It's time again for us to look back over a year's worth of music - meaning, for me, it's time to think of some way to make sense of a year's worth of rap records. In some regards, trying to round up a year in hip hop is even harder than in other genres. The division between chart-friendly or club-ready singles and wordy, underground writtens can sometimes feel like you're dealing with different types of music entirely. How exactly should we compare the dense, poetic ramblings of say - Aesop Rock, with the synthetic energy of somebody like Future or Gunplay? Yet all these things have their place, and hip hop without one or the other would feel sorely lacking.
In an attempt to tackle the enormity of rap music in 2012, I've turned to Drowned in Sound's very own hip hop community. For those unaware, DiS has long had a thriving section on the boards where the latest songs, mixtapes, records and general rap nonsense are discussed on a daily basis. Exchanging e-mails over the last month with interested parties, we've come up with the following guide to our favorite records, songs, free projects, verses, and a list of 5 producers who've made the biggest impact.
As well as words from me and DiS users, you'll also find video playlists where you can scroll through our selections and tell us what we forgot to include. Meanwhile, I'll be gathering up the first of the 2013 releases so we can start this whole damn process again.
Mike Will Made It
If last year’s Mike Will-produced ‘Tupac Back’ put the young Atlanta beatmaker on the map, this year saw him heading for world domination. Put simply, Mike Will has become the bankable hit machine for the major label rap crowd, responsible for huge singles by G.O.O.D. Music (‘Mercy), Future (‘Turn on the Lights’), Juicy J (‘Bands a Make Her Dance’) Jeremih (‘773 Love’) and many more. He’s proved as versatile as he is impactful, and if he can make French Montana and 50 Cent (in 2012) sound engaging, then he must be doing something right.
Ryan Hemsworth has dominated in a number of ways this year: be it producing a 20-minute long showcase of nearly 30 up-and-comers (track of the year contender 'Hyperbolic Chamber Music'); setting early Danny Brown freestyles to Donkey Kong music (the Dizzee Rascal-based 'Don't Give A'); creating schizophrenic 90-minute mixes; or crafting his instrumental EP Last Words - an introverted affair that bridges the gap between Max B references and Elliott Smith samples. Hemsworth's influences, from the Mew album Frengers to the sounds of classic Squaresoft video game soundtracks, often give his productions a dreamy quality which stands out in a year where trap arguably took over. (BadmanReturns)
Versatility is key to any successful producer, and this year there have been few as versatile as Harry Fraud. His beats have a familiar consistency- they're cosmic, almost always smoke-hazed and layered with drums and dense instrumentation- but his greatest asset is his ability to hone his sound for different emcees. Whether it's the feel-good horns that colour Main Attrakionz' 'Do It For The Bay', the ethereal keyboards on 'Bird on A Wire' (which even manage to make Riff-Raff sound strangely haunting), or the casino-ready bravado of his beats for French Montana and Chinx Drugs - his personal touches and melodies invariably take the vocals to the next level. (CoolerthanTV)
Whether through his solo visions (Russian Roulette, Rappers Best Friend V.2) or collaborative projects (with Oh No, Action Bronson, Domo Genesis), The Alchemist had a crazy year in 2012. The Cali producer has been an omnipresent hip hop force for well over a decade, but by ripping open a new crate of rock and psychedelic records he’s somehow producing the most interesting beats of his career. Providing a platform for young guys coming through and a helping hand to older emcees who may have lost their way, Alchemist has managed to produce the unexpected while maintaining his reputation as a fiercely reliable beatsmith.
El P isn’t the kind of producer to flood the market with production credits, so by his standards 2012 was pretty damn productive. El Producto’s stamp can be seen next to two of the year’s best rap albums; marking his own return with Cancer 4 Cure while also teaming up with Atlanta’s Killer Mike to produce R.A.P. Music in its entirety. El might be something of a veteran now, but he’s still making fucked up future-rap with enough bring-the-house-down drums to match anyone from the new school.
Andre 3000 on ‘Sixteen’ (taken from Rick Ross’ God Forgives, But I don’t)
Standout lyric: “She’s yelling selling’s a sin, but so is telling young men / that selling is a sin if you don’t offer new ways to win”
Killer Mike on 'Tougher Colder Killer' (taken from El-P's Cancer 4 Cure)
Standout lyric:“Niggas stay sweet like Smuckers/ Peanut butter packin' motherfuckers, I'm ashamed for yo mothers/ Pause – comma - how I know yo momma?/ Bad motherfucker?/ Double entendre?”
