We continue our 2013 Annual Report with a discussion on the year in hip-hop. 2013 saw a B.O.A.T. load of releases from A-listers, pleasant surprises from rookies, and the emergence of a new wave of genre-defining producers. And that’s without mentioning the unique album roll-outs and marketing ploys. Mike Madden, Pat Levy, and Brian Josephs make some sense of the zeitgeisty inundation.
Mike Madden: I don’t know if either of you has a scientific barometer by which you’re measuring the year in rap (I don’t), but I think we just had ourselves a good one. There was an incredible number of albums from A-listers: Kanye West’s Yeezus, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, 2 Chainz’s B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME. J. Cole’s Born Sinner. I also thought the bigger singles of this year were also among the best: Ace Hood’s “Bugatti”, Rich Homie Quan’s “Type of Way”, Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.”, and YG’s “My Nigga”.
As far as personal favorites go, Freddie Gibbs, possibly my all-time favorite rapper, finally dropped his first album-album, ESGN, and it was excellent. Rooks like Chance the Rapper, Denzel Curry, and The Underachievers popped up on my radar and stayed in heavy rotation. Gucci Mane, who’s looking more and more like a cult figure these days, did what Gucci Mane does, releasing mixtapes on mixtapes, bickering manically with Waka Flocka Flame on Twitter, and now he’s facing serious prison time on gun charges. That last part really sucks, by the way. And of course, there were the amusing little things: for instance, I like Atlanta’s emergent Young Thug just fine as a rapper, but his about-to-sneeze flow has been a delight to hear, inadvertently or otherwise.
I’m looking at the favorite albums and songs of CoS contributors and I see there’s some overlap in our selections. That said, our lists aren’t identical. What else was interesting for you two this year?
Pat Levy: Rap in 2013 reminds me of one of those medieval stretching torture rigs. New micro-genres were spawned, new sounds were dropped on an unsuspecting general public, and new artists came to the forefront with earworm efforts. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape proved that the rap game can be conquered with free downloads. The free album drop on the internet had been done before 2013, but I think this was the year that it became the unofficial release strategy of hip-hop, with rappers as respected as El-P and Killer Mike choosing to put out their Run the Jewels album pro bono when they easily could’ve scored a label release.
There were so many fresh faces this year that I lost interest in the big releases. I still haven’t finished listening to Magna Carta Holy Grail because I always get bored and put Blue Chips 2 or Mellowhigh on instead. There’s something more entertaining about watching rappers like Robb Bank$ or Yung Lean cut their teeth with smaller releases that more often than not yield better content than public-spectacle albums. In a few years I won’t be able to tell you more than one or two songs off Eminem’s new album but I’ll be able to recite most of The Underachievers “Herb Shuttles”. For me, personality and earnestness in hip-hop are like finding a cold 40 in the desert. Huge marketing campaigns or gaudy release strategies don’t do anything for me. I prefer the content speak for itself.
Brian Josephs: I have to side with Pat on this one. I’ll remember 2013 as the year when the better moments were found in the crevices rather than the peaks. My favorite hip-hop releases were the ones without external baggage. Off the top of my head, the best were Kevin Gates’ The Luca Brasi Story, Run the Jewels’ album, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rain, and The Underachievers’ Indigoism.
These releases weren’t necessarily reaching for new corners, either. Chance the Rapper’s album – at least to me – was notable for humanizing a destructive Chicago atmosphere. His technical control and mastery over melody aren’t new; he just capitalized on them. It’s a similar deal with Louisiana’s Kevin Gates, who succeeded in giving a brutal but well-produced trap landscape a beating heart with The Luca Brasi Story. Run the Jewels and Indigoism? Straight rap thrills, whether it was El-P’s schizophrenic delivery or the Brooklyn duo’s remarkable ear for psychedelic yet immediate beats.
Nothing Was the Same, Yeezus, and Magna Carta Holy Grail tried to explore new areas in hip-hop, but I felt they were trying. Let’s take “Jay Z Blue” for instance. It’s fine he has anxiety about being a first-time dad; everyone should. The problem is it’s not believable. Also, I felt Drake’s emotion wore itself thin on Nothing Was the Same (although “Worst Behavior” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home” are undeniable). Yeezus lost its substance in its creator’s need for constant progression. To be fair, not all the big releases were disappointments: Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name is one of the best of the year and Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP 2 wasn’t quite a return to form, but there is a kinetic energy to it all that’s undeniable.
