My Favorite Hip Hop Albums of 2013: The Top Ten

More Observations for 2013:

Part 2:  The Top Ten

A few more observations about 2013:

  • The way that Jay Z and Beyonce released their albums this year (both were surprises) may become the norm for hip hop’s biggest acts and those trying to create a buzz. This development could inject more excitement into the genre. It will be like going to the record store during the pre-internet days and discovering that one of your favorite artists released their album.
  • Much of hip hop has gotten dark from the most popular artists like Kanye to those working outside of the mainstream. Much of the list contains albums that perpetuate ominous vibes. I really do not have an explanation for it…yet.
  • Spoiler alert:  Prodigy released a better album than Jay Z in 2013.
  • Wale going off on Complex for not including Gifted in their top 50 was a stroke of genius. That provoked me to go check it out. I would put it in my top 50, but I do not have time to rank 50 albums. He is talented, but he may suffer from the “guilt by association” dilemma. Signing to Rick Ross’s label could be enough to turn off listeners who really do not care for Ross that much (See when Mobb Deep signed with a stagnating G-Unit.). Also, based upon listening to his first album and Gifted, Wale seems inconsistent despite his talent.

Top Ten

10. Roc Marciano – The Pimpire Strikes Back

I am not a huge fan of mixtapes. Sometimes they are a dime a dozen and mixtape work tends to dilute the quality of an artists’ discography.  I understand they are important marketing tools and they allow an artist to cater to different listeners. There’s nothing watered down about The Pimpire Strikes Back. The project features a stellar production line up (Roc, Evidence, Alchemist, and Lord Finesse), good guest appearances, and vintage Roc musings about street life. The Pimpire Strikes Back is more Reloaded than Marcberg, just smoother and more melodic. Roc Marciano is on his way to producing a really, really strong discography.

(I did not rank Marci Beaucoup, not because I did not like it, but because I need to listen to it more. An underrated aspect of Roc Marciano’s work are the intricacies of his lyricism and production.)

9. Black Milk – No Poison, No Paradise

The fact that I ranked Black Milk’s album #9 is a testament to how tough it is to distinguish it from the next three albums. (It is easier to distinguish#9 and #5 than it is #9 and #7, if that makes sense.) No Poison, No Paradise is a concept album that centers on a series of dreams of the main character, Sonny, Jr. Sonny, Jr.’s dream state explains the album’s dark and fuzzy vibe. Black Milk’s vivid storytelling provides quite the contrast to the album’s tone. Milk and his guests reminisce about attending church, trying to make it in the music world, turning to criminal activity, and just trying to navigate coming of age in Detroit.

8. Pusha T – My Name is My Name

Pusha T finally dropped his solo album. It is another dark album. I did not have high expectations because I always thought his lyrical content limited, despite his charisma and style.  My Name is My Name was a pleasant surprise. Pusha is supported by great production–see “King Pus”h and “Numbers on the Boards” for two great examples. He lyrically tears down those tracks like Marlo did his opponents in The Wire (check the album title). Songs like “Hold On” (w/Rick Ross) and “40 Acres” (w/ The-Dream) exhibit the type of lyrical depth that is bubbling beneath Pusha T’s coke rap. “Pain” (w/Future) and SNITCH is reminiscent of Clipse’s past offerings.

7. Oddisee – Tangible Dream

Oddisee’s Tangible Dream is the third mixtape to make my list (which may tell you about the quality of official releases this year). I enjoy Oddisee’s instrumental albums, but I slept on Tangible Dream until something told me to check it out two weeks ago. Normally, I would not rank an album so close to publishing my list, but Tangible Dream made that much of an impression. Tangible Dream contains so many highlights. Oddisee reminds us that Yeezus and Jay Z are human, and thus vulnerable in the rap game. He digs deep into the recesses of his mind and pulls out some disturbing, yet brutally honest, thoughts about rap, his friends, and his life, on “Back of My Mind.” He follows CRU’s path on “Just Another Case” and samples Rhythm’s “The World is a Place on Own Appeal.”  “Unfollow You” is really catchy and Oddisee and his crew Diamond District drops a lyrical onslaught on “Bonus Flow” reminiscent of those that you would find listening to the first Lyricist Lounge in the late 1990s.

6. Kanye West – Yeezus

So, I did not rank Yeezus #1, #2, or #3, but I did come around. Critics are not lying when they call Yeezus Kanye’s, if not hip hop’s, most polarizing album. You either love it, or you hate it. I will not lie, I did not get it at first. Why did the critics love it? Is it a hipster thing? I really did not know.  My initial impression was Yeezus comprised the album’s first four tracks and the rest represented a combination of 808’s, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Graduation in terms of content. Even if the album has its pedestrian moments (“I’m In It” and the pulsating “Hold My Liquor”), it has its really catchy and genius moments (“New Slaves,” the ridiculously catchy “Black Skinheads,” “Blood on the Leaves,” and “Bound 2”). Yeezus is the dark underside of Watch the Throne. Kanye is at his most politically, sexually, and personally intense.  The album is less excessive (lyrically and musically) and disruptive. Kanye crams together a bunch of genres and trends (soul, hip hop, industrial, EDM) to create a legible whole. “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2” are two prime examples. How do you sample both a song about lynching (Strange Fruit) and Mr. Magic’s “Down for My N**as” and lay vocals about the end of a relationship on it? Or how about cramming  the jarring, but great Charlie Wilson bridge in between a sample of Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound” (hence “Bound 2”)? I just had to take a step back and let it marinate.

