I planned on making the first post for this blog a "best of" 2012, but I didn't plan on having such a difficult time narrowing down my selections. For such a pivotal year in the realm of underground hip-hop, there was an undeniable momentum of creativity that fueled release after release. Surfacing names like Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, and A$AP Rocky blazed a new trail for underground artists trying to make their way into the eye of the media, without sacrificing an ounce of self.
2012: The Zodiac Year of the Free Album.
2012 reiterated that the internet is no longer a tool for promoting an artist, it is the sole portal through which all potential fans meet their new favorite rapper. And no, I'm not talking about the YouTube buzz of artists like Trinidad James. Much different than a spontaneous combustion of a career start, an internet following garnered from periodically released free projects has allowed for a solid foundation of an underground fanbase to build a career on. Before MTV or BET, hip-hop magazines, or radio stations (even Hot 97 or Power 106) care to take notice of these up-and-comers, a blog or twitter following has been progressing for years. Such a "splash in the pond" (more like an ocean of aspiring artists), when far-reaching enough, can grapple the attention of mainstream artists, who are often more devout underground fans themselves than they are perceived. Mainstream media can continue to put high-selling garbage on the air as long as they want, but when the name of the newest underground project is trending on twitter, someone is bound to take notice. Enough of my take on the shaping of the industry that took place over this past year though, and on to what made 2012 possibly one of the greatest in the history of the art.
The biggest disappointments of 2012:
G.O.O.D. Music - Cruel Summer (Singles were promising, the rest of the album was awful)
Big K.R.I.T. - Live from the Underground (Aside from a BB King feature, the wait was not justified)
Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor II (Will he ever recover from LASERS?)
Common - The Dreamer, The Believer (Where's the old No ID/Common sound? Everyone seemed to enjoy that.)
Mellowhype - Numbers (Hodgy even said he didn't like it)
SpaceGhost Purrp - Mysterious Phonk (Production is lacking, no one ever really liked the way you rap, SGP.)
I say that these are disappointments because I usually would expect better from these artists. I wouldn't waste my time thinking of projects from artists who suck all of the time. Now for the good stuff.
Best Instrumental Project of 2012:
Thelonius Martin - MCMXCII
The Top Free Shit (Mixtapes/EPs) of 2012
Big SANT - MF X OG Download
Trae tha Truth - Tha Blackprint Download
Tabi Bonney - Lovejoy Park Download
The League of Extraordinary Gz x Shane Eli - The Plug EP Download
Chuuwee - Crown Me King Download
5. A$AP MOB - Lords Never Worry
Lords Never Worry is the first collaborative project from the A$AP MOB, and the first project to feature records headlined by the likes of Ferg, Twelvyy, Ant, and Nast (other than a few tracks on Rocky's LiveLoveA$AP). The 18-track mixtape is a solid introduction to the A$AP style for anyone who has heard of A$AP Rocky but wanted to know more of his background. On the first play through, the listener gradually begins to realize that Rocky is not necessarily the leader of this group, even though he is the most successful in his individual career. There is plenty of Rocky on the tape, but for about half of the play time, he takes a sidestep behind the curtains and allows the MOB to unleash their own talents. Backed by the airy, Enya-sounding samples of Clams Casino, AraabMuzik, and in-house producer A$AP Ty Beats, the tape features Danny Brown, Raekwon, Da$h, Fat Trel, and even Jim Jones. I approve of Rocky's teammates: Twelvyy's murder raps, Ferg's impressions of Big Moe on hooks, and even Nast's simplistic banger verses. At this point it is difficult for me to determine whether the rest of the crew would do well on solo ventures, but the A$AP MOB is coming in full force behind Rocky's first album, releasing this January.
