10 Best Hip Hop and R&B Albums of 2012

December 31, 2012

Okay, this is the last of the genre-highlighting lists of 2012 and the last of all music best-of posts aside from a few “honorable mentions” at the end of all of the site’s 2012 recapping. This is likely the last post of 2012 as well for me–I’ll have the “Best Films of 2012,” “The Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2012,” and a “Catch-all + Honorable Mentions” post covering anything left out thus far, all of which will be up sometime in early January. Happy New Year to all!

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10) Big Boi -Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

So while Andre 3000 has sat most of the past five years out, showing up now and then for much-demanded guest spots on other artists work, his other half of Outkast Big Boi has released two pretty spot-on hip hop records that showcase Boi’s considerable talent and a bit more variety than Outkast fans expected (we all assumed Andre was the sole source of experimentation and oddity, Big Boi makes the point here that this was not so). I haven’t fully digested this one yet, it arrived so late iin the year I’m going on the most basic of first impressions, but from what I hear it’s a winner.

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9) Alica Keys – Girl on Fire

As with the album at the 10-spot on this list, this one came out so late in the year that I can’t fully evaluate it fairly. First impression for me though is that this is the type of record I want from Alicia Keys. I’ve always found her to be a vastly talented musician who makes mediocre albums, but this one sounds full and fun, romantic and developed.

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8) The Weeknd – Trilogy

The Weeknd gave all three of these albums away for free last year, but if you missed them, you can get a slightly more polished release of them all in one at the digital stores as Trilogy. There are a few new tracks here, but the best things present are mostly from part 1, House of Balloons, though each other chapter had worthwhile songs as well. Taken in one sitting this blurry series of druggy fumbling and “romantic” vignettes can be a bit overwhelming, but the stand-out tracks are alternative R&B at its finest.

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7) Big K.R.I.T. – 4Eva N A Day

K.R.I.T.’s long awaited studio debut arrived this year as Live From the Underground. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it far less than I’ve enjoyed  most of the K.R.I.T. free mixtape full-lengths that have been released on the internet over the past two years. Case in point, the  mixtape album he released earlier in the year to build anticipation for the debut, 4eva N a Day was vastly more satisfying. It includes all of what makes K.R.I.T. so appealing, his balance of faith and tradition with wildness and party, his nostalgia, his syrupy thick flow, his southern beats. “Wake Up,” “1986,” Me and My Old School,” “Temptation,” etc. were all more interesting and catchy than anything on the studio album.

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6) Gary Clark Jr. – Blak And Blu

Okay, so first and foremost Gary Clark Jr. is a bluesman. On that note, you might wonder why his major label full-length album is on this particular genre-highlighting list. That’s because for one, the fact that Gary Clark Jr. is a full product of the hip hop generation is undeniable–from the way he approaches his music to the way he produces it, from the way he incorporates disparate textures and styles and the way he phrases particular lyrics. Yet much more than that, because Blak and Blue compiles so many different types of songs, there is much here on this album that is pure R&B, albeit a more classic type of it (perhaps neo-classicist nostalgic R&B?). Scattered between hard-rocking Blues numbers like “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” “Bright Lights,” and “When My Train Pulls In,” there’s the beautiful almost Sam Cooke style R&B ballad “Please Come Home,” the modern revamped slow-jam of “You Saved Me,” the hip hop beat pop of “The Life,” and the Sly Stone-Jimi Hendrix wamp of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.” Blak and Blu plays like a mix-tape of all the different types of R&B influenced music Clark Jr. likes to hear and can play so well himself.

