Archive for the ‘Hip Hop’ Category


Ka “Our Father”

On “They Know It’s About,” the first track off the follow-up to last year’s seminal low-fi 100% DIY effort Grief Pedigree, Ka assaults listeners like Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows in a dark cavern, or perhaps more accurately like a crew of starving hooded teenagers jumping a wayward stockbroker in a dark alley deep in Brownsville in 1993.  It’s a fitting re-introduction from a rapper who would prefer to pitch his new vinyl and CD in front of the ghost of Fat Beats to dropping a mixtape on datpiff or bandcamp.  As with his previous efforts, it’s clear that Ka poured many late nights with a pen, pad, turntable, and sampler into the creation of this release.  If Rakim, GZA, and early Nasty-era Nas are the gods of the rap game then Ka’s today’s most orthodox monk, crafting lines with a painstaking alignment of syllables, meaning, symbolism, and wit.  If his rhyme writing isn’t a devote enough process for classic rap heads, he approaches beat-making with equivalent asceticism and has drastically elevated his skills behind the boards over the course of his first three solo albums, to the point where it’s hard to image any producer capable of crafting a backdrop for Ka more fitting than the ones he develops himself.   Then there’s the videos, which he shoots himself, with his keen photographer’s eye and stars in.  There’s so much subtlety to absorb in his work, that any distraction can easily lead the listener to miss crucial metaphors, wordplay, and double entendres. In order to best appreciate his work on a single listen, it’s likely that his albums would need to be heard in a sensory deprivation chamber, where every kick, tick, sampled vinyl crackle, emphasizing overdub, word, syllable, and phoneme could completely sink into the listener’s psyche without distraction.

While in many ways the refinement in production Ka displays on The Night’s Gambit parallel’s the growth his frequent partner-in-rhyme and production symbiote Roc Marciano displayed on Reloaded – a few lusher backdrops, and when the loops are stripped down they’re more idiosyncratic than those on Grief Pedigree –  Ka’s vantage point does not see an overhaul similar to the gutter to parapet ascension that Roc showcased between his solo debut and sophomore release.  This isn’t surprising, as there is no doubt that Roc Marciano’s life, bank account, and ego had all undergone more significant changes since the release of Marcberg than Ka’s have since he dropped Grief Pedigree a little over a year ago.  Despite the critical acclaim surrounding his album last year and his two guest appearances on Reloaded, Ka remains largely an unknown figure to the rap world.  There’s no doubt that the occasional shows, and a few digital sales help the former Natural Elements member to support the costs associated with his music creation and maybe garner him a little extra pocket change, but they haven’t changed his perspective one bit.  He’s still the same “smart ass pawn” outlined by Bodie from The Wire sample utilized during the opening sequence on “Peace Akhi.”  He’s not quite sure how he’s managed to stay alive through the wars, hells, and purgatories that he’s narrated throughout each of his three full length projects, but he’s back once again to impart the wisdom he’s gained by enduring his struggle.

In terms of imagery, The Night’s Gambit is once again filled with Ka’s familiar varied religious iconography, ranging from parables and lines the Bible’s two testaments, to Islamic verbiage, 5%er math, and probably a few remnants of other less recognizable belief systems that have filtered from the diverse landscape of the five boroughs into the shadowy corners of Brownsville over the past few decades.  “Our Father,” “Jungle,” and “Barring The Likeness,” demonstrate Ka’s ability to complexly entwine systems of spirituality within a context of the images of war, gambling, the jungle, basketball, drug trade navigation, and the gutter that were prevalent throughout Ka’s first two releases.  Where card and dice games have been frequent motifs for Ka before as well, as the album’s title suggests, Ka also occasionally uses the game of chess here as an allegorical representation of his own story of long odds survival.  While there are not a preponderance of specific chess references throughout the album, the comparison between life and a chess match where the odds are stacked against the survival of any individual piece – especially when recognizing that Ka is not a king on the board, but a dispensable soldier (a pawn or at best a Knight) – is clearly something that Ka  has contemplated.  Ka also recognizes, as a survivor, that many of his peers had to sacrifice their lives in battle, while he somehow managed to make it through.  On a less personal note, chess’s evolution also mirrors Ka’s in another way.  The game itself, and it’s pieces, has changed often based upon the religious and societal values of the countries its been introduced to over the years – having Islamic origins and Christian representations – similarly to the way that Ka often picks and chooses from the variety of belief systems he’s been exposed to, in order to make his points, and convey his perspective on morality in his own complex social surroundings.

While a majority of the album is dark alley fair, and contemplation of war and survival, there are lighter moments as well, like the obligatory cameo from Metal Clergy partner Roc Marci on “Soap Box.” Like all of their other work together, “Soap Box,” is a solid collaboration, albeit perhaps the only track on the album where Ka’s lyrics seem entirely focused on wit, without the desire to wrap them within one or several larger symbolic contexts.  Similarly outside of the album’s general narrative structure, the album’s closer, “Off the Record,” is created in the same vein as GZA’s “Labels,” “Fame,” “Animal Planet,” “O% Finance,” and “Queen’s Gambit.”  Here Ka urges listeners to “dig through it,” and get familiar with a list of his favorite hip hop albums, while still maintaining coherent narration to the song.  While the concept may not be 100% original, the execution is nevertheless rap masterclass worthy.  On “Nothing Is,” Ka passionately discusses rap as his calling, narrating his growth in perspective over the years and his need to pass it on to others.