Hottest Joints: Choppas on Deck, Bath Salt feat. Flatbush ZOMBiES
4. Curren$y x Harry Fraud - Cigarette Boats EP
SPOILER ALERT: The Stoned Immaculate didn't make these lists. I think Curren$y's best work last year came in the form of a 5-track EP with superproducer Harry Fraud. Its strange to me why these two haven't linked up earlier because Harry's sound, in certain cases, would fit Spitta like a glove. Fraud sews together some spacy, reverbed 80's samples, and its no news that Spitta embraces the 80's crack era with his allusions to Tony Montana and his old school car collection. Fraud is all about slow kick/snare conversations, blanketed by delicate transitions between 1/32nd and 1/16th notes played on an 808 hi-hat, which is the prefect complement for Curren$y, who lackadaisically spits his rhymes behind the beat. A look into Curren$y's repertoire would show that the only other respectable producer he's worked with on a long-term basis is Ski Beatz (Monstabeatz is trash). 2012 was, for probably the first time, about quality over quantity for Spitta (only releasing a handful of projects as opposed to his usual mixtape every month). Fingers crossed for more Spitta and HF records in 2013.
Hottest Joint: Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet, Biscayne Bay
3. Joey Bada$$ - 1999
Joey Bada$$ is the first artist younger than me to grab my attention. Too many youngins try to step into the game these days without a proper education (and I'm not talking about dropping out of school). You can't progress the art of hip-hop for the future, if your unfamiliar with the past. I feel comfort in the thought of Joey's crew, Pro Era, being the future of hip-hop because of the way they praise those who have come before them. Respect is important, especially when talking about artists who are worshipped throughout the underground community, but have never really made much of a noise in any other context. Joey uses the beats from the libraries of Dilla, MF DOOM, Lord Finesse, Statik Selektah, and his high school classmate Chuck Strangers. The element I like most about Joey's style is the "cypher-feel" delivered on joints with 3 or more Pro Era features. You can listen to some of these songs and imagine how the idea came about: 8 or 10 guys chillin in mom's basement, each effortlessly trying their hand at mastering one of DOOM's Special Herbs while passing some of their own special herbs. Who would have thought that hip-hop would come back in the form of a group of teenagers?
Hottest Joints: Snakes feat. T'nah Apex, Survival Tactics feat. Capital STEEZ (R.I.P.)
2. Action Bronson x The Alchemist - Rare Chandeliers
In his latest release with The Alchemist, Bronsolini takes on the persona of a 1970's Blaxploitation film hero, as seen in the video for track 3, The Symbol. Wearing a bathrobe and a ponytail, Bronson karate chops through opponents verse after verse. His descriptions of taking elegant baths, scrubbed down by beautiful Nubian women juxtapose his grotesque adventures with hookers. Bronson's vocabulary will doubtlessly expand your mind, whether you find yourself searching Wikipedia for his name-drops or thumbing through a dictionary. Backed by The Alchemist, Bam Bam is an unstoppable juggernaut, pushing through the barriers of what you thought "the number one rap singer" would look like. The vintage 70's electric guitar samples dug from the depths of buried crates embellish the story of our hero as he teams up with his sidekicks Schoolboy Q, Evidence, and Roc Marciano.
Hottest Joints: Rare Chandeliers, Modern Day Revelations feat. Roc Mariano
1. Children of the Night - Queens...Revisited
By now, you've scrolled down to number 1 and said "Who the hell is that?". For those who are unfamiliar with Children of the Night, or their coalition World's Fair, here is a brief introduction: Lansky Jones, Nasty Nigel and Remy Banks (of 3FLIPS6 feat. A$AP Ant (A$AP MOB) and Zombie Juice (Flatbush ZOMBiES) fame) form the group from Queens, NY called Children of the Night. Children of the Night, which is a quarter of the rap collective World's Fair.
The Mishka-sponsored Queens...Revisited is the group's fourth full-length project, with production from Detroit's own Black Noi$e, Odd Future's Left Brain, and Dilla disciple Thelonius Martin. The tape takes you to the playground of Queens, where we find the Children of the Night fighting on a daily basis to make a name for themselves. Coining the term "Kids from Queens", the trio compiles vignettes of regular happenings while growing up in their neighborhood: girls they used to cake on, venues they used to rock, and who influenced their sound.
"Queens...Revisited we put this tape together just to give the world a glimpse of the world we livin, Nigel on his random shit, Lansky bout to graduate, I'm still on my fly shit, smoking joints to elevate."
This tape is all about letting you know what they're all about. After being disrespected, neglected, even having to "pay $70 to open up a show", the COTN rebirth their debut to the world in grand fashion. They deserve the attention, too. Things were looking good for the East side of NYC in 2012. Possible collab with Flushing native Action Bronson this year? I like those odds.
