Posts Tagged ‘Kendrick Lamar’

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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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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 city,¬†Grief 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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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‚Äôt have a track record that necessarily suggests that‚Äôs a probability, the fact that the things Kendrick does best don‚Äôt 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 ‚Äď and one that‚Äôs much more difficult to pull off on a rap album ‚Äď 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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If Kendrick Lamar is¬†the natural evolution of Ras Kass, then Schoolboy Q is somewhere between Kurupt, WC, and¬†Crooked I¬†on one end of the spectrum,¬†and¬†Micah 9 and Pharoahe¬†Monch¬†on the other,¬†with the perversion of Akinyele thrown in for good measure.¬†¬†On his new album Habits¬†& Contradictions it’s often difficult to determine where Schoolboy sees himself on this continuum, and that may be a question for years to come.

Q made a splash last year with the release of his debut album Setbacks, which quickly endeared him to¬†thousands of digital¬†fans of both¬†LA gangsta rap and¬†innovative bohemian rap alike.¬† While it is always inspiring to hear a West coast¬†artist continue to evolve the constraints of the defined notions of acceptable Gangsta rap, Q’s vocal stylings¬†frequently outclass his lyrical machinations¬†on¬†Habits & Contradictions.¬† For what it is –¬†sexually depraved, misogyny laced, violent, drug influenced, gang culture inspired¬†storytelling – the level of vocal artistry¬†may be¬†unparalleled.¬† Over the course of 367 days,¬†Schoolboy Q has twice managed to release the¬†album hip hop heads dreamed Crooked I would release for¬†ten years (and never did).¬† Of his two albums, Setbacks is the more accessible to the uninitiated¬†and Habits & Contradictions is more likely to send¬†someone into convulsions and fits of gangbang¬†slang Tourette’s.

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