes from political to personal. In “Stop the Press” he explains his fallout with Ant, his father’s suicide when he was in Europe, Eyedea‘s death, and his overall problems that he has with touring like a mad man. Overall in this album we experience great production from Jake One, classic Ali flow, and his constant refusal to back down from the important issues society faces today.
Key Songs: “Letter to My Countrymen”, “Only Life I know”, “Stop the Press”, “Won More Hit”
5) JJ Doom- Key to the Kuffs
Unfortunately for some, MF Doom has burned some bridges with his past series of antics. Even after all of his no-show shows and rather embarrassing doppelgängers, he still was able to put together a great album. Key to the Kuffs features Doom with underrated producer Jneiro Janel and is wonderfully weird. Like Aesop, Doom often requires us to decipher his intricate rhymes. For instance, let’s look at a verse from “Rhymin Slang”.
Rarely, scarcely, scary glaring stare// Let’s be very clear, MCs is derriere// As well as aware, wearily, just don’t be nearly near, you hear me? Yeah
This kind of stuff is what I live for with MF and love him for it. Then there’s the track “GMO” where he drops bioengineering terminology alongside of conspiracy theories. It’s apparent that the time away from friends and family paid off in some regard, as this album finds itself in the top 5.
Key Songs: “GMO”, “Rhymin Slang”
4) EL-P – Cancer 4 Cure
A quick disclaimer, for those that may not be a fan of noise or a certain madness in production may not enjoy this pick. However, with that said, Cancer 4 Cure is the easiest of El-P’s albums to listen to with synth beats that sound futuristic and pound through the system with furious rage. Not only does he have spot on production as usual but he drills home the finishing touch with his vicious flow and lyrical ability.
If you are looking for a style that brings you back to the old El-P than look no further than “Drones over BKLYN” and “The Full Retard” where he makes his mark with his rants. In the song “Tougher Colder Killer” we face a dark scene of a soldier that he is forcing to “dig his own grave at the point of a gun”. Later on we get a song, “Sign Here”, that is chalked full of sexual issues that uses an interrogation room as a metaphor.
This album may not be for the weak hearted but if you’ve listened to El-P before I can tell you it is extremely worth it.
Key Songs: “The Full Retard”, ‘Drones over BKYLN”, “Tougher Colder Killer”, “Sign Here”, “For My Upstairs Neighbor”
3) Ab-Soul – Control System
This year we have seen a lot from the group, Black Hippy. Formed in 2009, four friends including SchoolBoy Q, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Ab Soul got together and formed Black Hippy. They are currently signed to Top Dawg, Interscope, and Aftermath.
The attention to detail in this album is stellar and may explain why we haven’t seen a whole lot from the youngster. It features long complex rhyming schemes along side incredible wordplay. It’s easy to see how well it’s going for him because like most artists, he’s got the feeling that he’s on top of the world. In “Illuminate” he expresses that “I used to wanna rap like Jay-Z, now I feel I can run laps around Jay-Z”.
He also states in “Terrorist Threats” that if all of the gangs united they could stand a chance against the military. Another track named “SOPA” is clearly labeled after the Stop Online Piracy Act that failed miserably. In it, he makes a reference to Treyvon Martin. There proves to be a lot of politics mentioned even when he talks about his drink.
Hennessy and coke, 1800//We mixin’ dark and light like the 1800’s
Overall, it’s a great debut album from Ab-Soul and his future is very bright.
Key Songs: “Bohemian Groove”, “SOPA”, “Illuminate”, “Terrorist Threats”, “The Book of Soul”
2) Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
R.A.P. music, a collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P, is quite the odd combo but they proved that they could make it work. Right away he comes out with a sense of anger that floods the entire album, and suddenly I understand why EL-P makes sense.
For those that never felt Killer Mike’s beats get a second chance, this time around you may be pleasantly surprised. He varies his topic selection but features some obvious political opinions in “Don’t Die” and “Reagan”. He mentions on Reagan that the presidency is as simple as “telling lies on teleprompter” and that they serve the “country’s real masters”. Even if you aren’t a fan of political spins then there is always “Butane” where he decides to spit fire. This album has gotten a lot of attention and many have referred to it as the modern day AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, referencing Ice Cube and Bomb Squad’s 1990 album.
Even though this isn’t a game changer or rule breaker, this album is powerful in it’s own right and is considered a top album of 2012.
Key Songs: “Untitled”, “JoJo’s Chillin'”, “Reagan”, “Don’t Die”, “Butane”, “Anywhere but Here”, “R.A.P. Music”
1) Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
When Kendrick Lamar’s album was getting ready to drop I was highly anticipating it and it didn’t disappoint one bit. One may think that when listening to this album we are personally walking beside Kendrick as he goes through his life. It begins with a prayer that appears to be before a meal. Couple that with an old picture of Kendrick as a baby with a 40 in front of him and it just goes to show how real this album really is.
Throughout the whole album I feel like I am forced to listen to every line and every lyric. We also get this sense of struggle that Kendrick faced every day. His family is mentioned as the one source of hope to escaping the gang life he had to deal with day in and day out. The song “The Art of Peer Pressure” paints the picture well with this line:
I got a blunt in my mouth//usually I’m drug free//but shit, I’m with the homies
In “M.A.A.D. city” we get the hardest song on the album where he tells us how he tried to get a job but failed because his friends convinced him to fake a robbery. It isn’t until the song “Real” where we learn what Kendrick has learned. He finishes the song with skits that feature his father leaving a voice mail. It states”
“‘Kenny I ain’t trippin’ off that Dominoes anymore, just calling, sorry to hear what happened to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility, real is taking care of your motherfucking family, real is god, nigga'”.
Then his mother comes in and says,
“‘If I don’t hear from you, by tomorrow… I hope you come back, and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…'”.
This is what makes this album the best album of this year. It tells us a story about Kendrick Lamar that shows us his experiences and how he progressed as a man and how he was shaped into the person he is today. Just like that rewinding of the tape in the last part of “Real” I will be constantly rewinding and listening to this classic for many years to come.
Key Songs: Everything!