MM: Hey guys? It’s supposed to look like everyone at CoS shares the same opinion. Didn’t you see Nothing Was the Same and Yeezus were Top Star albums?
Whatever. I didn’t mean to make it seem like I’m only interested in the big names. Maybe I didn’t fall for someone as willfully eccentric as Yung Lean, but guys like Deniro Farrar, Tree, Black Dave, Denzel Curry, Yung Simmie, Azizi Gibson, and Rome Fortune dropped great projects, and they were relatively buried in my RSS feed, at least at first.
And some of our lesser-known artists, or entire circles of lesser-known artists, are helping to develop new sounds. Whatever this “New New York” thing is, exactly, I like it. Few of the artists associated with this movement are doing bona fide boom-bap, but many of them are tailoring the woodblock clunk-clap of yore to more contemporary impulses. ASAP Rocky and Six More Hot Rappers’ “1 Train” capitalized on RZA’s style, turning up the color clarity. The Underachievers took boom-bap on those psychedelic detours. Roc Marciano hollowed-out the East Coast sound with his mixtape The Pimpire Strikes Back and its follow-up album Marci Beaucoup. There were other interesting sonic advancements this year – producers like Metro Boomin and Zaytoven brightened trap-rap with percolating melodies – but nothing else was so inviting, for me. What production trends stood out to you guys?
BJ: I find it interesting that Rick Rubin became suddenly in demand for some of this year’s biggest releases, though few of his productions rank among the year’s greatest. Regardless, “minimalism” became a key term this year when it was reintroduced in the hype surrounding Yeezus. Rubin said West responded to his suggestions by saying, “Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.” We have some dissonance there: West’s taunts and admonitions about excess were the album’s more replayable content.
So although there were stoner, minimalist, and psychedelia threads in 2013, I don’t think there’s one style that took over for me. Usage was key here; maximalism and minimalism, boom-bap and trap flourished depending on the performers’ focus. It’s hard to argue against Pusha T’s tendon-snapping “Numbers on the Board”, but would it feel as essential if Push wasn’t the one growling over the beat? There’s Run the Jewels’ rapid-fire performance over El-P’s dystopianism and ASAP Ferg’s disregard for technical convention on “Shabba”. Credit goes to Kanye, El-P, and Snugsworth for crafting the year’s best production, but I feel their work is more like part of a composition rather than a standalone achievement.
PL: I think Mac Miller showed his true colors as a forward-thinking musician who’s willing to experiment and find a new sound after having already struck a zeitgeist, the way he did with his frat rap introduction, and that’s something that I think is largely absent in hip hop. Of course there’s artists like Kanye, who sounds like a different beast on each of his last couple records, but even he had a stretch when he was content making The College Dropout and Late Registration, which were similar thematically and sonically. I think Mac’s raw talent showed through the Natty Ice veneer he had on his first few tapes after racking up a number of impressive features with new friends like Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson, and his ability to recognize the pigeonhole he was at risk of falling into proved to be a huge asset with Watching Movies with the Sound Off.
That’s not to say that exploring new ground can’t go horribly awry, because Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino killed any momentum he might have had. Not even Gambino’s army of Stans could reasonably argue that much of anything of value came from the disappointing Because the Internet. At points it truly seemed like Glover scanned through the list of genres in his iTunes library and picked two or three dozen to mash together. It was an attempt to create something original by hacking up a bunch of older, proven material and using it as a constantly shifting backing track for the bemusing ramblings of someone trying to be deep and funny at the same time. This album really caught me off guard because I was so ready to like it after having enjoyed Royalty as much as I did, but there was a constant sense that everyone involved was either trying too hard or not trying hard enough on Because the Internet. Each element of the album’s rollout – a .gif cover, a short film promoting the album, a corresponding screenplay – all served as unnecessary accoutrement to a half-baked concept album that was probably too ambitious for its own good.
BJ: Plenty of fringe artists made their presence known this year. I do like how I’m not actively thinking these are experimental projects as I’m listening; they articulate a solid worldview with experimentalism just happening to be the backdrop. There’s nothing out there that sounds remotely similar to Danny Brown’s Old, but at its core was a tormented spirit trying to erase the past with good pussy and kush. Acid Rain had its leftfield moments, too – particularly with “Pusha Man” –but it never turned its head away from Chicago’s brutal confines. Watching Movies with the Sound Off doesn’t quite have the same level of focus as those two albums as it frequently meanders, but Mac Miller was a colorless persona beforehand. His sophomore effort felt like he was feeling out new shoes with the guidance of new friends.
