10. JayHova’s latest outing, Magna Carta… Holy Grail may have been extremely anticipated by the hip-hop community, but there is no denying that it could have been a bigger statement. Especially considering the exclusive Samsung partnership, the advance tracklist and lyric reveals, and the left-field marketing scheme, JAY Z had all eyes planted on Magna Carta… Holy Grail. What he delivered was a slew of tracks, anchored by production from the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell, without much consistency or theme. Although songs like “Tom Ford,” “Picasso Baby” and “Oceans,” featuring Frank Ocean are all memorable songs independently, Magna Carta boasts little-to-no album flow, and has great songs mixed with shorter, forgettable tracks. Beginning the album with “Holy Grail” featuring Justin Timberlake, was a fairly hit-or-miss decision on Jay’s part as well. Best believe that Hov will be motivated to deliver for his next studio offering.
9. Despite a very early album leak, A$AP Rocky managed to impress on his debut studio album, LongLiveA$AP. Thanks to the early success of singles, “Goldie” and “F*ckin’ Problems,” Rocky had definite mainstream appeal for his release, bolstered by the presence of Skrillex on the eventual single, “Wild for the Night.” What Rocky failed to deliver was the laid-back, “chill-wave” that characterized his mixtape, LiveLoveA$AP. Producer, Clams Casino, acclaimed for his beats on Rocky’s mixtape, was only present on two tracks, to the dismay of fans. However, LongLiveA$AP succeeds in the feature department, with ScHoolboy Q, Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, and A$AP Ferg, among others, turning in memorable verses. The cypher-styled “1 Train” is an instant new-school classic, as Rocky holds his own over a Hit-Boy beat with six of his comrades. With more of an effort to return to his distinct, “chill-wave” style, A$AP Rocky could make a bigger bang with his debut album, but LongLiveA$AP earns the number nine spot, nonetheless.
8. Mac Miller continues to be a polarizing figure in today’s hip-hop community. His debut, Blue Slide Park, was written off as a “frat-rap,” party album, as Mac received a lot of criticism for his mainstream appeal and watered down lyricism. Watching Movies With the Sound Off is assuredly a different side of Mac Miller, one that is actually paranoid of being in the spotlight. Watching Movies… features deeper subject matter than its predecessor, fueled by Mac’s kicked promethazine addiction, and relationships with family and friends. Mac’s lyricism has peaked here, and he shows more lyrical depth than his previous album, and mixtapes. Partnerships with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator result in three beats, and solid feature appearances from both, and Mac’s alliance with T.D.E. landed him verses from Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q, as well. “Red Dot Music,” featuring Action Bronson, and “REMember,” showcase Mac at his lyrical high points, and “Objects in the Mirror”, produced by Pharrell, features the soulful side of Mac, as he sings the whole song. Watching Movies… is also the first album executive produced by Mac, himself, under the alias Larry Fisherman. The future looks bright for Mac, who is finally starting to experiment, and find his place with Watching Movies…
7. Drake is coming off a severe hot-streak. Take Care was one of the most talked about albums of 2011, and was supported by stellar singles. After remaining in the background for most of 2012, and contributing a few verses here and there (“Pop That” and “F*ckin’ Problems), Drizzy was preparing for studio album number three. Joining forces with The Weeknd (and PartyNextDoor) through the maintenance of his new OVO Sound label, Drake had a definite sound in mind for Nothing Was the Same. Lead single, “Started from the Bottom” captured everyone’s attention again, on Grammy night, and the hype began. What Drake delivered was nothing short of our expectations. Opener, “Tuscan Leather,” is a sure-fire contender for opening track of the year, complete with dense lyrics, and a great beat switch. Lyrically, Drake proved everyone wrong on Nothing Was the Same, coming equipped to each track, especially “Too Much,” “Wu-Tang Forever” and “The Language.” The album boasts one feature, a somewhat phoned-in verse from JAY Z on “Pound Cake,” the album closer. Drake delivers lyrically, but he may have dropped the ball on beats and consistency this time around. If he can produce an album with the sounds of Take Care, and the lyrical consistency of Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s fourth studio album could be monstrous.