Hottest Joints: '86 Mets, Kids from Queens
Top Albums of 2012
The Alchemist - Russian Roulette
Sean Price - Mic Tyson
Ghostface Killah x Sheek Louch - Wu-Block
5. Ab-Soul - Control System
"Don't be dethroned by these systems of control, just keep your fingers crossed and get them locks off your soul."
Who would've thought TDE's pitcher, once in the 5-spot, could make his way to the front of the starting rotation? No one. Jay Rock's former hype man, Ab-Soul, was once considered the least popular member of the group Black Hippy (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul). With his debut album, we discover there's more than meets the eye, and more behind those thick-framed sunglasses and unkempt hair. As a matter of fact, we find out that the reason that he's always wearing those glasses is because his eyes were forever scarred and nearly swollen shut by a terrible case of Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Soul is a multidimensional artist; contemplating suicide and lamenting the death of his one true love, preaching on government conspiracies and the closeness of anarchy, and, as expected, still rapping about getting fucked up. Soul might be your new favorite rapper after listening to this one. "So you can take your top 5 list, dead or alive, and put me at the end."
Hottest Joints: Terrorist Threats feat. Danny Brown and Jhene Aiko, The Book of Soul, Mixed Emotions
4. Apollo Brown x Guilty Simpson - Dice Game
What happens when 2 rap veterans from Detroit get together to make music? Dice Game. Guilty Simpson doesn't have the prettiest flow, the most profound lyrics, or the most dynamic delivery. Guilty is known for being edgy and dismal, his rhymes often describing survival in the abandoned concrete jungle of the "Murder Mitten". He isn't ashamed to say that where he's from is where the weak are eaten alive and crack fiends are scavenging the streets for their next fix. But its a mystery why Simpson's darkness turns to beauty and radiance when draped over the soft bubbling bass of an Apollo Brown beat. Apollo Brown is long time general of the label Mello Music Group, releasing several of his own instrumental albums that I absolutely adore (some of those beats are featured on this album). Though criticized for being repetitive with his breaks, Brown has found a unique way to make his basslines match so perfectly with his kick line that the kicks fade in and pierce through the sample. When the kicks drop in, everything else is attenuated, making it seem as if his breaks are deafening, thunderous clashes. Along with Black Milk, these two are just about the best you can get from the Motor City these days.
Hottest Joints: Nasty feat. Planet Asia, Neverending Story
3. Oddisee - People Hear What They See
A long time in the making, Oddisee finally returns with his lyrics on his latest album. Though staying active doing production for instrumental projects, labelmates, and fellow members of the Diamond District group over at the Mello Music camp, Oddisee had scarcely released a verse since the MMG collaboration entitled "Helpless Dreamer" which released in 2010. Always talented on both the boards and the mic, Oddisee brings his latest project to fruition through the theme of maturing as a person. He talks about his changing tastes in life, how he used to bite for materialism but now he has become more cultured through his travels across the world (to his ancestral roots in Sudan and all over Europe), and focuses on the beauty of the human race, the blue sky, and the divinity of hope. Let's get one thing straight: Oddisee is not a producer/rapper. He is a composer/musician. He almost always employs the use of live instruments for his beats, whether upon listening he feels that he needs horns, strings, or the staple trap set. It is possible there is not a better composed album of 2012.
One last thing - if you dig Oddisee, you'll find this interesting. I was browsing YouTube a few years ago, looking for a music video, when I came upon this video of Oddisee pitching a song idea to Pete Rosenberg from his living room: That Real Freestyle . If you listen closely and compare to track 3, titled "That Real ", you see how the song came to life.
Hottest Joints: That Real, You Know Who You Are
2. Blu x Exile - Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
So I might have sorta been cheating on this one. Some may have disqualified this masterpiece from the running because it was actually initially released in 2011, before being remastered an re-released this past Fall with bonus tracks featuring Homeboy Sandman and others. Nevertheless, this deserves all the credit it can get. The chemistry between rapper and producer in this case is simply unmatched by any other team. The duo has been putting in work since their first collaboration, "Below the Heavens", since 2007, and a cult following has been begging for an encore ever since. Give Me My Flowers tells the story of Blu finding his identity, torn between Sunday School lessons and the temptations of a young man. The chronicling of his tastes of redemption and the grace of God, he reveals that he knows that the righteous path lay before him, but being imperfect he stumbles around it. The eloquent production of Exile does not disappoint, with looping soulful piano riffs and samples that don't match up perfectly, but are more stitched than sewn together.
