2012 has been an exceptional year for rap music.  It’s hard to think of a year over the course of the last half a decade that saw the release of so many excellent rap albums.  Remarkably ten of the albums that made the Hardwood Blacktop Top Fifteen for 2012 were produced by just one producer, in three cases (Grief Pedigree, Mista Thug Isolation, and Skelethon) the albums were entirely self-produced by the artist.  Also of note, only two of the top fifteen this year were released by Major Labels, granted there were a few major label releases that were on the cusp of this list (Live From The Underground, The Game’s Jesus Piece, Big Boi’s Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors, Nas’s Life Is Good, and Mr. MFN eXquire’s Power & Passion), a few others of some note (2Chainz, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Self Made Vol. 2, Cruel Summer), and there’s still major label releases from TI and Chief Keef to contend with before the year is out.  That said, at this point we can be reasonably confident by the sheer excellence of these fifteen albums and by the recent batting averages of the two remaining contenders that in all likelihood this list will stand-up as HB’s Best of 2012 even after the release of Trouble Man, and Finally Rich.  What this tells us more than ever is that some of the best rap music these days is released for free (six of the list’s fifteen albums were at least at one point available at no cost), without major label financial or promotional backing (thirteen of fifteen), and that nothing beats the artistic clarity and vision of a rapper sitting down with one producer (or all by himself) and pouring his heart and soul into a project.  May 2012 bless us with as many substantial rap albums as 2012 did.

15 Most Noteworthy Rap Albums of 2012:

Ka “Vessel”

1. Ka – Grief Pedigree

It’s hard not to root for the underdog and Ka certainly qualifies as that given his interesting, but unheralded career as a non-central member of 90’s NYC underground favorites Natural Elements, and as a solo artist with a sparse guest spot discography, and one promising, but underdeveloped solo album.  It seems that he must have been galvanized by the success of close friend and collaborator Roc Marciano, who took him under his wing a bit on the production tip a bit during the creation of Grief Pedigree.  Interestingly enough though as we look back at the year, Ka championed the nearly drumless gritty sample without the boom-bap production aesthetic at a time when Roc reportedly told him “you might be in for some quiet shows,” and yet Roc ended the year by releasing an album where his own utilization of that rebellious percussion technique stands as the lone criticism from many purists on his excellent Reloaded.  Although Reloaded may have been a more polished and ultimately more musically stunning album, like good kid, m.A.A.d cityGrief Pedigree earns some points for it’s unusual vantage point.  Ka provides the unique perspective of an aging rapper, a veteran of the drug war’s trenches during the NY crack era, but who never made enough as a rapper or through other means to move out of Brownsville.  With Grief Pedigree, Ka combines Rakim’s approach to rhyming by using his words to craft complete rhythmic structures and patterns that you can almost visualize – like architectural designs or seismograph print-outs – with Nasty Nas’s ability to describe his surroundings so intricately that the listener begins to feel and smell the world being narrated around them.  The whole album is connects with the senses in a way so little music manages to do these days.  And then there are the bars.  A lot of rappers claim to be lyricists, and a lot of critics spend times trying to debate the merits of certain types of lyrics or punchlines over others.  That said, those who invest an engaged listen are rewarded with lyrical gemstones:

“I own the night, the heat’s my receipt”

“Stayed in hell all my life, I need heaven’s visa / Know it’s right, but can’t change over night, like Ebenezer”

In Kings county where the Queen never faked a jack/  the mac-10, and a 9, and my Ace is strapped”

In case you missed it: Here are the two pieces of the interview I did with Ka this year on the making of Grief Pedigree (Part 1: Track-by-Track, Part 2: Additional words)

And here is the entire album in video form in one place, like the rhymes and production, all of the videos are directed by Ka himself.