6. Earl Sweatshirt is a nineteen year old kid from the suburbs of L.A. Two years ago, he was simply a high schooler, moonlighting as a rapper, and this year, he is a rapper with one studio album, Doris, under his belt. The project features a stellar list of features, with Vince Staples, Mac Miller, RZA, Domo Genesis, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell all assisting Sweatshirt on his debut album. Earl’s Odd Future partner-in-crime, Tyler, the Creator, contributes two beats and two features to the cause, adding to the grim, bleak atmosphere that Doris sets before the listener. Beats from RZA, Christian Rich, Samiyam, and Earl, himself (randomblackdude), characterize the undergound feel of the album, with thick snares, and lo-fi synths. Lyrically, Sweatshirt is on top of his game on the album’s highlights, “Hive,” (featuring a flashy, standout verse from up-comer, Vince Staples), “Molasses,” and “Hoarse.” With the drama surrounding his return from Samoa clouding this release, a more focused Earl may even put out a better album than Doris before we know it. Being only nineteen years old, Sweatshirt has plenty of time to blossom into a deadly MC, right before our eyes.
5. Whenever Eminem releases a new album, brace yourself. Whenever Eminem names his eighth studio album The Marshall Mathers LP 2, you really better brace yourself. Marshall’s follow-up to Recovery came suddenly, without any warning. After releasing lead single, “Berzerk,” Em’s marketing campaign was quiet, only “Rap God” and “The Monster” would be heard until the release of the album. Despite a leak, one week early, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 has been acclaimed by critics, and has already gone platinum. From track one, “Bad Guy,” to the closer, “Evil Twin,” Eminem takes the listener on a revisiting of the themes that plagued the classic, Marshall Mathers LP, with Rihanna, Skylar Grey, and Nate Ruess of fun. assisting. Rick Rubin, who recently touched up Kanye West’s Yeezus, produced a few tracks, helping Em find his artistic angle for the album. One of the main highlights, and also one of the more surprising tracks of the year, is “Love Game,” featuring none other than Kendrick Lamar, the only rapper besides Eminem on the album. Although it may never live up to the expectations that an Eminem fan had in mind for a Marshall Mathers LP sequel, the album is one of his best in years, and proves why the nation still counts on Marshall to stir the pot every so often.
4. Since the release of his first studio album, Goblin, Tyler Okonma’s been busy, directing videos for his group, Odd Future, running his own clothing line and collaborating with new artists. Wolf, Tyler’s latest outing, is comprised of instrumentals the Odd Future leader has been working on since he began producing, and showcases a different, more refined style of production than we’ve heard from him. Tyler’s Odd Future pals, Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis, Hodgy Beats and Earl Sweatshirt make appearances, delivering solid verses and hooks, but the true centerpiece of the album is Tyler’s improved production, and storytelling. Wolf is a concept album, following the story of Wolf Haley, and his adventures at Camp Flog Gnaw. Wolf finds himself an enemy named Sam (another personality of Tyler), and also finds himself in love with Sam’s girlfriend, Salem. The ensuing adventure follows the story of Wolf, and his time at the camp, with members of Odd Future filling the role of his friends. Meticulously constructed, Wolf is a new side of Tyler, complete with a guest apperance from his idol, Pharrell, on “IFHY”. Other highlights of the album include the Wu-Tang reminiscent, “Rusty,” with a long-winded verse from Tyler, and the three-part medley of “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” with the latter featuring Frank Ocean. With an actual Wolf movie being released soon as well, Tyler has embraced his creative side, creating a more enjoyable album than Goblin, with serious themes of maturation lying underneath the surface.
3. Danny Brown has been around the block a few times, but he finally found fame. Brown, who is 32, struck gold with XXX, his first release under Fool’s Gold Records. The album showcased Brown’s quirky, drug-induced flows, different accents and affinity for serious storytelling. OLD is another great outing for Danny Brown, who delivered another solid concept album to his fans. A tale of two sides, OLD splits Danny Brown’s personality in half. The first side of the album is heavily focused on Danny’s current mindset, and struggles newfound fame, and possible drug addiction. Tracks like “Lonely,” “Gremlins” and “Torture” find Danny Brown reverting back to simple flows, with no crazy accent, telling the story of his depression, loneliness and past. At first glance, OLD is the most serious project we’ve heard from Brown, but Side B kicks off with “Dope Song,” immediately changing the scope of the album. No longer is Danny introverted, but the same old Danny Brown from XXX. The three track run of “Dip,” “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” and “Break It (Go)” is nearly flawless for any party atmosphere, as Danny brings his usual A-game over the loudest, eccentric beats on OLD. The rest of Side B continues with “Way Up Here,” featuring Ab-Soul, and “Kush Coma,” featuring A$AP Rocky. OLD, although a long album, is one of the more worthwile hip-hop albums of the year, as Danny Brown pulls off another concept album with flare.