There are so many bits of experimentation that some works cease to be experimental by relation. This can lead to pretty dull results, which leads to something I’ve said countless times when defending the empty-at-first-glance nature of party rap: If you do something, do it right. Uniqueness doesn’t mean “good.” Because the Internet’s dedication to being an aural collage lost my attention numerous times. Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name wasn’t a leftfield project by any means, but I’m not going to knock it since there’s a passion at the center of it all.
MM: I know you guys have mixed feelings about some of the year’s blockbuster albums. For every one of those that proved to be anticlimactic when the music itself came out, we also found a consoling debut or breakthrough release, be it Indigoism or Acid Rap or The Luca Brasi Story. That’s not unique to 2013, but I feel like there are more and more of these releases as time goes on. Underground artists and mid-majors have a lot of reach these days.
BJ: That’s really interesting since I think the charm of releases like those is partly due to how surprisingly good they were. I do think there will be strong material from Kevin Gates and The Underachievers, but I’m not 100 percent sure if they’ll impress much as they did in 2013. While Indigoism was immersive from a production and technical standpoint, the subject matter was pretty limited with its third-eye ideology (not that I have anything against the belief system). Part of The Luca Brasi Story’s appeal is how at its core there’s this humane awareness that goes beyond the Gates’s calloused surroundings. Stranger Than Fiction’s “4:30 AM” was amazing, but there’s too many moments where Gates regresses into that atmosphere. To me, Chance the Rapper shows more promise as he’s been more consistent throughout the Acid Rap and his guest verses.
MM: It’s true, there were inventive displays of MCing this year, Chance and Gates included. What made the former so interesting was that he came from a city so thoroughly non-lyrical in the past couple years. And whenever forces so persuasive as Killer Mike and El-P get together – and it doesn’t happen often – we pinch our lyricism-deprived selves and thank the rap gods (no Slim Shady). We’ve also been blessed with guys like Earl, Denzel, and other bibliophilic free-associaters.
BJ: I think the past two or three years were crucial for rap in how it saw the genre splinter into multiple subcategories that went beyond just lyrical and non-lyrical. This has allowed artists to err away from a lyrical focus without necessarily sacrificing street cred, critical, of commercial success, as each subgenre appeals to each of the three to some extent. Even French Montana’s camp admits he’s far from a lyrical rapper, but Excuse My French did end up pushing units. A recent NME article even bemoaned the lack of critical attention to lyrics in favor of atmospherics. It’s a widespread issue according to the author, and one example he uses is HAIM and its critical appraisal despite its simplistic lyrics. People don’t think of the decrepitude of Days Go By.
Run the Jewels’ presence isn’t indicative of a weakened landscape. It’s essentially an album of shit talk, blending absurdist taunts with relentless creativity for a straight-up fun album. How is a line like “I fuck in my church shoes” not crucial regardless of context?
PL: There are verbal samurais that can do things with a 16-bar that most couldn’t do with an essay. On the other hand are the artists who can create something brilliant that will stick with you all year without saying much of anything. Both members of Run the Jewels stand out as important members of the first group, and their self-titled release is one of the most biting and humorous records of the year. Their paranoiac eats suit their politically charged and in-your-face style well, and that perfect matching of production and lyricism is something that 2013 excelled in for me.
There were two other mixtapes out of New York that caught my attention for the same reasons. Action Bronson and Party Supplies’ Blue Chips 2 had the same feeling, with Bam Bam’s food porn/ESPN Classic raps fitting snugly into the ‘80s environment built by Party Supplies out of original beats and the most adventurous and rewarding production of the year. Number two, Flatbush Zombies’ BetterOffDEAD served as a platform for Erick “Arc” Elliott to prove how essential he is to the group’s complexity by producing all but two of the tracks and rapping or singing over near every one, while Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice flexed their respective repertoires and distinct voices over Elliot’s dystopian background. I’ve always been drawn to albums where the wordplay and the beats share the stage, and those three proved themselves in that regard after consistent listens this year.
