2013 left me with 400 songs worth keeping, amounting to a full day of good shit. That says something about the quality year we just had (and that I’m rap game audio packrat).
My top records has a lot of usual suspects you’ve heard me hosanna about before, but hell, they keep putting out consistently good music. I think the underground just keeps getting bigger, stronger and more diverse…and also more recognized: a grip of these picks also made big-time lists. Part of that is ‘nobody doesn’t like Danny Brown,’ and ‘everybody was feeling that Run The Jewels shit,’ but Ka is getting some serious love too. Anyways let’s get into this shit.
Top 3 of the Year
In little more than a year or so Ka’s become a ‘rapper’s rapper,’ beloved by those who know what it’s about, and slept on by those who don’t.
The Night’s Gambit is a fully realized epic novel pared down and pared down and whittled down once again until each line can stand alone, like the letters are cut into steel by steel, then polished smooth with his sandpaper muttering. He’s taken GZA’s line-twisting, syllable-by-syllable build and compressed it even further.
I read this article the other day saying that, if you apply enough pressure, molecules and atoms and particles rearrange themselves—so much so that peanut butter ups become diamonds. That’s what happens here: he slices down to the bone until the words glisten with lapidary brilliance. He’s taken rap’s entire history of street tales and boiled it down to a rust-dark sea that fits in a 40 oz. bottle.
There are two undercurrent themes on Night’s Gambit—the slum Bible, the ill Tarot: the spiritual search for meaning and the discipline that comes with it; and chess. While chess has been the 6th, 7th element of hip-hop since the Wu era, for Ka it becomes not only another mode of self-mastery, and the countering view of us as pawns in the game, but also a call of resistance—that the knight can champion, move sideways and attack. There’s other thematics—about luck, about chance, about destiny, and the search for grace.
No doubt the world Ka gives us is bleak, unrelenting—there is only the city, the man, and the struggle. There’s little bravado or humor. It’sEscape From New York Reloaded and Ghost Dog Returns. But if this is a Brownsville The Grey where Ka is solo punching the wolves with broken glass, well, it’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself. But the hope comes from how we rise up against it; the record closes with the celebration of the art in “Off The Record”—as Chuck D said, hard times get me down I pump the hard rhymer. The music is where the salvation lies.
The beats once again are ghosts of fat beats for the man who plies his trade outside the ghost of Fat Beats: stripped down to base metals, barely loops but so finely chosen, only a hint of drums, like it’s been unraveling slowly off that same damn ‘Lo sweater from ’93, til infinity.
The world ground on him and he grinds back. The record is not simply good, it’s necessary. All praise is due; deserved.
This is probably cheating and unfair and gonna piss people off, but over the course of the year Elucid and billy woods (mics), A.M. Breakups, Blockhead & other great producers (beats) created this huge Oort Cloud of illness, a sprawling, four volume testament broadcast on dead city radio.
Cult Favorite brought down some Rap Game Blood Meridian shit, Elucid croaking out prophecy somewhere between Charles Manson and Stokely Carmichael, live from a combo command center and shooting gallery basement where A.M. cooks beats from formaldehyde, dirty pigeon wings and infrared light.
Over some dirty Blockhead beats, “bout it like Victor Bout,” Woods chewed on some dour candy to give us a Rap Game Manhattan Transfer,compressing geopolitical, sports, hip-hop and old school street references into a collection of portraits and vignettes on some No Exit From Brooklyn tip.
Together as Armand Hammer, they gave us “black steel in the hour of layoffs,” chewing bitterness and spitting nails. You got apostasy in myClockers! No, you got Clockers in my apostasy! When woods says “go hard like Old Testament God / You burning bush? They livin’ large” and Elucid spits “catch him breaking fast where the angels laugh,” among other drops, the records catch the true spirit—the Yahweh who shits on Job to settle a bet with the Devil, kills the firstborn then lays down the law. That’s the world we living in. Woods be “pimping where the water ain’t fit for drinking,” and Elucid is “dead man’s Bally’s I’m sporting,” and us? We learning.
Like a rabbit leaves all those little poops, Milo’s series of short records/EPs add up to one big album. Which is not what rabbit poops do, I got rabbit poop on the brain here. Though ‘myxomatosis’ sounds like the title of a Milo song. Though he’s been around for a couple of years, this was definitely his breakout year with a string of four incredibly strong releases.
Using minimalistic but lush off-kilter beats that kinda fall into the shoegaze/illbient/witchtit whatever the fuck they call that shit now, Milo wears his heart and his brain on his sleeve, giving us a look into his life and worldview so far beyond anything we’ve heard before. There’s been a lotta rappers lately making blogs swoon that I thought were just riffing or biting on DOOM, Kool Keith or Odd Future, whereas everything about Milo’s style is fresh and unique.