P.S. – Kanye is easily hip hop’s most important, if not influential, artist since 2001. He receives a lot of flack about his antics, but it all seems part of his haphazard plan to stick his finger in all of the eyes of his doubters. He told us on Graduation that we would not be able to tell him anything after he got his money right. Kanye did warn us.

5. Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric – Czarface

The thought of an Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric collaboration intrigued me. Inspectah Deck has had an underwhelming solo career despite his lyrical potential and his underrated producing skills. 7L & Esoteric have been solid underground stalwarts. Czarface plays out like a comic book where 7L and Deck play the superheros airing out all villains. Czarface is ferocious lyrically and its production is great. “Rock Beast” is a hypnotic headbanger and the DJ Premier-produced “Let it Off” takes you back to Premo’s mid-to-late 1990s heyday where you had not arrived as a rap artist until you got that one Premier track. Rumor has it that they are working on a second installment. I am not sure if they can top this offering, but I am glad that they are willing to try.

4. KA – The Night’s Gambit

Another dark and brooding album. The Night’s Gambit was another album that I did not get on first listen. I bought it while I was in Mexico City. Mexico City had many rainy days in July, but it still felt too sunny to listen to KA’s latest project. It clicked when the summer passed. KA uses chess as the driving metaphor to talk about negotiating street life. KA seems to capture the internal dilemmas of this experience in a simple, yet rather intricate, manner. He flips the “Lord’s Prayer” as he stalks his prey in “Our Father.” “Jungle” captures the harsh, violent, and individualistic aspects of inner city life. Yet, songs like “Our Father,” “Jungle,” “I’m Ready,” and “Nothing Is” also captures one’s attempt to retain one’s spirituality (not necessarily Christian) and sense of self in all of it. KA’s lyrical style and production is not for the listener looking for catchy tracks and over-the-top vocals. KA’s delivery is slow and deliberate, which compliments his precise and hypnotic production.

3. J. Cole – Born Sinner

I did not anticipate liking Born Sinner, honestly. I listened to J. Cole’s first album and thought it was okay. But, J. Cole has exhibited the type of improvement between the first two albums that is rare. J. Cole warned listeners that this album would be “way darker this time” before  diving into the excellent intro track, “Killuminati.” He was not lying after watching the disturbing and somber “Power Trip” video. I thought his reinterpolation of two classic hip hop tracks:  Outkast’s “The Art of Storytelling, Pt. 2” (“Land of the Snakes”) and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” (“Forbidden Fruit”) would be annoying, but they actually work. Cole made a splash with his jazzy Nas tribute track that tread the line between corny and great. The problem with Born Sinner is a little too long. “Miss America” and “New York Times” are two of my favorite songs of 2013.

2. EL-P and Killer Mike – Run the Jewels

I’ve said it before:  El-P and Killer Mike is one of the best unexpected pairings since Ice Cube and the Bomb Squad. EL-P’s frenetic production compliments Killer Mike’s brash and politically-charged lyricism nicely. The two continued their stellar collaboration in 2013 by dropping the free Run the Jewels album. Run the Jewels the populist response to Kanye West’s and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne. Killer Mike and EL-P are as concerned with challenging the genre’s preoccupation with idols and their “shiny things.” “DDFH” (Do Dope, Fuck Hope) features the pair’s concerns with surveillance, state violence, crime, and class privilege. Upon examining the set of circumstances that struggling inner city residents deal with, Killer Mike fatalistically concludes with the hook, “Do dope, fuck hope.”   “Sea Legs” captures the duo’s populism as Killer Mike declared that he had no respect for thrones and continued “Your idols are my rivals, I rival all of your idols. I stand on rifles like Eiffel, I rifle all of your idols…I’ll perish in Paris. N**as is nothing but parrots.” Of course, this is clearly a shot at Kanye and Jay and a mockery of the popularity of the excessive “N**as in Paris.” Like every album, Run the Jewels has its misses like the cringe-worthy “Twin Hype Back.” Other than that, Run the Jewels is a point well-taken.

1. Prodigy and Alchemist – Albert Einstein

Prodigy released a better album than Jay Z in 2013. You’ll understand why I bring that up below.

Prodigy and Alchemist’s Albert Einstein may be the most unlikely #1 album among my #1’s, especially in a year when Kanye and Jay-Z release albums. But, Prodigy and Alchemist got back together after the excellent Return of the Mac to produce the most cohesive album of the year. Prodigy’s (who shares the same first name) goal with the album is to demonstrate how he has, as he put it on “Curb Ya Dog,” broke song-making into a science. The production is on point, of course. Alchemist abandons his reliance on all but drum-less beats that are featured on Russian Roulette and provides Prodigy with a smorgasbord of  hard-hitting and sample-laden beats. Alchemist’s production is dynamic, just check the beat change in the heavenly “Bible Paper.”

Now, some long-time hip hop fans could dismiss this selection because of Prodigy. It’s well known that Prodigy is not the Prodigy of 1996-2000. Prodigy’s stature declined in the eyes of many after Jay-Z and Nas dealt near-fatal lyrical blows to Mobb Deep in 2001. His voice and delivery changed. His lyrics are more literal than poetic. Prodigy dumbed it down. While Prodigy’s metaphors are not as piercing as his declaration that his “empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes,” the rapper’s lyricism is as vivid as ever. “Confessions” is terribly vivid, if not a disturbing listen. Plenty of songs capture that old Mobb Deep menacing vibe (“Bible Paper,” “Bear Meat,” “Confessions”). “Bear Meat” actually sounds like a Murda Muzik throwback.  Albert Einstein has its straight up hip hop moments as well like the triumphant “Raw Forever” and the slick “Breeze.”

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