However, you don’t always need to have the wordsmanship of those artists. You definitely don’t need it to make popular music, but this year rappers like Atlanta trio Migos and 2 Chainz put out heat-seeking albums that graced the radio waves across the country with decent music, despite being less intelligible than, say, Acid Rap. That’s not a slight on either album, as both still managed to toe the line between mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, a difficult thing for any rapper to do. Migos’ “Versace” and “Hannah Montana” were both huge hits, but neither had a chorus more elaborate than repeating the song’s title a few times. It was the beats that drew listeners in, and the extravagant verses and earworm choruses that kept everyone listening to what’s coming out of Georgia.
It’s the same for B.O.A.T.S. II: #METIME, where 2 Chainz found himself amid a roster full of talented guests but still managed to keep the focus on his one liners. His inherent likability served him well, though he didn’t rely on it totally in creating his strongest effort to date. “Feds Watching” is a legit jam, and will be for years to come, so what does it matter if he rhymes red leather with Red Lobster?
MM: I remember feeling a little pompous the first time I heard a friend say, “2 Chainz always snaps.” I like Tity Boi, but that’s the verb I use talking about Kendrick or Freddie Gibbs. Thinking about it now, my favorite writers of the year are very different: Gibbs, Denzel Curry, Kevin Gates, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Killer Mike and El-P. 2 Chainz is, I suppose, comparable because his lyrics are economical and witty, however loose his interpretation of those terms may be. If your DatPiff splurges this year were varied enough, you probably heard a lot of sonic and verbal overlap – we had The Underachievers rapping over Lex Luger’s trap production on The Lords of Flatbush, for one example. Rappers and producers are learning from each other more than ever, and if you were open-minded this year too, you probably went home with an eclectic swath of new favorites.
Mike’s Favorite Rap Albums of 2013:
01. Kanye West – Yeezus
02. Denzel Curry – Nostalgic 64
03. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
04. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
05. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
06. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
07. The Underachievers – Indigoism
08. Danny Brown – Old
09. Freddie Gibbs – ESGN
10. Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story
Mike’s Favorite Rap Songs of 2013:
01. Denzel Curry feat. Yung Simmie and Robb Bank$ – “Threatz”
02. Future feat. Casino – “Karate Chop”
03. Deniro Farrar – “Big Tookie”
04. Chance the Rapper feat. BJ the Chicago Kid – “Good Ass Intro”
05. Drake feat. 2 Chainz and Big Sean – “All Me”
06. 2 Chainz feat. Pharrell – “Feds Watching”
07. Danny Brown feat. A$AP Rocky – “Kush Coma”
08. Migos – “Bando”
09. Kanye West – “New Slaves”
10. Ace Hood feat. Future and Rick Ross – “Bugatti”
Pat’s Favorite Rap Albums of 2013:
01. Yung Lean – Unknown Death 2002
02. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
03. Action Bronson and Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2
04. Danny Brown – Old
05. Kool & Kass – Peaceful Solutions
06. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
07. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
08. Kanye West – Yeezus
09. Big Baby Ghandi – Debut
10. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
Pat’s Favorite Rap Songs of 2013:
01. Action Bronson and Party Supplies – “Contemporary Man”
02. Yung Lean – “Ginseng Strip 2002”
03. Antwon – “In Dark Denim”
04. Denzel Curry feat. Yung Simmie & Robb Bank$ – “Threatz”
05. Pusha T – “Numbers on the Board”
06. Yung Lean – “Hurt”
07. Run the Jewels – “Sea Legs”
08. Harry Fraud feat Earl Sweatshirt and Riff Raff – “Yacht Lash”
09. The Underachievers – “Midnight Augusto”
10. Tyler, The Creator – “Garbage”
Brian’s Favorite Rap Albums of 2013:
01. Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels
02. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
03. Kanye West – Yeezus
04. Danny Brown – Old
05. Action Bronson and Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2
06. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2
07. Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story
08. The Underachievers – Indigoism
09. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
10. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
Brian’s Favorite Rap Songs of 2013:
01. Pusha T – “Numbers on the Boards”
02. Kanye West – “Blood on the Leaves”
03. Kevin Gates – “4:30 AM”
04. Drake – “Worst Behavior”
05. Big Sean feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica – “Control”
06. Run the Jewels feat. Big Boi – “Banana Clipper”
07. Kanye West – “New Slaves”
08. Action Bronson – “Contemporary Man”
09. Joey Bada$$ – “Day in the Life”
10. Chance the Rapper – “Chain Smoker”