While the diversity in the content is appreciated – and helps break up the monotony of his funereal themes – Ka is still at his very best in his most austere work.  Fortunately, that work makes up the majority of the album, and is highlighted on songs like his cautionary tale on betrayers, “30 Pieces of Silver,” his macabre adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” and the pugilistic “You Know It’s About,” and “Peace Akhi.”  At just over 38 minutes The Night’s Gambit like Grief Pedigree mirrors the length of Illmatic giving the listener just enough great material to leave them itching to start the album over again after each listen.  In all actuality this probably has less to do with Ka’s desire to replicate Nasty’s formula, and much more to do with his desire to fit his albums on a single piece of vinyl.  Regardless of his motivation, with no filler, it’s the perfect length for an album.  Ka once said that he wanted to be a rapper that didn’t overcrowd the market, leaving his listeners to thirst for a new album between releases.  There is no doubt that the brilliance of this album will have fans fiending for the next time Ka chooses to give them a couple weeks notice that he’ll be showing up in front of the specter of Fat Beats with a new crate of vinyl and a bag of CDs.

Ka “Off The Record”


Kevin Gates “Weight”

If there’s one thing that magazines and online music websites like XXL, Complex, and Spin still seem to do a decent job of it’s creating online debate around the lists that they publish.  That said, there’s one list in particular that garners a ton of attention on an annual basis, partially because it is perceived to be a stepping stone to big things to come in the careers of rappers.  The reality of the annual XXL Freshman 10 is that it’s become one of the safest lists in rap music.  The artists they choose to hold this honor on an annual basis at this point, have usually already reach a modicum of hype, success, and have an engine behind them that ensures that they will – at the very least – continue to maintain the relevance that they had in the year prior, which combined with the increased spotlight they will receive for being on the XXL list, and the label support that they already have (if you think that any artist who makes the XXL Freshman list in 2013 isn’t signed to a label – even if it’s not “official” yet – you’re out of touch with the way things work in the rap industry in this decade).  While not without merit for it’s role as an annual recognition process, the reality is that most of the artists who make the Freshman of 2013 list, will have actually been the freshmen of 2010, 2011, or 2012.  Just taking a look at their list you see a number of great artists, who have been building a rep, and in some cases releasing music on an independent level – or even mainstream level – for a number of years:

The artists who make up the XXL Nominees in 2013:

Chief Keef

Would’ve been a great – visionary – nominee in 2012.  To nominate Keef for a Freshman list in 2013 is basically akin to nominating Jay-Z for a freshman list in ’97 or Biggie in ’95 (not that Keef is Jigga or B.I.G. by any estimation, but he sits atop the game in 2013 – undoubtedly one of rap’s biggest stars at this point).  Keef took the rap world by storm in 2012 and had a much hyped 4th quarter release on a major label by year end, he’s a sophomore if there’s ever been a sophomore.

Gunplay

Again, a great pick if it was 2006 or 2007.  Look I get XXL’s desire to include him in a list like this since Gunplay will finally drop his solo major label debut in 2013, but the reality is that the guy has had half a decade of appearances on major label releases and well promoted mixtapes to build his buzz. To use an NBA reference Gunplay is kind of like the NBA player who doesn’t get drafted, but makes cameo appearances on 1o day contracts with NBA teams on an annual basis – showcasing his skills – and eventually latches on to a viable roster.  However, anybody who had a major label group album in 2009 that was promoted by one of the three biggest rap artists of the last 10 years does not qualify as a Freshman.

A$ap Ferg

He shows potential, but to be honest I think his appeal is limited and the whole A$ap Mob thing fell pretty darn flat after that abortion of a mixtape they put out in 2012.  There’s definitely room for him to continue to approve and he has a solid skill set, but he doesn’t have the appeal that Rocky does, and it seems to me that A$ap Yam has these guys under his thumb a little too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE proponent of quality control, but if that’s what Yams provides then he did a piss poor job on the A$ap mixtape in 2012.  Maybe the Mob really will shift their attention toward other artists in the collective in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether that attention will achieve the desired results.

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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

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cookin-soul-the-notorious-b-i-g-ready-for-xmas-mixtape-1

Well if you haven’t done your shopping yet, you’re probably not sitting in front of a computer screen at this point, as it’s too late for overnight delivery or any of those other sneaky procrastinating means we use to slide a Christmas gift under the front door at the last minute, but here are a few December treats that can be had at little (or no) cost for yourself or others.

