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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The art of creating a memorable EP is a difficult task, especially in an era where music is consumed and left by the wayside at such a breakneck pace.  For one, the brevity generally means that in order for it to be a truly successful product there can be absolutely no filler.  If an artist attempts to make the product too cohesive it can end up sounding like one long song, but if an artist tries to showcase his versatility it often ends up sounding like a mess.  Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire has dropped some high quality mixtapes over the last few years, which seemed to showcase an unprecedented potential to occupy a space somewhere between Kool Keith and Jay-Z, Gucci Mane, Ghostface, and El-P as eX has dropped allusions to Clockwork OrangeWeird Science, and Philip K. Dick novels right alongside references to Cari Zalloni frames and Maison Martin Margiela kicks over everything from pop/r&b instrumentals to spaced out Def Jux type beats and somehow manages to make his approach appealing to a fairly wide array of fans.

Coming into the game on the heels of the most substantial drought of talented New York rappers in rap history, there are many who have, or will place, high expectations on eXquire merely out of a desire to see NY return to a place of prominence in the music industry.  Be that as it may, there is an ease with which eXquire navigates the rap world that is definitely unusual.  Few artists can pull off collaborations with trap rappers and nerd rappers, and seem perfectly at home with both camps.

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It is worth acknowledging that this is exactly the type of album on which rap writers love to cut their teeth, bring out their axes to grind, and throw all of their personal prejudices and hang-ups into the mix as well.  There will be those who praise this album as the greatest rap album of the last decade and those who decry it as a massive disappointment.  It’s the type of album where pay-per-click websites are dying for their staff to write about it, and it’s the type of album writers love to talk about in the most hyperbolic terms possible to attract as much attention as possible.  Critics have been spending the last week discussing why this album is doomed to fail: the excessive hype, the fact that Kendrick is being asked to deliver a classic major label debut despite the fact that he doesn’t have a track record that necessarily suggests that’s a probability, the fact that the things Kendrick does best don’t necessarily translate well with the popular radio rap aesthetic, the fact that very few rappers deliver their first classic album on their third full length album, and the likelihood that Aftermath/Interscope would force him to sacrifice too much of his creativity and individuality in favor of more commercially viable material.  It’s also worth noting that all of these seem like legitimate concerns.  Add to that the pressure on Kendrick to deliver an album that both returns the West Coast to the forefront of the industry and an album that shows that rappers who can rap their ass off are still allowed to do so in the world of mainstream rap.  It’s fair to say that expectations around this album seem nearly insurmountable.

good kid, m.A.A.d city starts with the sound of someone flicking on an old reel to reel era family video of two boys praying to Jesus to beg forgiveness and ask salvation and guidance. Eery keys begin to penetrate mid-prayer slowly developing into the backdrop of a story tale dedication to “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter.”  There’s a constant push and pull through good kid, m.A.A.d city, between a teenager who wants to do the right thing, wants salvation, but is constantly challenged by sin, desire, and the allure of women and the streets. It’s a push and pull felt by everyone one form or another, accentuated by the temptations of the city and the magnetism of the lifestyle presented by the rappers he and his friends idolize.

This has been a great year for albums that are musical cohesive, or stylistically cohesive, good kid, m.A.A.d City is not always either of those, but it maintains its cohesion through a much less frequently used methodology – and one that’s much more difficult to pull off on a rap album – thematic and narrative cohesion.  The story that Kendrick has to tell is a different narrative of authenticity in rap music.  good kid, m.A.A.d city is a narrative relevant to 2012 and a personal narrative from an artist who grew up in a society filled with drugs, crime, violence, and poverty, who tried to stay out of trouble, but couldn’t always avoid its enticement.  It’s a story that nearly anyone can relate to, but it’s also the real story of so many of today’s rappers.  What makes the story unique is that unlike most of his peers, Kendrick Lamar is comfortable telling it and owning it, and recognizes that the listener will connect to it despite his lack of posturing and the refusal to bow to the whims of the record industry’s misguided perception of who a rapper – particularly a rapper from Los Angeles or Compton – should be and how he should act on record.  The fact that this album was made at all is a minor miracle, and the fact that Kendrick pulled it off so well on a mainstream stage is nothing short of remarkable.

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The legitimate production crew or group, as opposed to the group of producers who work individually (eg DITC), is not an aberration in rap music – Organized Noize, Neptunes, Block Beataz, Earthtone III – but it’s not all that common either.  Even less common is getting to hear the group really let their hair down and make music for themselves without serious commercial aspirations getting in the way.  Earthtone III was mainly concerned with producing their own work and that of a few other Dungeon Fam rappers, N.E.R.D. made some great music, but the charts always seemed to be an aim in one form or another, Organized Noize’s closest attempt probably came with the historically snoozed upon Sleepy’s Theme album Vinyl Room.  In many ways Vinyl Room might be a reasonable sonic ancestor for iNDEEDFACE if Sleepy’s Theme had been into psychotropics and irreverence.


iNDEED “Black Tears”

When iNDEED dropped the iNDEED EP, earlier this year, I made the remark in my review ,of the also 5PMG produced Paraphernalia album from Burn One & SL Jones, that the EP begged consideration for album of the year despite it’s short length.  Although the EP was an excellent introduction to the members of Five Points Music Group as a standalone band, the “album of the year” contender comment was probably a bit hasty for a seven song EP.  What the seven song EP did display was the ability to make great individual songs, often in completely different styles, from the Neptunes-esque “More Than a Dance” to the pimp meets mosh-pit “Brass Knuckles,” to the RZA influenced “Black Tears” to the trademarked straight-up 5PMG sound on “The Pinkpather.”  What the EP didn’t quite make clear the direction or vision of the band: Would iNDEED have a frontman or just rotate singers and rappers in? Would they have a signature sound or be more like a stylized hip hop interpolation band?  What was clear was that they could make great music and that they had a lot of fun in the process. In typical tireless DJ Burn One fashion, iNDEED is now back just a few months later to bless us all with a full length project to show a more fully realized vision of precisely what it is that they have to offer the music world.