Gunplay on ‘Power Circle’ (Taken from MMG’s Self Made 2)
Standout lyric: “I’m at the round table, where your seat at? Where your plate, where your lobster, where your sea bass?”
DOOM on ‘Gov’nor (taken from JJ DOOM’s Keys to the Kuffs)
Standout lyric: “Catch a throat full from the fire vocal, ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull /Volcano out of Iceland, Go conquer and destroy the rap world like the white men”
Nas on ‘A Queens Story’ (taken from Nas’ Life is Good)
Standout lyric: “Now I’m the only black in the club with rich yappy kids - sad thing, this is the top but where the hustlers went? / No familiar faces around, ain’t gotta grab the musket / It’s all safe and sound, champagne by the bucket”
10 Free projects
TREE – Sunday School
While TREE may be the most unimaginative rapper name in a sea of atrocious rapper names, don’t let that detract you from listening to this gem. Fully self-produced, Sunday School sounds like nothing else from 2012. There’s this despondent sonic quality running through it; stemming from TREE’s combination of chopped-up soul samples, loosely weathered downtrodden beats and his own vocals. His delivery is truly singular, his voice often cracking or turning into a straight-up yelp that creates a sense of yearning that is nearly palpable. Melodies within melodies are brought together from all these things to form one of the more addictive listens of the year. (TheShipment)
Lil Ugly Mane – Mista Thug Isolation
Dumb names for mixtape rappers #2: Lil Ugly Mane. As with TREE though, this nostalgic Memphis rapper/producer should not be taken lightly. Fans of SpaceGhostPurrp’s DJ Screw-indebted production would do well to check out Mista Thug Isolation, which offers a masterclass in hi-hat rolls and slowmo vocals. As lyrically silly as it is fun, highlights include ‘Bitch, I’m lugubrious’ and ‘No Slack in My Mack’.
Killa Kyleon and Mouse on Tha Track – Welcome to the Fish Fry
“You can get it wrong, or you can get it Kentucky fried” raps Killa Kyleon on ‘Birds the Word’, and Deep South party-rap rarely leaves the menu here. Teaming up with in-house Trill Entertainment producer Mouse on Tha Track, Welcome to the Fish Fry might be dumb fun but it’s hardly left the stereo all year.
Captain Murphy – Duality
Despite having now outed himself as Flying Lotus, Captain Murphy’s enigmatic charm in the vividly animated Duality mixtape remains unchanged. FlyLo’s villainous character is consistently schizophrenic: its voice, flow and wordplay bouncing seamlessly from MF Doom-esque pop culture musings to Tyler, the Creator malevolence over a stunning and appropriately blunted soundtrack of Madlib-inspired beats and Adult Swim-ready skits. (Veridisjoe)
Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa
Too long, somewhat incohesive and not even necessarily the sort of music I want to hear from Gibbs, but damn, this guy can rap. Whatever flaws Baby Face Killa might have, this thing has been magnetic and I’ve barely been able to stay away from it since its release in September. Gibbs mixes up his beat selection and proves equally devastating whether its trap, cloud, ratchet or skewed California funk.
Boldy James – Consignment
With Clipse out of action for the foreseeable future, somebody had to pick up the coke rap baton. Detroit’s Boldy James is proving to be just the guy, building on last year’s Trapper’s Alley / Pros and Cons with another gigantic set (26 songs for chris’sakes!) of drug-pushing tales over varied, but mostly strong production.
SL Jones and DJ Burn One – Paraphernalia
In truth, this tape is all about DJ (turned producer) Burn One. The precision with which he crafts his 808-heavy, southern-leaning style is entrancing throughout, including the occasional blissed-out interlude. S.L. Jones is nothing if not entirely solid, and his well-trodden subject matters (hustling, purple-sipping) are delivered with enough earnest energy to prove him a compelling and worthy front man. But even when Jones is excelling here, it's Burn One who keeps us coming back for more. (BadmanReturns)
Shady Blaze & Deniro Farrar – Kill or be Killed
Kill or Be Killed stood out for gathering several of 2012’s brightest underground producers (Ryan Hemsworth, Tree, Friendzone, Keyboard Kid) in one place, but the rap duo’s burgeoning chemistry ensures it’s more than a victory lap. KoBK is a bleak & atmospheric trip from one of hip-hop’s strongest new pairings. (Littlebirds)
Friendzone – Collection 1
While producer duo Friendzone might not have had the high-profile placements of their peers Clams Casino and Ryan Hemsworth, their instrumental collection is my pick of the bunch. While many of these beats were first aired in 2011, hearing them stripped of their vocals allows us to appreciate them in an entirely new way. Nobody else is making beats this damn pretty.
