Posts Tagged ‘Killer Mike’

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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Despot performing a new track on KEXP

Despot first came to my attention back in 2001, when Cryptic One’s Centrifugal Phorce Records released¬†Euphony¬†[note: if you haven’t heard it, you’re seriously missing out, there’s no compilation more indicative of the talents of Atoms Fam as a collective and their associates during that time period at the peak of their promise] an excellent and unheralded release from the days when compilation albums in underground rap were substantial releases, an important way of keeping non-vinyl purchasing fans¬†apprised¬†of the recent developments of independent rap artists as well as providing an avenue for rappers without financial backing to release their material without the costs of personally pressing up a 12″. ¬†There was a Cryptic One produced track on the album called “Cynical Bastards,” which featured two relative unknowns – Despot and Aesop Rock’s darker dusted sonic cousin LoDeck. ¬†It was a simple yet remarkable collaboration of two aspiring artists, each seemingly with a bright future, as LoDeck’s style seemed like it would create a lane somewhere between where Aesop Rock sat then, and Danny Brown sits now – an independent artist capable of painting in psychedelically inspired surrealistic strokes yet charismatic enough to draw in those who might not immediately comprehend the sense behind the veil of absurdity. ¬†If the mainstream hadn’t provided more socially acceptable alternatives (eg¬†Ghostface, Cam’Ron) and the nerd rap stigma hadn’t come to envelope every emcee on the roster of Def Jux, Embedded, and J23, it’s possible that LoDeck could have developed something larger and more lucrative, but as it is he’s had a respectable career along the fringe of the independent scene with releases like his debut EP Bash It just a few months after Euphony and follow-up full-lengths like¬†Dream Dentistry, Behold a Pale Donkey, and¬†Postcards from the Third Rock.

Despot took the second verse on the track, formally starting his career on record with the following lines:

I’m living proof that smallest figures can cast vast shadows of doubt /¬†giving your all to everything and that’ll amount to nothing /I walk the crooked path up to my house huffing and puffing /¬†shaking my fist in the air thinking of something /to tell kids down the block who point and laugh at my mumbling /

His opening bars on “Cynical Bastards,” are a suitable beginning for a rapper who is¬†diminutive¬†in stature and unassuming in person, and often mumbles almost incomprehensibly when speaking normally, but is a certified beast on the mic. ¬†As an artist Despot is the petite white urban weisenheimer’s sardonic response to Lord Finesse and Pusha T, and his primary medium is the witty arrangement of cliches, figures of speech, conceit, and carefully narrated imagery. ¬†The promise that he set into play with his verse on “Cynical Bastards,” began the building of a buzz on the internet – such that it was in those days – in the same places that lauded the work of the Definitive Jux family and other underground and independent rappers. ¬†As is always the case with rappers that build a bit of momentum with an appearance or two, questions about an album began to surface to which the answer was always that he was working on it. ¬†However, unlike LoDeck, who managed to put out several projects,¬†Despot has had a much more tempered output over the last eleven years, something that thankfully has started to change over the last couple of years thanks to features from his Queens brethren in Das Racist and Meyhem Lauren as well as on labelmate El-P’s new album. ¬†In fact, previous attempts by bloggers to put together a mix of his available material have generally amounted in short EP length affairs, as there literally hasn’t been enough material out there to put together a full-length set of songs from Despot.

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“Momma In My Ear,” Mikkey Halsted featuring Pusha T (prod by Young Chop)

Mikkey Halsted has been one of your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers for years now. ¬†Not to mention a favorite of the entire blogosphere, particularly those that follow the Chicago rap scene. ¬†That said, he’s faced over a decade of label woes and near misses. ¬†He’s been in the same room with the greats and earned respect and¬†shout-outs¬†from raps biggest superstars. ¬† He’s been so close the breaking through for so long, that it would be easy to have doubt about his career prospects at this point. ¬†That said, something about his new street album¬†Castro feels markedly different from his past endeavors. ¬†It could be the all-star production lineup of No ID, The Legendary Traxster, Don Cannon, and Young Chop. ¬†It could be that he sounds as hungry and ready for commercial success as he ever has. ¬†Regardless of where responsibility lies, it’s clear that there’s an energy to his latest work that is undeniable, and he seems poised once again to make a run at the majors. ¬†I caught up with Mikkey to talk about¬†Castro, No ID and his new team, the old days, Pusha T, Killer Mike,¬†and to find out why after so many years of¬†unfruitful record deals he feels his time is finally about to come.

JB: First of all, why Castro?

Mikkey Halsted:

Really, like I say in the intro, it’s really just a tale of survival. ¬†Like I go through so much just trying to navigate this minefield of an industry, but I feel like I continue to survive. ¬†One thing about Castro, regardless of what side of his politics you might be on, everyone has to acknowledge is that he’s the ultimate¬†survivor. ¬†Basically, being about 90 miles away from the strongest government on the planet and surviving as long as he has, it’s definitely something where that part of him inspired me. ¬†It was so crazy, they have this documentary out called 638 Ways to Kill Castro¬†and it just blew my mind, and I’m like, “that’s the name of this tape,” and that’s when I went in and recorded that intro. ¬†Once I did that intro, the tape kind of fell in place.

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“Neck Uv Da Woods” – Mystikal¬†featuring OutKast¬†¬†(produced by Earthtone III)

There’s an important conversation in hip hop production that rarely takes place publicly regarding OutKast’s musical production and much of the Dungeon Family’s work from ’96 through ’03. ¬†Organized Noize (ONP) has rightfully been given a massive amount of credit, and it could be effectively argued that they don’t get enough credit, for their groundbreaking and region defining production work with OutKast, Goodie Mob, TLC, En Vogue, Witchdoctor, Cool Breeze, Society of Soul, Sleepy’s Theme, Lil Will, Backbone, The Calhouns¬†and many others. ¬†Yet in the appreciation of the production work specifically related to OutKast, and occasionally related to other Dungeon Family acts, some key names are often overlooked and¬†under-appreciated¬†in the production credits: Andre Benjamin (Dre or 3000), David Sheats (Mr. DJ), and Antwan Patton (Big Boi).