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Although this has been a year filled with some mysterious characters, those that shy away from the limelight, those with alter-egos, and those who avoid social media, Lil’ Ugly Mane has to be one of the rap games most mysterious artists these days.  No twitter account, goes on prolonged facebook hiatuses, fluctuates the prices of his bandcamp albums, dropping cassette tape only physical releases and extremely limited edition t-shirts.  Add to that his various sonic influences, vocal modulators, split producer and rapper personas, lack of concerts, and limited reliable information online and there’s a legitimate veil around Lil Ugly Mane that adds to the mystique of his art.

I caught up with Lil Ugly Mane to talk about what he’s been up to and when we can expect the follow up to this year’s excellent Mista Thug Isolation. I also asked him to explain why he unplugged from the net in May, his production techniques and his writing process.  Along the way we discussed why he feels rap is as standardized as ever, the saturation of the sound he, SpaceGhostPurrp, and others brought to the forefront, and why his next album could sound very different from Mista Thug Isolation and Playaz Circle

JB: After dropping Mista Thug Isolation, and aside from a couple appearances on the SupaSonic project you produced for Supa Sortahuman this year, you really have laid pretty low this year other than picking up a few production credits.  What have you been working on? 

Lil Ugly Mane:

I’m constantly producing – it’s literally all I do most of the time – but i scrap a lot of shit or just forget that it exists. I do a lot of waiting around for the right beat to happen.  I don’t wanna just rap on bullshit that’s good, I need production to fluidly make sense in regards to mixtapes and what not, quality of quantity I guess, don’t wanna drop 20 mixtapes.  I respect people that can pull that shit off, but its not me, everything I make I want to resonate on certain tones precisely and I cant do that unless everything is how it already exists in my head.  Right now I’m like neck deep in beats and lyrics that I’m trying to make sense of.
JB: I hear you.  Jumping into that process for a second… as a rapper how do you approach song writing?  Are you writing lyrics all the time and fitting it to the appropriate beat when you find it?  Or do you write to your beats? Or I should say, do you write only to the beat that you’re going to record a song over?

Lil Ugly Mane:

Honestly, the whole process for writing is along the same lines as beat making for me. A lot of time shit just happens when it happens.  I don’t like to force myself to do anything, I think the end product suffers when you put deadlines and expectations on shit.  But I mean usually when I’m writing, I write to old Lord Finesse instrumentals and or like Premo instrumentals and shit – I wrote cup fulla beetlejuice over the Smif N Wessun “Bucktown” instrumental – I dont know why really, I just think it takes me back to like middle school when you are just making rhymes cuz its fun or you’re bored, there isnt any bullshit attached to it.

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When Mikkey Halsted dropped Castro this summer it was a sign of serious preparation for the next level.  Backed by a couple of the biggest names in rap production (No ID & Young Chop), and one of rap’s most influential mixtape DJ’s (Don Cannon), Mikkey dropped a mixtape that showed his potential for mainstream success beyond the kind of “greatest that never made it” barbershop and blog fame he’s held in Chicago for many years now.  Castro wasn’t Mikkey’s deepest effort, but it combined depth with mainstream palatablility through a difficult balancing act, dropping enough witty similes to please the backpack contingent, enough depth to please the coffee shop open mic crowd, enough street imagery to please the hardcore rap fan, and enough gloss to please the labels and the pop crowd.  Ultimately Castro was successful, because it was cohesive, extremely well produced, and well executed on the mic.  That said, it wasn’t exactly the type of Chicago rap that labels are currently chomping at the bit to hawk to the masses.  Despite Mikkey’s assertion that he is “the common denominator between Chief Keef and Common,” the album came off more tinted with the wit, imagery, politics, and soundscapes of the latter in his prime than the cold and gritty callousness of the former.

In my interview with Mikkey about a month and a half ago, he referred to MMM Season as merely “another side of the same coin.”  With a teaser of “Chopper Music,” his collaboration with drill scene representatives Lil’ Durk and King Louie, and songs like his shades of “You’re All I Need to Get By” collaboration with Tia London, “I Got It,” and an anthem for his new financial perspective on the game, “Money Makin’ Mikkey” it was a little tough to judge the validity of Mikkey’s assessment of the work.  MMM Season seemed like it might have the makings of a cash grab.  And who could blame Halsted for making an attempt to finally cash in on half a dozen missed opportunities at fame and fortune.  The crossover for the sake of it strategy would make more than a little sense given the stable of industry vets that Mikkey has behind him and the fact that MMM Season was to be produced entirely by Multi-platinum producer The Legendary Traxster.  The question was, how would this all play out?  Would Mikkey set up two personalities that would duel for the listeners attention?  Would he set up a drill friendly alter ego and then try to make a project where he balanced the Castro style with the MMM style? Would it be something like a Chi-town version of K.R.I.T. where a third of the album would be dedicated to the strip clubs, a third to the drill kids, and a third to the pew sitting parishioners?   The answer, thankfully is much more simple than that, Money Making Mikkey is thankfully, still the same Halsted.  There’s no doubt that he’s spreading his wings a bit, showing his marketability to different aesthetics, and doing so over fantastic production, but he does it all within the lane that he’s developed for himself over time and artistically he stays true to the principles that have defined his career.

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