Blue Sky Black Death dropped two albums on the last day of the Mayan calendar, just in case it was their last chance to share their music with the world before it imploded.  The more polished of the two projects is their previously unannounced collaboration with Deniro Farrar – who certainly worked to build a bigger name for himself in 2012 – a short seven track EP entitled Cliff of Death.  The project is well worth the seven bucks, BSBD is currently charging on their bandcamp page.  It’s always nice to see how BSBD will tailor their approach to a new artist and Deniro certainly vibes quite well with them.  If you’re even the slightest bit skeptical, as always with stuff released on bandcamp you can test drive (stream) it as much as you like before purchasing.

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The distinction between albums, LPs, EPs, and mixtapes was at it’s cloudiest point to date in 2012, and there is relatively no chance that any of those distinctions crystallize into something meaningful ever again.  The reality is that these days most rappers put together “projects,” and those projects either get released for free or they get released for a fee.  Among the projects that get released for free are those where a rapper raps over other people’s instrumentals or samples he or she has no intention of trying to clear.  There are also projects labeled as mixtapes or given away for free, that have entirely original production that get released for free and some of those projects ended up on Hardwood Blacktop’s Best 15 Albums of 2012 list.  To be honest, I’m not overly concerned with those distinctions anymore other than the fact that those of us who like to write about rap like to have a way to differentiate between certain types of releases for the purpose of end of the year lists and things like that.  So here are my picks for best mixtapes of 2012, by my own current loosely defined understanding of that term, which does not necessarily take into account whether a rapper deemed something a mixtape or not (but it might).  In general these projects are not of nearly as high quality as the top albums of 2012, otherwise they would’ve made that list, as you can see from that list there are a couple of “albums” that made the cut that most would classify as mixtapes (Sunday School, ParaphernaliaGod of Black EP, MMM Season).  If you’re keeping score at home, those projects would have been at the top of this list.

Meek Mill featuring Big Sean – “Burn”

1. Meek Mill – Dreamchasers 2 – Download

Sometimes a rapper’s (Jadakiss, Fabolous, and Joe Budden just to name a few) game just translates a little bit better to the mixtape circuit than it does to album making.  Whether that has to do with them being better situated to making “street singles” than it does to them making tracks for the club or radio, or whether it has to do with the lack of record label oversight in the mixtape process, or whether the DJs they work with in the mixtape process are actually better A&R’s than their record label A&R’s, the end result is a consistently better free product vs. fee product. It’s too early to say that Meek Mill will always fall into that category as his major label debut Dreams & Nightmares certainly showed promise and contained some great individual songs (“Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” and “Traumatized”).  There is no doubt though that in 2012, Meek dropped another mixtape (he’s done this a few times before) that was better than a vast majority of the albums that came out in the same year.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Meek as a mixtape artist is that he’s not just someone who drops a flurry of battle-ready sixteens over a bunch of other people’s instrumentals. In fact, some of his best radio singles have been the result of his mixtape work over the last couple of years, hits like last year’s “House Party,” “Tupac Back” and “I’m A Boss” and this year’s “Burn,” “Amen,” and “Flexing” all came from his mixtapes or from the MMG compilations.  By contrast  only  from the first MMG compilation (a mixtape-like project) has really garnered the same buzz.  And while his label has pushed the hell out of “Young and Gettin’ It,” there’s just no way that’s a better direction for Meek than any of the aforementioned tracks.  Dreamchasers 2 was Meek’s most complete offering to date, bringing tracks suitable to almost every type of rap listener and packing plenty of that V-12 energy we’ve come to expect from Philly’s brightest star. While it does drag on a bit as songs begin to run together a little bit after the first nine or ten tracks on the mixtape, there may not have been a better example of hungry street-oriented rapping in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Burn,” “Amen,” “Ready Or Not,” “A1 Everything

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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)

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In 2012 Roc Marciano is the slickest motherfucker on the planet, but it wasn’t always that way. Despite over ten years perfecting his craft as a member of Flipmode Squad, The UN, (interesting situations that he thankfully never bats an eye at lyrically) and as a solo artist, when Roc dropped Marcberg in 2010, he was just getting around to telling his story to rap fans.  Marcberg was an unequivocably strong testament, proving that a New York rapper with ties to 90’s NYC rap could make a legitimate classic minimalistic boom-bap sample-based rap album over a decade removed from that era.  Many considered Marcberg a throwback masterpiece, and there were obvious elements of a hustler’s crack era nostalgia, but those who classified it as a successful 90’s themed boom-bap record did miss the point a bit.  There had been literally thousands of unsuccessful 90’s NYC throwback albums over from ’05 through ’10, but with Marcberg Roc somehow managed to create a distinct artistic statement.  Entirely produced and written by Roc – aside from one guest shot from Metal Clergy cohort Ka (a pattern Ka would mirror on his second album Grief Pedigree) – it was marked by a stark and dusty minimalism sonically and the words of a slick talking hustler with the unique ability to paint crystal clear imagery and illuminate his own set of Scarface dreams.  Roc wasn’t merely reminiscing about the 90’s nor was he trying to relive them in 2010, he was narrating his own blaxploitation flick set nebulously in the crack era.  The story line was one of criminality, street hustling, the pimp game, and turf wars.

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