Hardwood Blacktop’s 2012 Hip Hop Awards: 10 Best Rappers of 2012

Posted: December 31, 2012 in Best of 2012, Hip Hop
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There have never been more divergent definitions for what makes a rapper good at rapping than there have been in 2012.   HB’s formula is made up primarily of technique (originality as well as execution), writing (complexity as well as relatability), and the degree to which a rapper can draw you into his or her own world.  None of this is a science, but there’s no doubt that the work of these 10 individuals stood out in 2012 (in no definite order).  Happy New Year.

Roc Marciano “76”

Roc Marciano

Roc Marcy’s ascension from the trenches to the parapets was pretty meteoric.  In hindsight, the ease with which he executed this transition over just a two year period has to have a lot to do with the decade plus he had in the game before   he really blessed the world at large with a proper solo debut.  Training alongside the likes of Busta Rhymes & Flipmode, developing his craft with the U.N. & Pete Rock, and polishing his solo skills for a few years before releasing Marcberg had a huge impact on his end game.  Roc’s and partner Ka’s journeys are the type that makes one chuckle at the plight of young rappers who have been at it for 12-18 months and complain that they are being slept on.  Come back and say that in a decade or two.  Regardless of the journey, Roc’s craft is just on a different level than all of his contemporaries at this stage.  He unloads vivid imagery and slick talk at a pace that even makes Ka seems a bit out of place alongside him at times.  In some ways it’s easier to compare Roc at this point in his career to Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines than it is to compare him to Meek Mill, Future, or Chief Keef.  It ain’t checkers it’s chess.

Emeralds,” “76,” “My Persona,” “We Ill

Future

There was no rapper in 2012 that did as much to stylistically set himself apart from the crowd than Future.  While diehard Dungeon Family fans keep hoping that he will be a part of a renaissance that could see the return of Goodie Mob, or OutKast, Organized Noize, and the other greats of the 90’s DF movement, we should all take solace in the fact that he’s revitalized the Dungeon brand, in a time when that seemed like the unlikeliest of eventualities.  It will be very interesting to see where Future takes the rap world in 2013, and how much more he has up his sleeve when it comes to stylistic mavenism in the field of rap.  When explaining exactly how Future set himself a part from the crowd, its easy to stumble over the fact that he’s autotune reliant and treads some of the same water that Wayne and T-Pain broke a few years back now.  The difference is that Future continues to push that envelope and is still interested in evolving the soundscape of rap music to include intonations and vocal fluctuations that have not previously been broached in the world of rap or popular music.  He also understands the importance of his matching or harmonizing his energetic output to the energy of the track he’s recording over, which is a trait very few rappers (and even singers) possess.

Neva End,” “Turn On The Lights,” “Same Damn Time

Kendrick Lamar

There were plenty of complaints about Kendrick’s robotic delivery in 2012, some comparing it to Eminem’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog impression, others comparing it to Andre 3K, or Devin’s Zeldar.  In all honesty though, while it may have drawn some influence from one or more of those antecedents, it’s a creative and seemingly original way to deliver bars.  That said it has little bearing on why Kendrick proved to be one of the elite rappers in the game in 2012.  There just aren’t many rappers out there anymore who can put together a mainstream rap album that is as powerful, cohesive, and qualitatively impressive as good kid, m.A.A.d city. If you’re of the mind that a rap album should be a collective of great, genre-redefining individual singles, and NOT a cohesively narrated story of teen struggling with universally important life concepts then at least take solace in the fact that “Swimming Pools,” “The Recipe,” “Money Trees,” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” were some this year’s strongest individual songs (as were non-album cuts like “Cartoons & Cereal,” “Power Circle,” etc).  And if you do prefer the meaningful to the mindless than GKMC is undoubtedly one of the few places you found refuge in 2012.

Swimming Pools,” “The Recipe,” “Money Trees,” and “Cartoons & Cereal

Chief Keef

Beyond the mystique of a teenage youth from the streets of murder-addled Chicago, having a mysterious gun charge involving the discharge of a firearm in the vicinity of some of police officers, turning into a worldstar/youtube sensation and releasing one of the most highly anticipated debuts of the year, there is definitely something to Keef stylistically.  Listening to Finally Rich, it is hard not to contemplate the influence of Pluto.  That said, it is hard to create a compelling argument that Keef and Future were not at the forefront of stylistic innovation in rap music in 2012.  To paraphrase a recent tumblr post from Noz (one that I actually wholeheartedly agree with), it seems like innovation in rap these days has way more to do with intonation, accentuation, and inflection than it does with past paradigms such as rhyme patterns, cadences, and, that good old standby, speed variation.  Listening to Finally Rich, I and others joked that it sounded like an hour long version of “Love Sosa,” but at the heart of that joke is the reality that Keef basically has a way of  shortening syllables down into almost sounds – phonems really – and grinding as much as possible off of the consonant portions of words.  The result is a lexicon of sounds that rhyme a whole lot easier than most of our more standard – and outdated – Oxford Dictionary words.