Playing PhD-Nice to Open Mike Eagle’s KRS-LOL, sort of, (OK not really, judges also would have accepted ‘Kool Moe PhDee to Hellfyre Club’s Persnickety Three’) there’s a syllabus level of references and name-checking ranging from Kierkegaard to Mamet to Mobb Deep, an intense love of wordplay, humor and quotables. The meandering, conversational tone creates an intimacy but also hides the level of work that’s gone in—not a throwaway line in sight.
But what is it that Milo is doing, exactly? Is he really even rapping? Is this more like poetry slam than what we’d define as hip-hop—what with the laidback-on-the-futon flow, the lack of beats or steadily staying on them? Is this taking nerd rap/art rap/emo rap into Moleskine rap? Is this Rap Game Whole Foods Wasabi Peas?
No, I think it isn’t. It’s far too sincere for that, ironic without being cynical, funny without just riffing, and smart without being pedantic. All I know is, for me, the Fried Rice Nietzsche raised the bar to another level. I heard a bunch of records this year which were decent, standard meat & potatoes joints about guns/drugs/lyrical ability/high-end footwear and just thought, ‘well, it’s pretty good, but ever since Milo it’s just not that interesting.’ Keep your eye on this kid, he’s gonna go all the way.
Best of the Rest
Aeon Grey :: Lead Breakfast Years in the making and it definitely shows. The level of craft is superlative, with guitar-tinged beats and well-wrought rhymes. A little bit of a throwback to mid/late ‘00s independent hip-hop but also a really personal and unique piece of work.
Danny Brown :: OLD Danny Brown still sounds hungry and came out hard as fuck on this one. Side A is some of his strongest work, and while Side B is that wooba-wubba shit the kids like, you can’t fuck with the party-gone-horribly-wrong anthem “Smokin & Drinkin.” Brown’s breakthrough was The Hybrid, and once again he shows he’s the hybrid of Ol’ Dirty and Spalding Gray on the wrong meds. Did Tina Turner have some kinda prancing, devilish, shabby court jester in Beyond Thunderdome? I forget. She shoulda. Cuz that dude woulda been Danny Brown.
Guilty Simpson & Small Professor :: Highway Robbery Guilty never fails to deliver and Small Pro really hooked up some slaps on this one. This just some old fashioned, hardbody, brolic, gully, knocking type shit, music to wear Timberland boots and army jackets to. Serious business.
Jean Grae :: Gotham Down
Never having gotten the props she deserves, and maybe feeling liberated by that to do whatever she wants, these three EPs are a lot more experimentalish and impressionistic than you might expect. That don’t mean they don’t bang though.
RA The Rugged Man :: Legends Never Die Look fam everybody knows RA can rap his fucking ass off. On this record, he raps his fucking ass off. There’s other MCs who can do that, but not many in his weight class…and there’s always this slightly disturbing undercurrent that there is something just not right in the head with this dude. Also having lost my father too, I’m man enough to admit “Legends Never Die (Daddy’s Halo)” had me weeping. Not too many hip-hop joints you can say that about.
Run The Jewels :: Run The Jewels You know what, I held a bias against this for a long while because I have this alternate-reality grudge where the El-P of a few years ago doesn’t go and hang around with indie-rock guys but gets all arty like he almost did when he did High Water, and does the best film soundtracks ever, and collabos with Philip Glass or some shit. But then I got that “Get It” beat stuck in my head for three days and decided actually this album kicks, because boop boop, BOOP boop, boop boop, BOOP boop, boop boop, BOOP boop, for three days, OK, it’s all good.
YC The Cynic :: GNK Political without being polemical, intelligent without pretension, PREACH! without being preachy. More than anything YC gets to the complexity, contradictions, struggles not yet won and battles both personal and historical in our supposedly ‘post-racial’ nation.
Instrumental Albums3:33 :: Bicameral Brain Coming hard off the back of last year’s In The Middle of Infinity, Brain is more diffuse and ambient and less with the back-breaking drums, but no doubt a sonic journey through your nether neurons.
A.M. Breakups – Pull Back EP A.M. had a great year, dropping his 924 Myrtle LP and production on Cult Favorite. This EP had some more of his great beats.
Dr. Quandary :: Wayfarers Quando grabs the crown of Ali Farka Toure-like beat conducting. His loops are dusted with desert sands and imaginary palaces.
Walter Gross - Dear Dirt McGirt Tributes to Ol’ Dirty have ranged from the tasteless (THIS HOLOGRAM COSTEDED A LOT OF MONEY) to a pretty awesome boxset. Gross’ glitch-hop tribute takes snippets and distorted samples of the man himself to create a woozy hallucination that’s a near death experience in itself. Aka Shimmy Shimmy I’m Drowning In A Broken Washing Machine.
MixesBil Basmala :: Brother From Another Planet The homie née Autolect had a prolific-ass year again, building a solid label/platform on FKA Co. and dropping this head-knocking audio journey laced up with samples from the seminal Sayles flick.
See you cats around the way.