Posts Tagged ‘The Legendary Traxster’

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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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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Those that follow the Chicago scene are all well aware of Mikkey Halsted.  The annals of rap history are filled with the tales of rappers who had impressive talent that were never able to translate it into mainstream rap success, but Halsted has certainly flirted with greater success longer than most rappers who fall into that category.  The length of that flirtation has to be in part due to the fact that Halsted hasn’t made the same kind of creative missteps that plague many of those rappers, he may have made material that Cash Money wasn’t ready to release to it’s core audience, or been stranded on Virgin during their collapse, but both of those situations are relatively understandable to those who understand both of those situations.  The music that Halsted has released whether mixtapes or independent albums has continued to showcase the same talent that has earned him praise and respect as an inspiration in the game from everyone from former labelmate Lil’ Wayne to former collaborator Kanye West to the great No ID.  There is likely not a person of prominence in the rap game or an avid follower of the Chicago rap scene who hasn’t heard the name Mikkey Halsted and recognized the talent he could bring to the table in the right situation.  That said, it hasn’t worked out for Halstead to date, that’s not to say his previous projects aren’t all worth listening to, they definitely are, or that he hasn’t had opportunities, he has and for one reason or another they haven’t panned out.  Fortunately, right now Halsted seems completely focused on the music, and he seems to have surrounded himself with an impressive team, filled with excellent producers, Chicago legends, and industry power brokers.  If there was ever a time for Mikkey Halsted to make good on his ample promise in this rap game, it’s right now.

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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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