Love Sosa,” “Hate Being Sober” featuring 50 Cent & Wiz Khalifa, “I Don’t Like” featuring Lil Reese

Ethelwulf

There is a lot of poly-regional revivalism going on these days, credit some of it to Lil B, some to Raider Klan, some of it to A$AP, some of it to Pro Era and other individuals and collectives, but it’s undeniably going on all over the US (and abroad) these days.  As a vocalist there is one Raider Klan member, Ethelwulf, who unilaterally stands out above his cohort.  While the initial buzz about Ethelwulf may have been that he was the guy in BRK who sounded like a Bone Thugs expatriate, he has a much broader range than that.  Sticking entirely to rapping in 2012, it seems like there is also an untapped singing ability probably at bay there, that he may look to incorporate in the future.  While his work with the 2.7.5. collective of producers was certainly notable this past year, it seems like only a matter of time before Wulf spreads his wings a little more and begins to work with some producers who can really give him the types of soundscapes he can just lose his mind (and blow our’s) over.

Pistol Grip” (with Nell), “West Side Dirty South Sound Klash” (with Eddy Baker), “Black Magic,” (featuring Yung Raw)

Ka

Grief Pedigree was HB’s pick for rap album of the year, and while some of that was related to Ka’s work behind the boards (and maybe a bit influenced by his camera work as well), most of the credit has to go with his skill with a pen.  While elite lyricism may not be one of the prized tenants of rap culture in 2012, it still earns significant credit over here.  Beyond his lyrics, although Ka’s delivery may not be innovative, his approach to putting together words is downright savant-like.  The amount of meaning that Ka packed into his bars, and the way that he created drum-like patterns with his vocals over beats that often lacked the “beat” part were just some of the notable qualities that he displayed on Grief Pedigree.  And with all the attention that semi “drum-less” rap seemed to be getting by the end of 2012, it’s important to note that Ka was certainly one of the first to prove that approach could be successful over the course of a full length project.

Cold Facts,” “Collage,” “Iron Age” (featuring Roc Marc)

Meek Mill

Dreams & Nightmares may not have been exactly what fans expected or hoped for in Meek’s major label debut, but as 2013 rolls in, D&N still feels like a grower.  There’s plenty of radio/video single ready material on the album beyond the iffy “Young N Gettin’ It,” and then there’s gems like the intro, “Traumatized,” and “Tony’s Story Pt. 2.”  There’s also no denying Dreamchasers 2, which HB rated as the best mixtape to drop in 2012.  There’s just nothing quite like a Philly rapper who pours his heart and soul into his bars and leaves nothing on the table.

Traumatized,” “Ready or Not,” “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)

billy woods

It can be sited ad nauseam that Woods just won’t appeal to everybody.  That said, universal appeal has never been a reliably valid indicator of artistic importance.  The most difficult task nerdy college students (or nerd rap music critics) with interest in underground rap had in 2012 was trying to unravel the meaning or agenda of History Will Absolve Me.  Although I wouldn’t claim to understand precisely what’s going on, on any individual track on HWAM, it certainly is fun for brainiacs and political science majors to theorize.  The problem with trying to draw too much sense or meaning from History Will Absolve Me is that the album is not a constructionist work.  The album is much more concerned with breaking down the binary notions of us/them, racial boundaries, capitalism/socialism, and colonizer/colonized as well as conflating notions of ownership and righteousness.  It will be interesting to see if Woods can “mindfuck” as all again so sufficiently in another year, but even if he never duplicates his brilliance on History Will Absolve Me, he has no doubt left a legacy few (if any) others will easily follow.

Crocodile Tears,” “The Foreigner,” “Freedman’s Bureau,”

Tree

Tree is really much more than just a rapper, but the vocal components of what he does are easily as important to his success as are his production techniques.  If nothing else, Tree proved his value as an emcee this year, moving from the self-produced soul trap gem Sunday School to the Tony Baines produced The Lit and the 110% Pure produced Trillin’ without losing a step on the mic.  And although it doesn’t play into this selection, Tree featuring the City is scheduled to drop today on New Year’s Eve, just to close out the year in style.  Much of what Tree does could be considered singing just as easily as it could be considered rapping, but the fusing of those two elements has been going back for decades now and those who can combine melody, harmony, and various inflections only tend to excel at a greater rate than their peers over time.  If there’s one artist almost guaranteed to be a repeat participant in HB end of the year lists for years to come it’s MC Tree G.

Nino,” featuring Young Giftz, “50,” “All

ScHoolboy Q

TDE nearly deserves three rappers on this list, given Ab Soul’s solid output in 2012, but from where I sit the Black Hippy alpha dog debate is not quite settled yet.  Sure Kendrick just dropped what many have already called (and many more will continue to call as the years go on) a modern West Coast rap classic, sure good kid, m.A.A.d city is likely to become the new blueprint to which non-gangsta west coast rap is compared, but at the end of the day Q may still be the more appealing, more technically proficient vocalist of the group.  Let’s also not forget that as far as independent albums go, Habits & Contradictions was just as (if not more) ambitious and captivating as Section 80, which leaves us all to wonder what Q will have in store for listeners when he unveils Oxymoron.

Hands On The Wheel” (featuring A$ap Rocky), “THere He Go,” “NigHtmare on Figg St,”

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