Ka – Grief Pedigree (the complete video collection in long form)

Kendrick Lamar “Swimming Pools”

2. Kendrick Lamargood kid, m.A.A.d city

It probably won’t end up being an album that will spawn a ton of singles, and it may not be one that fans will return to frequently once they’ve had time to let it all sink in and the novelty wears off a bit, but good kid, m.A.A.d city might have just been the most impressive and influential album of 2012.  In a year when major labels finally took some risks on some younger artists with something different to say (Kendrick, K.R.I.T., eXquire) Lamar’s big-time debut was certainly the most successful at convincing labels of the viability of something completely outside of the trap music aesthetic.  Furthermore  with all the emphasis that critics have put on the “cinematic” nature of MMG’s yacht rap, Kendrick actually delivered an album that plays like a movie.  Sure we’ve all seen Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society before, and rappers have certainly embraced it before, but this isn’t the story of Doughboy or O-Dog, it’s a story that falls somewhere between Tre and Caine.  The ability of Kendrick to describe his surroundings and aspirations, while acknowledging his own limitations and desire to live conscientiously is something we very rarely see from a rapper, and haven’t seen on a major label release in a number of years.  As much as some will cringe at the notion that there are elements of Illmatic here, along with some College Dropout, and Aquemini, there is no doubt that Kendrick has learned from his predecessors, but feels perhaps more comfortable in his own skin than any of contemporaries.  It would be understandable if good kid, m.A.A.d city wasn’t one of your favorite albums this year, but it’s importance for the rap game and culture will likely outlast everything else on this list.  Although the cohesiveness earns it bonus points in the Hardwood Blacktop world, the album’s replay value does suffer from a little too much story line between tracks and a couple of cuts that could have stayed on the cutting room floor.

Roc Marciano “Deeper”

3. Roc Marciano – Reloaded

Galvanized by the success of Marcberg, Roc has been on an endless quest to cash in on his King of the New York underground status for the last two years, unofficially (because who knows how you measure these things these days) setting the record for the most guest appearances over a two year period and dropping more than an albums worth of stellar individual joints in the process as well.  Along the way Roc has refined his game, aging like a fine wine, and elevating his product from the gutter to the penthouse along the way.  There is always a desire from some rap fans for their favorite rappers to stay hermitically sealed in the state that they were discovered, hungry, gutter-hardened, and filled with tales of their pain and struggle.  On Reloaded Roc managed to remind us all exactly where he came from, while acquinting us with his plush new surroundings in the process.  It’s a middle ground seldom explored (or at least seldom executed well) in rap and one that may not appeal entirely to the yacht rap fanbase or 90’s rap fundamental purists.  Nevertheless, Reloaded is an excellent sophomore solo effort from Roc, and fits nicely as a companion piece to 90’s NYC mafioso rap classics like Only Built 4 Cuban LinxDoe or Die, and It Was Written.  Obviously that’s high praise for an album picking up on a legacy over a decade and a half later, but Reloaded is just further evidence that Roc Marciano is one of the very best in the rap game in 2012.

SL Jones & DJ Burn One “HellaTrill AF”

4. SL Jones & DJ Burn One – Paraphernalia

Paraphernalia is a release that would’ve gotten way more attention at the height of the Screwed Up Click momentum somewhere between Pimp C being incarcerated for the last time and Pimp C passing away.  The unfortunate reality is that the Lex Lugar soundscape (now the Young Chop soundscape?) and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. Leagueish glossiness have had such a strong influence on the southern rap production game, that its hard for anything resembling country rap tunes to gain too much traction in 2012.  Hell, even Big K.R.I.T. had to abandon a lot of his sample based work to get Live From The Underground released on a major label.  That said, 2012 marked a year when DJ Burn One really made the leap from tastemaker, quality mixtape host and occasional dope track producer to full-on production powerhouse.  There’s no doubt that the rise of 5PMG and their high quality psychedelic interpolations are significant players in this development.  Paraphernalia stands as both SL Jones’ and DJ Burn One’s most polished and complete works to date.  SL Jones does an excellent job of matching the highs and lows of gang life, the drug game, and the rap game with the stages and phases of drug highs, lows, and addictions over a set of instrumentals that were unparalleled in 2012.  The result is an album that plays perfectly on a road trip or lengthy commute, but also keeps the listeners going back to hear their favorite tripped out song or sequence of songs.  Trying to kick Paraphernalia is like trying to lose your favorite drug habit.