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Dating back to his 2000 appearance on Outkast’s “Funkanella,” Killer Mike has shown with almost every¬†feature, single, and album¬†that he had the ability to rip microphones to shreds.¬†¬†Having a great¬†deal of range –¬†the ability to inspire street¬†goons, college students, grown men, and¬†teenie boppers at different points in his career – Mike, as almost a third emcee in Outkast during the “Land of a Million Drums,” “The Whole World,” “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” era between Stankonia and Speakerboxxx / The Love Below,¬†seemed destined¬†for rap stardom.¬† His well-regarded debut album, Monster, went gold, and his sophomore album¬†Ghetto Extraordinatory lead by the Big Boi featured the hit single, “My Chrome,” seemed¬†certian to follow in¬†suit.¬† Instead, label and business issues¬†took over, and the album ultimately got shelved after multiple delays.¬†¬†Around the same time Dungeon Family members all seemed to either drift apart or splinter, and¬†Big Boi and Killer Mike¬†parted ways, and Mike¬†elected¬†to go the independent route after his buzz had subsided a by with 2006’s¬†I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind. ¬†Mike gained a little more distribution for I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, before finally getting some Grand Hustle support for 2011’s Pledge 3.¬†¬†¬†While the Pledge series contained a lot of great moments, and really showcased Mike’s range, it for the most part lacked the mainstream appeal and label promotion that Mike’s early work had, while he was such an intregral member of Dungeon Family, at a time when they were still an industry staple. ¬†Perhaps equally important, while his albums post-Monster¬†were well produced, they¬†lacked the funky eclecticism that made some of his work with ‘Kast so inspiring – the production simply did not juxtapose Killer’s thunderous metronomic flow with dynamic groundbreaking production the same way greats like Mr. DJ and¬†Outkast, among others had done earlier in Mike’s career.

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¬†‚ÄúScreaming at the top of our airbags, this is our timing, we are not dying ‚Äď not for you, not for you, not for you.‚Ä̬†– El-P “Request Denied”¬†

Cancer 4 Cure‘s first track, “Request Denied,”¬†starts¬†out¬†a dark muted¬†harbinger, something like the sounding of¬†a very distant alarm on¬†humid evening, and then after a¬†brief introductory¬†vocal sample, the drums drop¬†into a discotechish¬†slam dance rhythm, as samples, keys, synths, and El’s trade mark “woooooo”s perforate¬†the track.¬† Nearly three minutes into the intro, the drums fall out and the track¬†devolves¬†into a driving bassline vaguely reminiscent of the Doors sample off Jay-Z’s¬†“The Takeover,” and El steps to the mic to begin his third solo rap opus.¬†“Request Denied,” has all¬†the elements of a call to arms, and many of the common El-P themes are present, the trademark paranoia, the classic distrust of authority, and the rage against the mindless drones for starters.¬† That said, from the onset, it’s clear¬†this album is not the sonically self-absorbed apocalypse factory of Fantastic Damage.

If there’s a major thematic evolution that’s occured slowly¬†since Fantastic Damage, through I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and on to Cancer 4 Cure it’s in the way El-Producto handles death.¬† Fantastic Damage was influenced enough by NYC on the heals of 9/11 that El’s paranoia had created a soundtrack for armageddon, an album where sonically¬†buildings¬†were¬†crumbling and smashing the walls of established hip hop musicality.¬†I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead had El-P raging against the misinformation, torture, war¬†while coming to grips¬†with the non-imminence of his own demise suggesting,¬†“you in the same barrel all us other crabs are caught. And if I have to live, you have to live, whether you like this shit or not” (“Poisonville Kids Win Again”).¬† The title Cancer 4 Cure alludes to a sense that for every silver lining there’s a dark cloud, and a notion that with every panacea come side effects and diseases.¬† On a surface level it’s a reference to the death of El-P’s¬†close friend and brilliant collaborator Camu Tao, who’s promising career and life were taken by lung cancer in 2008, but it also represents an acknowledgement that everyone is in this crazy life together and¬†death is lurking for all, no matter how we dress it up:

“Don’t you ever try to say you’re not one of us my love, we are the touched, we are entrusted with the same tomorrow.” – El-P “$4 Vic”

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While unplugging from the internet hip hop scene certainly has its benefits (more time with family, and more time to focus on work that actually pays), it’s amazing how much you can miss in a three-year hiatus from regular blog/social media/message board stalking.¬† If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t repurpose any of my time¬†– it was well spent and nothing replaces time with family, but I can say I’m enjoying¬†catching up on things.¬† While many who read Hardwood Blacktop¬†are probably aware of many or all of the artists I’m going to highlight in this segment, not all will be, and if you are, bear with me and come back when a new review is up – there just wasn’t a¬†new¬†face-meltingly ill¬†hip hop record this week to write about.

Plenty of things were impossible to ignore, even without¬†my daily diet of social media,¬†like the meteoric rise of Lil’ B and¬†OFWGKTA, the¬†ascension of Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, Yelawolf,¬†Action Bronson & Meyhem Lauren, A$AP Rocky,¬†and the¬†belated recognition of¬†the brilliance of Roc¬†Marciano.¬†¬†But it is surprising how many other¬†plenty of things¬†go under the radar when hip hop is consumed primarily through local Philly hip hop radio, occasionally checking out “new releases” on Amazon.com or itunes,¬†glancing at the cover of XXL, and checking various award shows.

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