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5) Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions

In many ways, Schoolboy Q represents so much of what is distasteful in rap. There are certainly blatant elements of misogyny and lyrics which wallow in the worst of life throughout this album. It’s a nihilistic and dark series of observations, a resignation to the afflictions of his neighborhood and lifestyle that finds little joy even in the excess and debauchery which seems like a mandate to survive such bleak surroundings. This is well-worn gangsta rap territory  Yet somehow, Schoolboy Q and the rest of his black-hippie crew (named so for their affinity for doing things differently rather than for anything else from the ’60s flower child movement) have managed to make West Coast hardcore rap sound new and different, and in many ways more skillful than many of their predecessors. The opening prayer of “Sacrilegious” haunt the ears and set the tone for the rest of the album. “There He Go” is a hip hop single with an irresistible beat laced with horns and a series of tight rhymes enunciated with a unique flow found few places else this past year (but too bad he can’t senses any cognitive dissonance  from the pride he takes in his daughter in the track to the follow-up support of pimping and prostitution as a relevant means of making money).”Hands on the Wheel” interestingly samples the Lissie folk rock cover of the Kid Cudi hip hop song to reclaim it for hip hop in a fun mash-up. “Nightmare on Figg St.” is the epitome of dark gangster horror story, a beat and a narrative perfectly matched to create unbelievable tension. The album should have concluded at the end of track 16 to end on a high note, the Kendrick Lamar guest-spotted “Blessed” which celebrates accomplishments, joys, and blessings–Q at the lightest and most positive you’ll find him on record to date.  Despite his flaws, Q makes compelling music which can be enjoyed thoughtlessly or dissected scholastically, played in a club or analyzed from a distance a bit uncomfortably.

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4) Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike really came into his own on last year’s Pledge, particularly the track “Burn.” He continues that momentum here with R.A.P. Music. It’s still evident that he spent years with Outkast and the Dungeon Family crew– his ATL cadence and sound is still noticeable (as well as his ‘Kast influences), but he now also channels prime-era Ice Cube. Killer Mike is forceful here, making gangsta rap like it was made in the early days, full of vitriolic socio-political commentary. “Reagan” was one of the best songs of the year, and you can read what I say about it on my “25 Best Songs/Singles of 2012” as it placed at number 3 there. There are other great moments on record here–the crew shared swagger intro of “Big Beast” with T.I. and Bun B, the N.W.A-ish police brutality narrative “Don’t Die,” the ghetto gospel “Untitled” track and the love-letter to hip hop title track.

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3) Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. I

There are some let-down moments on Lupe’s latest, enough to keep a pretty solid album from my favorite modern rapper off of my overall “Best Albums” list this year, but the good moments on Food and Liquor II  are very good and as such this deserves a mention here on my recap of the year’s best hip hop and R&B. It starts off great, like a call to arms for real hip hop. Lupe’s sister Ayesha intros the album with her best spoken word poetry yet to appear on a Lupe record. “Strange Fruition” sets the tone for all that follows in a good way, immediately followed by the strongest song on the record, one of Lupe’s best yet, “ITAL.” “Around My Way” has been criticized by some hip-hop heads for jacking one of the most famous beats in hip hop history,  but Lupe puts it to good use for a new hip hop generation laced with some of his most potent lyrics. “Audubon Ballroom” continues things excellently with great lyrics, a solid chorus, and a nice beat. Lupe’s dissection of hip hop’s overuse of the word “bitch” in “Bitch Bad” is a much needed critique from within the genre itself and though his analysis itself is certainly open to criticism from others, it at least opens the conversation. “Lamborghini Angels” unfurls the best beat on the record but the lyrics are the darkest Lupe has ever written and seem unfitting of the beat. From there, the second half of the album falls off quite a bit. Had the second half of this record been as stellar as the first, this may have been the “Great American Rap Album” Lupe is quite capable of making. There are nice moments on the last 9 tracks, but some real filler and sub-par Lupe as well. Yet the first half is so good, it earns a spot this high here.

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2) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid m.A.A.d. city

Kendrick Lamar came in at number 5 on my overall “Best Albums of 2012” post. Read it here.

ORANGE

1) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Channel Orange was my album of the year in my overall “Best Albums of 2012” post. Read it here.

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