100s – Ice Cold Perm
Produced by sometime Main Attrakionz collaborator Joe Wax, Ice Cold Perm is a tidy 45 minutes of moody pimp rap. For a relative unknown, 100s is mighty impressive; at times sounding menacing and at others – as on the Mannie Fresh-indebted ‘Bout That Life’ – in full party-time flow.
Kendrick Lamar feat. Gunplay – Cartoon and Cereal
Unfortunately dropped from Kendrick’s good Kid, M.A.A.D City due to a sample clearance issue; the ambitious 'Cartoon and Cereal' sits comfortably alongside his best material to date. K. Dot's deft rhymes make light work of the track’s unconventional structure, but in an unexpected twist, it's Gunplay who steals the show. (Littlebirds)
E-40 feat. Iamsu!, YG & Problem – Function
E-40 tracks can easily go missing, such is the prolific nature of his output that resulted in five records in 2012 alone. But among all of that music, ‘Function’ is the jam that wouldn’t go away this year; a hit so big it ruled the waves twice via its coast-to-coast remix, and will continue to bump at clubs and parties long into 2013 and beyond.
Chris Mille – All Day
I still have yet to really listen to anything Chris Mille is saying on ‘All Day’. However, this prime-era Timbaland-esque beat is strong enough to overshadow any rapper’s shortcomings. (TheShipment)
Action Bronson feat. Riff Raff – Bird On A Wire
Harry Fraud seamlessly melds a backdrop of groaning, slowmo horns with the lightness of a sunset saxophone sample and even lighter hi-hats – something like finding an original Miami Vice cast member slumming it under the freeway, warming his hands round a burning trash can. Who better to meet over such an impeccable instrumental than Bronsolino, and Houston's finest RiFF RaFF on disarmingly earnest form. (BadmanReturns)
A-1 – Now You Do
I rolled my eyes the first time I heard this with that Lana Del Ray sample opening the track. I’m glad I waited a few more seconds because the drop on this is my favourite of the year. A-1 does a great job keeping time with the beat and manages to squeeze in some memorable lines while he's at it. (TheShipment)
Ab-Soul feat. Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko – Terrorist Threats
Ab-Soul's Control System reaches an early peak with the Danny Brown-featuring 'Terrorist Threats', landing heavy blows on subjects ranging from Barack Obama and the EBT card system to the KKK. Highlights include the constant ad-libs stabbing through the track's haunting, ethereal vocal backing, and of course Brown's highly impassioned, goosebumps-incurring cameo. (BadmanReturns)
Joey Bada$$ Feat. Capital Steez – Survival Tactics
Joey Bada$$ will have to shrug off golden-era NY comparrisons if he’s to make a sustained impression, but when he first emerged on ‘Survival Tactics’ it was clear this was one talented kid. The song remains easily his finest moment, aided by fellow Pro Era member Capital Steez with a none-less impressive verse of his own.
Gunplay – Bible on the Dash
Gunplay’s year was dominated by the brash sonics which filled his two mixtapes Bogota Rich and 601 and Snort, yet somehow it’s the quieter, remorseful ‘Bible on the Dash’ which feels most pertinent. His electric delivery is still intact, but it’s a rare moment of anguish which gives the song its knockout punch.
Angel Haze – New York
Next year’s mega star Angel Haze delivered plenty of great moments on Reservation, but it’s difficult to look past this Brooklyn battle cry for a standout. In her own words, Haze spits ‘till her lips need 16 stitches, using a tweaked Gil Scott Heron instrumental for its ominous backing hum.