Hottest Joints: More Out of Life, Maybe One Day, A Man
Chances are, if you came out from under your rock for at least a day this year, you already know what number 1 is...
And what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is history in the making. I'm not going to hype this any more because I feel like its already on every top 10 list on the internet by now, but I have rarely been this proud to say that THIS is the music of my generation.
Kendrick has made his way to the main stage in 2012, even without selling out.
The much anticipated, sought after, ear-salivated for, good kid, m.A.A.d. city could best be described as a series of short stories, all taking place in sequence, unfolding from the perspective of a teenage Kendrick. But the idea isn't necessarily innovative, the lyrics are great storytelling, but what really makes this the number 1 album isn't really the album itself. This album is so much more than 12 recordings (or 15 if you got the deluxe version), it is a timestamp, a pillar, a pivotal moment in the history of hip-hop and the history of music as a whole. Never have I seen an artist make the underground hip-hop heads nod to his raps so intently, but also make the girls on the set of 106 and Park shriek and text all of their friends after touching his hand. The hip-hop heads appreciate his music for its creative qualities, his stories that other young men can relate to, his alliances with hip-hop deities of the West Coast: Dr. Dre and MC Eiht. They have lived similar teenage years, freestyling and hot-boxing in mom's van, getting chased out of a house or having to hide in the closet when that girl's big brother comes home, hanging out with the homies and sometimes getting into trouble. The hip-hop heads have followed Kendrick since he made a splash with his "Overly Dedicated" mixtape in 2010. From experience, I can say nothing will deter the attention or the fandom of a hip-hop head more than a mainstream blow-up. So why is Kendrick's following in the underground scene still so strong?
Kendrick hasn't forgotten about the community that levitated him into the public spotlight, evident by the tracks that probably wont make it to 106 and Park or his setlist for his upcoming SNL hosting. If that isn't enough, you can probably find his love for us in the handful of singles that released before his album, most of which surprisingly didn't make the cut (except for deluxe versions). The Recipe feat. Dr. Dre, and Swimming Pools [Original Cut] were both released long before the album, and even when the album was released, the Black Hippy remixes for both of those songs were released the day after. Do you really think many people discovering the new K Dot album on the radio would recognize the raspy voice of Jay Rock, the obnoxious snarls of Schoolboy Q, or the quirky drops from Ab-Soul?
Its a little more evident why he has caught the attention of the rest of the universe, though. You should go on the Club Paradise Tour with Aubrey and see how many follower requests you have on twitter 4 months later. Drake isn't the sole reason why Kendrick has gotten commercial praise, but he is a large part. On the most outer surface level, Drake is definitely the most well-known of any artist Kendrick has associated himself with (aside from BFF Lady Gaga) and opening every show on his tour was a mile-high step in the right direction for his career. The Drake feature on the album is definitely made for the ladies that were still sitting in their seats when Kendrick opened up those shows, impatiently thinking to themselves "Who the fuck is this? Drake was supposed to be on 30 minutes ago." Suddenly Aubrey cosigns over a seductive Janet Jackson sample and...Instafans.
Is his assimilation of the typical blog scanner and the typical commercial radio listener as miraculous as K Dot's imaginative inquiry of the alliance of Bloods and Crips coming for his life in "m.A.A.d. city"? Doubtful. But you'd be hard-pressed to find another artist in any genre doing the same. Reaching out and fulfilling two different needs in music, on wavelengths on opposite ends of the spectrum, with the same song is something I've seen Bob Marley do. Granted you most likely have to be into some form of hip-hop or another to be interested in Kendrick Lamar and Bob Marley had the unearthly ability to unite people under his music who didn't even like reggae, much less had heard of it, being mentioned in the same sentence as Bob Marley is something saved for special occasions in my book (almost never). The future looks bright for the Compton MC. The future looks bright for Hip-Hop.
Peace, Love, and a Blessed 2013,