In case you missed it, you can download Paraphernalia at no cost on livemixtapes.com

Future ft. Kelly Rowland “Neva End (Remix)”

5. Future – Pluto

Timing (it dropped around the time I started up the site), mainstream success, and admittedly some unevenness were the factors that lead me away from writing about Pluto this year, but I’ve often regretted that oversight as the year has gone on, and thought frequently about going back to correct it.  The reality is that, even considering the height of the T-Wayne autotune era, rap has never heard an album that sounds anything like Pluto and yet somehow it’s avant gardishness is viewed by many as commercially driven foolishness.  Sure, its two best songs – the Mike Will Made It produced monsters “Neva End,” and “Turn On The Lights” – may be mostly-sung love ballads.  Sure, its three biggest singles “Tony Montana,” “Same Damn Time (remix)” and the “Magic (remix)” feature some of the biggest names in mainstream rap over the last twenty years and are straight for the club, driven by catchy syrupy power hooks.  None of that stops the fact that once you’ve heard it front to back, you can’t help but go back to it again and again.  It’s amazing how quickly the next crop of copycats pops up on the market these days as this year we heard hundreds of rappers/singers crop up trying to do something like what Future has accomplished on his mixtapes, but Pluto is a different journey entirely – an astronaut’s autotune modulated narration of struggle, love, and eventual success.  Many will follow the blueprint, but Future made it clear this year that like his Dungeon Family partners were for their own respective musical movements, he’s the innovator of his own formula.

Lil Ugly Mane “Throw Dem Gunz”

6. Lil Ugly Mane – Mista Thug Isolation

Lil Ugly Mane approaches rap very differently than most of the artists on this list.  In large part what he does is create musical performance pieces.  By his own admission he’d be fine just making music and not having it accompanied by his own physical presence (perhaps something like the Gorillaz even).  His recording process is more than a little unusual as he admits much of Mista Thug Isolation was written to mid-90’s NYC golden era instrumentals, and re-recorded multiple times over a variety of self-made (under the pseudonym Shawn Kemp or just as Ugly Mane) instrumentals until just the right mood is reached.  But another admirable trait of the mysterious Ugly Mane is that he never stays in the same place for too long musically.  Over the course of two years he’s released Playaz CircleCriminal Hypnosis, and Mista Thug Isolation, as well as produced an EP for frequently collaborator Supa Sortahuman and dropped a Shawn Kemp production EP.  If he had dropped the Little Sunshine EP on Devil’s Night as promised, we might be talking about 2012 as Ugly Mane’s year, but unfortunately a harddrive crash left his fans with only the brief Uneven Compromise, an 11 minute track show casing the sonic psychosis Ugly Mane may have had in store for listeners with the Sunshine EP.  Nevertheless, Mista Thug Isolation stands as one of 2012’s best albums, and would stand as one of it’s most original, if so many other artists hadn’t taken up the work he and Purrp forged over the last couple of years.  That said, it’s still the best homage to mid-90’s Memphis to come out of the Memphis revivalist movement.

In case you missed it, here’s Hardwood Blacktop’s Interview with Lil Ugly Mane this year.  You can pick up Lil Ugly Mane’s Mista Thug Isolation for free on his bandcamp, along with some other excellent work.

Billy Woods “Duck Hunt”

7. Billy Woods – History Will Absolve Me

If one were interested in writing an essay on socio-political deconstructionism in modern rap music it would be hard to find an album more fitting of such a treatment.  The rap world has had this album for about nine months now, and I’m fairly sure nobody has figured out precisely what is going on throughout each track on History Will Absolve Me.  The evolution of Woods as an artist is an interesting topic of discussion in its own right, as he’s someone risen from tertiary early-to-mid 00’s NYC underground also-ran to a legitimate spokesman for 2012 deep think spoken wordish rap.  Lest History Will Absolve Me be confused as merely (yeah I know, “merely”) a global socio-political mindfuck, let’s not forget that “DMCA” and “Duck Hunt” proved to be two of the rap world’s most vicious critiques of modern rap consumerism and today’s rappers.  Unfortunately, in a year when Woods should have risen to the top of the food chain, at least among a certain group of rap fans, it still seems like he has a way to go to gain the kind of momentum he deserves.

ScHoolboy Q “NigHtmare on Figg St”

8. ScHoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions

Most of the talk about TDE generally circles around Kendrick Lamar, but Q may still prove to be the member with the greatest commercial potential.  While it feels like Kendrick dropped the more inspiring and artistic album, and definitely garnered bigger guest spots, of the two this year, we shouldn’t sell Habits & Contradictions short.  On his second independent album, ScHoolboy showed the ability to blend a strong narrative and conceptual focus with some truly head-nod-till-you-break-your-neck beats and flows.  While “Hands on the Wheel” made a nice splash on Urban radio this year, there were a few other cuts (“THere He Go,” “NiggaHs.Already.Know…” for example) that had similar potential.  Despite that Q never lost focus on Habits & Contradictions, which holds as strong a narrative focus as good kid, m.A.A.d city, without needing as many skits to make the connections for listeners.  And then there’s the ability to have fun on a record… I mean, which album would you reach for to play a song in a club or at a party?