Future – Turn on the Lights
After years of auto-tune experiments in rap music, it was finally nailed by Future in 2012. Mike Will made the beat, of course, which has a lot to do with the song’s overall success, but it’s Future’s southern-drawl turned R&B-croon which makes this such a significant moment in pop /rap fusion.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Teaming up with El-P might turn out to be the smartest career move Killer Mike ever makes, opening up new fanbases and adding a classic record to his name. R.A.P. Music is one of those instant 12 song, 45 minute albums that you know from the off is something special. Both Mike and El are firing on all cylinders throughout, proving once again that the one rapper, one producer formula is not to be fucked with.
Billy Woods – History Will Absolve Me
In a year where underground rap veterans stood tall in the album stakes, Billy Woods’ History Will Absolve Me still went disappointingly under the radar. The rap-listening public’s loss is our gain, though, and Woods pulls no punches with his fierce, authoritative politi-raps - his most engaging and accomplished set to date.
Schoolboy Q – Habits and Contradictions
Going from slingin’ oxycotton to being the most captivating young star on the rapidly dominating Top Dawg Entertainment roster is no mean feat, and Q documents this journey with a gritty, captivating frankness. The aggy bounce of ‘Druggy Wit Hoes Again’ sits perfectly alongside the ominous, ‘Niggas In Paris’-aping ‘Nightmare On Figg St.’, and elsewhere the poignant Kendrick-collab ‘Blessed’ rounds off the record on a tough but optimistic note. (BadmanReturns)
El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
It was easy to overlook Cancer 4 Cure's arrival such was its immediacy in comparison to the more abstract and hyped Death Grips. Time has been kind though and it stands as El-P's most accessible, hit laden record to date. His trademark high-end production and lyrical eloquence is still integral, but never at the beat's expense. (Vamos)
Nas – Life is Good
When I reviewed this record earlier this year I wrote that to pretend that Life is Good is flawless would be misleading, yet here we are in December, and I’ve listened to it more than any other. Truth is, nearly all rap albums are too long anyway. It’s 2012, you can delete the chaff and be left with an album that sits comfortably within the upper echelons of Nas albums. It might not achieve the perfection of you-know-which album or It Was Written, but Life is Good is more varied than both of those records and Nas is ageing nicely.
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Not many rappers make their best album 15 years into their career, but I have a suspicion Aesop Rock may have done just that. Aesop already wrote his classic, of course, and nobody would have complained if 2001’s Labor Days was never topped. But the self-produced Skelethon asks some questions of that canon, delving into Aesop’s deepest, darkest and funniest thoughts to produce a record that handsomely rewards your time and effort.
Roc Marciano – Reloaded
On his debut LP, Marcberg, Roc Marciano emerged from the woodwork with an essential update to gritty NY hip-hop. Impressively, Reloaded sees him better that record at every turn. The largely self-produced backdrops are a modest evolution of a well-established formula, but the real thrill here is Marc’s rhyming: vivid, cinematic, & endlessly quotable. (Littlebirds)
Ka – Grief Pedigree
Listen to Ka just the once, and you could be excused for dismissing him as another run-of-the-mill New York revivalist. His flow is nonchalant; his voice rarely registers as anything other than 'low-key' - rolling along in a familiar New York vernacular. But delve deeper into this album and it is a treasure chest of evocative street storytelling and insight (few songs this year contain as much wisdom as 'Decisions’). Don't be fooled by first-impressions: Grief Pedigree breathes Brooklyn. (CoolerthanTV)
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, M.A.A.D City
Of all the records in this list, good kid, M.A.A.D City is the one which has been most bombarded with the C-word. While it might well go on to assume that classic status, let’s not allow that debate to cloud our enjoyment of this brilliant album. Kendrick aimed high here with grand concepts, meta-narratives and rappin’ ass rapping from front to back – but it’s expertly judged and vividly detailed throughout. Compton’s heir has done well to meet such lofty expectations.
Main Attrakionz – Bossalinis and Fooliyones
Having watched Main Attrakionz develop from prolific mixtape rappers to the release of this – their first retail record - Bossalinis and Fooliyones feels like a moment. While on the surface it’s not so different to past releases, it’s proved a triumphant distilment of the duo’s strengths. The beat selection is inspired as ever – sharper, too – while Mondre M.A.N and Squadda B joyfully live out their childhood rap dreams.
Oh, and one last thing...
Thanks to the following contributors: Littlebirds, TheShipment, BadmanReturns, CoolerthanTV, Vamos and Veridisjoe