2. ACID RAP
2. Chancellor Bennett is 20 years old, with the mixtape of the year to his name, and it’s crazy to think that his rap career began only after a ten-day, high school suspension. Chance’s second free mixtape, Acid Rap, began to gain recognition after it was uploaded in April. The mixtape features Chance in his comfort zone, rapping in his unusual cadences and accents, over soulful beats. The Chicago resident admitted being heavily influenced by Kanye West’s College Dropout, and the influence is shown heavily through the beats of “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and “Favorite Song,” which features Childish Gambino. The features on Acid Rap, which also include Twista, Action Bronson and Ab-Soul, are in fact not the highlights of the album, as Chance’s unique style steals the spotlight away from the guest verses on each track. Chance is entirely in his element during “Juice” and “Chain Smoker,” which both showcase his high-pitched, squeaky voice. The beats accompany Chance’s flows surprisingly well, with “Good Ass Intro” and “Everything’s Good,” the opener and closer, respectively, emphasizing that. Since the release of Acid Rap, Chance has been collaborating with major artists, selling out shows and even headlined his own Social Experiment Tour. For Chance the Rapper, the journey is only beginning.
1. Kanye West retains his title as the most polarizing pop-culture figure of the 21st century, and naming his newest studio album Yeezus certainly aided that. Aside from the backlash Kanye received for the title, how about the album itself? Yeezus only contains one song that features Kanye’s distinct, old-school soul sampling techniques, “Bound 2,” and it’s the last song of the album. With only ten tracks, Yeezus is less than we expect from Kanye, who has proven with this album that he is in the game to set precedents, and change the climate of the industry. Singles,“Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves,” contain overt, yet important messages, buried underneath minimalist production. Rick Rubin received widespread credit for helping Kanye finish the album, cutting some songs out completely, and stripping other songs down to bareness. The result is the very experimental, Yeezus. “Send It Up” and “Hold My Liquor” feature Chicago rappers, King L and Chief Keef, and “Guilt Trip” features former, G.O.O.D. Music associate, Kid Cudi. The overall sound of the album has been described as industrial hip-hop, with “I’m In It” and “On Sight,” characterizing the machine-like sound of Yeezus. The highlight of the album is the centerpiece, “Blood on the Leaves,” produced by Hudson Mohawke, which features an emotionally-torn Kanye, reminiscing of a love lost. Kanye’s rapping has been better on previous outings, but Yeezus immensely pushes the boundaries of hip-hop with regard to production, and sheds light on the ingenuity of a minimalist approach to a hip-hop album. In 2013, nobody set the bar as high as Kanye West did, as he continues to reinvent the landscape of hip-hop.
Pusha T impressed with his debut solo album, My Name Is My Name. The album is Push’s first under Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label, and was executive produced by West as well. Pusha’s mentor Pharrell stopped by to produce “Suicide,” which features Ab-Liva, and “S.N.I.T.C.H.” The highlights of the album are “Nosetalgia,” which features a top-notch verse from Kendrick Lamar, and “King Push,” an opening track that leaves an over-lasting impression. Push’s next album, King Push, has already began pre-production.
J. Cole released his second studio album, Born Sinner, on the same day that Kanye and Mac Miller released their newest projects. While somewhat overshadowed, Born Sinner is a consistent effort from Cole, as “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile” have found success through radio airplay. The album is Cole’s most ambitious, lyrically, with the opener “Villuminati” and the Kendrick-featured, “Forbidden Fruit,” exemplifying Cole’s improved rapping skills. Cole is the only rapper on the album, and he brings the heat on each song, particularly “Let Nas Down,” a reflective track that Nas later responded to with his own verse.