Aesop Rock “Zero Dark Thirty

9. Aesop Rock – Skelethon

After a few years of relative invisibility, Art/Nerd Rap has certainly made a comeback over the last couple of years, and 2012 saw that trend continue.  Whether or not you choose to unravel the densely constructed lyricism of Aesop Rock is always personal preference, but there’s no denying the level of artistry here.  Add to that the fact that Aesop approached this project without the help of long-time beatmaker blockhead, and rapped and produced an album entirely by himself for the first time in his fifteen year career and still managed to drop his best album in over a decade (Labor Days, 2001).

Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death “Rammin'”

10. Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death – Lord of the Fly

Both Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death had mammoth years in 2012.  Nacho released three projects (two with BSBD), and BSBD released a slew of material (with more to come before the year is out).  Of their two collaborative albums in 2012, and the three they’ve released over the last 15 months, Lord of the Fly feels like their most complete work with both Exalted and For the Glory being great pieces of work, but a little uneven from BSBD’s end or Nacho’s end respectively.  Lord of the Fly on the other hand is a perfect combination of all parties involved.  BSBD paints the bizarre 80’s pop gloss meets promenthazine on Neptune backdrop, and Nacho wears his crown tilted to the side and chases naked Barbarellas around his castle with mid-80’s/early 90’s pop culture surrounding him on 3D screens.  It’s criminal that Nacho and BSBD aren’t full-on rap blogosphere/twitterverse buzz darlings quite yet, but as we all know sometimes the game is slow to pick-up on pesky things like talent and the ability to create great music.

In case you missed it, you can download Lord of the Fly for free from Nacho’s bandcamp (which also features several other free albums).

Tree “All”

11. Tree – Sunday School

Tree came off of a strong year in 2011, to have an even stronger one in 2012.  It took some of us (*ahem*) time to take notice of Tree amid the flurry of excellent releases in the first and second quarter this year, but those of us who did generally came out of it realizing the despite all of the media fervor behind the drill scene there were more fully developed artists than Chief Keef and Lil Durk to come out of Chicago this year and hit the national stage.  While many of Tree’s best songs came out on other releases this year, Sunday School is undoubtedly his most complete product this year, and is his consensus best release to date.  With a raw gravelly tone that’s as much barked as it is rapped or sung, Tree has one of the most unique vocal deliveries in the game.  And although he showcased his ability to rap over the production of others for a major part of 2012 (with The Lit EP and his Trillin’ mixtape), his fans are eagerly awaiting the next self-produced project from the originator of Soul Trap.

In case you missed it, here was Hardwood Blacktop’s interview with Tree.  Of course, you can also download Sunday School free of charge.

Killer Mike ft. Scar (prod by El-P) “Untitled”

12. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

For those too busy to lay Billy Woods lyrics out on a cork board with pieces of yarn connecting the suspects and researching the references, Killer Mike dropped the best socio-politically charged album of 2012.  Mike has of course been an end of the year list darling since the release of his major label debut, Monster, back in 2003.  R.A.P. Music though saw Mike’s unique blend of Malcolm, Martin, Huey, and Tookie get a fresh backdrop from indie rap production dynamo El-P.  What makes R.A.P. Music so special is El-P’s Bomb Squad meets NWA-era Dre meets 2012 approach, which was clearly a combination of something El-P had been evolving for himself (see “Drones Over BKLYN” although there’s a definite Marley Marl nod there too), but took to new heights for his collaboration with Killer Mike.  The production obviously reinvigorated Mike as he dropped his most solid front-to-back album to date.  If there’s anything to detract from R.A.P. Music it’s that it’s not light fair and therefore may not be the type of album listeners will flock back to with frequency, but as a standalone work of rap, it represents one hell of a performance from Mike and Jaime.

SpaceGhostPurrp “Tha Black God”

13. SpaceGhostPurrp – God of Black EP

Purrp went a little bit quiet on the music front this year after securing his deal with 4AD.  Yes, he dropped an excellent collection of remastered hi-fidelity versions of his best previously lo-fi mixtape gems, and he’s stayed busy on the production tip, and recently begin to slowly leak his new project under the pseudonym ICEE.  That said, the God of Black EP stands as his most complete work to date and offers some nice introductions to some of his most talented Raider Klan brethren/sistren.  While all Raider Klan members are still a little more adept at dropping individual gems than they are at dropping complete projects, SpaceGhostPurrp is certainly the most evolved at dropping fully formed EP and LP length projects.  More importantly both behind the boards and on the mic Purrp manages to channel more highly evolved necromancy from the other side than most of his allies.  Sure Purrp’s vacillation between goddesses and bitches, his unique spirituality and strip club anthemry may seem confused and at time disingenuous to some, but let’s remember he’s not alone in that representation of duality.  All beef and drama aside, SpaceGhostPurrp continues to put a new spin on old themes and as one of the youngest artists on this list, seems primed for a big 2013.

In case you missed them, here are my three Raider Klan mixes this year: Klvn Mentality, and No Fakin’ Tha Phonk and Psvlms, Prvyxrs, & Incvntvtixns. And my interviews with the Raider Klan members (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  You can also download SpaceGhostPurrp’s God of Black free of charge.

El-P “The Full Retard”

14. El-P – Cancer4Cure

It’s a strange world when rap fans are opining that El-P’s music sounds a bit too normal and safe, but that’s a complaint I heard from a few diehard El-P fans this year.  That also likely means that El-P is making music that will be a little more industry friendly, and this year we saw El-P team up with the likes of TI via a Killer Mike track, Gucci Mane via placement on Mr. MFN eXquire’s major label debut, and drop a few hints that more big name rapper collaborations may be on the way.  Say what you will about Cancer4Cure, but the album plays like a raw dedication to a friend (Camu Tao) and is an excellent listen front to back, one of the few releases this year without a real skip-worthy track, and while some fans may have missed the ‘how many syllables can I cram into a bar’ style El-P helped birth back in the Co-Flow days, it’s refreshing that he continues to evolve and skirt expectations deep into his second decade in the biz.

Mikkey Halsted ft. Cocaine 80’s – Pain (off Halsted’s other excellent project this year Castro).

15. Mikkey Halsted – MMM Season

It’s a shame that so many people overlooked it this year, but those who didn’t sleep caught one hell of a performance from Mikkey Halsted in 2012.  Perhaps Mikkey hasn’t yet figured out how to bridge the MMM Season audience with the Castro audience or how to channel his excellent writing talent into something that will have a little bit broader appeal, but I feel like this is more likely the case of the vast majority of would be listeners not paying enough attention to his releases and the vast majority of bloggers not drawing enough attention to Mikkey’s projects this year.  It certainly didn’t hurt to have some of the greatest producers in rap history on his team this year, between No ID and Traxster, and it seemed like plenty of Chicago’s biggest names wanted to work with Mikkey this year (from Young Chop to Tree to King Louie & Lil Durk to Lupe).  Nonetheless by the semi-reliable datpiff metric, MMM Season (download) and Castro (download) sit at about twenty-one thousand downloads to date, suggesting a lot of people are missing out on a lot of great free music.  MMM Season feels in many ways like the one mainstream album that was missing this year, an album from an artist who just loves the art of writing rap songs over production from one of the rap game’s best producers.

In case you missed it.  You can check my interview with Mikkey Halsted and check out Castro and MMM Season both of which are still available for free.

  1. Liquidwords says:

    Really Really dig your blog man. It’s nice to see that you put Grief Pedigree on the top of your list. I feel like its going to fall behind in these year end lists with the predictable picks (Roc, Kendrick), not that they don’t deserve it though. Good to see the Billy Woods album on there as well, that album never got its shine this year, but that might just be a statement for the year in hip hop.

  2. nabroleon_dynamite says:

    No Roc Marc? Oh well. Dope list regardless. Billy Woods would be my #1 and Roc Marciano #2. After that anything goes.

    Except Kendrick would be way lower for me. I respect him doing something unexpected though, so mad points for that. I’ll definitely check for his next proper album though.

  3. keith says:

    Billy Woods would be my number one and Roc Marciano my number two. Respect Kendrick, but found his album boring. Ka is dope. Killer Mike and El-P did it big as well.

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